The 30 Second MBA

I came across this interesting resource recently–The 30 second MBA.

It’s a venture of Fast Company Magazine.  Leaders and entrepreneurs from a variety of industries are asked to describe their approach to various leadership problems and topics in 30 seconds or less (ticking clock and all).  The site describes their mission like this:

The great lament of any reporter is what to do with the jewels that routinely get left on the cutting room floor after a really great interview. Enter the 30-Second MBA, an ongoing video “curriculum” of really good advice from the trenches, directly from people who are making business happen.

The “professors” providing this curriculum include the likes of Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) Alan Mulally (CEO, Ford), Padmasree Warrior (CTO, Cisco) Vivian Schiller (President, NPR) and a host of others.  They each take on topics and business problems such as leadership, teamwork, decision making, customer relationships, growth, communication, crisis management and more–all within the 30 second video format.

The site is interesting from a few perspectives.  You can take or leave the messages provided, but the site demonstrates a model that can easily be mimicked inside organizations for capturing and sharing knowledge.  The site also includes community features to discuss the perspectives from the business leaders and post post your own perspectives.  Knowledge captured like this can be used as informal learning assets to support a management development approaches like the one I described in my recent post Management Development Redux.  Learning assets like this are not the complete picture however, and should never be used as a replacement for a targeted management development program.   They should used as learning resources to support solving unique business challenges through discussion and reflection in action learning teams, communities of practice or other collaborative approaches.

Sites and management development services like this are popping up more frequently.  They’ll likely start to change the shape of management development inside organizations, both as suppliers of content for internal communities and simply as models for the direction internal management development might take.


Management Development Redux

My last few posts have been about management and leadership development.  In this post, I thought I would bring some of those ideas together in the form of a process or heuristic for a management development system built around defined business challenges, informal learning approaches with less reliance (or no reliance at all!) on classroom learning.

Here is an alternative management development process then…in just 5 easy steps!…built around authentic learning tasks and supported by informal learning assets and small team action learning sessions.

Step 1:  Define a management/leadership model suited to the organization

Too many senior leadership teams abdicate responsibility for defining coherent roles and expectations for their managers.  Instead, they “buy” a management model in the guise of a training program, rather than defining one consistent with their values, organization design and business goals.

HR and Training enthusiastically taking up the charge and end up buying management programs currently in vogue or that suits their personal vision of leadership.  Also many purchased management programs focus only on the “people” side of a manager’s role and ignore the many other important facets.  I’ve seen many management development programs that are completely at odds with the actual management culture of the organization.    Behavior and performance that gets rewarded and encouraged on the job is not what is taught in development programs.   Not good.

HR and Training have a role in helping the senior team craft a vision and approach for management but they should not be digging it out of the recesses of a commercial management program. Learning and training initiatives should support a coherent model of management not the other way around.  Of course, the model can and should be fluid. Adjustments should be welcome and encouraged as an organization learns and matures over time.

Step 2:  Develop an inventory of management scenarios and business challenges

Using the management model as a guide, create a series of realistic scenarios, cases,  and business challenges  (whatever your term of preference) that will be the core of your management development program.  We know the best management development is built around authentic problems, tasks and opportunities.  Managers also tell us it’s the way they prefer to learn.

Make it your mission to work directly with the managers of the business units you support to understand their day to day challenges, responsibilities, successes and best practices.  Use this inside knowledge to create a progression of challenges from simple to complex, perhaps based on the levels of management in your organization.    The inventory should be highly dynamic and constantly evolving as goals and objectives change.

Challenges can and should have focus on desired competencies and target all of the spheres of responsibilities managers have including business, functional, financial and human. Mangers themselves can start creating challenges and problems scenarios to add to the inventory.

Step 3:  Organize the business challenges into learning paths.

There are a variety of ways the business challenge scenarios could be organized.  By management level, by progression of challenge complexity, by competency or skill area, by management responsibility.   All of the above are possible using simple tagging tools.

