Category Archives: Design

Why Organizations Don’t Learn

Where organic, bottom-up meets corporate top-down.45720753_sAn article entitled Why Organizations Don’t Learn by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats in the November 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review caught my eye.

The resemblance of their suggestions and the content of Real Learning is uncanny.

Both the article and Real Learning highlight:

  • Destigmatize making mistakes (they are opportunities to learn)
  • Embrace and teach a growth mindset
  • Avoid attribution bias
  • Don’t work to exhaustion
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Take time to just think
  • Encourage reflection after doing
  • Leverage your strengths
  • Give workers different kinds of experience
  • Know who you’re working with

While we share many ideas on what makes for a successful organization, HBR and Real Learning are as different as night and day. Harvard Business Review is written for managers and executives. Real Learning is written for people who want to learn. HBR is top-down; Real Learning is bottom-up.

HBR lays the responsibility for getting things done on leaders:

Leaders can use a variety of strategies to counter the biases, including stressing that mistakes are learning opportunities, building more breaks into schedules, helping employees identify and apply their personal strengths, and encouraging employees to own problems that affect them.

The problem is that everything recommended by HBR deals with the supply side. Real Learning looks at the world through the demand side. Real Learning appeals to people with an intrinsic motivation to learn — in order to meet their personal goals. Intrinsic motivation outguns extrinsic motivation because ultimately, individuals learn what they want to learn.

It wasn’t easy writing Real Learning from the learner’s perspective. (At first I tried to write the book without using the word learning, but that proved impossible.) One has to eliminate the trainers’ bias toward “them.” You can’t get away with platitudes about what leaders should do.

HBR’s prescriptions are the right medicine; too bad they’ve chosen the wrong means of administering it.

While leaders can and should do what they can to create a supportive learning environment and an engaging culture, things won’t change until workers begin to act differently.

People in the Real Learning Project learn to learn socially, experientially, and informally. Thus, they are prepared to deal with the daily surprises that are part of the baggage of complex work.


When I was in India in 2011, I found out that India needs to train 500 million people in the next ten years. The solution being batted around was to build 17,000 new universities to teach them.

What would those schools teach? The half-life of a professional skill is down to five years and is shrinking fast. It makes no sense to train people on skills that will become obsolete in short order. I suggested that people need to learn meta-skills, such things as:

  • learning how to learn
  • critical thinking and conceptualization
  • pattern recognition
  • design thinking
  • working with one another
  • navigating complex environments
  • software literacy

India has neither time nor resources to prepare teachers to transfer these skills to hundreds of millions of people. The answer? Flip Indian education. Delegate the delivery of content to electronic means, and focus teachers on coaching, leading discussions, helping people over hurdles, and relating lessons to real life. Also, teach students and workers to teach themselves.

The time is ripe for India to democratize education, to help students to think for themselves, and realize their potential. Top-down (17,000 universities) is not viable. Indians must empower people to learn on their own. Giving control to the learners is the only way to take control of the situation.

Networks of individuals instead of corporate monoliths

In January 2012, two dozen authors, managers, and agile software developers met on a mountain top in Stoos, Switzerland, to try to reverse the decline of corporations. How could the practice of management be updated to work in a complex, unpredictable world?

We concluded that Western corporations are broken. Workers hate their jobs; customers complain of lousy service; investors receive meager returns. There has to be a better way.

The organization-as-machine, the model that served us from the dawn of the industrial age until the beginning of the 21st century, leads to a quest for efficiency. That works in stable, unchanging times, but it’s a formula for disaster amid incessant, disruptive change. The living network is a better model for today. Organizations need to conceptualize themselves as networks of individuals and teams who perpetually strive to create more value for customers.

This flips the corporation into an organization that respects people for their contributions rather than seeing them as cogs in the machine. The new order democratizes the workplace.

Corporate Learning

In America and Europe, the corporate learning function is dead or dying.

A 2011 study by the Corporate Leadership Council reported that 76% of managers are dissatisfied with their corporate training function; 85% deem training ineffective; and a mere 14% would recommend training to their fellow managers.

Workers and managers learn their work though conversation, collaboration, and on-the-job experience. My colleague Jane Hart calls this “learning without training.”

Enlightened corporations trust their people to pull in the resources they need. They’ve flipped corporate learning by putting the learners in charge of defining the curriculum. These corporations concentrate on building self-sustaining learning ecosystems, what I’ve called workscapes, instead of individual programs.

