Paying it forward (or “proper” networking)

This week I had a wonderful experience that was, in part, a result of something I did a number of years ago.  A few years back when I was working for a large multinational, we had reason to need a skilled leadership coach and facilitator. I knew of just the person through his excellent reputation and wholeheartedly recommended him. Even though I had never worked with him directly, I’d seen him present at conferences and heard glowing reports about his work. I was proved correct and he has gone on to do continuing work with the organisation for a good few years now even though I have left. I’ve kept in touch with this acquaintance over the years. We are often working on the same stuff and his years of experience in LOD mean that he can be a good sounding board. This week he offered to spend his own time with me to help coach me through some research quandaries for which I am extremely grateful – just what I needed.

The point of this little gush is that it made me think about networking since I had another experience that very night when I went to a “networking event” for HR practitioners. The atmosphere could not have been more different. The tension was palatable. More than once I felt passed over as my conversational companion saw someone who they “just had to talk to” or even someone who looked more interesting. When it became clear that I was actually there to hear the speaker instead of to offer people jobs or buy their wares the conversation suddenly went south.  Obviously not everyone is like that and I have had great experiences at these sort of events but nevertheless, the two experiences on the same day got me thinking.

We are often told that we must network as professionals, in any field, to keep our skills and knowledge current and to seek out new opportunities. Indeed, research shows that is exactly what successful learners do. They create networks full of interesting and knowledgeable friends and acquaintances from whom they can learn. The big question for me is how this is achieved. I think that the relationship I had with my business acquaintance where we only physically see each other once every five years or so is infinitely preferrable to my experience at the so-called HR networking event. The difference, I humbly submit, is intent. My colleague and I are happy to know each other, share ideas and offer occasional advice or assistance. For people thrown into a networking situation (not all people obviously, I generalise) there seems to be more of a goal to get as many introductions as possible and to evaluate their usefulness in the spot. This is unhelpful and counter-productive to building up a truly good network full of people whom you know and trust.

It is those networks where things like jobs and sales happen. Where mutual trust and a sense of reciprocity are gained over time. Where paths fortuitously intersect at just the right time or perhaps repeatedly over many years. In short, there is no quick way to network, no quick fix, no book that can give you the hot tips because ultimately it’s still about building relationships – the same thing humans have done for thousands of years. I think it’s time, for the sake of our careers and our learning, to start thinking about our relationships more than our networks.  We have relationships with people and a network is simply a collection of linked people. The network isn’t the thing – the people are.


The brave new world of technology

This morning I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a breakfast in Sydney where the guest speaker was Matt Barrie from He spoke about current macro trends in technology and society generally and the implications of these. It was great. It was one of those presentations where you are engaged every minute. Partly because you are really interested and learning and partly because it suddenly articulates to you things you were already thinking but hadn’t quite gathered together in the echoing chasms of your mind yet.

Overall the future (or rather now) is a very exciting time to be alive. There are so many technology trends shaping everything. I won’t go into the minutiae of the whole presentation but he did talk about learning looking at MOOCs and websites like the Khan Academy, Coursera and Udemy. I happened to be sharing a table with a whole bunch of L&D people who surprised me by asking what those were and wanting the website names to look them up. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised? I do that a lot. I know something so I expect others to as well. I don’t think that’s it here though. To me, to be successful in your learning career (or any career for that matter) you need to keep up-to-date. As Matt Barrie correctly pointed out, MOOCs and their cousins in cyberspace are the future of learning and will change how we look at learning in a myriad of ways that we can’t yet imagine. This aspect of the talk reinforced my thinking completely.

We are stuck in the past in the learning game. We are too attached to the idea of face-to-face training that an “expert” learning person needs to prepare and deliver. That is rapidly becoming obsolete. Perhaps the days of the LOD specialist are numbered. They are definitely numbered in their current form. I am constantly amazed at how many talented LOD practitioners can espouse the “correct” stuff about informal and flexible learning but if they look at learning within their own organisations they inevitably go for face-to-face training – maybe with a little on-line to make it “blended”. Even the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) publishes a confusing mix of informal learning articles and how to be a more effective “trainer” within their journal. Their professional development is almost exclusively geared towards traditional facilitation and instructional design.