The most important thing is to provide an organizing structure for managers to access and use the learning assets.  One of the early failings of social learning environments is the assumption that people will fully manage their own learning in personal learning environments.  Some may, but the majority prefer guidance and a few nudges along the way.

The learning paths are most useful for new managers.  More experienced managers will begin using the business challenges on an as needed basis, which is the way it should be.

Step 4:  Acquire and/or develop a series of learning resources and performance aids to support solving the business challenges

Using the business challenges and problems as a guide, purchase or develop learning assets that contain the key concepts, principles, practices and practices that will help managers solve the full range of business challenges in your inventory.  Use media appropriate to your audience and technical infrastructure including print, digital video, performance guides, e-learning, people (coaches/mentors), job assignments and others.  They are getting easier to find as learning content suppliers are starting to deconstruct their programs into smaller learning assets for use in social media environments.

They can be housed in your organization’s social media suite , Management Community of Practice,  Learning Management System (if you still have one), or in an old-school style learning centre.  Most importantly they must be connected directly to the business challenges managers will be assigned to solve as part of their development.

Learning assets should not be the exclusive purview of the learning function.  Social Learning has taught us that “user-generated” content is both powerful and motivating.  Get managers involved in contributing learning assets.

Learning assets will be used by managers individually and in action learning teams to research and discuss solutions to the business challenges from your inventory.  Assets can be organized into clusters or paths matched to the scenarios. The scenarios are the learning motivators.  The content is only the path to the solution.

Step 5. Assemble action learning teams

The learning assets can and should be used independently to solve the business challenges, but doing so exclusively misses the benefits of social learning.  We’ve learned that small teams of managers working together (face to face or virtually) to solve business challenges is a key success factor in management development.  Action learning has refined a robust approach to small group learning that incorporate the best of informal learning.  Other problem-based and case-based learning models also offer springboards to build management learning teams.  See the links here for a few examples).  I offered an approach using management communities of practice here.

Whichever approach is used the goal is for managers to share their experiences and perspectives together as they solve the business challenges.   Here here is a diagram of how management teams working together can use the business challenges and informal learning assists  to continuously develop.

How Managers Learn

For years we have dragged managers into training programs then do it again in a year or two to “renew” their skills or expose them to the “next  thing” sparked by the newest management trend.  But take the time to ask managers how they prefer to hone their skills, they invariably offer informal approaches like trial and error (experience), observing other managers, and sharing with trusted colleagues.  A couple of studies I like (one newer and one a little older) validate this informal approach to learning and provide some interesting models that can help shape approaches to management development.

What do Managers have to tell us about how they develop skills?

The first comes from Good Practice, an interesting informal learning service for managers and leaders.  Last year they commissioned a survey of hundreds of managers across a variety of industries on learning activities and their effectiveness.  The study, which you can download here, found that the most frequent and effective learning activity  is an informal chat with a colleague (82%) and that 55% of managers will use trail and error at least once a month.  Four primary conclusions are drawn from the study:

According to the study, the top 5 learning methods used by managers are the following (interesting how self-directed each of the strategies are).

  1. Informal chats with colleagues
  2. Search engines (internet resources)
  3. Trial and error
  4. On-the job instruction
  5. Use of professional literature

How managers develop core management competencies

An earlier study of over 200 managers in the Insurance industry got similar results but made the link to specific core management competencies. You can review it here.  Investigators (from the University of Connecticut) asked to what extent and in what ways managers learned core managerial skills through formal training and informal learning. Results found managers consistently reported learning twenty core managerial skills mostly from informal learning activities. The diagram below, from their study, shows a comparison of the number of managers reporting that they learned each specific managerial skill formally and informally.

Click for larger view

Drawing from these and other results from the study the authors offered, quite accurately I think, a model for how managers learn.

