Listening loudly, a lost art?

Listening loudly is one of my favourite concepts, it implies you are actively listening, paying attention and hearing what is being said. We all know someone who people just open their hearts to, they’re that person who you’ve told your story to without even realising it, that friend who everyone confides in.  Think about it, I’m pretty sure you can think of someone.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl A. Menniger

I think that’s why I enjoy the Listening Project on Radio 4 where people come with their friends and family to have conversations packed with fun, love and pain and they really listen to each other, sharing their stories, unfolding their relationships demonstrating the power of listening.

Sadly our conversations rarely include active listening, too often our day-to-day dialogue is at best a dance with two people waiting to speak, at worst a verbal sparring for speaking rights.  Instead of listening to the other person we concentrate on how to make our next point, get our perspective in, make a statement, we’re thinking ahead rarely listening to what is or isn’t being said, how it’s being said… Stephen Covey hit the nail on the head: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  

not-listening

Sociologist Les Back argues that our culture is one “that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. It reduces ‘reality’ to revelation and voyeurism.” (The Art of Listening, Les Back: 2007)

Think back to last conversation you had, what was your intent? How was your tolerance for silence? Did you sit with it or did you try to fill the space? When was the last time you stopped yourself making a statement and instead asked an open question? What difference might that have made to the conversation you had?

listening

Coaches, therapists, counsellors, researchers learn to listen loudly, actively making space for people to tell their stories, share their feelings and express their opinions.

But great listening skills aren’t just important for people working in ‘listening’ professions. We could all benefit from more awareness of how to listen well. Parents with children, families, friends, work colleagues… How much more engaged could we be and how much more understanding would we have if we stopped and really listened to what other people are saying?

Listening actively is more than about hearing the words someone is saying, it’s multi-layered and contextual – we need to understand their environment, hear what’s not being said and listen to the cadence and rhythm of their story.

Listening well is a simple act of human empathy but it’s not always easy…

 “Listening is a positive act, you have to put yourself out to do it” – David Hockney

Listening has played a huge role in my life. My career as a qualitative researcher exploring difficult social issues like poverty, disadvantage and discrimination taught me how to listen gently to people and encourage them to share their stories, however painful or distressing, without imposing my views or perspectives on their narrative. That was tough, learning to listen, not intervening or trying to ‘mend’ situations knowing that the power of the telling would be when we could weave those stories together into a compelling analysis and place it in front of people with the power to make a difference. It was uncomfortable to learn to sit with silence, not jumping in to relieve my discomfort. But frequently from that silence came the most profound revelations, feelings and insights.

It took me years to learn how to listen properly, ask questions which probed gently but didn’t lead and it’s a craft that needs constant attention. No two conversations are the same.

For most of my adult life I’ve also been involved in education & learning working with people to build their strengths and grow their capabilities. Listening plays a huge role here too whether in coaching, understanding what people need or in facilitation. What do people need to learn? How best can they build their skills and knowledge, what makes them uncomfortable, what challenges them, what gets them thinking in new and creative ways? You just can’t answer these questions without listening deeply. If you want to build a learning community you have to listen, broadcasting doesn’t work well for deep learning or for building relationships (see my earlier post here on building communities).

Social media and the growth of digital communication are often blamed for a decline in conversation and a rise in broadcasting. We’ve certainly seen a growth in abuse and the Brexit campaign led me along with others to question the quality, and kindness, that often seemed lacking in political, public and our personal dialogues. But it’s lazy to blame social media, after all they are what we make them. The conversations, broadcasting, support or abuse are largely created by us (give or take the robot spammers). Yet I’ve also seen many instances where online conversations offered positive empathy, support and succour.

Several years ago I found myself with the proverbial boot on the other foot. I was in pain, experiencing deep depression and I couldn’t talk to my closest friends or family. I needed to talk and more importantly I needed to be listened to. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that need at the time, but my months in the counselling chair, and on the telephone to the support helpline I’d call occasionally when things got too much, taught me how supportive and life-changing the power of empathic, active listening could be. Those listening spaces gave me room to talk, and somewhere I could sit with my silence, reach my own conclusions and answers. And it helped, unquantifiably so. It wasn’t that my friends and family didn’t want to help, they really did, they were simply ill-equipped to listen they wanted to fix, find a solution and make things happen for me. I just needed to be heard and not judged.

conversations

And now I happily find myself working at Samaritans where 20,000+ volunteers provide a 24/7 listening service to people who need emotional support, in just the last twelve months they’ve answered 3,650, 986 individual calls. I’ll let that sink in.

If this doesn’t tell us that as a society our listening skills could be better I don’t know what does. I don’t just hope I know that if we all listened more, and talked less then we could make a difference. Listening is neglected art and one we could all do with refreshing and strengthening.

shushWhatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans for free any time, from any phone on 116 123. And you might want to have a look at some of our resources for listening well like our listening wheel and SHUSH listening tips.

