Thursday, December 23, 2010

Moving forward to an older model

It's perhaps appropriate that I should be formulating these thoughts at Christmas time. According to Christian beliefs, Jesus was a carpenter before he embarked on his three years of ministry. Why? Because his Dad was a carpenter. That was pretty much the way things were done all those many years ago. When you were old enough, you went to work with your Dad and you learnt his trade from him. I'm not quite sure what happened if you were the son of a carpenter, but you really wanted to be a farmer. Perhaps, if you had understanding parents, they went and had a word with a local farmer and arranged an apprenticeship for you.

Of course, there were gender inequality issues, and certain choices were only available to one gender or the other, but girls learned from their mothers how to dye cloth, make clothing, prepare meals, etc.

There were no exams.

In the middle ages, it was much the same. Experienced stonemasons taught would-be stonemasons, skilled glassblowers taught apprentice glassblowers, and so on. People learned their craft from someone who already knew how it was done. No doubt there were those with great potential and those with less. No doubt there were those who quickly outstripped their teachers, and no doubt said teachers reacted with varying degrees of grace (or lack thereof). No doubt some teachers were kind, while others were cruel.

Today's employee is (hopefully) more empowered than the apprentice of yesteryear, so perhaps the vagaries of the 'master's' temperament can be thus addressed. And there is so much that can be achieved with the implementation of a variation on this model. Learning from someone who is more experienced has got to be more effective, more timely than waiting weeks before going on a generic course. Progressing at your own pace with your own personal mentor, who gains kudos from your achievements. Asking the bloke at the next desk leads to an answer which can be implemented right away: quick win, uninterrupted workflow. What's not to like?

With the speed of change and technological innovation, who's got the time to put together a slick learning resource before something changes again anyway?

My thoughts along these lines put me in mind of a conversation I had recently with some L&D leaders about redundancies.

Think about it like this. The economy is rough. You've got to lose half your team. You've got two senior members earning an fair amount, and several inexperienced folks who are still learning the ropes. After a fair amount of thought, you are able to identify the stronger performers from among the more junior team members, and you cut the rest. But you still have to lose one of your senior members. One of them churns out work like a machine. The other seems to a spend a fair amount of time chatting to the newer staff members and his work rate suffers as a consequence. So you decide to keep the one with the higher work rate.

And it turns out to be the biggest mistake you've ever made.


Because when he was 'chatting' with the more junior staff members, what he was actually doing was helping them come to grips with the system, teaching them a few skills, mentoring them, coaching them, turning them into productive team members. Once he goes, the morale of the whole team plummets, and the workrate follows suit. Even your star performer's workrate suffers because she's not getting the handovers from the rest of the team.

In marketing parlance, this is 'below the line' training. It just happens, because your newly unemployed staff member is naturally an enabler.

What if you turned that into a KPI? What if you actually set the expectation on every team member to contribute to team morale and development? What if you had a system by means of which team members awarded one another kudos points (or gold stars or thumbs up or something) every time they helped one another out? What if it became enviable to be the person on the team with the highest number of kudos points? What if management realised that the enablers on the team might in fact be more valuable than than those with the highest measurable output?

What if everyone shared what they learned with everyone else. What if the young techno-wizard on the team were encouraged to look at innovative ways to tackle things? What if he got to share his ideas at the weekly team meetings? What if he spent time teaching the wonderfully creative, but slightly techno-challenged member of the team?

What if everyone was teaching and everyone was learning...all the time?What if the L&D team stopped being the bottle neck, and started being the team that helped people help each other - going from being the only goal-scorer on a low scoring team to being the person with the highest number of assists on a high scoring team?

What if? What if?

Friday, December 17, 2010

An operational attitude towards learning

You've probably heard me say this before, but I am increasingly of the view that the workplace training/learning/L&D (whatever they're called in your organisation) team should be moved out of HR and into Operations.


Well, HR is responsible for looking after people: their payroll, their working conditions, their treatment under employment law, etc. and has no direct accountability in terms of the organisation's business objectives.

L&D's job is all about performance, and performance is an operational thing. Our job is to help the organisation meet its business objectives by helping people do their jobs.

