“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University


5 Gifts For The HR Department

Human Resources is uniquely qualified to help spread a practice that’s good for the firm and all the individuals in it. That practice is working out loud, which has been called “a required skill for today’s digital workforce.” In a recent interview on Forbes.com titled “Working Out Loud: Better for you, Better for the firm.” I described some of the benefits that come from forming Working Out Loud circles and spreading the practice across the firm.

With the support of HR, circles can spread faster and realize even more benefits. Here’s how.

I Heart HR

I Heart HR

A free, self-organizing personal development program

Every firm wants employees who can work across silos to get things done. Instead of one-off networking events, Working Out Loud circles help people develop the habit of sharing knowledge and making purposeful connections, all while improving their digital-readiness.

Several firms around the world are organically spreading circles based on the free circle guides and other resources. HR can reach more people by making Working Out Loud one of their offerings in Learning & Development.

A different kind of talent program

As more employees work out loud, more of their work is visible along with public feedback on it. Think of it as part of the best 360-degree performance review process you could devise, complete with authentic contributions and genuine feedback throughout the year.

Working Out Loud complements HR’s existing talent management programs. It helps leaders develop the skills they need to engage and influence their organization, and makes it easier for people at any level to become more effective by teaching them how to better leverage knowledge and connections across the firm.

Peer-to-peer learning 

Most Learning & Development organizations understand that the best learning doesn’t come from a course catalog or a classroom, but from experts already in the firm. Yet how many employees have the habit of offering expertise as a contribution? Or even asking questions to a broad online audience to discover on knowledge?

Google's head of HR, Laszlo Bock, writes about building a learning organization in his excellent book, Work Rules! and he makes a case that your firm's best teachers "are sitting right next to you." By facilitating the spread of Working Out Loud circles, HR can help employees develop the habit of sharing their knowledge, making it visible, and enabling others to build on it.

A way to increase employee engagement

We’ve all have heard that most employees don’t feel engaged at work, but what can HR do about it?

Working Out Loud circles are designed to tap into an individual’s intrinsic motivations: autonomy, mastery, and purpose or sense of relatedness. It’s why the book’s subtitle is “For a Better Career and Life.” As you build your network in a circle, you have a greater sense of control, including better access to learning and to opportunities. The process builds your connections to people in your circle and then to people in your growing network. Over your 12 weeks in a circle, the process helps you feel more connected to the firm and to people in it.

A better culture

Like employee engagement, corporate culture can be wrapped up in a formal program and monitored with a few questions on the annual employee survey, but it’s too much to ask HR to change it.

Culture is the result of the collective actions of people in the firm. A few hundred people working out loud - working in an open, generous, connected way - can make a difference. A few thousand people working that way can transform an organization.

A gift for your own HR department

It’s not easy being in Human Resources. Often, they’re caught between managers who want them to optimize resources and individuals who need them to make the firm a more humane place.

If you know someone in HR, send this post to them. You can make their job easier - and make their firm better - by helping them understand Working Out Loud and the ways it can complement what they already do.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's CubeWork, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Work, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

The joy - and commercial value - of social learning

How do we get better at what we do? Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen taught other craftsmen. There were guilds and apprenticeships - a community and a structure based on the craft. That helped people to develop their skills and become experts.

But today, how do private bankers become better private bankers? Or client service reps become better reps? Or IT developers become better developers?

We’ve lost touch with the simple idea of social learning. In our overly mechanical view of the firm, we’ve made learning a department.

Today, all the knowledge workers in our firms - “our most important asset” - get a standard orientation and some courses from a catalog. Then they’re largely set adrift. “If you have any questions, ask your manager.”

There’s a better way.

Communities of Practice

Books by Etienne Wenger inspired us to implement communities of practice at our firm. (If you want to learn how to build, grow, and sustain such communities, read this. If you want more about the theory of social learning, including a beautifully-written, in-depth example, read this.)

We started by creating role-based communities - people who do similar work organized to learn and measurably improve how they perform that work. And we slowly figured out how to balance structure, incentives, and other factors so both the members and the firm got value.

These communities, now with thousands of members, are becoming a standard way to learn across more and more of the firm.

But we have a long way to go before we master the art of community, and we needed help.

2 days with Etienne Wenger + Bev Trayner

At a conference last year, I talked with community strategist Lauren Klein who recommended I work with Etienne and Bev. That led to a 2-day workshop in London this past week.

I was expecting an academic discourse on social learning and maybe a few high-level ideas. But we got so much more.

After they reviewed everything we’d done and hoped to do, Etienne and Bev worked closely with our community managers, gave us dozens of specific adjustments to make, and slogged through detailed planning sessions with our entire team.

In a few days, we had a multi-year plan that will help us broaden what we do while accelerating how we realize the benefits.

The commercial value of social learning

Throughout the workshop, we spent a lot of time on how to measure the value of our communities. We know the individual members benefit by learning. And by shaping their reputation in a public way that can unlock access to opportunities.

That's important. But it’s measurable commercial value for the firm that's the key to making these communities sustainable in an enterprise.