Flawed, but willing to turn the ship around…

I’ve been lucky enough to have some down time over the last couple of weeks and in between packing up the house for our impending move to York I’ve had the chance to catch up on some reading. I’ve devoured a fair few novels but what really stopped me in my tracks were two books ostensibly both non-fiction and on leadership. Honestly, usually I pick up books on leadership and by the second or third chapter I need to take a break, there’s something dehumanising about a lot of leadership writing which doesn’t speak to me. Not so these two, both kept me rapt, eagerly turning the page for the next chapter, and importantly both have really made me reflect on my own leadership style and actions. They spoke to me with a persuasive, gentle authority, based on very personal experience and the expertise that comes from the practice of leadership, rather than the practice of theorising about leadership.

flawed but willing

The first was Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organizations in the Age of Connection by Khurshed Dehnugara. I’ve followed Khurshed on Twitter (@relume1) for some time and have watched videos of him speak so I was really looking forward to reading his second book. It is something very special. In the vast shelves of leadership tomes it stands out as a raw, yet beautiful, evocation of the challenge of leadership in our fragile, socially, connected age. Khurshed has crafted a book which will really speak to you whether you work in a large or small organisation, in the commercial or not for profit sectors. It’s rare I find a leadership book un-put-downable but I read this in one sitting. It’s uniqueness comes from the emotion packed into each page, the stories that are told are not tub-thumping fists on table messages about leadership but gentle, uncertain whispers speaking about inner strength, resilience and a willingness not to have all the answers. The superman/woman myth of so many leadership books is firmly put to bed, in its place the reality of flawed but willing leaders in uncertain times who are learning to listen to others, their environment and their own inner voices to manage the challenges and seize the opportunities they are faced with.

Put simply, it is brilliant and quite unlike any other leadership book I’ve read for a long time, it offers no answers, or models, but instead a series of questions which encourage you, the reader, to stop and reflect on how you act, or react, on who or what you listen to and whether you could do things differently. The emotion weaved into the individual stories is far removed from clinical case studies you typically find and all the more powerful for it.

More than once I found myself completely wrapped up in those stories and carried back to moments in my own career when I’ve faced similar challenges or issues. When I finished it I felt touched and heartened by the message that it’s OK to be flawed but willing, that there is a way to navigate leadership which draws on love, valiance, gentleness, awareness and persistence to create something shared and human. you can read more about Khurshed and his organisation here.

Turn the ship aroundThe second book – Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) was, on the surface, a whole different proposition. Marquet writes about his time serving in the US navy and specifically, about his first command as the captain of the Santa Fe a US nuclear submarine and the ‘cast of characters’ he inherited as his crew. He brings the crew and their stories alive by describing his own challenges as he sought to literally to turn the submarine around in reputation, performance and morale. I make a point of keeping my eye out for books from military authors not least because my brother is a long-serving naval officer. We’ve talked about the challenges of leading a crew of hundreds on a ship in the middle of the ocean so I spy books he might enjoy and invariably find myself reading them too. This one caught my eye a while ago when I saw this animation which neatly sums up the story David tells in his book:

 

What David describes is a form of leadership where you return intent and control to people in your organisations, where you subvert the traditional command & control model and find an alternative proposition which engages and empowers people at all levels. He’s talking about a new form of leader-leader leadership not the traditional military leader-follower or even servant leader models favoured by military organisations.  But he’s also not talking holocracy, after all this is a nuclear submarine, but he does argue that older uni-directional command chains can’t manage the complexity of our modern world and workplaces, submarine or not.  Even in that challenging environment with such high stakes he describes how simple changes can produce dramatic results. Most simple of all was a single change from the crew asking for ‘permission to…’ to presenting what they ‘intend to…’ do.

Here is where the two books converge both authors portray the importance of dialogue and context, of listening to each other and working collaboratively. David perfectly captures the futility of not listening and talking to each other when he describes the state of play when he first joined the Santa Fe where orders were given and carried out unwaveringly even if they were poorly judged, where crew unaccustomed to being asked their views, kept their views to themselves. Unlike the first book David does provide a series of steps (yes a model!) for how he achieved the shift aboard the Santa Fe, this simple act of  getting his teams to talk to one another about what they intended to do before carrying it out led to huge changes. I loved how he described the traditional hush of the submarine being gently, slowly replaced by a low-level hubbub of crew members explaining to each other what they were about to do  (he calls this deliberate action and sees it as something which underpins competence), providing valuable checks and balances on each other’s decisions, alternative perspectives and on occasion the few minutes needed to avert a serious mistake. This is ‘working out loud’ writ large. Importantly leaders need to have confidence to let go of their power and sit in whatever discomfort that may bring in the short-term because the end results of empowering others will be worth it. Like Khurshed, David writes that leaders need to let go of their power and control and learn to sit in the discomfort that may bring them in the short-term, to realise the long-term value of letting go. Read more about David here.

I’ll leave you to discover the rest of both books for yourself, I hope you do. Both books are worthy of your time and if you do read them then you’re treating yourself to two great examples of authentic storytelling. Both felt more like novels than non-fiction texts to me and made more of an impact for that reason. I was moved and inspired twice in one week, thanks to both authors who have set me up nicely to enter my new role with a heightened sense of self-awareness and some great ideas for things I can try to inject into my daily practice. If we all recognise we’re flawed we can open ourselves to coming together to turn our own ships around to face wherever they need to head next.

Curating and transferring knowledge & collaborative social learning #CIPDLDshow

A jam-packed session chaired by Julian Stodd (@julianstodd) focused on tacit knowledge in our organisations, how we share it and how we collaborate to create it and create change.  Both presentations were from the medical sector, one, Astra Zeneca operating in a highly regulated manufacturing environment and the second, the NHS IQ team (@NHSIQ)

First up was Roy Davis from Astra Zeneca. Roy described a complex transfer of the manufacturing process of an accentuated influenza vaccine from AZ offices in California to Liverpool. His case study illustrated at a really granular level the difficulties of transferring tacit knowledge, of making visible ‘hidden factories’ which our teams use day in day out to complete their work but may never have shared with anyone. Tacit knowledge and expertise is built over years of doing something, but if that person leaves or the job has to shift to another site/team the lack of explicit, shared knowledge becomes business critical.