The time to start changing is now before we’re all out of a job. Today’s young learners are going it alone using the Internet as their classroom for a just-in-time learning experience. Imagine what will happen when they start work and are confronted with a face-to-face, one-day Induction Workshop…will they even show up?

What is Personal Knowledge Management?

I’ve always banged on about the fact that we all need to be effective learners in the modern world but I never really had one good framework to help contextualise this discussion. There were all the learning in the workplace reports from various consulting companies and research institutes, there is the metacognition literature, systems thinking, complexity…all of it relevant but segmented. I think I may have found something that will help me out of my bind. It’s early days yet since I just stumbled across Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) but I really like it. I came across it on the blog of Harold Jarche from the Internet Time Alliance. I’ve been interested in the informal learning work from Jay Cross for a while now as well as Jane Hart’s social learning work and I came across Harold’s work recently.

PKM is basically a framework that helps us take control of our professional development and make sense of information and experience. It offers a nice way to better incorporate reflection-on-action in to our day-to-day without it feeling like we’re writing a journal that no-one will read and that we lose interest in after a few entries (mia culpa). Harold Jarche defines PKM as:

‘A set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society’

You can read more about Harold’s views on PKM here.  Harold is starting to move away from the term PKM and use Networked Learning more. While I like the idea of networks in learning I think I really like the actual term PKM as a descriptive term that is easy for the non-initiated to get their heads around.

The things that I really like about PKM are:

  • I already do a lot of these practices and feel very clever and smug about that (just being honest)
  • PKM is about personalising experiences and information in a world where we are bombarded with information 24/7. PKM is about sense-making not collating
  • PKM builds reflection into our learning and working thereby helping us to change and adapt more effectively as well as develop critical thinking skills (things very close to my heart)
  • “Knowledge” is an emergent property of the process
  • PKM is about people taking control of theirlearning, something that we do not often consciously do unless you’re a learning geek like me. It’s the development of conscious, regular activities from which can emerge new knowledge and insights

I love finding new things that inspire me and help explain the world.

Webinars, the way of the future?

I just had the misfortune to take part in a webinar. I say that with great sadness as I usually like webinars. I love the flexibility they offer and the fact that I can extract the learning I need and not feeling “spoon-fed” on someone else’s agenda. Sadly the webinar I just sat through did not fulfill my expectations (or anyone else’s in the room for that matter). There was a group of us listening and we only lasted 20 minutes into a 1 hour session. Why?

Ironically, this webinar was about giving webinars! The organisation and presenter shall remain nameless but the presenter positioned himself as something of an expert in the area and then bored everyone stiff. Why was it so though? He (pronouns only please) was energetic and tried to be as engaging as possible. He actually sounded like a radio presenter. Very polished, making jokes, talking about the weather where he was, etc, etc, etc. During what little I saw of the presentation I took notes in two colours – one colour for notes from the session (black) and the other colour for notes of what I was learning from the example being set (green). In this case the page looked like a Greenpeace promo.

Given all the effort that clearly went in, what went wrong? I’ve compiled my humble list of a few “don’ts” that I was reflecting on.

  1. Don’t just take your face-to-face materials and persona and graft them online
  2. Don’t use pointless pictures and slides.  Make sure they contribute to your message.
  3. Don’t have all talk and nothing to look at on-screen; it just inspires people to wander off and multi-task.
  4. Don’t try to stop people multi-tasking, it’s not your job!
  5. Reading out comments from people is boring. Have it visible so we can read it as we like (amazingly this webinar locked down comments “for privacy”).
  6. Get to the point! Don’t leave everyone hanging around while you try to build rapport with anecdotes and chatting. That’s not a luxury we can afford online and is it really necessary?