Etienne told a story about the “blue book” at Shell - a systematic way of collecting value stories. In one area, the thing everyone wanted to avoid was drilling a well that didn’t produce oil. A dry well could cost the firm $20 million. Their systematic review showed that, even with very conservative accounting, Shell's communities avoided 6 dry wells each year.

$120 million saved by taking a social approach to learning. Now that’s value.

What’s your “dry well”?

The very next day, I spoke to some investment bankers. After giving them my elevator pitch about our collaboration platform, we talked mostly about how client service teams could be more effective.

“Great.” I said. “But what’s the value of that?”

There was an awkward pause.

Then I told them the Shell story. “What’s your dry well”? I asked.

“Oh,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “It’s cross-selling.”

Of course. For decades, large financial firms have tried to connect their people and products so they could add more value for existing clients. Most firms already have systems to track such opportunities, usually involving a virtual currency and some specialist roles. But they all know there’s much more they can do.

Now, armed with insights about social learning and communities, we think we can readily discover more opportunities. In just a few minutes talking with the bankers, we came up with 4 new ideas we want to pursue.

How much is it worth?

Etienne and Bev are such smart, lovely people, that we started a friendship as well as a plan to work together more, including participating in their fantastic retreats in California.

They taught us how to improve and extend our communities of practice. And they taught us how we could apply their social learning concepts more broadly, giving us an extremely valuable new lens to look at old problems like cross-selling.

How many more deals will we do? How much more value will a social approach to learning realize for our customers and our firm?

We’re going to find out.

The joy - and commercial value - of social learning

How do we get better at what we do? Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen taught other craftsmen. There were guilds and apprenticeships - a community and a structure based on the craft. That helped people to develop their skills and become experts.

But today, how do private bankers become better private bankers? Or client service reps become better reps? Or IT developers become better developers?

We’ve lost touch with the simple idea of social learning. In our overly mechanical view of the firm, we’ve made learning a department.

Today, all the knowledge workers in our firms - “our most important asset” - get a standard orientation and some courses from a catalog. Then they’re largely set adrift. “If you have any questions, ask your manager.”

There’s a better way.

Communities of Practice

Books by Etienne Wenger inspired us to implement communities of practice at our firm. (If you want to learn how to build, grow, and sustain such communities, read this. If you want more about the theory of social learning, including a beautifully-written, in-depth example, read this.)

We started by creating role-based communities - people who do similar work organized to learn and measurably improve how they perform that work. And we slowly figured out how to balance structure, incentives, and other factors so both the members and the firm got value.

These communities, now with thousands of members, are becoming a standard way to learn across more and more of the firm.

But we have a long way to go before we master the art of community, and we needed help.

2 days with Etienne Wenger + Bev Trayner

At a conference last year, I talked with community strategist Lauren Klein who recommended I work with Etienne and Bev. That led to a 2-day workshop in London this past week.

I was expecting an academic discourse on social learning and maybe a few high-level ideas. But we got so much more.

After they reviewed everything we’d done and hoped to do, Etienne and Bev worked closely with our community managers, gave us dozens of specific adjustments to make, and slogged through detailed planning sessions with our entire team.

In a few days, we had a multi-year plan that will help us broaden what we do while accelerating how we realize the benefits.

The commercial value of social learning

Throughout the workshop, we spent a lot of time on how to measure the value of our communities. We know the individual members benefit by learning. And by shaping their reputation in a public way that can unlock access to opportunities.

That's important. But it’s measurable commercial value for the firm that's the key to making these communities sustainable in an enterprise.

Etienne told a story about the “blue book” at Shell - a systematic way of collecting value stories. In one area, the thing everyone wanted to avoid was drilling a well that didn’t produce oil. A dry well could cost the firm $20 million. Their systematic review showed that, even with very conservative accounting, Shell's communities avoided 6 dry wells each year.

$120 million saved by taking a social approach to learning. Now that’s value.

What’s your “dry well”?

The very next day, I spoke to some investment bankers. After giving them my elevator pitch about our collaboration platform, we talked mostly about how client service teams could be more effective.

“Great.” I said. “But what’s the value of that?”

There was an awkward pause.

Then I told them the Shell story. “What’s your dry well”? I asked.

“Oh,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “It’s cross-selling.”

Of course. For decades, large financial firms have tried to connect their people and products so they could add more value for existing clients. Most firms already have systems to track such opportunities, usually involving a virtual currency and some specialist roles. But they all know there’s much more they can do.

Now, armed with insights about social learning and communities, we think we can readily discover more opportunities. In just a few minutes talking with the bankers, we came up with 4 new ideas we want to pursue.

How much is it worth?

Etienne and Bev are such smart, lovely people, that we started a friendship as well as a plan to work together more, including participating in their fantastic retreats in California.

They taught us how to improve and extend our communities of practice. And they taught us how we could apply their social learning concepts more broadly, giving us an extremely valuable new lens to look at old problems like cross-selling.

How many more deals will we do? How much more value will a social approach to learning realize for our customers and our firm?

We’re going to find out.