Key challenges included the lack of tangible knowledge or training for the team from LiVerpool, the sensitivities of established scientists letting go of a process they had developed and owned for a long time and importantly making that process and knowledge visible. Roy showed lots of the research models and process analysis that was needed to make this knowledge visible but what struck me was how integral the emotional contract was to the success of this project. Getting buy in from the scientists with the knowledge and making sure all of the project team understood the emotional sensitivities of taking over that process was key. And it all had to be focused on the importance (that word purpose came up again 😉) of everyone understanding why doing the project well was critical to the ability of the organisation to achieve its goals of providing safe, live vaccines to  those in need of them. Lots of mind sets needed changing her alongside the careful and precise documentation and exposing if core processes. And I liked the stress on the fact that none of this was accidental and it all hinged on recognition and appreciation being paid to those who were undertaking the work and handing over the knowledge.

The next speakers were Carol Read (@CarolLRead) and Kate Pound (@KateSlater2) both Transformation Fellows of the NHS Horizons Group @NHSIQ. I agree with Julian that some of the most radical OD and change work is being done in the NHS at the moment, some of it by this team. It was a really good presentation.

They described their work creating the School for Health and Care Radicals MOOC, a five week programme, and their new open access The Edge (@theEdgeNHS) collaborative curation platform for encouraging connections, sharing of knowledge and most importantly, change.  I loved their description of their goals as a team including activating the radicals, giving staff permission to change and innovate, and to attempt to jump the gap by skipping five years forward, not going through each stage of innovation but jumping to where you want to be now. Central to the whole project was creating a bottom up drive for change & innovation, empowering staff across the NHS to make a difference and improve patient care. There were five key planks to their strategy (and you can read more about the wider strategy here in this White Paper http://media.nhsiq.nhs.uk/whitepaper/html5/index.html?page=1):

  • activate disrupters, heretics radicals and mavericks
  • lead transformation from the edge
  • change your story
  • curate rather than create  knowledge
  • build bridges to connect the disconnected.

Really passionate and great stuff being done using lots of new approaches, including encouraging people to tell their digital stories.

Attending the MOOC along side NHS staff at all levels and in different clinical and non clinical functions  has given people permission to make change and created a culture of permission for innovation. The #NHSChangeDay has been a great demonstration and beacon for this. Change becomes everyone’s job, not something done to you but something you shape. And what was completely critical to this was creating a community of participants, talking to each other, social and emotional ties and beliefs that unite teams however big in a common purpose. Yes please lots more of this. What a lovely way to end my time at this year’s show, inspired and full of ideas, just how it should be. Fabulous.

What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange: update

Here is the full slide deck from my session at #LT15Uk today and you can see Storify of the Twitter stream here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and experiences of building communities of practice for learning. Thanks to: Niall Gavin, Con Sotodis, Martin Couzins and Helen Blunden for their input into my thinking:

What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange

I’m a big advocate of the potential for peer led networks and communities to help improve performance, build shared understanding and develop professional practice. I’ve written about this before and I’m looking forward to talking about my experiences of building networks and communities in and beyond the workplace at the Learning Technologies conference at the end of this month. I’ll maybe see some of you there, and if you’re coming along you can also pick my brains at an LT eXchanges session on the 28th Jan.

As Julian Stodd has expressed beautifully in his work on the Social Age, agile learning and community building are key to how we can continue to make sense of our rapidly changing world. We have moved on from (or at least we should have) assuming that the classroom or instruction are always the best route for helping our teams make sense of their work, learn new approaches and develop their practice. Communities, and conversations, whether face to face or online, formal or informal, are critical.

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Image by Julian Stodd

But where do you start and how can we support communities so that they flourish and grow?

I’ve found networks & communities can be invaluable for empowering staff and appreciating & recognising the expertise already in your organisation. They can also help to expose great work which sometimes get buried within team or departmental silos. I’ve had some really positive experiences watching communities grow and visibly fizz with energy but equally have seen well-intentioned networks and communities start loudly and then fade away.

A sense of shared purpose is important, as is having the right organisational foundations and support, but it’s not always easy especially when everyone is busy and hard pressed for time. Even with the best intentions sometimes communities of practice don’t take off or have the hoped for effect.

I’ll be (attempting!) to tweet the key messages from my slot on the day but I’m really keen to gather other perspectives and experiences for sharing with the audience, I know many of you out there have your own insights and experiences to share so I’m asking for your help, I’d love to know your thoughts on these questions:

  • what makes for a great community of practice?
  • what experiences have you had, good and bad?
  • what advice would you give to someone just starting out with a new community?

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Image from jarche.com

Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’ll share them on the day (with attribution) and here…

The ethics of social learning and working out loud

vulnerable

A Social Learning Practitioner is a learning professional who encourages, enables and supports knowledge sharing and collaboration across their organisation – not just in training. He/she is a role model, leading the way by showing the business what it is to be social, and modelling the new knowledge sharing and collaboration practices that are required for the modern business to operate effectively in the modern world. Jane Hart

I’m a huge fan of social learning, working out loud, connecting with people on Twitter and other public social media platforms to share ideas and insights. But something has been niggling away at me since I happened across a post by Martin Weller on Friday. Martin is a professor in educational technology at the Open University and author of the Digital Scholar  (one of the first texts to look at how digital technology might transform the practice of academics) in this post he discusses the ethics of digital scholarship (you can see the slideshare here). He focuses on practice in higher education but what he discusses has relevance for anyone working in learning and development who sees social learning having a greater role in the future of learning at work.