I don’t mean to be completely negative about this but I was honestly astounded by what I saw. The first point above is the most important for me. the presenter frankly seemed to have just taken a face-to-face presentation and tried to shoehorn it into a webinar platform and was encouraging us to do the same. I think that you need to respect each medium for delivery for what it is. Webinar is a flexible learning tool that people are going to use as they see fit…and that’s OK. You no longer need to control the room because there is no room. What I’ve learned from this is that it’s important for virtual presenters to let go and realise that you won’t necessarily have the participant’s attention all the time. People will multi-task. We live in that kind of world now. That doesn’t mean that they won’t still learn something from you it just means that you can’t control what that something is.

See, I have learned from the experience after all – just not what the presenter intended. Maybe that’s the beauty of webinar afterall? I can learn what I want, when I want.

Who should teach us how to think?

Critical thinking came up twice last week for me. It’s something that I’ve often thought about and wanted to see more of in society generally but I’ve never really sat down and thought about where we learn it (if we do at all) and who has the responsibility for teaching us.
The first thing that sparked this train of thought was while I was presenting about developing learning culture to a group of leaders within an organisation. We were talking about what a learning culture would look like for them: what did it feel like, what support was needed, etc. During this group activity I overheard one of the leaders say to the group – “We just really need to teach people how to think. Our people need to learn to think critically.” This gave me pause for thought for a number of reasons. I first thought that it was a good thing to hear, in a way, because it was starting to go to the heart of learning-to-learn, an area that I am passionate about. I then started to think though about whether it was really the responsibility of organisational learning professionals to teach people “how to think”. How would we go about it for a start? Universities are supposed to produce graduates who can think critically but in my experience lecturing and tutoring I can safely say that even after three years of university level education only around 50% (if you’re lucky) graduates can actually think critically based on the essays I’ve marked.

The second event that got me thinking about critical thinking as a skill was at a dinner. I was seated next to someone I don’t know very well and the conversation turned to a new appliance that she had bought and that some of the others were also thinking of purchasing. This thingy basically did everything but eat the food for you and enabled wonderful things to be made from scratch. Anyway, the conversation then moved on a bit to how it was better to feed one’s children fresh food that you knew the provenance of. No arguments here so far. All sounds good. The opinions started to get a little more out there however, with the lady in question telling us earnestly about how many cancer-causing agents were in our food, etc, etc. As far as I know all this is correct. I haven’t done the research. The thing that worried me though was finding out where she got her information from. When someone expressed surprise at how much research this lady had done she revealed her sources as the saleswoman who sold her the whizz-bang appliance and an iPhone App. This is a long-winded way of getting to the point where I wondered about this lady’s critical thinking skills. When I heard where the information came from I started thinking about its reliability, whether those providing the information maybe had a vested interested in providing it, etc, etc.
The summary to all this is that critical thinking is definitely a skill that people need, both at work and outside of work, but where and how is it learned? Can we even teach it? Is it something that you develop based on certain experiences? Are we born with the skill? It’s an interesting question for something so…well…critical.

Leadership lessons from rioters?

Only having one english TV channel here in Germany can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I am more aware than ever of current events thanks to the tireless work of BBC World. On the other hand one can hear too much bad news in the world. One story that I’m sure everyone is aware of lately is the riots in London. A lot has been written and reported about this already and I have no intention of being yet another amateur pundit but I have some thoughts on the nature of leadership and crowds.

The behaviour of groups is something close to my heart in my area of complexity research. In nature ants build colonies, bees swarm and birds flock. In human social systems similar mechanisms also apply. People can come together rapidly for a common purpose and disband just as rapidly. Such was the case in the London riots. Many people were surprised at the ability of so many people to organise so quickly to do such terrible things. The internet has indeed opened a Pandora’s box or organising. The London riots are an example of social networking used for “evil” as it were. The so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is an example of social networking being used for “good” to organised against oppressive governments.

The things that these groups have in common is no real central leadership. This is interesting from an organisational point of view. In organisations we make a lot of noise about leadership and how it is demonstrated and experienced within the organisation but do we need it? Assuming that we still need it (and I think there is still a place for some styles of leadership) how does it need to change to take into account the tendency of humans to self-organise and build networks?

