Saturday, April 25, 2009

Learning at the Speed of Change

Sometimes there's a word or a phrase that catches my attention. Perhaps it's just a few words that appear to perfectly encapsulate a thought or a feeling. "Learning at the speed of change" is one of those. We rejoice about our increased ability to communicate. We can communicate more often, with more people, with more tools. Most of that seems to be about quantity (How many twitter followers do you have?). Are we communicating better or just "more"?

At the same time, we complain about information overload. In fact, just as the quantity of information we have access to doesn't guarantee anything about the decisions we make, the fact that we can and we do communicate more doesn't guarantee that we're communicating better. The overload (of information and communication) might become a distraction if we're not able to increase our ability to focus.

"Learning at the speed of change" is a reference to the fact that change is the only constant and the speed of change is increasing. Information overload is only going to get worse and it would be nice if were collectively able to focus our attention on two things:

1) the quality of our communications; and
2) our ability to extract value from massive amounts of information.

We need to learn faster. We probably need to become better lifelong learners as well. If the pace of change is increasing, our ability to learn continuously and faster is going to be critical. Yes, the vast amounts of information now at our fingertips and the many, many tools we now have at our disposal to communicate and learn from each other are wonderful. They will really provide value if and when we learn to collectively harness their potential.

Some possible implications for Knowledge Management:
  • Pay more attention to meta-learning (learning about learning)
    Very little attention is paid to the connection between personal learning styles, group learning and organizational learning. The connection between personal learning styles, personal learning strategies (& personal knowledge management) on the one hand, and organizational learning and traditional knowledge management initiatives on the other, is missing.

  • Treat knowledge as a very dynamic thing
    If you are going to try to capture and store knowledge, it will need to be in formats that are easy to edit so that it doesn't quickly become outdated. The types of knowledge that you should be focused on will also change rapidly.

  • Accompany the introduction of new tools
    Don't just demo new tools to show people how to start using them. Accompany the new users in figuring out how to handle those tools strategically from an information overload perspective. Accompany the users in climbing the learning curve and learn with them.

  • Keep an eye on the trade-offs between speed and depth of learning
    You can use Cliff Notes or Spark Notes to make sure you've really understood a difficult piece of literature and to facilitate your learning and preparation for a test or you can use them as a cheat sheet to pretend you've read the book and try to pass a test with minimal time investment on your part.
All of this is assuming that we all need to catch up or keep up with change. Does this also imply that if you want to make change happen, you need to be learning even faster, you need to be the one ahead of the crowd, making all the mistakes that followers will learn from and avoid? Does it mean that in order to lead change rather than react to it, we need to learn FASTER than the speed of change?
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The State of the Economy and Twitter - A Hypothesis

Our individual outreach efforts increase in scope and intensity when we start feeling insecure about our jobs. In the current economic context, feeling some level of stress about job security is natural. My hypothesis is that the fact that Twitter suddenly took off and reached a tipping point is related to the fact that people are reaching out, trying to connect or reconnect, gather job intel, learn about a new field, etc... either because they've already lost their job or because they feel they might be next.

I am not suggesting that Twitter's success would not have happened without the economic crisis. I'm only suggesting that the economic crisis gave it a push over the tipping point. What do you think?

You could also argue that Twitter is the cause of the economic crisis.... (Economist Blames Twitter for Downturn), but I won't do that!
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Learning in Workshops

I spent two days in a workshop this past week. I wasn't a participant and I wasn't the main facilitator / organizer. I was there as support staff but mostly acting as an observer. I collected and typed up all the feedback forms so the participant feedback is fresh in my head. Overall, the workshop went very well. As I was reflecting upon the feedback, I occurred to me that there was a great deal of consistency across the feedback forms in terms of the type of feedback provided. They didn't necessarily agree on the best and least effective elements of the workshop but there was consistency in terms of what mattered to them.

Some lessons learned about things that matter to participants:
  • Things they expect and don't see matter
    Participants' expectations are important. Simple things such as name tags and handouts are expected. If you don't have them, for some reason, you should at least explain why they're not made available.

  • The physical environment matters
    Just make them comfortable enough so they're not distracted by the environment. There is always someone who will be too cold and someone who will be too hot.

  • The status and level of enthusiasm of the speakers matter
    You can get away with not being a top level leader if you demonstrate that 1) you know what you're talking about and 2) you're passionate about your work.

    You can get away with not being the most dynamic speaker if 1) you're the boss and the participants respect the fact that you took the time to show up; and 2) you're able to answer impromptu questions rather than speak from slides.