While L&D remains under the umbrella of HR, it remains okay to take people out of their workspace and put them into a learning space, and then to put them back into their working space again at the end of it.

An operational view of learning means that learning needs to be situated in the workspace, because it's part of the job.

Let's take the research and development bods at a sweet factory. I pick this example (a) because I'm a bit of a chocoholic and (b) because my mother worked at a sweet factory for over 30 years, so I have some vicarious insight. They don't know before they start working on it whether their new idea for a confection will work. They don't know whether the new flavour of toffee will enjoy favour with their customer base. So they experiment a bit. They find a recipe that works, and they send out a bunch of the new flavours to the children of all the staff members. They ask the kids to identify what each flavour is and to mark it out of 10. They also ask the kids to suggest some flavours that they would like to see added to the range. My reponse said that flavour A was 'mint 8/10'; flavour B was 'chocolate 9/10' and flavour C was 'soap? 0/10' (it turns out flavour C was actually grape). I suggested licorice as being a flavour they should look into.

The R&D team gathered back all the results and decided to go with the mint. They also developed a licorice version (obviously other people had suggested it, too), and they eventually took those two flavours to market.

In fact, the whole process was a learning process. They learned how to make the new toffees. They learned what the consumer reaction was to the different flavours. They learned what other flavours consumers would like to see. They learned how to make those.

Once they knew how to make the new flavours, and the products had been given the okay, the R&D team passed on the information to the factory. The manufacturing staff then learned what changes needed to be made (and when) in order to produce the new flavours.

Work is learning. We can seldom say we know how to do a thing before we need to do it for the first time. And when we come to do it for the first time, we might

  • experiment, based on past experience/existing knowledge
  • watch someone who already knows how to do it
  • look it up
  • get some advice from someone else who may have some ideas
All of this is learning, and it simply forms part of the workscape.

Too many of our learning solutions require people to separate themselves from the very context in which the learning applies. Now I don't doubt that there are some tasks for which this will remain a necessity, but, applied as a blanket approach, this ensures that learning is an interruption of the workflow, instead of facilitating it.

I know it's a gross generalisation, but the COOs I've met have always been driven, results focused individuals. This is where I believe L&D needs to position itself. Learning should be viewed as a strategic function, one that contributes directly to ensuring that the organisation meets its targets and achieves its vision. It's not something you do in order to ensure that union requirements are met.

Monday, December 13, 2010

BBC 4: The Joy of Stats

The BBC occasionally turns out some cracking documentaries. This one is no exception. Hans Rosling is an animated and passionate presenter who loves numbers. The clever use of animation is hugely informative. Although the comments on the BBC's site make it clear not everyone agrees with me.

One of the visualisations used in tonight's episode was David McCandless's billion dollar-ogram, a diagram designed to help people get their heads around the huge numbers that get bandied about in respect of the cost of this war or that oil spill. The result is very interesting!

If you are able to access BBC programmes via a feature such as iPlayer, I strongly recommend this - particularly if you're keen on facts and figures.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A stumbling block to collaborative learning (and working)

A recent post from Doug Belshaw, in which he quotes extensively from Steve Shapiro got me thinking about a conversation my husband and I often have, out of sheer frustration.

One of the things South Africans in the UK are often accused of is being gung ho. This is because of a different formative workplace experience. I don't know what it's like now, but during the years that we lived and worked there, actions would be allocated during meetings, and the owners of those actions would be expected to go away, do the job and come back with the completed chart, project, design, whatever. If you needed help doing X-thing, you spoke to the person with the skills or the access or the authority and you got it done. If you had a meeting with your line manager or your team before the task was complete, you would report on your progress and then get back to it afterwards. If you needed to escalate the matter to your line manager because you weren't getting the results you wanted, you did. But you owned the task.

So when we moved to the UK, we adopted the same approach... and it didn't go down at all well!