Martin writes of digital scholarship:

Like much of educational technology or open education, the tendency is often to promote it as an unqualified good, but, inevitably, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

He points out that well-rehearsed benefits of digital scholarship (greater collaboration, stronger and wider networks, equipping students with much-needed digital skills… ) have tended to overshadow some real ethical questions about expecting learners (in his scenario university students, in workplace learning our colleagues) to work out loud, to push themselves increasingly into the public sphere when learning.

Learning can be an intensely vulnerable process, where individuals confront their own abilities and learn new or different ways of doing things, sometimes failing or falling along the way. Forcing this process into the open enhances the vulnerability of our learners, is that ethical? What responsiblity do we have as ethical practitioners to ensure that social learning does not heighten vulnerability, leaving participants exposed and at risk? When we plan online communities, working out loud weeks or start using social media in development initiatives how many of us stop and think about the ethics of doing so? Or do we get so caught up in the process and our own love for that way of learning that we forget that not all of our audience might have the heart or resilience for it?

If we start building more and more open and public learning into workplace development activities (and to the workflow itself) how much leeway do we really leave people who don’t want to have a presence on social media, who might for a range of reasons be placing themselves at risk of harm from working out loud? Martin points to this post by George Siemens where Siemens describes that vulnerability beautifully:

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user…While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners.

I think the reason this post struck such a chord with me, and (honestly) left me slapping myself on the forehead, was that I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about the ethics of social media in the context of research. Here we have been bemoaning the lack of strong ethical frameworks to protect research participants and researchers from the potential harm of their social media activity and engagement being used for research purpose or in the research process. We are developing frameworks which ask critical questions about informed consent, risk and rights to confidentiality and anonymity.

Where are those discussions in social learning or working out loud? That is an honest question because I can Google with the best of them and I haven’t found much yet. I have found discussions of the importance of trust in building communities of practice and of creating supportive organisational contexts for working out loud but I haven’t seen anything about the impact on the individual learner and our ethical responsibilities to each of them.  I’m really hoping you’re going to prove me wrong, by commenting on this post and providing lots of links to where the L&D professsion is discussing this issue.

We have well-developed ethical frameworks for establishing coaching relationships, contracting is a common feature of action & peer learning sets as are community rules around behaviour and confidentiality for online communities of practice. But when we build a Yammer activity into a programme of development at work or ask people to blog about their learning where is the contracting and consent? Do we do assess the risk of the vulnerabilities this might cause? And whilst we say to people (or at least I hope we do) this aspect is voluntary (especially where it involves being active in public social media networks) how voluntary is it really?

Playing devil’s advocate, when we talk about selling the benefits of social learning, or creating a cultural shift, a critical mass, are we really just creating a huge amount of peer pressure on people to learn in a certain way, in an open space? If we’re making it part of our workplace learning activities what are the risks to colleagues of being seen not to participate? Whilst we work hard to be more social are we taking time to discuss the implications of being present in different digital domains? Trolling is rarely out of the news these days, do we support our learners to understand safe digital practices? These are issues highlighted in a recent report by Helen Beetham & David White about student expectations and experience of the digital environment in universities:

A related concern students have is being pushed too fast towards the public spaces of the open web, in the name of borderless classrooms or third space learning. They understand that this is somewhere they need to develop a presence, but they also see university as safe space where they can play and fail, try out new ways of expressing themselves and new identities.

I don’t have all the answers by any means but one thing I do know is that as a practitioner I have professional responsibility to start thinking more about this. And just like in social media research there will be things we can do, frameworks we can develop, practices we can support which will minimise risks to participants and create safe digitial spaces and behaviours. In fact, as I’ve found with our network of researchers using social media, there is probably already loads of excellent ethical practice out there. But I think much of it is implicit in the way we work with others and design programmes or initiatives and I think we need to start having that discussion explicitly.

Having an ethical conscience shouldn’t mean we stop being social or using social learning approaches but it should mean we are able to have that conversation out loud. So I’m starting one here, tell me how you’ve managed the ethics of social learning and working out loud, when you wanted to equip your colleagues with digital skills how did you negotiate the ethical risks of learning in the open, let’s see what we come up with…

 

 

 

 

 

The future of learning: Are we equipped for it?

imageI attended a round table discussion co-hosted by the CIPD and Towards Maturity today.

This is one of a series of recent activities which indicate a fresh commitment & willingness on the part of the institute to reach out to its L&D members and, more importantly, to become part of wider discussions about shaping L&D practice for the future.

I really welcome this. L&D felt like the Cinderella of the CIPD when I first joined four years ago and I often found more progressive and challenging mind sets outside rather than within CIPD. I can see this changing, that CIPD is working alongside the LPI, and other formal and informal groupings of folks who have a connection to and interest in developing L&D, is a really great step forward. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like what your professional body is doing you should get involved to shake things up so I was very happy to give up my holiday deckchair for a morning and come along and contribute to what was a lively and inspiring discussion.

Our themes for the day were:

  • What do today’s leaders expect from L&D and what should they expect?
  • How can we improve L&D alignment to strategic organisational goals?
  • Are we equipped in L&D to respond to changes in the future of work?

There are various outputs which will come from the session as a whole but suffice to say each session was ably kicked off by two speakers drawing on their own experiences to provoke debate. I was asked to tackle the final question and I got to speak after Don Taylor of the LPI which is always a pleasure, I knew we’d be talking the same language. Don’s challenge to business leaders was “If you think learning belongs in the classroom, enjoy the view as your competitors overtake you.” I couldn’t agree more.