Real Learning builds the skills for workers to take charge of their own learning. I’m currently writing a booklet on what managers and team leaders can do to support decentralization of corporate learning.

Benchmarking Online Learning




Fascinating data.

63% lack of time for self-study
40% can’t find what they need
41% find current online learning not relevant to their need
28% lack of somewhere appropriate to study
26% find learning content uninspiring
25% technology issues such as low bandwidth
22% learning objectives are not clear

This is one of thousands of findings from benchmarking studies drawing on the experiences of more than 3,500 L&D professionals and 16,000 learners.

91% team collaboration
81% manager support
73% web search
83% conversations / meetings
67% support from mentor / coach / buddy
64% formal education course55% internal company documents
52% internal networks / communities
50% mobile
49% live online learning
47% self-paced e-learning

Twelve years ago, my friend Laura Overton (we worked at SmartForce together) founded Towards Maturity to benchmark learning across organizations. 

Benchmarking is the process of comparing business processes and performance metrics to industry bests and/or best practices from other industries. Benchmarking provides an opportunity to:

Review your progress and approach
Compare your results and approach with others – both your peers and the top performers in the field
Act on the findings to improve your performance

The Towards Maturity Benchmark is the only free, independent and confidential formal benchmark available to learning and development professionals.

75% want to be able to do their job faster and better
51% like to learn just for personal development
50% want to be eligible for promotion
47% want to obtain professional certification
41% want to be enabled to earn more money
39% want to keep up with new technology
35% want to achieve/maintain a higher certification level
35% want to increase productivity
22% want to pass an assessment
10% want to compete against colleagues for a high score

Benchmarking provides independent evidence that can helps organizations:

Set a baseline today to help demonstrate progress tomorrow
Increase staff engagement and results
Learn from common mistakes rather than making them
Justify an investment or proposal for change
Apply industry best practice relevant to your organization
Set ‘SMART’ targets in your business plan
Motivate your team to become industry leaders
Provide an external perspective to get stakeholders engaged with new ways of learning

Towards Maturity’s work to-date has focused on Europe, but the firm is going global. If you want to explore the topic of benchmarking, I suggest you speak with Laura at:

  • DevLearn, 28-30 September, Las Vegas
  • Learning@Work, 27-28 October, Sydney
  • LEARNTech Asia, 2-5 November, Singapore
  • Online Educa Berlin, 2-4 December, Berlin


Contact Laura Overton at [email protected] for more information. Say hi for me.

Disclosure: Laura and I are planning a joint session at Online Educa that ties together the findings of benchmarks and the competencies addressed in my new book.



Photographic memories

paulA delightful nostalgic post by Paul Simbeck-Hampson this morning led me on a search of my Flickr photos.

When was it that Paul, Harold, and I spent a zany day shooting video in Berlin? I couldn’t find it. (I have 32,000 photos, most of them not tagged, on Flickr; finding anything is a bitch.) So I queried Google with “berlin jay cross” and came up with this fascinating page. What a flood of memories!

Up popped photos of not only Paul and Harold but also Donald Clark, the Santa Claus at KaDeWe, Jeff Staes, Ignatia de Waart, Doug Engelbart, Bert de Coutere, Rebecca Strohmeyer, George Siemens, the Brandenburg Gate, the Christmas Market, Raines Cohen, Jos Arets, Vivien Heinjen, Allen Tough, George Leonard (he coined the term “Human Potential Movement”), Peter Isaacson, Jaan Netzow, Buthaina Alothman, David Hassselhoff, me dressed as Santa, Jane Hart, Sarah Frame, Angela Merkel, Charles Jennings, Robin Good, the Berlin Wall, Adolf Hitler, JFK, Graham Attwell, Karl Marx, the cover of my book on Learning Architecture, and a chicken thinking “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

Drilling down got me to Paul’s original post on our rendezvous; it’s loaded with photos. We were doing the European launch of the Working Smarter Fieldbook. Sort of.



Turns out this took place in October 2010.

Photographs are such wonderful reminders of things past. I’m a snap shop guy, not of these folks toting around 2-pound Nikons and a bag of lenses. Give me a camera that fits in my pocket. Unobtrusively.




Yesterday I was crafting illustrations for Aha!

Just as I rely on my journals and blogs to refresh memories of the past, I let my photos retrieve the good times I’ve had. Photos enrich one’s life.