Click for larger view

In the model informal learning mechanisms include job experience (solving problems through action) watching other managers, and interaction with others.  These activities build tacit and explicit knowledge which, when regulated through goal setting and other meta-cognitive skills develops proficiency over time. Notice the role of formal training. Managers apply what is learned only if relevant to their job experience. This doesn’t negate the influence of formal training but again reinforces how job relevant it needs to be before you can expect any transfer.

The future of management development?

Managers have always learned through informal methods. The last thing we want to do is get in the way or start over-formalizing these successful “informal” approaches. Social Media offers an interesting platform for manager informal interaction (especially in the form of Communities of Practice) but managers are still warming up (or not) to on line networking.

I think informal management development needs some direction and shape from proven management practices from both inside and outside the organization.  And to keep the wheels of informal learning greased, action learning facilitation, useful performance support tools and access to on-demand informal learning assets are all a part of the mix.   Any strategies that provide managers with a forum and support to discuss and share their experience in the context of leading ideas and best practices will clearly be received well by managers.

Sparked by the recognition of untapped market for informal learning services, new vendor services are emerging that are likely the forefront of a shift in management development services.  Internal and external Communities of Practice like What Do You Want from Them are starting to emerge.  Traditional management development companies are re-purposing their content for more flexible delivery on line like Good Practice. And informal coaching services like Coaching Ourselves, driven by content from leading academic thinkers, are gaining real traction (see my  discussion of Coaching Ourselves here).  Formal management development isn’t going away (and shouldn’t), but shifting more of the load to informal learning may start to produce the business results long sought after by management development practitioners.

An Idea List: Using Web 2.0 for Management Development

At the session I described in my last post, table groups did a short brainstorming session on how web 2.0 tools could be used in a Management Community of Practice to facilitate learning.   Each table recorded their ideas and left them for me.  I promised the group I would post them here.  So here you are folks.

Communities of practice are dynamic social structures that require both initial design and ongoing cultivation so they can emerge and grow.  However, through a series of steps, learning professionals and community members can design a community environment, foster the formalization of the community, and plan activities to help grow and sustain the community. But ultimately, the members of the community will define and sustain it over time.

Here are most of the activities listed from the session.  Some are slightly edited for consistency or to merge with similar items to create a single list.

  • Solve specific problems in an operations environment. Organize, create communities of interest around subjects of common interest such as people management or quality management
  • On-line book/learning resources club, recommended resources
  • Train community leaders in on-line community leadership
  • Create subgroups for community members more literate in web 2.0 technologies
  • Virtual lunch and learns–Identify a topic–Facilitated discussion–follow-up discussion thread
  • Create mentoring communities to share documents and collaborate through social media
  • Create a group Wiki project to create new knowledge
  • Use Wiki to seed environment with core body of knowledge
  • Share knowledge of plant managers with a balance of structure and free discussion using forums
  • Managers can have scheduled time to answer questions and provided by peers in his or her area of expertise
  • Use discussion thread to solve specific problems
  • Reduce emails by using chat for knowledge sharing and discussion between a few people
  • Owner of a discussion board (some structure) to share experience and develop ability to reflect
  • Balance free form and moderation of activities and discussions
  • Structured review of stored conversations for themes and ideas to formalize as best practices.
  • Scheduled live Webcasts
  • Scheduled Case Study/scenario. Use live chat or discussion features a case study, problem or scenario
  • Question of the week (or month etc). A question or problem is posed. Community members provide guidance and ideas in discussion forum
  • Storyshare– Digital video or text storytelling
  • Glossary and Shared links.  Group creation of online links or bookmarks and resources for defined topics
  • Scheduled application of specific best practices with reflection and facilitated discussion to debrief.
  • Invited Guests
  • Have people go to Community after formal training events

Keep the list going.  Anyone have anything else to suggest?

Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World

Last week  I presented a session titled Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World at the CSTD 2010 National Symposium. Here is the description of the session from the conference program:

Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World

Developing effective leaders and managers is an increasingly important task for the learning function. Leadership development has been slow to adopt eLearning strategies but recent developments in web 2.0 technologies, along with changing perspectives on workplace learning are changing that. The social learning drivers behind learning 2.0 are a natural fit for the learning needs of managers and leaders and provide the learning function with an opportunity for real innovation in leadership development practices. This session will provide an overview of the key concepts, strategies and tools to help transform leadership development practices for the emerging learning 2.0 world.
Learning Outcomes:
  • Contrast current leadership development practices with learning 2.0 driven practices
  • Describe benefits of learning 2.0 for transforming leadership and management development
  • Describe a model of leadership development driven by learning 2.0 principles
  • Envision a future Leadership Development program for your organization on a by a learning 2.0 foundation
  • Define strategies for integrating learning 2.0 concepts into current leadership development programs

I promised the participants in my session that I would post the slides  on this blog.  Thank you all for attending!  You were a great audience.  Please leave a comment to say hello or post any thoughts you had on the session.

You can view the presentation below or download it directly by clicking this  link:  Leadership Development in Learning 2.0 World

Dan Pontefract was originally scheduled to present with me but he was not able to make it.   For those of you interested in in Dan’s very active and always interesting blog Training Wreck you can find it here.

Conference attendees braved the snow (yes, snow!) in Calgary to participate in some very interesting sessions.   As always, it was a pleasure to connect with old colleagues and meet many new people with interesting perspectives on the profession.  Thanks to the CSTD organizing team!

Instructional Design: Science, Art and Craft

I’ve been reading some Henry Mintzberg recently.  His books–Managing and Managers Not MBA’s–both question prevailing thinking on management and leadership and present alternatives for effective management practice and development.  Both books include a model of management as a balancing act between science, art and craft. His argument is that effective management requires all three and an overemphasis on any one results in dysfunction.

I think it also offers some insight to effective Instructional Design.  Much of the recent debate regarding Instructional Design models and practice (see my own view here) seem to revolve around the prescriptive, process based models of ADDIE (and like models) versus  more open constructivist approaches, presumably more relevant for our networked and collaborative work environments.   The arguments tend to get unnecessarily polarized.  The following table is adapted from a similar one Mintzberg created for defined management styles.  I believe it works equally well for for Instructional Design practice.

Most graduate programs in Instructional Design and Educational Technology are squarely in the science column (psychology, human learning, and systems design).  New graduates emerge with a scientific bent seeking order, precise applications and and predictable results from their models and approaches refined in the scientific tradition. We quickly (or perhaps not so quickly) learn from experience (craft) what really works and what doesn’t, and also  that often unexpected creative ideas and insights improves our solutions (art).  Clearly, effective design of learning experiences requires all three.

The diagram below, again adapted from Mintzberg,  shows how these three approaches to learning design might interact and the potential consequences of relying on any one dominant style.  We have all seen examples at the extreme end of each style.   Bringing only an artistic design style to a project may result in a truly novel, creative or  visually stunning result that wows and inspires but does not teach.   Relying on proven learning science often results in dry, uninspired or demotivating instruction that may result in learning, but can be mind-numbing.  Craft, uninformed by art or science, and often from untrained instructional designers working from common sense rarely ventures beyond personal experience, with hit and miss results at best.

Combination of the approaches can also be less than optimal for producing effective learning experiences.  Art and craft together without the systematic analysis of science can lead to disorganized learning designs.  Craft and science without the creative vision of art can lead to dispirited design, careful and connected but lacking flare.  Learning design based on art with science is creative and systematic, but without the experience of craft can produce, impersonal and disconnected learning.

Effective learning designs then,  happen most when that elusive combination of art, science and craft come together. Where the three approaches coexist, through a skillfully assembled learning team the result is usually effective, motivational learning grounded in the realities of the organization.  I suppose a tilt toward one or two would make sense for certain subjects, skills or audiences.   For management,  Mintzberg says too much balance of the three may also be dysfunctional since it lacks any distinctive style at all!  Perhaps, a good lesson for instructional design as well.