In the spirit of working out loud these are my background notes for my part of the session, my main theme was that learning and learners will not wait for L&D to catch up, apply a model, or craft  a theory around their new ways of working and learning. We need to accelerate and expand our capacity quickly before we get bypassed.  Our workforce has changed, we have more part-time workers, more diverse, more transient workers, we work at different times of the day and week and from different places. We use a range of devices and routes to find out about things we need to know for our jobs, we go to the source, we talk to people outside of the business. It isn’t a question of when technology changes the workplace; that’s already happened and will continue to happen. Now it’s a question of how we respond to these changes.

We’ve always been quick to adopt new shiny buzzwords – e and m-learning, MOOCs spring to mind… but less quick to recognise that all the shiny tools will make not one iota of a difference if we don’t understand that how people work and learn has changed, and then we change how we work as professionals accordingly.

The findings from this years CIPD L&D survey and the Towards Maturity Benchmark show a greater desire from our profession to be business aligned and focused on outcomes and impact. But look again at the surveys, especially the LPI capability map and the TM Learner’s Voice, and you’ll also see that L&D in our workplaces remains strongly classroom based, a lot of e-learning is still ‘click next’ and blended learning is not as much of a reality as we’d like to think. This despite the fact that learners are telling us they have changed how they like to learn. In my own organisation we’ve been on a real journey over the last three years and it’s not over yet. Just changing what we offer (from predominantly classroom based L&D to something more fluid and responsive) has been challenging for us and for our colleagues but immensely rewarding. When a community of practice takes hold it it becomes an agent for change, vastly strengthened by the multiple voices within it drawing on their own experience of the work, the practice, the business.

People now have access to a vast range of knowledge, information and learning at their fingertips, at the touch of a keyboard or a screen we can find huge swathes of information, how to videos, toolkits etc. We can personalise our learning and draw it down when we need it. That learning comes in many shapes and sizes from professional qualifications through to amateur You Tube videos, L&D can’t control that flow any more, if we ever could. But we can help business make the most of that flow, find what they need easily and be equipped to critically appraise it. That’s what I want my team to be doing.

Much of how people learn now is informal, social and collaborative. It’s not that expertise is dead, it’s simply that people have ways to access expertise which no longer needs to be mediated and funnelled through formal learning events. In an environment where people can access expertise from across the globe directly with a tweet or a post, why would they wait for the next scheduled course from their L&D team?

I am painting a deliberately bleak picture but our profession needs to change and change rapidly before it gets passed over.

I really believe we have an important role going forward as curators and facilitators of  learning, helping others to share their knowledge, skills and experience. We can be  agents of change but not if we continue to see ourselves as the sole custodians of that knowledge armed to the teeth holding out against attempts to wrest control from us. I wrote in my blog recently that:

I don’t want to be doling out pearls of wisdom from my carefully guarded stash, I want to see people talking to each other about new tools, ideas and ways of working in their teams, at staff meetings, during project work and over lunch. That’s a learning culture, one where a good idea spreads contagiously, where fresh takes on persistent problems are grabbed by the people affected and worked through collaboratively. But it’s challenging in workplaces where training is the norm, where time is pressured and resources are scarce.

We are uniquely placed, with our cross-organisational remit to act as agents for change and to help people to develop curious and enquiring mindsets and skills which enable them to adapt and respond to changes in the workplace and wider society. I want learning in our organisation to be personally owned but organisationally supported (thanks to @andrewljacobs for that phrase if not the acronym it produces!)

We need to ask what we need to do (as individuals and as a professional body)? What do we need to change? What are the sacred cows that we need to let go of? And we need to keep asking these questions. Here are my starters for ten, more great ideas came out in the discussion and will be collated in a white paper:

  • We need to be alert, observe what is happening (or not happening) in our workplaces and outside our workplaces and able to think strategically about what that means for our practice and activities
  • We need to walk the talk, if we think social, informal and collaborative learning is the way of the future we need to be seen to do it ourselves and be able to influence leaders in our businesses to embrace it too.
  • We have to get better at consulting and diagnosis, and where it isn’t appropriate we need to be prepared to challenge requests for ‘training’. We can have an important voice in shaping how work is done at our organisations and influencing change. Providing ‘solutions’ we are comfortable and confident with might be comforting but probably won’t be helping as much as we could.
  • On that note we need to learn to innovate, try new things, be prepared to fail small but think big. And we need to be thinking carefully about how we work alongside senior leadership, managers and staff to ensure that learning and development are woven into everyday work rather than something which is bolted on, has to have time made for it. Curiosity is a mindset and trying new things is a way of demonstrating that curiosity, we have to persuade and influence our colleagues that new approaches are valid.
  • Let’s not adopt technology mindlessly simply because it’s a new and shiny thing that everyone is talking about, but not be afraid to adopt new tools that will support changing cultures of work and learning.
  • And I’d really like it if we stopped guarding everything so zealously between organisations and within organisations. We really need to learn to collaborate and help our colleagues to collaborate to hear different voices, expertise and perspectives.
  • I think we have to get used to the permeability of disciplines and embrace it. Where does OD start and L&D stop? Does it matter? Let’s learn from marketing about how to sell L&D and talk to our comms colleagues about engaging an audience. Let’s get less hung up on whether we’ve got a seat at the table, or what our job titles are, or which department we sit in and concentrate more on what impact we can have.

