You are what you read

Learning professionals often get their best ideas from outside the field. A small group of us recently began swapping ideas and collaborating on projects. This past weekend we talked about non-learning books that made a major impact on our thinking.

The Cluetrain Manifesto raised my consciousness that in a networked world, authenticity and transparency triumph over deception and secrecy. Ten years ago this month, The Cluetrain appeared on the web, and it’s still there. Read the 95 theses. “Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”

Tom Stuart’s Intellectual Capital introduced me to the broader picture of organizational knowledge, beyond courses to ongoing knowledge creation. The notion that we need to capture, share, and improve our knowledge both as individuals and organizations helps create that mindshift to continuous innovation that’s so necessary in these increasingly turbulent times.

Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy, by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer, taught me the implications of the internet. Translate time, space and mass into speed, connectivity, and intangibles, and traditional boundaries disappear. Speeding up makes measurement continual rather than episodic. If everything is connected to everything and everybody to everybody, then space is not the issue so much as the connectivity. Economic value is shifting to intangibles, as seen in the current shift in focus to talent and human capital online. Speed x Connectivity x Intangibles = Blur. Now eleven years old, I still go back when I need a hit of wisdom.

Reading The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman & Beckstrom only took one day but it’s an illuminating book. Spider organizations are those with centralized control and if you cut off the head, the rest will die. In starfish organizations, cutting off one leg will not kill it, because intelligence is distributed throughout the organism. The authors start by examining the two hundred year struggle between the Apache (starfish) and the Spanish Army (spiders), showing how a decentralized Apache nation was almost impossible to conquer because there was no head. A modern day equivalent is Al Quaeda.

What I found most interesting is that the degree of centralization for an optimal organization depends on many factors, so there is no magic recipe [like informal versus formal learning]. Finding what the authors call the “sweet spot” requires constant monitoring of the environment. Today’s sweet spot may be tomorrow’s lost cause.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler continue their series of books on the rise of the Third Wave, or knowledge economy, with Revolutionary Wealth. As with several of their other books, this one looks at the larger and deeper patterns affecting our economies and societies as certain parts of the world make the transition from the second wave (industrial) economic structure. The three deep fundamentals that most economists do not examine are said to be – time, space and knowledge. Changes in each of these are having profound effects on us. Even more so, we are seeing conflicts between first wave (agrarian) societies with second and third wave ones. In many countries, all three co-exist and tensions occur as each has fundamentally different values, priorities and institutional needs.

The discussions on energy use are a refreshing change from much of the hyperbole in the media and the few references to education are clear and succinct. “The coming clash will set defenders of our existing educational factories against a growing movement committed to replacing them – a movement comprising four key elements … Teachers … Parents … Students … Business.”

Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things was the first book to turn around our perception of the world from the point of, really, user experience. It’s an easy-to-read book that fundamentally changes the way you view the world, and then you move to how to create organizations that can create awesome product/service experiences, and finally to overall customer experiences (cf. Pine & Gilmore’s Experience Economy).

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb is a practical guide (with exercises) to developing da Vincian powers! Working through the seven da Vincian principles – curiosita, dimostrazione, sensazione, sfumato, arte/scienza, corporalita and connessione helped me think more widely and more clearly about issues and problems, and approach them in different ways than I had before.

What outside inspirations improved professional perspective?