Collaboration at ASTD Next Week

Next week at the ASTD International Conference & Exhibition, I'll be describing how Collaborative Technologies Supercharge Informal Learning.

    Thursday, May 27th 9:00 am to 10:15 am
SESSION ABSTRACT: Corporations typically invest very little in informal learning, even though that’s where most corporate learning takes place! First-generation eLearning took the people out of learning. New collaborative tools and techniques bring the people back. Join us to see how learning networks, knowledge-blogs and wikis, outsourced mentoring, and emergent communities accelerate and deepen learning. Find out how thought-leaders are redefining collaboration to improve customer satisfaction, foster teamwork, cut time-to-proficiency, and create continuous learning. See demonstrations of collaborative technologies, often open-source solutions available for free.

Bear in mind that I wrote that description nine months ago. I'm writing the presentation this week. Any resemblance between what I talk about and what's printed in the brochure will be purly coincidental. Most of what I talk about will be relatively new stuff.

I'll also be saying a few words at the reception at the Canadian Embassy on Monday evening.

Heard today in conversation: "Strategy is a luxury now."

Posted by Jay Cross at May 20, 2004 04:01 PM | TrackBack


We recently completed a procurement for a large inter-governmental organization and interviewed numerous LMS vendors. In almost all cases they did not comprehend (or care about) how people learn. None had products that addressed collaboration and informal learning. One vendor had a great product for community collaboration; however, when they presented they did not discuss it or even know they had it (so much for CRM or sales training).

I am beginning to see the collaboration thing as a clash of civilizations. There is a thread running through the LMS/training outsourcing world that sees people as input/output devices to be trained. Informal learning and collaboration are for quiche eaters. Perhaps this stems from a desperate attempt to focus on stuff that can easily managed on a large scale. Or perhaps it is based on a belief that people are replaceable and a necessary evil to manage work processes that produce benefit to senior management and shareholders(on a good day). I wonder how much of the IC argument people really embrace or how much is a fad of the moment.

If you have not done so, there is a good article in the recent HBR "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?" based on some interesting research about collaboration.

Here is a letter I sent in response:

The case studies presented in "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger" have all the markings of successful collaboration - leadership, facilitation of the process, compelling need, protocols for participation, punishments for not following the protocols and appropriate technology.

One interesting avenue to explore would be how corporate and professional cultures impact collaboration. For example, our case study work with the Motorola, Raytheon, and Allied-Signal (pre-merger with Honeywell) consortium to produce an embedded component for the Iridium project showed similar results to engineering case studies in the article. Another area that has been of interest to me are the psycho-social aspects of collaboration, as different personalities and learning styles react very differently to the lack of face-to-face interaction and the isolation of working (physically) alone.

Other than the Motorola, Raytheon and Allied-Signal case study (above), the results of successful collaboration cited in the article are counter to our experience with collaboration over ten years. In almost every case, people have declined to use systems and have opted for sub-optimal solutions using email and conference calls. Upon reflection, the key missing ingredients were compelling need, facilitation and punishments for not following protocols. Unfortunately, these are often missing in areas that comprise a lot of collaborative activity such as communities of practice, informal (or accidental) learning, non-mission critical projects and in some organizations and firms where people are not held accountable for results.

Best of luck at ASTD - I will be on the water in my ocean kayak here in NS.


Posted by: Hal Richman at May 21, 2004 02:29 AM

Hal Richman says "I am beginning to see the collaboration thing as a clash of civilizations. There is a thread running through the LMS/training outsourcing world that sees people as input/output devices to be trained. Informal learning and collaboration are for quiche eaters."

I have to agree with the clash of cultures notion. While the enlightened few embrace networked collaboration, it’s not something that many organizations understand. It runs counter to established routines, it’s hard to conceive how you’d control it, and it challenges perceptions of what is optimal. It obliges people to do even more of that stuff they don’t like doing – taking personal responsibility for their own development. It’s “change” that nobody HAS to manage if they choose to reject it.