And if that all seems a bit overwhelming then bite off a little bit of it and get started. You have insights which are valuable to your organisation, demonstrate that.  Be confident but reflective, if you don’t know something learn it, if you’re not sure where to start ask for advice. After all a little role modelling never goes amiss!

Oops I almost forgot, what’s the answer to the question? We agreed it was a work in progress, the report card says we can do better. Here’s just some of the future capability we thought we need to build up as a profession:

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On Good Will Hunting, some further thoughts

Do read Good Will Huntin’ from @fuchsiablue. It’s a terrific post in which Julie explores the loss of good will and the difficulty of trying to find it again. She also describes the importance of it as organisational currency. Good will is an elusive, highly prized thing. In all areas of life it helps us to keep going when times are tough, stay positive and go the extra mile. It’s built in any number of ways, slowly over time or quickly through a grand gesture, a moment of honesty or humility. If I think of the good will I have held for people, organisations, companies and services it’s been built from a patchwork of gestures, actions and conversations that leave you feeling warm not bitter, cared for not discounted, connected not remote. It can be lost quickly through a harsh word or a bad experience, or it can creep up slowly through a number of small disappointments which chip away at your good will. I can think of companies that won my good will quickly and squandered it lightly and customer service teams who’ve turned me around with a tone, a phrase or a simple smile.

So it must be possible as Julie says to go ‘good will huntin’ so here are some top of head thoughts about how we can do that in an organisational setting –

  • Understand where and why it was lost and learn for the future, but try to avoid dwelling on the loss, it’s painful yes but we can’t wind the clock back. Like any currency that’s dropped good will needs to be rebuilt and bolstered.
  • Listen to all positive and negative feedback from staff. Get out and about, talk to people, ask them what they’re feeling, acknowledge the challenges.
  • Find out if the standards/evaluation criteria you’re using to judge goodwill and engagement are the same criteria your staff use – if not, what’s causing that gap?
  • List 10 things you’d love to discover about your organisation if you were a new employee (even if they’re not a reality now).
  • Put yourself in their shoes and play “devil’s advocate” list the 10 least satisfying things about your organisation from an employee point of view.
  • Look for common threads which point you to the need for a new approach or a change in processes, behaviour etc. from the senior team
  • Don’t be afraid to be open, honest and radical if change is needed
  • Find ways to ask your staff regularly whether you’re meeting their expectations and what you can do to improve your performance as an individual and as a leader, weave this into everyday conversations, don’t turn it into another employee survey. Ask the question openly and listen.
  • Solicit suggestions on ways you could work collaboratively to add value to the experience of working in your organisation… What about a hackathon? Or reverse mentoring? Or an employee forum? Listen to suggestions and find ways to act on them.
  • Review your people-related policies and procedures from your employees point of view – get rid of the ones which add nothing – chuck out the chintz as @HRGem would say.
  • Identify one thing you’ve always thought was “impossible” to do but, if you could do it, would completely transform your organisation in the eyes of your staff. Find a way to do it.

I’m sure this is just scratching the surface but thanks Julie for putting a new spin on this topic. I think it’s more fundamental and basic than some of the employee engagement, motivation narratives would have you believe and can be intensely personal and contextual which makes it tricky to find a simple solution for.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, I’m sure we all have examples to share and learn from.

If you have to go good will hunting then the hunt is probably just the start of a long road ahead but with a positive mindset, dialogue and persistence the journey could transform things beyond all imagining…
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NEW & EXPANDED – Corporate Earthquakes and hacking for change

Hacking often has negative connotations, the anonymous tech wizard stealing your online identity or the scurrilous journalist hacking your voicemail. In light of this it was a bit of a surprise to find myself involved in hacking in 2013. In April last year I signed up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon ‘Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage’. CIPD invited anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues to join this process to generate creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of our organisations. Almost 2,000 people signed up from across the globe. We were asked to consider ways in which HR could be the catalyst for increased adaptability and how, as HR practitioners, we could play a role in spearheading change in our organisations. The aim of the hackathon was to create a practical set of bold actions that could then be applied to our own and other organizations. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect. I’d heard of hacks but must confess I thought they were to do with technology, coding and software. In fact, if you look up ‘hackathon’ on Wikipedia (as I did) this is how it describes the process:

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software.

But as I found out hackathons have moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. Nowadays, hacks are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in all types of areas from health services to political activism. Whilst some hacks retain a technological focus, and focus on finding digital solutions, others take a broader approach and are looking for any type of solution technological or otherwise. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in public services. NHS Hack Days, which retain the traditional focus on technological solutions, are a great example of the use of the hackathon model for developing public services. What are we really meaning when we talk about hacking an organisation or a process? Well it’s more than simply applying a structured approach to problem solving. It’s also about adopting a certain creative mentality and mindset. It’s what Tanya Snook (aka @spydergrrl) describes as ‘playful cleverness’. I really like this depiction of hacking, she says:

When you seek, in your everyday lives, to deliberately find opportunities to be clever, ethical, to enjoy what you are doing, to seek excellence, you are hacking. Now the key here is that this behaviour is deliberate. Not a happy accident. If you aren’t acting this way deliberately, then we need to change your thinking and behaviour a little bit in order to make this your default MO.

A similar point was made by Catherine Bracey in her TEDCity talk on ‘Why good hackers make good citizens’. For me, hacking is about thinking differently as well as doing things differently. You have to tackle problems and challenges in new and alternative ways to have any hope of solving persistent problems or barriers.