CSTD/IFTDO Conference Presentations

This year the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) and the International Federation of Training and Development Organisations (IFTDO) are combining for a single conference event in Toronto that I’m looking forward to, both as a participant and presenter. Here are some highlights and the dates for my own presentations. I hope some of you can make it!

Tuesday (Oct 19) is dedicated to “Research into Practice”, a topic near and dear to me. All presentations  on Tuesday are based on the theme. Allison Rosset will discuss the importance of research in guiding instructional practice, Harold Stolovich on performance improvement research, Traci Sitzmann on e-learning research and Christine Wihak on what we research tells us about informal learning.

I will be presenting a Trading Post session on Tuesday at 2:00 pm titled Getting Informal: Merging learning and Work through Informal Learning (Here is the handout).  It’s based on many of the concepts I have presented in this blog, particularly Leveraging the Full Learning Continuum and the 10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.

A Thought Leaders series begins on Wednesday which will include sessions by Marc Rosenberg (on Learning 2.0), Patti Shank (on common errors in learning design) and Bob Morton (on change management). My new employer (Nexient Learning) is also presenting a case study with Deliotte on Managerial Effectiveness that I’m looking forward to.

I will be presenting on a Learning Technology Thought Leaders panel session on Thursday (20th) titled: Enterprise Solutions, Managing the Training Function. I’ll be on the panel with Harold Jarche, Sheryl Herle, Sheri Philips and Gary Woodill (from the Brandon Hall team) We will thrash around the pros and cons of Learning Management Systems. The session is moderated by Saul Carliner from Concordia University. No lack of opinion in that group! Should be interesting.

Thursday also includes a keynote by Peter Senge whose work I admire and have posted on in the past.

If you happen to be there please stop by one of my sessions and say hello.

Deliberate Practice, Learning and Expertise

I’m back from some vacation where I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on the beach at our cottage (along with some very funny David Sedaris).

Even if you haven’t read Outliers yet you probably know that it sets out to dispel myths that intelligence or innate ability are the primary predictors of success.  Instead,  Gladwell summarizes research and provides examples to show that it is hours and hours of practice (10,000 to be exact) and a “practical intelligence” (similar in concept to emotional intelligence) acquired through experience that are the real determinants of success.

Gladwell covers similar territory (and draws on the same research) as Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates world Class Performers from Everybody Else, another excellent book that elaborates on an article Colvin wrote for Fortune magazine a few years ago: “What it Takes To Be Great”.

Both books debunk the assumption that “gifted” skill and great performance comes from innate talent, personal traits or hard wired competencies and ability.  The research Galdwell and Colvin draw on is impressive.  Both point to the extensive work of K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University.  Ericsson has conducted years of rock solid research on the role of “deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.  If you like to seek out source research as I do, then you’ll enjoy Ericsson’s (and others) impressive work that has been collected in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Here is an earlier (and less hefty) review on some of the same research: “Deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.

At the core of these works is the concept of “deliberate practice” over longs periods of time (up to ten years).  While impossible to boil down the theory into a few points, here it is…uh…boiled down into a few points.   Highly skilled performance in all aspects of life and work can be developed by the rough equivalent of 10,000  hours (10 years or so) of increasing specific, targeted and mindful practice in a domain of expertise. The practice must be:

  • Specific & technique-oriented
  • Self regulated
  • Involve high-repetition
  • Paired with immediate feedback on results
  • Isn’t necessarily “fun”, (in fact can be grueling hard work)

“Deliberate practice is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
From: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else .

Where Gladwell and Colvin focus on how an individual (you!) can use deliberate practice to improve and achieve the success you want,  Learning Professionals should be thinking about how to use the ideas to help others develop and grow the expertise needed by the organizations we support.  Ericsson has something to say here as well, having recently published a new book on how to design learning environments to develop and measure expertise– Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments.  In a time when learning/instructional design has become generalized and de-professionalized to the point of non-existence, it’s refreshing to see a serious treatment that moves the profession forward.