As an example:

I once worked at a company as the in-house IT trainer. I should point out at this stage that it was explicitly stated that they wanted me to be able to hit the ground running, because my line manager (the IT director) had a big project looming, and wouldn't be able to allocate much time to training. At a meeting with the stakeholders, it was decided that everyone in the company needed to have (among other things) certain Excel skills. Now of course, the skills that were needed day to day by the people in that company weren't the same as the skills needed by people in another company. So we identified the core actions that were likely to form part of pretty much everyone's day job within the organisation. We also identified a set of additional Excel skills that a subset of employees would need. These we would address separately. It was decided that everyone should be invited to attend a core skills workshop, but that, initially, at any rate, only those who used the additional skills would be asked to attend that workshop.

It seemed pretty clearcut to me, so I did what I thought I had been asked to do. I hit the ground running. I designed a core skills workshop. I set up exercises using familiar spreadsheets that users were likely to encounter on a day to day basis, in order to provide context for the features being covered. I created a manual, using screen grabs as signposts. I created an index, so that attendees could refer back to the manual after the workshop. I spoke to the in-house print team, and got them to do a nice layout for me.

We had already drawn up a very nice questionnaire which served as a base level TNA, and we had a clear idea where the greatest need was.

We had also kitted out the training room with the equipment needed.

So, we were all systems go. I invited my first batch for the pilot session of the workshop... and all hell broke loose.

Apparently, I was supposed to check back with my line manager at every step of the way. Each step needed to be approved before I could move on to the next step. Since no-one above me on the food chain had the remotest idea about learning or training... and were singularly lacking in people skills, I was completely non-plussed. We had already decided everything that needed to be decided, surely? I had been given my actions, and I was, well, actioning them.

My husband's experience is similar. He will be asked to write a report on X thing, but the report is sent back umpteen times, with minor changes and edits, sometimes to changes and edits made earlier.

And it is this ethos that I think stands in the way of the successful implementation of social business, collaborative working and collaborative learning. I have been in situations where it has fallen to me to create a shared space for a certain project (for example, a wiki). Immediately I have done so, the rest of the team has then deferred to me as the owner of such space. Instead of editing material entered, they would send me an email, identifying suggested changes. I have also worked with organisations that have introduced systems such as Sharepoint in order to encourage collaborative working, but then immediately locked down all the permissions and so on, so that only management approved materials can be published in shared space.

So, I would suggest that, if social business is to become de rigeur, then the offline attitudes and culture need to be addressed, too.

When you give someone a task to do, you need to trust them to do the task, and empower them to call on such resources within the business as are needed in order to do so. You need to trust them to manage their time, to assist others with other projects as and when it is appropriate. You need to allow them to have an exchange of emails without CC-ing you in all the time. You need to be available to them, if they need your help, but not hanging over their shoulders to make sure they do the job as you would do it (if you don't have anything else to do, maybe you should have done the task yourself, huh?). You need to let them make mistakes and ask them what they learned and what they would do differently... then let them try again. You need to let them take credit for what works and own up to what fails without feeling that they are failures.

In other words, you need to trust yourself, too. If you hired them, because you believed that they could do the job, then let them do the job and appreciate the time it frees up to let you do yours!

In most of the organisations I have worked with, the nature of online relationships replicates the organisational culture offline.

Until we start to give people a bit of room to breathe, I think we're not going to be able to properly harness the power of social business.

...or that's what I think, anyway.

Jane Hart's journey to social business

Jane Hart has shared her journey from elearning to social business in this blog post. Her journey has similarities to my own... and perhaps to yours.

Jane is probably one of the best known advocates of the use of social media for business performance. She and the other members of the Internet Time Alliance (Jay Cross, Clark Quinn, Harold Jarche and Charles Jennings) are running a workshop in London next week. If you're an L&D professional (other than a consultant to whom the invitation is not extended), you might want to find out if there are any spaces open.

This could change your professional practice.


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Learning about guilt

Have you ever noticed how, whenever you're going through something, everyone always knows exactly what you should be doing and how you should be feeling?

New mothers with tiny infants are told exactly how they should be handling the business of being a Mom and how they should feel about all the things their new babies do. Newly bereaved people are told exactly how they should be responding and are given only X amount of time before the good graces of friends start to wear out because they really should be over it by now.

And my situation is, of course, no different. Everyone knows exactly how I should be feeling. And it seems the one thing I should not be feeling is guilt. "You've done nothing wrong!" they assure me. And they're right... in a way. But that changes nothing.