What did my CIPD hackathon look like? Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints. This was managed on a digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange and participants were supported by hackathon guides who wrote blogs, took part in hangouts and recorded videos to encourage further our thinking. Interestingly, the concept of Hackathon guides was the most controversial element of the whole process with some participants feeling it created a hierarchical structure of experts which was counter to the spirit of hacking. The hackathon process took place over a twelve week period, for NHS Hack Days it is completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same and you can design the hack duration to meet your needs. I’ll run through the process to give you a sense of what participation involved:

  • First, we were asked to help refine the problem, this was referred to as ‘swarming’ the problem (a lack of organisational adaptability). The 120 barriers to adaptability we came up with were then synthesized in to twelve main ‘enemies of adaptability’.
  • We were then invited to share our ‘moonshots’, descriptions of projects we thought could help to overcome the enemies we had identified.
  • Following this, we completed short mini-sprints commenting on each others ‘moonshots’ and signed up to join hack teams to work up the specific moonshots we were interested in.
  • Then we entered the main sprint. Once in teams we specced out the detail of our hacks working collaboratively in whichever way suited us. As our team was global in membership we made use of Google Drive, mural.ly and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack.
  • The lead author had responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it was designed to be a collaborative process from end to end.

I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The title of this post refers to one of those hacks, ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘ led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt Frost, Stephen Remedios, Conor Moss and Guido Rubio. Our hack focused on using immersive learning techniques to empower organisations to face up to seismic change, in doing so participants gain skills and ways of working for the future which will increase organisational agility to predict, survive and build positively on unexpected change.

The CIPD hackathon created a wide-ranging set of bold, practical hacks that were shared with participants, CIPD members and published for other organizations to try. The final report is here and as you read it you can see how the ideas ranged from the creatively complex to those brilliant in their simplicity (see for example ‘Chuck Out Your Chintz’ led by Gemma Reucroft aka @HRGem). Personally, I found it a great chance to get more familiar with new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability.

So why am I still excited about hackathons, what makes them different to any other form of staff or customer engagement?

I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think this spirit of ‘playful creativity’ can be used in all shapes and sizes of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational growth and development. Simply I believe hack days and hackathons are one potential antidote to clogged up systems and, more importantly, clogged up thinking (see this excellent blog from @whatsthepont for more on this) .

What I’ve found most exciting about these events is that they move beyond traditional models of public consultation and engagement to inspire people and solutions. You don’t come along to a hack just to comment, complain or have your voice heard, you come to contribute to a solution. At their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create progress. What’s so exciting about this model is that it thrives on collaboration and connection, bringing people together from a range of backgrounds, experiences and disciplines and it values everyone’s voice. It’s heady stuff for public engagement.

How often have you been pleasantly surprised or inspired by a colleague’s ideas? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions, grow new projects, develop new approaches. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more inclusive, connected way to solve problems and create momentum than traditional project teams or committees.

If you can make use of simple digital platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. Not everyone in an organisation will necessarily be up for using digital tech to manage the hack so you can either go back to basics and do it without digital tools or, even better in my book, use the process to help a wider group of staff get familiar with sharing their ideas and thoughts digitally. Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned…

I’ll leave you with Spydergrrl’s useful list of ways you can start hacking for an agile organisation, and you can hear to her talk about these issues in this video

  • Hack yourself: Redefine barriers as a source of motivation in their own right: instead of being frustrated by “the way things are always done,” challenge yourself to do it differently this time. Use yourself as a guinea pig: Work in a way that is outside your own norm. Challenge yourself to think outside your own box. Do something that scares you. Take a risk.
  • Hack your workspace: make it suit your workstyle (art supplies, toys, blank spaces, whiteboards, room to move, a library, whatever you need). Or better yet, leave it. Grab the equipment from your desk and spontaneously hijack boardrooms for weeks at a time in order to collaborate with your team. Work from home. Work from anywhere, any time.
  • Hack communications: Stop attaching documents to emails. Find creative ways to share knowledge in your team: Do daily stand-up meetings (time them!), use chat. Use visuals to share data. In the office where I currently work, you’ll find whiteboards in common areas, win boards to celebrate team wins, libraries to share resources, outlines/ slides/ diagrams taped up in common team spaces with comment sheets so people can give feedback. We still rely too much on email, but we’re trying.
  • Hack your department: We’re not Google but we can still innovate. We can be strategically agile: we can identify trends, we can see challenges with the way things are done and change them. If the required changes seem too big and too bold, we can start small: take the opportunity to make a minor tweak to a process and see if you make an improvement: Find creative ways to use existing systems, to produce better outcomes. Take a risk. Propose your ideas: go ahead an include your bold idea in your deliverable. Even if it gets removed in the next draft, at least you planted a seed. And if it doesn’t, you may incite change.
  • Hack silos: Begin and end all projects in collaborative spaces: check them for drafts, lessons learned and other information sources to expedite your progress, ask the Twitters, Google solutions from other [organisations] in other countries. Share your learnings organization-wide at project close-out. Crowdsource plans and strategies with internal stakeholders and then test your ideas with counterparts in other organizations. Make internal collaborative tools and sites your default tabs in your web browser and use them every day.
  • Hack your training: If you need to learn a new skill and can’t get the training at work, look for free training resources, meetups or other learning opportunities. Better yet, just do it. Take on projects that stretch your skills and knowledge. Can’t get approval? Do it anyway! Help a colleague with their project in their department. Or form a working group and do it for the whole of the organization.
  • Hack your career: Figure out how to work horizontally in a vertical environment: take a job in another stream or classification to expand the depth of your knowledge. Find a project you just need to be a part of and go be a part of it.
  • Hack your perspective: Empathize with your user. Find opportunities to be the client, not just the implementer. Go sit with a program team for weeks or months to better understand the challenges they face using systems in their day-to-day work. Take an assignment and see how the other half works and lives: If you work in a program, go try out enterprise-level projects. If you work on enterprise projects, go work in a client branch to really understand how enterprise-level decisions impact internal users.
  • Hack your network. Become a reverse mentor; teach an executive to use new tools or just chat with them about the realities of working differently. Join groups that work in another discipline or area of interest. Talk to our counterparts outside the organization to find out how they are solving the same problems.
  • Hack your work. Work differently. Every day.