Using “Deliberate Practice” to Improve Workplace Performance

Here are 10 ideas that just scratch the surface on how Learning Professionals can use “deliberate practice” to improve workplace skill and performance.

  1. Move from “mastery learning” to designing practice with feedback over longer periods of time (from learning events to a learning process). Deliberate Practice differs from the concept of ‘Mastery Learning” at the heart of much instructional design.  Mastery learning assumes a skill is perfected (or at least brought to a defined standard) in a fairly short period of time often within the scope of a single course. The complex professional skills of modern knowledge workers and managers demand a stronger focus on long term practice and feedback and building learning around long term objectives.
  2. Develop the person. Time, practice and individualized feedback imply a long term focus on individuals rather than on jobs or roles.
  3. Informal learning efforts like action learning, coaching and are cognitive apprenticeships are critical but they must be focused on practice and immediate feedback and extend over long periods of time.
  4. Relevant, frequent and varied practice must be the dominant and most important element in all formal training programs.
  5. Practice opportunities must extend far beyond initial training programs, to allow people to hone their skills through experimentation with immediate feedback.
  6. Create practice sandboxes and simulation centres for key organizational skills where people can practice their skills and experience immediate feedback in safe environment.
  7. Design visual feedback directly into jobs so professional can immediately see the results of their work.  In this way working IS deliberate practice.
  8. Turn training events into the first step of a learning journey that will continue to provide opportunities to practice and refine skills throughout a career.
  9. Identify the interests and strengths of people nurture them through opportunities for deliberate practice. Provide resources and support that encourage early effort and achievement.
  10. Ensure social media environments provide opportunities for coaching and mindful reflection on performance.

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 4)

This is the fourth post in the 10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Organizational Learning Practices (Strategy #8) offers opportunities to build learning into day to day work.  The methods can help individuals, teams and entire organizations surface and understand patterns of behaviour that lead to sub par performance and to adopt more positive patterns to improve personal and organizational effectiveness


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a Community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action Learning
8. Organizational Learning practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

8. Organizational Learning Practices

Organizational Learning (OL) means different things to different people.  These days, it is often used as a catch-all label for traditional (formal) training which it most certainly is not.  OL is broader than that label implies.  It is usually focused on individual and team transformation through participating in tangible activities that change the way people conduct their work.   It builds new capacities in individuals and teams that collectively begin to shape the culture and performance of an organization.

Peter Senge in his groundbreaking book The Fifth Discipline defined his view of what those new capacities should be and in doing so launched the Organizational Learning movement.   The Fifth Discipline contains a collection of practices from system dynamics, organizational development and psychology that Senge organized into a cohesive whole structured around “five disciplines of organization learning”.

OL practices have grown and evolved beyond Senge’s framework but his still remains the most cohesive.  This post lists his five “disciplines” along with some guidelines for the learning professional to help their clients achieve them.  It’s important to remember that each of the five disciplines listed are considered a “lifelong body of study and practice” so none are meant to produce immediate impact,  but rather continuously move towards understanding and behaviour change that collectively shapes the organization.   Also, the sample exercises I list below are not self explanatory.  They are mostly drawn from “The Fifth Discipline FieldBook”, a great source for activities that ground the often esoteric ideas in the Fifth Discipline.  See that source for further details.

Personal Mastery

Personal Mastery, the first of the five disciplines is effectively the skills of personal effectiveness–defining and accomplishing personal vision.

Learning professionals and facilitators can guide individuals through the process of identifying and clarifying a personal vision, realistically assessing it against the current state, and help individuals to understand and manage the creative tension between the two.  The goal is to help people make better choices, and to achieve more of the results that they have chosen.

Sample exercises:

  • Drawing Forth Personal Vision: An exercise to surface, define and clarify individual purpose and goals.
  • Cycling Back: Current Reality and Revisions: An exercise to continuously define, monitor and act on barriers to achieving the vision.