    Speakers who are honest and candid are appreciated as long as the picture being painted isn't too bleak. Always end on a positive note.

  • The manner in which a particular topic is presented matters
    You could almost talk to them about anything as long as you're able to make it interesting. The best way to make it interesting is to give specific examples or tell a story. I used to think that the content of the presentations (in terms of topic focus and scope) was the most important thing. I still think it's obviously important for speakers to address something that's within the scope of the workshop but it's really the whole package that makes the difference. The perfect content delivered poorly by someone who has limited legitimacy won't be as well received as an open conversation with top leaders that drifts from one topic to another based on questions coming from participants.
It could very well be that what I'm interpreting as "what mattered" to the participants simply reflected the way we phrased the feedback questions. The questions were essentially meant to get a sense of the participants' satisfaction levels rather than to assess the extent to which any learning is happening.
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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Knowledge Management in Federal Agencies

The Federal Knowledge Management Working Group launched a Federal Knowledge Management Initiative a while ago. Members of the group are feverishly working within Action Groups to create sections of a Roadmap document. I'm a little skeptical about the overall value and quality of what is going to emerge as the final document but if the primary objective of the initiative is to put knowledge management on the agenda of the Obama Administration and the leadership of federal agencies, then it might achieve that.

I have been participating in two of the Action Groups and in the process, I've learned a few things about "writing by committee", the challenges of writing a coherent piece when the authors come from different perspectives and don't share a common language, using a wiki to work on collaborative writing, how to get group members to volunteer for specific writing or review and editing tasks, and more generally, how to voice disagreement effectively.

The centerpiece of the initiative is the creation of a Federal KM Center. Sometimes, when you are trying to make a point (as in.. there is a need for a Federal KM Center to increase the visibility of KM in Federal Agencies), you end up emphasizing the negative (there are few Chief Knowledge Officers, Federal Agencies employ ad hoc KM practices, etc...) and failing to highlight the real successes. For example, a couple of agencies (esp. Army and NASA) are perceived as good examples to follow and repeatedly mentioned as such while many agencies that have developed relevant and successful "knowledge management" practices are much less visible and never mentioned.

What if the reality is that many more Federal Agencies are implementing Knowledge Management related activities, don't necessarily feel the need for a formal KM program, and achieve great results without one? There is an assumption that if you don't have a formal KM program you're probably not doing enough, not doing much. What if not needing a formal KM program is a sign that you are already ahead of the curve and your KM approach is well integrated in your operations?

What if an agency that is allowing its various offices to develop their own best practices or lessons learned activities is more effective than a centralized KM office? Which should come first? A centralized KM program? The ad hoc emergence of best practices/lessons learned activities within organizational units? If the objective is to generate quick wins, I would suggest that ad hoc activities at the local level, within organizational units is more effective. Once those local level mechanisms are in place, coordination and knowledge sharing across organizational units can help build greater organizational learning at the agency level.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Stories, Movies, and Books

I've had several discussions with family members recently about books and movies. We've reached a consensus that if a movie is based on a book and you've read the book, you will be disappointed by the movie. We've tested that with classics and new releases alike. I've always been a fan of movies, but I like movies that are more than "entertainment". I like movies that have a story, more than just a sequence of scenes.

I watched "I've Loved You So Long" a week or so ago. There are so many subtleties in the movie that would make sense only to the French or people steeped in French culture. For example, I'm not sure everyone would catch the meaning of the title. The french title, "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime", is part of a children's song that plays a role in the movie. It's the little song Juliette teaches Lys to play on the piano, the same song Juliette played with her sister when they were kids. The song itself is very meaningful and relevant to the primary theme of the story, the relationship between the two sisters. The song's title is "A La Claire Fontaine". And Juliette's last name is Fontaine. Little details...

The full song lyrics in French and English: A la claire fontaine.

The movie was directed by Philippe Claudel. Claudel happens to be a professor of literature and novelist, both of which become relevant in the movie. A key character in the movie teaches literature at the university and characters discuss books and literature in general. More importantly, the way the movie is constructed, the way information is provided to the viewer in subtle ways, in small installments, is more typical of how a good book is written than of movie plots. This was a movie that was written and directed from a writer's point of view. The result was excellent.

There's also a key difference between how French (or European) movies tell stories vs. typical American movies. In an American movie, nine times out of ten, you can predict how the story ends, you almost know what the next scene is going to be. A French movie is much less predictable. To the uninitiated (my spouse included), a French movie can be maddeningly slow and confusing.