Current theories of leadership often fail to take this into account. Many theories of leadership, and indeed leadership education in general, still take the old-fashioned mechanistic view of an organisation with its quasi-military hierarchy. For all the talk of flattening organisations we haven’t really come far in real terms. The events of the past year in the world show how people from very disparate backgrounds can organise themselves for a common goal using physical and technological networks. This happens in organisations every day but if often missed by the powers-that-be. The question is, how can we harness this to be more effective as leaders and as organisations? I wish I had the answer!

The joys and sorrows of working remotely

Although I  may have taken the idea of working remotely to an extreme (working on Australian projects from Germany) it is only recently that I realised that this is what I have indeed been doing. Up until a few days ago I was under the impression that all I was doing was carrying on my life in Australia at a distance. I have come to realise that, while that is in part true, it is not the whole story. Since I am due to have my first child in September I have begun to think about working flexibly and how to juggle work and family as many women (and men) do. This led me to think about the options available to me when I return to Australia as well as what I am currently doing. For all the hype about working remotely and using the wonders of the internet to break down borders, etc, etc there are both benefits and pitfalls – as with everything in life.

In the benefits camp it is hard to beat making your own hours and location in terms of where you work. When you work largely for yourself as I do this is quite an easy thing to do. When you work for an employer it is a little harder. In my experience and in anecdotes I hear from others there is still a lot of distrust in working remotely. There seems to be little problem in working from home occasionally but the idea of not being able to keep your team member under surveillance seems to strike fear into the heart of many Managers. Why is this? Wasn’t technology supposed to free us from having to work in one location? Like the myth of the paperless office I think this one has turned out to be nothing but an urban myth. This is something that Managers will need to grapple with more as workers increasingly ask for flexibility and companies finally do the sums and work out that it’s cheaper to employ someone at home than pay for office space for them.

On the downside, for there always is one, the remote worker must be very self-directed. Even then there are days when it can be incredibly challenging to motivate oneself to get to the desk and get moving. This can result in more stress for feeling behind and like you “should” be working than if you had to dress up and go into the office for the day.

How can we know in advance whether we have the personality to work remotely? How can our Manager’s know? The simple answer is that they can’t and it all boils down to trust. The big question here, and one that I wish I had an answer for, is how do we as L&D professionals educate Managers to the point where they are prepared to trust staff to work autonomously and out-of-sight? Definitley something to think about as I motivate myself out of bed and onto a Sunday morning Skype call 🙂

Has risk-taking gone too far?

I have just seen a very interesting video from the wonderful TED Talks.  Journalist Naomi Klein gave a talk on risk-taking and the narratives that we tell ourselves to justify risking the earth’s precious resources.  Her talk was interesting on many levels but I started to think about her comments mainly from the perspective of how we develop leaders within our organisations.  There is a lot of talk of taking “controlled risks” and being prepared to “step outside the box” for leaders, but what does this really mean?

Naomi Klein uses the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as the starting point to talk about how the world at large, mainly the developed economies, has become more and more inclined to take risks.  There always seems to be an underlying assumption that we will be somehow saved from whatever catastrophe looms, whether that be climate change or financial disaster.  She argues that many times we are not asking the right questions.  Rather than asking what can we do we should be asking what should we do.

I think that this is extremely pertinent in the aftermath of the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression.  There has been much discussion about how the Global Financial Crisis could have happened, how business leaders and governments could have let things get this bad.  I think that we also need to be asking ourselves questions as educators and learning professionals.  While it is entirely appropriate to take our cues for leadership development from what the businesss wants (or at least says they want), we have an important role to use our expertise to ask the right questions.  Does any business want leaders who are impervious to doubt and always prepared to take the “tough decisions” or do we want more measured leaders who are prepared to sometimes wait for all of the information before rushing ahead.  We need leaders to can tell the difference between the decisions that can be made quickly and those that need greater research and consideration.