Thinking a few decades out, I expect images are going to replace alphabets. Your brain has to go through a lot of computation to make out letters, assemble words, and understand the meaning of sentences and paragraphs. We weren’t born to do this symbol manipulation.

We humans are sight mammals. We were born to see, not to spell. Of course it’s better if the images move.

Conferences can be better, a whole lot better


The conference business is booming yet every participant has some major gripe about the way conferences are run. We all think we know better. It goes with the territory.

In the beginning of the year, I looked into the future of conferences. Would they go the way of record stores and newspapers?

I concluded that:

Flipping conference presentations can vastly improve learning outcomes.

Community First! Events should focus on nurturing the L&D community of practice before content.

Many Next Practices for conferences (I’ve listed 30) are not difficult to implement.

Asked what brings them to events, nearly everyone replies “face to face.” People attend events to be with other people, to rub shoulders with colleagues from other organizations and with industry spokespeople and gurus. The cliché is that you learn more in the hallways than in the classrooms. As in the workplace, informal learning at conferences has more impact than formal learning.

The Flipped Conference session differs from the Flipped Classroom in that content delivery takes place at the conference, not before. However, presentation time is greatly condensed and is delivered in a 10-minute Ignite session up front. As with the Flipped Classroom, the bulk of face-to-face time is spent on discussion and contextualizing the lessons


The traditional building block of formal learning at conferences is a session. A typical breakout session is 45 minutes to an hour long. The session leader chooses the topic and presents a point of view (there’s a reason they call it PowerPoint) for the bulk of the session. This is an overdose of content. Most people’s attention wanders after ten or fifteen minutes. The bulk of the message falls on deaf ears.

After ten to fifteen minutes, we tune out the message. Between minute 15 and minute 50, I might as well be asleep. That’s 35 wasted minutes.

Flipping the session allocates a majority of the time to participatory events.


Next Practices for L&D Conferences

Here is a dog’s breakfast of suggestions for improving the effectiveness of conferences.

Before the Event

Provide a generic ROI proposal for attending to send to the boss, saving people the time of working out the value to be extracted from the event.

See who’s coming and set up appointments in advance.

Participants should have expectations and set explicit objectives for the event.

During the event

Encourage social networking. Announce a Twitter hashtag and encourage people to Tweet. It’s a great way to tap into the pulse of an event and to find what’s going on.

During sessions, use Twitter to gather questions and make comments. Tweeting among participants spark reflection about what’s gong on. Perhaps make the Twitter feed visible on a separate screen in presentation rooms.

After the conference

Visit the backchannel to attend a conference virtually, get to know people before the event, or catch what you did not have time to visit.

Get rid of happy sheets. One’s reaction immediately after an event says nothing about their long-term gain.

Conference goal: co-learning. Taking the message back home. Make this mandatory. Conference ends with plan for distributing ideas back to home organization and team.


Business is good. Attendance at the events I examined (eLearning Guild, Masie, Training, ATD, Learning & Technology, Educa) is rising.

John Seely Brown says every business model will be disrupted. Nonetheless, my gut tells me that L&D Conferences are here to stay for at least the next five years and perhaps infinitum.

The 20-page research report is here.

Mileage Plus

milesAll I wanted to do was use Frequent Flier miles to buy tickets from San Francisco to Mallorca to Athens and home from Istanbul. Business class.

I spent 45 minutes on the phone with United Mileage Plus and ended up with oddball flights I would never have purchased for myself, e.g. depart SFO at 7:24 in the morning, twiddle thumbs for 3 hours in Houston, spend five hours in Munich awaiting for flight to Palma. Later, fly Palma to Athens via Copenhagen, along with a six hour wait at the Copenhagen airport. Depart Istanbul at 6:20 in the morning, spend more than three hours at Munich Airport and then another three hours at O’Hare.  A monkey could pick more convenient flights.

I requested all Lufthansa flights but ended up on United (which I hate) and SAS (which routes through Copenhagen no matter what) except for two short legs.

Route after route had no seats available even though I was booking three months in advance. Business class. We will have to fly coach within Europe. Premium Economy was the best we could do for the return flight; seat upgrades and taxes cost an additional $786.

The clerk at Mileage Plus was saddled with an ineffective system. We spent a bit of time waiting for the screen to refresh.  Rather than select from a menu, she had to check everything manually. “Could you go a day earlier? Two days earlier?”