I guess I've known on some subconscious level that there are different kinds of guilt, but right now, I'm neck deep in it, and am intimately acquainted with it.

As a practising Christian, I subscribe to the notion of sin, repentance and redemption. I do. And when I sin, I experience guilt. So I seek forgiveness. And - I believe - I get it.

But that doesn't have bearing here. Because, of course, not all failings are sinful. And, if I were the only one to be impacted by the failure of my business, I could handle that.

But I'm not.

Yes, my business is a limited liability company, and so my personal assets are not forfeit to the collapse of the business. But, the collapse of the business has meant a loss of income. And my failure to find an alternative source of income does place our personal assets at risk.

And this is where the guilt comes in.

You see, my husband works extraordinarily hard. He always has. It's the nature of the man. He currently commutes two hours each way, every day. Scooter, train, tube, train, walk. He would prefer not to, and when he started at the company, the plan was to move his role to a town 20 minutes' drive from our home. But the recession put paid to that idea. So he continues to commute, two years later.

He hasn't failed at anything. He continues to work to the same standard. He continues to earn the same salary. But he still stands to lose his personal assets (including, under extreme circumstances, his home).

Now you can paint that any colour you want, but I did that, and I have to live with it. He is not angry with me. Good grief, what kind of man would he be if he did? He fully supports me in every way.

I have been harangued fore and aft for feeling guilty over this. I have been told I shouldn't because it doesn't make sense on a logical level. I have even been told that my guilt is unChristian and sinful, because it is tantamount to saying that I don't accept God's forgiveness. I simply cannot get people to understand that I don't believe I need to be forgiven.

I tried to explain it to one person like this:
You are told that you have to hold out two 5kg weights at arm's length and at shoulder height. The moment you let them drop, someone large and powerful is going to slap your husband (wife, son, daughter) humiliatingly in the face and kick him in the stomach. So you hold those weights. You hold them beyond endurance. But eventually, you simply cannot. You are not capable. You reach the end of your ability, and you are forced to let them drop. Your husband is duly slapped and kicked.

Now tell me you don't feel guilty.

You didn't sin. But you did fail. The task was beyond your capability, you were not able to perform it, and he paid the price.

Okay, it's a simplistic analogy, but please tell me you get my drift. Sometimes you fail without sinning/wrongdoing. But you still fail. And you still feel guilty when your failure hurts the ones you love.

Surely this is perfectly reasonable?

On a side note, permit me to brag. My husband had a long talk with our younger son (the older one is out of the country on a gap year) about the possible implications of our situation. He asked him what worried him most. Did my 17 year old talk about the loss of the nice big house? Did he express concern that his driving lessons could be forfeit? Did he worry about not being able to afford the lifestyle he currently enjoys? No. He said he was worried about the impact on my well-being. He was concerned that I would feel like a failure and that my confidence would take a knock.

In the midst of everything falling down around my ears, that strikes me as a success story, wouldn't you say? We must have done something right. I am so proud of his lack of selfishness that I could just burst.

Monday, December 06, 2010

On money-related irony

Just lately, I have been thinking about some of the ironies inherent in our financial systems.

When we lived in South Africa, bank charges were very high. You paid a cash-handling fee when you deposited large sums of cash. You paid an admin fee every time the bank processed a cheque of yours... or one from someone else that was made out to you. You paid for a new cheque book when the old one was empty. Basically, you paid for everything. Walk into the bank and breathe, and they charged you for the air. This is something that people in the UK simply can't relate to. Here, many bank transactions are still free. But we'll come to that in a minute. Back to South Africa for a moment (sorry, are you getting whiplash?).

If you agreed never to drop below a certain balance, your banking became free. And the balance was not just a few Rands, either. So, basically, if you were flush enough not to need every last cent you had, you could have all your bank services free of charge. If, however, you were balancing on a knife edge, and needed every cent you earned, you had to pay to access this money. And it's no small matter, either - total bank charges could be among your larger expenses.

It gets worse. Let me relate an anecdote that I witnessed on more than one occasion. Person X, let's call him Thando Sijawe, came into the bank to draw some money. He couldn't use the hole-in-the-wall, because, like many South Africans, he was illiterate. He explained to the cashier that he wanted R10, and she wrote out the withdrawal slip for him, which he then endorsed with his thumbprint. She gave him his R10 and he went on his way. What he didn't know was that the bank charged him R7 (I kid you not, that was the exact figure) for this service. If he had drawn out all his money at once, this might have been less significant but crime levels were (are?) high in South Africa, especially in the poorer areas where Thando lived, so the tendency was only ever to carry money enough for your immediate needs, taxis, buses and the day's food supplies. People like Thando had to deal in cash, because their illiteracy meant that they couldn't use the pay-by-card option.

So, not only did Thando get penalised for being poor, he suffered the double whammy of being further penalised for being uneducated, too.

But it's not just Thando. And it's not just in South Africa.

In the UK, much of our banking is free. The flip side is that it is also slower. Everything takes longer. And you can do so much less at the hole-in-the-wall. But you learn to live with that. However, if you're having a bad month and one of your standing orders bounces, there is a fee of £22 that is levied. So basically, they're fining you for being broke.

As I have already (very publicly) stated, my business is being declared bankrupt. This morning, I was advised that I need to pay £2500 for this process. It seems I am too broke to go bankrupt. Go figure.

I'm not sure what happens next. I am going to see an insolvency adviser to discuss my options.

I apologise if this transparency makes you feel uncomfortable. I just hope that it will prove helpful to others who may be having a tough time of things, right now.

I also think it's important to shine a spotlight on some of the things that strike me as being out of balance in society. After all, the fat cats of the banking industry are the ones taking home the huge bonuses.

Everyone knows my understanding of accounting is negligible, but I can't help feeling the wrong people are paying for those bonuses.

Hans Rosling: 200 years of health and wealth in 4 minutes

Professor Hans Rosling waxes enthusiastic as he shows an animation of world health and wealth over the past two hundred years. It's an excellent video and he ends it on a very positive note. Perhaps you have to be African, though, to grieve over the fact that the back end of the continuum is almost entirely blue.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Crossing the language divide using online tools

I'd like to tell you a true story about something that happened to me quite recently.

We keep getting mail for the previous owners of our house. We have lived in this house for more than two and a half years, so mostly, it's just junk mail. But there's one rather serious-looking envelope that keeps arriving from Paris. It's addressed in French and indicates it contains official documents which require a signature. I think it has something to do with tax, but I'm not quite sure what gave me that impression.

I have repeatedly done a return to sender, but the documents keeps returning, each time with a more urgent looking message on the envelope. Last time, I wrote on the envelope in large letters: Mr Bloggs has not lived at this address for well over two years, please update your records.

The documents came back last week.

I was tempted to open them to find some contact details, when I noticed what appeared to be a phone number on the front of the envelope. Nothing ventured...

I used Google translate to find out how to say, "Is there anyone there who can speak English, please?" and practised it a few times.

When the phone was answered, I stumbled through "Est-ce qu'il ya quelqu'un qui parle anglais, s'il vous plaƮt?"

The lady told me that there was not.

Hmm. How was I going to explain my situation to her? I know enough French to say "Je ne parle pas francais, mais une moment, s'il vous plait..."

I typed into the translate box, "You keep sending me letters for Mr Bloggs." followed by "But he hasn't lived in this house for more than two years." I then used the 'listen' button to play this to her through my phone.

She figured out (more or less) what I was doing and spoke very slowly back to me in a combination of French and English. Eventually, we managed to establish that I no longer wanted Mr Bloggs's tax demands (or whatever they were), that I didn't have a forwarding address for him, and that she should stop sending his mail here.

It was clunky, but you know what? It worked. Now where's my flipping babelfish?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

If I were measured by the company I keep...

I am very blessed to include among my friends, some extraordinarily talented people. Two of them feature in this post.

The first is Jeremy (Jerm) Nell, a South African cartoonist of note. I have known him since he was just a boy, and have watched his talent blossom into something that has made people around the world sit up and take note.