It’s a tough call, as learning professionals within organisations and universities we don’t always have the luxury of a strong voice.  Often we are guilty of getting on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest leadership development fad (mia culpa).  In order to make a real contribution to our organisations, we need to become better at asking questions and offering suggestions to our business leaders about what type of learning is required for the 21st century leader.  If leaders, of business and of government, continue to “play dice with the universe” as Einstein once memorably said, then we will not have much left for the rest of us.

Workplace learning versus learning

As usual, it’s been a while between posts. The main reason for this is a major relocation on my part. I’ve moved to Germany for my husband’s work. In theory it should also allow me more time to work on my PhD…in practice so far it’s given me the chance to catch up on my reading and DVD watching while sitting inside avoiding the snow. Now that 2011 is upon us I feel ready to resume my work and that has led me down some interesting paths.

I was reading an excellent article by Tara Fenwick entitled Rethinking the “thing” (2010, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol.22, Issue 1/2). Among a number of good points made in the article one really stood out for me. Is it possible to separate “workplace learning” from learning more generally in an individual’s life? I find this an interesting question in the course of my professional practice as well as my research as my focus has always been on workplace and organisational learning. The point here is a good one, even at work we are still dealing with whole people who have lives and interests outside of work. The emotional intelligence movement o er the past 10-15 years has been very good at pointing out that people do not become mindless automatons when they enter the workplace and adult learning theories have always talked about the fact that adults bring their own experiences and values with them to the learning context. Why then do we try to only look at learning at work?

I think one of the main reasons is that it is far easier to compartmentalise this way, also, is it really the role of the organisational learning team to help people learn or to learn what they need for work? This is a complicated question and one that I can’t possibly answer here but an interesting question nonetheless. Given that my research uses complexity theory as a framework I obviously have a bias here which I am happy to declare. In a complex system there is no way to separate out the different “parts” – that’s the point. I have always argued that the role of organisational learning should be to shift from “traditional” content-based training approaches towards more of an informal learning approach that actually helps develop people as learners rather than trying to impart knowledge. Perhaps in trying to label learning as “for work” and “not for work” we are missing out on an opportunity to really make a difference to learners, not just at work, but in all aspects of their lives.

Always nice to achieve a goal

Hooray! This week I have achieved two goals in my learning journey. I love the feeling you get when you can “tick” something off your list as complete/achieved/attained or whatever you want to call it.

My first achievement, after a pitiful two and a half years, is the completion of my Certificate IV in Business and Workplace Coaching. I’ve used the skills for ages but have now finally got my act together and finished the damn assessments so I can get the piece of paper. Ah, the good old piece of paper. If you’re anything like me part of the motivation is getting the certificate sometimes at the expense of the actual learning. I don’t think I’m alone here 🙂 While I certainly did learn from the course I was most motivated in the end to complete the assessments, not of some sense of consolidating my learning, but for the piece of paper and the sense that I had left it long enough.

My second achievement, of which I am extremely proud, is being notified today that I have been given Ethics Clearance to start my PhD research. That is both a good and scary thing. Very good because it passed with no changes required to the design (a rare feat apparently) but scary because now the hard work starts. The Ethics Proposal was a very definite deadline for me to get to before I move to Germany in late November. It really got  me thinking about the importance of deadlines in getting things done. Even though I love to learn I can be scatty about it and jump around topics and projects like a fly at a picnic. I find, and again I don’t think I’m alone here, that I really need a deadline to keep me motivated and on-track. Case in point – my Cert IV did not have a deadline but my Ethics Application did. The result of this was that it took me two and a half years to complete the certificate and only a month to complete the dreaded Ethics Application.

My question is – how can we build in more “deadlines” to help learners like me? Even when there are no assessments for a workplace course or for some self-study how can we as learners and educators impose meaningful parameters on the experience so that we have that important sense of completion and achievement to keep us spurred on for more? Sadly I don’t have an answer yet but I would be curious to know what others think about it. Assessment isn’t always “bad” or “scary”, sometimes it provides the motivation.