Mental Models

Mental Models are ingrained assumptions and ways of thinking held by individuals and organizations.  Adjusting mental models can lead to breakthroughs in personal and organizational performance.  Learning professionals can help their clients improve how they govern their actions and decisions through the skills of reflection and inquiry and develop an heightened awareness of the attitudes and perceptions that influence thought and interaction.

Sample exercises:

  • The Left Hand Column: An exercise developed by Chris Argyris in which individuals record “what they were thinking” vs. “what was said” during important conversations.  Analysis of the result helps to surface and confront existing attitudes and assumptions (mental models).
  • The Wheel of Multiple Perspectives: Rotating roles to widen a team’s perspective and see issues from as many vantage points as possible.

Shared Vision

This is the practice of collective vision and mutual purpose vs. the individual vision of personal mastery. Management and professional networks can be guided through activities to create a common vision of the future they wish to create and the methods and means they that will most effectively get them there. In doing so meaning is created and relationships strengthened.

Sample exercises:

  • What Do We Want to Create?: Guide your team through a series of structured questions that bring pertinent issues to the forefront and results results phrases, ideas and governing ideas around which a vision can be built.
  • Backing Into a Vision: A great exercise for surfacing common goals without taking on a full fledged visioning process.

Team Learning

The skilled practice of group interaction and collaboration.  Through techniques like dialogue and skillful discussion, teams modify their problem solving, collaboration and interaction to produce results that are greater than the sum of individual members.  Team Learning is not team building although a more cohesive team is usually a result.  Instead as a facilitator you want to focus on improved dialogue and team discussion skills.

Sample exercises:

  • Fishbowl: To get immediate feedback on communication styles. Half the team discusses and issue while the other half watches and provides constructive feedback.
  • Undiscussables: A card game in which people can anonymously raise questions that never get raised.

Systems Thinking

System Thinking is “the fifth discipline” and it is my personal favorite.  Over the years I have found many ways to use systems thinking to help clients and understand my own work practices.   The systems perspective is a powerful conceptual framework that allows teams to understand deep inter-dependencies and forces that shape the consequences of actions. Tools and techniques such as systems archetypes, feedback loops, and various types of learning simulations help people see how to change systems more effectively.

Senge’s view of systems is more about surfacing predictable patterns and outcomes of human behaviour and decisions as contrasted with the (equally powerful) view of organizations as systems that process inputs to valued customer outputs.   Senges “systems archetypes” help teams understand their problems in system dynamics terms and “see” the underlying patterns that are causing their problems.

Sample Activities:

click to view

Shifting the Burden Archetype: click to view

  • Organization and Process Mapping: Documenting and analyzing an organization as a system to identify disconnects and problems and to re-design for improved effectiveness
  • Problems as System Archetypes: Help clients examine problem situation in terms of typical combinations of feedback (reinforcing and balancing).
  • Breaking Through Organizational Gridlock: A seven step systems exercise based on Senge’s “shifting the burden” archetype

Organizational Learning Technology

Some learning technology solutions have emerged that support the Organizational Learning methods described above.  The most interesting are the use of the system archetypes to develop management simulations.

  • Decision Support Systems based on system archetypes
  • Generic management learning simulators to help managers understand the underlying system archetypes.  For example the beer game is a role-play supply chain simulation that lets learners experience typical supply chain problems based on systems theory principles.
  • Software to support system modeling of organizational behaviour and dynamics.  For example STELLA, iThink and Powersim
  • See this example for how simulations based on organizational system dynamics can be used for management training

There is room for much more work in the use of system modeling for training and learning purposes.


Organization Learning (like organizational development) has been considered a sister profession to Learning and Performance.   I’ve seen some situations where the units compete and as a result sub-optimize their services to the organization.  As Learning and Performance begins to adopt more informal and non-formal learning solutions there is much to learn from organizational learning and development and the potential for overlap increases.   I think it makes sense to consider a combined business unit that provides service in the full range performance improvement solutions.