What really annoys me is when technology gets used to create the illusion of progress while hiding wanton reduction in effectiveness. Much of e-learning is like that, as are many of the LMS tools. We make it look cool and modern because it’s (gasp) online. But we silently accept that the outcomes are not as good as they were the old-fashioned way, and we’ve bought into the notion that we have to work within the shoddy limits of the tech specs. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the revolutionary zeal? Where’s the desire to actually improve outcomes through technology? Where’s the professional integrity?

That doesn’t mean that networked collaboration won’t take off – nobody in business wanted IM or even e-mail a few years ago. But it will take off without “learning professionals” having ownership of how it is used. I always remind myself how subversive truly useful technologies can be, and how they often become massively pervasive despite the best efforts of traditionalist gatekeepers to fend them off. The Napsterization of the music industry is a case in point. Once the train is rolling, it’s too late to get on board – and you’d better not try to stop it by standing in its path.

There’s a widely accepted notion that most of what we learn we get through informal processes, and that formal training is responsible for only a tiny part of what we learn. If those responsible for corporate learning do not get on board, I suspect that employees will bypass formal systems more and more, and informal collaborative learning will start making the formal trainer look like someone standing in the path of the oncoming train, waving desperately..

Godfrey Parkin

Posted by: Godfrey Parkin at May 21, 2004 06:56 AM

Dear Jay:

What a coincidence: I'll be talking about a very similar issue at the Learning Solutions 2004 Conference also next week from 25-26 May in London (

Harnessing the potential of informal learning
* What is informal learning and how does it work?
* How can informal learning enhance performance?
* Embedding continuous informal learning in workflow
* How can you encourage effective informal collaborative and peer group learning?
* Establishing learning networks to drive knowledge and skill development
* How can you manage the tangible outcomes of informal learning?

Your name will come up in the presentation as I am referring to your 80/20 expenditure versus occurence chart...I am sure you don't mind.

As far as using collaborative technologies is concerned I am convinced that it takes a champion or even better champions inside the organization to promote collaborative tools and processes. Far too often the issue is dealt with by the technology department from a purely technical perspective (integration with existing systems or not is often an overarching stumbling block).

What is really called for is what I call Guerilla Learning through Guerilla Technologies! This is happening when an organization truly starts to relinquish control over the learners.

Many collaboration tools, especially coachingplatform, qualify as what APQC defines as guerilla technology. They refer to those technologies that are available directly to end users with minimal hardware and software investments. These technologies are typically not part of an organization’s “formal” tools or application set but are adopted by employees because they are easy to use and install, enable rapid communication, and allow one to multitask in real time. The multilateral organization Hal is referring to has not offically decided to continue going that route but with more and more technologies falling into the category of guerilla technologies, information technology (IT) groups will have to make a conscious decision to support, ban, or tolerate these technologies within their organizations. However, many IT groups and business managers don't know whether guerilla technologies are making their organizations more productive or just adding more noise and contributing to attention deficit and information overload. I just know they work, though it's harder to convince clients through stories rather than hard numbers.

I am convinced that free collaboration capability offered via an extranet and with minimal admininstrator involvement continues to be of extremely high value for organizations with a global workforce...that would be a support to learning in addition to list discussions and other more formal mechanisms that may well continue to cover other staff and client needs.

Greetings from Berlin....Gunnar

Posted by: Gunnar Bruckner at May 22, 2004 03:14 PM

Jay, apologies for the shameless plug; delete it you like. Just wanted to mention that if you're talking about open source, "outsource-able" collaboration tools that support emergence or self-organization, I hope you'll mention our Open Learning Support ( tool, which is now integrated with seven of MIT's OpenCourseWare courses, with Rice Connexions and CMU Open Learning Initiative content integration coming online RSN. FWIW.

Wish I could be there...

Posted by: David Wiley at May 25, 2004 02:15 PM

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