For 360,000 miles and $786, I ended up with tickets that would cost $18,000 out of pocket, so I’ll keep accumulating miles. (Virtually everything we spend goes through a credit card that rewards miles.)

What I fail to understand is how United managed to set up a system that is so aggravating. People in other industries have gone to jail for bait-and-switch tactics that are everyday practice at United. I dread speaking with Mileage Plus because I know they’ll let me down. It’s bad enough when United pisses off regular customers (charging for luggage, serving pricey junk food, and an attitude of no can do.) That they cull out frequent fliers, the profit-making travelers, and hassle them with what are supposed to be rewards in unconscionable. It’s plain stupid.


Week before last, our flight from Germany to SFO arrived a few minutes early, but it took the better part of an hour for our luggage to show up on the baggage carousel.

I suggest the FAA and others change the definition of what makes a flight on time. It should include time to pick up your baggage. Alaska Air gets the suitcases off in minutes; why can’t the other airlines follow suit?

Enterprise Learning & Digital Transformation


Enterprise Learning takes learning beyond the training department into the overall extended enterprise, the “Workscape.” It’s a breakout that’s happening throughout organizations as they embrace digital technology.

Enterprise Learning is the learning component of Digital Transformation, defined by Altimeter Group as:

The realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.

Nine out of ten companies sampled by Altimeter are engaged in one or more digital transformation practices:


These efforts are being championed by the Chief Marketing Officer, the CEO, and occasionally the CIO. The digital makeover has yet to reach HR. It’s time for that to change.

Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT’s Center for eBusiness has identified seven practices of highly productive firms that have embraced digital transformation. They closely parallel the advice Internet Time Alliance gives to companies adopting an Enterprise Learning approach:

  • Converting traditional analog processes to digital processes.
  • Distributing decision rights and empowering line workers, through increased decentralization and delegation
  • Adopting a policy of free information access and communication
  • Offering strong performance-linked incentives
  • Maintaining corporate focus and communicating strategic goals
  • Recruiting and hiring top-quality employees and committing the necessary resources to the process.
  • Strong emphasis on the investment of “human capital”

L&D will do well to seek out and partner with those in their organization who champion digital transformation and are running active experiments. If the CEO and CMO are gung-ho, it may be beneficial to ride into the digital era on their coattails.

What do you think? Shouldn’t digital learning transformation, i.e. Enterprise Learning, ally with corporate digerati already implementing new initiatives?


Walking in nature once more

After brunch, I read part of Thoreau: Walk and Be More Present in Brain Pickings. This inspired me to get off my duff and take my first walk in nature this year. The heading of my chosen trail is a five-minute drive from my house.

This is Wildcat Canyon. My path is relatively flat; it runs along the western rim.

Wildcat Canyon is a protected regional park although cattle graze the slopes. I have a Boy Scout medal for walking along the bottom twenty years ago. It’s inspiring western scenery big enough to get lost in and it backs up to residences built right on the property line.

Back in history, the De Anza Party missed finding San Francisco Bay on their first expedition because they were walking in Wildcat Canyon. You can see the Bay from the end of the trail I’m walking. So near and yet so far.

Thank you, Henry David Thoreau for rekindling my walking spirit.


The year’s top posts on Working Smarter

2013 is over for everything but the holidays so I’m posting this list of the top 50 blog posts on Working Smarter this year. Here’s how they were selected.
Working smarter draws upon ideas from design thinking, network optimization, brain science, user experience design, learning theory, organizational development, social business, technology, collaboration, web 2.0 patterns, social psychology, value network analysis, anthropology, complexity theory, and more.

SEPTEMBER 30, 2013

Here it is: The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2013

‘The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2013 list was compiled from the votes of over 500 learning professionals from 48 countries. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s list. For a fuller analyis, visit Analysis 2013 Twitter retains its no 1 position for [.].

MARCH 10, 2013

Group work advice for MOOC providers

The most valuable aspect of MOOCs is that the large number of learners enables the formation of sub-networks based on interested, geography, language, or some other attribute that draws individuals together. With 20 students in a class, limited options exist for forming sub-networks. When you have 5,000 students, new configurations are possible.

APRIL 11, 2013

Exploratorium: Mapping the Experience of Experiments

‘We’re huge fans of our soon to be San Francisco waterfront neighbors, the Exploratorium. They don’t have docents, they have Explainers.

JANUARY 27, 2013

PKM in 2013

“The basic unit of social business technology is personal knowledge management, not collaborative workspaces.” ” Knowledge.
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