That’s the key for me, the best thing of all, you don’t need permission for hacking, you can start in small ways with yourself, your mindset or your workspace, your approaches – as Doug Shaw would say:

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Let us know how it goes…

With special thanks to Andrew Jacobs and others for comments on previous drafts and the rest of my Corporate Earthquakes team.   Photo by sobczak.paul under Creative Commons Attribution licence

Corporate Earthquakes and hacking change

Back in April 2013 I found myself signing up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon, Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage.  The idea of the Hackathon was to encourage CIPD members; and anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues, to join together and come up with creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of organisations to a fast-changing world. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect, I’d heard of hacks but I thought they were to do with technology, coding and software. In fact if you look up ‘hackathon’ on Wikipedia (as I did) this is how it describes the process:

hackathon (also known as a hack dayhackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software.

hackathon

But as I found out, the approach has moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. See this write up in advance of an event last year in NYC for a great review of the many and varied ways the hacking mentality is being used.  Nowadays, hacks and hackathons are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in a range of fields and disciplines. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in the public sector, whilst some events have a specific technology focus, aiming to find digital solutions to persistent problems, others take a more inclusive approach and are simply looking for any type of solution to overcome challenges. In the UK a great example is the use of NHS Hack Days, the most recent was run in January in Cardiff and you can read more about the event here.

Like Chris Bolton, who writes the ever-informative What’s the Pont blog , I believe hack days and hackathons are a potential antidote to clogged up systems and clogged up thinking. What I’ve found most exciting about these events is that they move beyond traditional models of public consultation and engagement to inspire people and solutions. You don’t come along to a hack just to comment, complain or have your voice heard, you come to contribute to a solution. And at their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create solutions for the future. Invariably, at the end of a hackathon a number of hacks are selected as ‘winners’ and supported in some way (either through funding or corporate/organisational support) to ensure that the ideas come to be realised.

Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints during which we were asked to first help refine the problem (see The enemies of adaptability for a summary of the issues identified during the initial sprint) and then to come up with mini-hacks (short descriptions of our ideas about what could help to overcome the problems identified), participants were then encourage to comment on the hacks and sign up to join hacks they were interested in working on. This was all managed on a simple digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange  (who run global hacks tackling a variety of issues). Usually then teams begin work on speccing out the detail of their solutions, working collaboratively in whichever way suits the team. Ours, like many others, was global in membership so we made use of Google Drive and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack. The lead author has the responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it’s designed to be a collaborative process from end to end. For the CIPD hackathon this process took place over a three month period, for the NHS Hack Day it was completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same.

What’s so exciting about this model is that it thrives on collaboration and connection, bringing people together from a range of backgrounds, experiences and disciplines and it values everyone’s voice. This is heady stuff for public engagement. For me the CIPD hackathon was a chance to get more familiar with the new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. It did all of that for me, I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability. I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The final hackathon report is here and as you read it you can see how the ideas ranged from the creatively complex to those brilliant in their simplicity (see for example Chuck Out Your Chintz led by Gemma Reucroft aka @HRGem).

So why write about this now after all these months? Two reasons, Firstly I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think the model is ripe for use in all sorts of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational improvement. How often have you been pleasantly surprised by a colleague’s ideas for tackling a problem or issue? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more democratic way to solve problems than traditional project teams or committees. Don’t get me wrong to implement change you need plans and milestones and organisation but in the early stages when you’re trying to identify what’s going wrong, or not as well as it should be, why wouldn’t you want to have the widest discussion possible and get everyone involved? And if you’re looking for creative thinking and novel solutions why wouldn’t you want to hear from as many people as possible?  If you can make use of simple platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. But not everyone in an organisation will necessarily be up for using digital tech to manage the hack so you can either go back to basics and do it without digital tools or, even better in my book, use the process to help a wider group of staff get familiar with sharing ideas and thoughts digitally, Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.

My second reason for blogging about this now is that a refined version of our CIPD hack ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘  led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt FrostStephen Remedios, Conor Moss  and Guido Rubio Amestoy has been chosen as a finalist for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) Digital Freedom Challenge. The Digital Freedom Challenge team evaluated contributions from hackers around the world , in their words ‘looking for depth, boldness, originality, thoroughness, and the ability to inspire and instruct’.  Our hack focuses on using immersive learning techniques to empower organisations to face up to seismic change, in doing so participants gain skills and ways of working for the future which will increase organisational agility to predict, survive and build positively on unexpected change. We’re very proud that our hack has been selected but in order to make it even better we need people to comment on the hack and give us their thoughts. And time is short so please do have a read of the hack and add your comments, we’d love to hear from you. I’m sure the other finalists would be interested in your thoughts too, see it’s never too late to get involved in a hackathon!