Jeremy recently got married. And this is where the other half of today's equation comes in. Justin de Reuck is an exceptional photographer, and he did the photos for Jerm and Janel's wedding. Oh... and Jeremy would like to make it known that he was not crying in that photo of him first catching sight of his bride, 'kay? Yeah. Right.

Both of these men have the uncanny ability to see things in a way that others might miss, and then to draw that perspective to our attention. Jeremy casts a cynical eye over situations and lampoons them mercilessly in single frame political satire cartoons, then proves he has a whimsical side with his Biggish Five strip.

Justin sees potential in angles and lighting and goodness knows what all else and captures a fleeting moment. His photographs of his own family and friends are achingly beautiful, and his wedding photography is among the best I have ever seen.

Top ten tips, my eye!

Being in the job market has made me the target of many 'top ten tips' type articles and posts. Just do these five/seven/ten things, and you'll have a new job in no time. If you don't it must be because of something you're not doing.

As a few of us were saying on Twitter yesterday, this is more than just a little disingenuous. With unemployment figures soaring in many places, and some industries/sectors being harder hit than others, it only serves to make people feel even more like failures when they load their weapons with silver bullets... and still remain unemployed.

Signing up for automated searches on some of the larger sites automatically means that you receive their regular little homilies about what you need to do better. And, if you're serious about looking for work, you read them, and try to follow their advice, in the hopes that it will make a difference. But after you've tweaked your CV, and honed your cover-letter-writing skills, and tapped your network, and pro-actively approached the people you'd like to work for, etc. etc. What then?

If everybody follows the 5-steps to a standout CV, recruiters still wind up with a slew of CVs with none that stand out. Because, to quote Syndrome in the rather Rand-ian The Incredibles, "Everyone will be special, and then no one is."

The fact remains that there are many more job-seekers than jobs out there, and being over-qualified turns out to be just as much of a disadvantage as being under-qualified. And the job-seekers range from those looking for minimum wage, all the way up to those who have worked at C-level.

Let me share a personal perspective:

  • My CV has been professionally reviewed
  • I write (if I do say so myself) a pretty kick-ass covering letter
  • I have more than 20 years of experience in my field
  • I hold a Masters' degree
  • I'm not exactly a global mover and shaker, in terms of innovation but many of the global movers and shakers know my name and are on hug-terms with me (so perhaps I could be called part of the second wave)
Doesn't that sound pretty darned employable to you?

And I haven't been over-selective. I have applied for some fairly humble posts, which have offered the opportunity to make a real difference to an organisation. After all, I don't need to be rich. I only need to be able to meet my commitments. But I do need to be fulfilled at work. I am not a person who is prepared to do something I hate day in and day out in service of Mammon. I don't measure success in Sterling.

So let's just take a look at one of the jobs I've applied for. It's fairly local, and they're looking for an 'innovative L&D manager'.
You will support the business to drive performance through the effective design or management of the design, of learning solutions globally. In order to build their internal capability you will need to deliver learning solutions to help support their strategy and ensure methods and content utilised within design reflect leading edge practices and deliver the learning outcomes specified in the design brief.

The role requires a high level of competence in learning design and evaluation methodologies and in training delivery skills.You'll also have the ability to manage multiple projects concurrently and deliver on time and to quality and to manage and influence multiple stakeholders.
Anyone who actually knows me, would think I was a shoo-in for the role. But within 90 minutes of my application, I received an email telling me that they had received an unprecedented number of applications for this post, and several of them more closely matched the skills and experience required by the advertiser. Since my covering letter had taken their description and identified how I had every point covered, I didn't see how this was possible... and I emailed them to ask for feedback on these grounds. I respectfully requested that they give me guidance as to how I might better demonstrate, next time around, that my skill set and experience did in fact map across to what was advertised.

No response. Not a squeak.

And to make matters worse, that job continues to be advertised, week in and week out.

I have been advised by people who claim to know about these things, that some (many? most?) of the jobs advertised on the really big recruitment sites are bogus, and that this appears to be one of them. What they would stand to gain from such a practice?

And how do they have the temerity, in the light of these bogus posts on offer, to keep publishing these silver bullets that tell us that the onus is on us to do better?