Month: March 2011

Grass roots collaboration… WITH executive buy-in

As more senior leaders begin to understand the power of social learning, more and more businesses are willing to invest in collaborative tools. It’s almost impossible to stop the momentum of the latest and greatest until cataclysmic failure occurs or a newer/shinier object is introduced, so hopefully that means we will not only see the introduction of more social learning tools, but also see higher adoption by employees. I’m going through the process now, so that’s why it was interesting to read what Deloitte’s John Hagel had to say about social software adoption.

… three models of adopting social software: (1) bottom-up through teams who use them, without permission, to support what they are doing (2) targeted deployment by an enthusiastic executive (3) massive deployment, which risks backlash. What is missing, he said, is metrics that matter and differ according to who is using them and for what. Senior executives are interested in financial measures, middle management in operating metrics and the front-line in performance metrics. – courtesy of

Most organizations implement a combination of these ideas, but rarely to the strategies rely on the intersection of the three. I’ve seen the “if we build it, they will come” strategy fail, but understand that without formal communication and support, the number of people we reach within an organization is capped from the start. I’ve also seen passionate leaders try and fail to get buy in from both ends. Neither the business nor the user wants to give. Personally, I think successful adoption actually rests in the overlap between (1) and (2) with an established platform (3) for scalability and security. Hearing the collective voice of the employees in an organization and learning from their experiences is crucial for the adoption of a new tool/process, so the idea of merging executive support without restricting the users (letting employees know the idea is fully supported at the management level) is one worth exploring. Under the desk, makeshift solutions will never go away and even if the executive level adopts the solution, applying process and metrics to the nimble solution will kill its benefit.

Ultimately, providing the platform/support/architecture for employees to leverage social collaboration is a requirement, but tying the success of that system to metrics or limiting the evolution of the system shouldn’t be. These systems fill a void and improve effectiveness, whether it be in accuracy, time management, access to the right information at the right time, or else the employees wouldn’t have spent their own time building the solution. If a tool is used by ten or fifteen people, but saves hundreds of  hours or improves the quality of a customer response, how can that be tracked?

The solution I’m currently trying to implement sits directly in the center of all three adoption models. My organization is hoping to build a complete skills inventory that can be leveraged to foster talent, retain our best people and also ensure the business won’t suffer during any labor struggles or emergency outages. I wholeheartedly believe this initiative is needed. Not knowing “what we know” or “don’t know” is a limitation that results in wasted training dollars, poor customer service, increased travel expenses (sending a known expert to a location to solve a problem) and potentially unnecessary hires. These are huge concerns, but for the employees in the trenches, they are second to being at a customer site or on the phone and not having access to the right answer.

An informal “talent” sharing system that allows employees to search team members through our collaboration platform and create loose ties and open informal communication channels seems like the perfect answer. It doesn’t matter if I know “Employee A” or that employee knows me. What matters is that I need help answering a question about one of our products and a positive customer experience relies on that potential informal communication. Sure, I can scan documents or web sites – and lets assume the taxonomy is monitored and accurate, which is probably isn’t – but who knows how many .docs/.pdfs/.html files are sitting in our document repository?  If we provide the tools – in this case a micro-blogging client that provides access to an ever expanding network of experts and a real-time communication channel, perhaps a people search in SharePoint linked directly to Communicator (that shows status of who is and isn’t available) – the organic adoption of the solution should follow. This solution relies on the executive support – namely the platform support and availability – but depends on the employees that use it and how effective the solution actually is.

But how can you judge the success of the tool? The solution shouldn’t re measured as a success simply by the number of hits or searches, but by how essential those using it religiously feel it is. More importantly, what happens if the requirements change? The development model of the tools need be more flexible. Obviously, we can’t give the kids the keys to the house and let them throw a party, but knowing that these grass roots solutions are built out of necessity and usually improve the process for a business unit, the ability to evolve with business requirements is essential to the continued use of the tools.  IT compliance is needed – we can’t have these tools running queries that shut the network down – but the rigors and financial constraints of new development will cripple the tool and once that grass roots user community loses faith in the tool, the tool is useless.  Providing a stable, scalable architecture on an Enterprise wide platform requires executive buy-in, but the benefits of giving the users a sandbox to build and test new ideas will ultimately save money, save time and improve employee communication.  Essentially everything social learning has been preaching for years.

Social Learning = a trip to the record store

I’m often asked to sit in on calls to explain to business units why social learning is essential to the new learning model that is reshaping the training landscape in large organizations. In most cases, buzz words and methodologies only confuse the listener and many don’t even realize they’re probably using some of the essential building blocks and tools already.

So after struggling to find a good entry point focused on the ideals and tools we have available, I took a step back and thought about how I could connect the listener to the concepts through a tangible activity. Obviously, my mind drifted towards music as it’s the thing I’m most passionate about and something that easily transcends language, culture, and country and more importantly almost everyone alive (well, that would be reading a blog about Learning 2.0) has purchased some form of music, be it a tape, a cd, a record or even an MP3.

I quickly realized that the make up of an organization’s social network aligns closely to the current online music community. In most corporations, learners digest content through some sort of Learning Management System. Users log into the corporate LMS and start to scan through hundreds, if not thousands of offerings. Finding the right offering at the right time is overwhelming. Generic searches help; it’s easy to search on a product name or a course-id if you know it, but what about something more generic like a course on “management” or finding information about a specific piece of functionality in a specific product. Can your search field handle those requests?

I guess this is a perfect spot to start my analogy. Years ago, you only heard songs on the radio or on a video show. More than likely, you caught part of it and had to hope the DJ mentioned the band name and the song name. If not, you listened to the radio an hour later and hoped for the best. Even if you did hear the name of the band, how did you actually know what record the song was on and how did you actually buy the record? Basically, much like the conventional LMS, you only had a single option; the local record store.

If I asked you to walk into a record store tomorrow and find me a record, how would you do it?  You could search alphabetically, but what if the records are separated by genres?  Better yet, what if you are simply looking for a good bluegrass record or a good rock record? The search becomes impossible. The only option, at least in a formal setting is to ask the dreaded expert – in an organization, this is often someone too busy and too important to deal with you, but in a record store, it’s the balding, slightly overweight music obsessive just waiting to ridicule you for your lack of knowledge about some obscure Sun-Ra record – and hope they can help. It falls in line with the dominant predator principle, and we naturally assume that because these experts heard of things first and have established themselves, they are correct and we need to align ourselves accordingly.

The fatal flaw is that the expert knows nothing about you. They don’t know how you learn or why you need the training and if you went into a record store, they certainly wouldn’t know anything about your musical tastes and how those align to their own ideas of good music. Basically, you’d have to interact with these experts one-on-one until a commonality was established or start randomly buying books/records and become your own expert. This is where the benefits of social learning really come into play. There are, and always will be a few bleeding edge people that always seem to know the latest and greatest tool and know with the benefits of blogs, video and micro-blogging the greater population can access the content. It’s no different than the music fans that seem to stumble on bands that are just recording their demos or have only played a few shows.

Thankfully, social media bridges that gap and helps create “first followers.” This concept, one I first heard about from Derek Sivers is essential to the adoption of ideas in any situation. Sivers uses the real life example of a young man dancing at The Gorge in Washington and how the the strength of the crowd is dependent on the people that opt to follow the leader and bridge the gap between the “leader” and the masses. In an organization, innovation is crucial, but acting on innovation is the game changer. Everyone has good ideas that never catch on, but with the appropriate social learning tools and cultural behaviors in place, an good idea can propagate countless networks – people, organizations – with a few simple clicks. Simply determining a training offering is beneficial doesn’t really help the org. The real benefit is knowing that first followers can share that knowledge to their networks.

Today, no one scans the back of LPs or read tape liner notes for recommendations. They follow popular music blogs, read Amazon reviews to get real opinions from “real” people or even more common, they ask their friends.  Over time, trust is established (whether it be from the crowd or through individual positive experiences), networks are defined and when you read a positive review on, lets say, or hear about a record from your friend, you can associate the response with years of other reviews and a shared taste. Then, with confidence, you can pass the recommendation on to your network, and those people to can do the same. Simply by leveraging a few tools – blogs, wikis, micro-blogs – we now can rate content, comment on recommendations, share feedback and most importantly, establish a trust within our ever expanding and evolving network that strengthens future recommendations. Hopefully, all off these tools mean less time and money is spent on training, resulting on more effective spends and less money is spent buying records that collect dust on your shelf.

Learning through Complexity

Today I had the chance to sit in on Dave Snowden‘s Leading Through Complexity session and it really triggered some thoughts about how to approach bottom-up adoption with our team goals in the social media and collaboration space. We’ve been operating under the idea that “if you build it, they will come” assuming our design and requirements mirror the business needs. Dave’s thoughts made me think if more hand holding and positive reinforcement are needed and honestly, he’s right.

Over the next three months, I’m hoping we can approach the field techs to create content that not only proves our business cases, but starts creating that organic buzz we need to really start shifting culture. I’d like to think that the narratives trapped inside the 35K team members with 20-30 years of experience have a value that exceeds the effort of documenting the stories, especially if it gets the grass roots team members buying into our collaborative ideas.

Next step.

Engaging the field. Stay tuned.


Hello, Internet. A quick introductory post. My name is Bryan Acker and I’m a learning specialist at a large telecommunications company, working on changing the company to a more balanced formal/informal/social model. As a passionate learning 2.0 believer, I wanted to put my money where my heart is and offer my thoughts on Learning 2.0 and how collaboration has become a necessity for both traditional education and corporate training. Every day I leverage other people’s thoughts and feedback to help improve learning, and thought it was about time I started contributing to the equation. Hopefully, this space will evolve organically as ideas are shared and debated, much like the philosophies and methodologies that influence the learning community itself.

The goal of this space is to share my thoughts and time with you and hope visitors do the same. Whether it’s interesting articles, reactions to new ideas and tools or just some ideas that are bouncing around my brain, I want this space to be informative and interesting but also what the flow of information and discussion to be two-way.  I also hope it becomes a forum for learning 2.0 organizations/enthusiasts here in the Maritimes (I’m based in Halifax, Nova Scotia); one influenced by learning leaders across the world.

When I’m not working at my day job, I co-author the fairly (relative term to be sure) successful Canadian music blog, I’ve been a borderline obsessive music fan my whole life, so hopefully this space will also become a resource to help musicians leverage the same social media principles to get their music heard and actually make some money off the art they sweat out.