Learn more:

Society for Organizational Learning

Peter Senge and the Learning Organization

Learning for a Change: Fast Company Magazine interview with Peter Senge

The Learning Organization

Peter Senge will be a Keynote presenter at the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) annual conference this year in October (in Toronto).  See here for conference details

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 3)

This post continues the Ten Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Last post I discussed communities of practice and social media, two strategies focused on collaboration and networks where learning and knowledge are a natural byproduct.  This post shifts focus to how structured problem solving and Action Learning approaches can intimately wed learning with working.   I’ll discuss strategies 6 and 7 from the list.  Each uses problems and work tasks as the subject matter for learning, reflection and behaviour change.


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action learning
8. Organizational learning Tools
9. Design Jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

6. Implement a Continuous Improvement Framework

Continuous Improvement Frameworks seem to come and go in waves  (TQM, Six-Sigma, Lean, process re-design and others).  There are many reasons why these programs endure or fail that are beyond discussion in this post but when they succeed natural learning is a key outcome and success factor.

Continuous Improvement methods (at least those originating in Japan…and most do) are based on the concept of Kaizen.   Kaizen is essentially the discipline of making planned changes to work methods, observing the results, making adjustments and standardizing on the improvements–repeated continuously in a pursuit minimizing errors and improving quality.   When applied to the improvement of work methods it mixes personal learning, productivity and innovation.

Kaizen methodology includes making changes, observing results, then adjusting and standardizing the improvements.  Changing, reflecting on feedback, adjusting behaviour…this is the stuff of personal learning.  When applied to work methods it mixes personal and work based learning to the benefit of both.

Brian Joiner in Fourth Generation Management (an excellent resource on management practices grounded in continuous improvement) identifies learning as both a foundation and important outcome of continuous improvement methods.  He states:

Together with an understanding of the links between quality and productivity and of systems thinking, rapid learning [through continuous improvement] helps to create a foundation for translating theory into effective action.  Rapid Learning is the best survival skill we can grow in our organizations”

Kaizen is essentially the Scientific Method  built into jobs and workflow.  W. Edwards Deming translated the method to the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle that is at the heart of the Toyota system and most Quality approaches since the 1950’s .

The PDCA cycle is as much a natural learning cycle as it is a work improvement methodology.  But it is the “check” step that is the real driver of learning.  It requires a meaningful measurement and feedback system.  Without it improvement is nearly impossible.

Joiner again:

“Performing a check is something few organizations do regularly or well. Instead they execute the plan and do…with an emphasis on DO!…what many people think of as decision making.  By getting conscientious about check, by treating decisions as experiments from which we must learn, we get all the components of PDCA to fall into place.”

Here is a video which I’ve posted before that nicely summarizes the natural learning driven by Kaizen methods.   The presenter Matthew May was a senior consultant to the university of Toyota and his this presentation is based on his book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.

7. Use Action Learning for management and professional development

Action Learning is essentially the PDCA cycle applied to personal effectiveness.   Personal Kaizen if you will.  It involves teams or individuals learning from experience.   Again the emphasis is on observing results from action and making adjustments.  Action learning is very popular in the UK and is growing in North America for management and professional teams that want to use real work as vehicles to learn more effective practcies.

The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1. A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again.  Action learning works because it integrates learning and work.  It brings immediate meaning and context learning while improving real time performance.

  • Solve Complex Urgent Problems
  • Develop Skilled Leaders
  • Quickly build high performance teams
  • Transform Corporate Culture
  • Create Learning Organizations

This video provides an overview and some examples of Action Learning at work.


The strategies of Continuous Improvement and Action learning are two sides of the same coin.  Both are based on the natural cycle of acting, observing and reflecting on feedback and adjusting behaviour based on results.  Continuous improvement is focused on improving process and work methods with learning as a byproduct and Action learning is focused on personal learning with business improvement as a byproduct.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning