Archive for the 'Coaching' Category

That 20% (What you can do if you don’t get it or give it)

Forward thinking and moving companies usually give their employees actual time to think, learn and innovate. In companies that foster a culture of innovation, this isn’t just some imaginary time-allowance that gets built into the employees’ unpaid overtime, it’s actually built into their schedule. This time cannot impede upon employee’s productivity, but savvy leaders and managers know that innovative and creative employees need time and tools to develop, learn and investigate the answers to problems that interest them.

Google encourages their employees to use a percentage of their time to solve problems or develop products that pique their interest or that they feel a genuine need for. Many of these tinkering efforts resulted in some of the signature products that Google is known for today such as Gmail, Google News and Adsense to name a few. In fact, the company estimates that at least 50% of Google’s products are a direct result of this “20% time.”

Unfortunately, not all companies can aspire to be Google, but with help and guidance management and employees can create their own culture of learning for innovation’s sake. There are at least five things they can do to foster this in their own organizations.

  1. Make learning a part of the professional development process
  2. Give employees easy access to learning resources
  3. Call out life-long learning as part of the company’s charter
  4. Model life-long learning
  5. Reward employees who demonstrate the behaviors of life-long learning

1. Make learning part of the professional development process:

Some workplaces actually allow employees to identify areas of interest for professional development in their own yearly development plans. For many employees with heavy workloads, it’s difficult to find the time they need to explore these interests unless they can be directly applied to their work.

Managers can help their employees develop their business plans by helping them identify their professional interests and working with them to integrate these interests in both their current work plan as well as helping them finding opportunities to apply their interests to efforts that may help current business goals.

2. Give employees easy access to learning resources:

Management can also provide ready access to learning tools and resources. Not just internal documentation and training, but content that is available from external resources. Some examples include:

Skillsoft Books 24×7

For the self-directed learner Skillsoft Books 24×7 presents a virtual treasure trove. This collection has books and periodicals for management, IT professionals and other job areas. Employees can learn just about everything from programming in Ajax to applying the principles from the Book of Five Rings into their work practices. Their company or organization has to pay for the subscriptions, but even if one paid the $459.00 out of pocket, access to this collection is like being able to take almost any book out of Powells, Barnes and Noble and Amazon at any time.

At $25.00 a month for a subscription to a huge library of online tutorials complete with demonstration/simulations. You have to pay a larger premium subscription rate to have access to the development files for say a Flash course. Though arguably you can learn just as much by creating the development files on your own.

3. Call out life-long learning as part of the company’s charter:

Peter Senge, author of The Learning Organization, coined the term life-long learner. According to Senge the life-long learner spends their entire life acquiring skills and knowledge. Senge also maintained that organizations can embody life-long learning in their culture and practices.

An organization can write the goal of establishing a culture of life-long learning into their own mission. This goal can be embodied both explicitly and implicitly in the company values, but the company or group needs to define a list of examples of behaviors and accomplishments that demonstrate the achievement of this goal.

4. Model life-long learning:

Leaders of an organization need to be the first to model this behavior of constant learning. Demonstration of their efforts can be presented to their employees both subtly and directly in their communications. They can provide examples in sharing their own professional development goals with their employees in addition to explaining what they wish to achieve with these goals both personally and professionally.

5. Reward employees who demonstrate the behaviors of life-long learning:

Sharing one’s own aspirations for professional development may provide an example and possibly inspire employees to take up the cause of learning on their own. However, calling out an employee’s success in implementing their own learning can provide positive reinforcement for the behavior. Management can be coached to give this feedback by giving positive feedback to their employees when they see it developed.

They can also recognize employees who exhibit the behavior in staff meetings or perhaps even designate specific awards for employees who demonstrate life-long learning. Here’s an example of one such employee:

Jeanie, a web developer in the IT department, expressed an interest in learning more about usability testing. Jeanie took it upon herself to review books and articles from the company online library. She also took some time to take advantage of external sources from the web including community forums on usability.  Jeanie then created a proposal for implementing usability tests throughout different parts of the the web development process. With her management’s approval she was able to implement a simple paper prototype test as well as a formal usability assessment.  Her testing efforts and knowledge gained resulted not only in a more efficient and pleasing user experience for customers, but also the start of a testing process that was later implemented by other staff on the web development team. Jeanie’s manager recognized her learning efforts in a staff meeting by presenting her with a “Life-Long Learner” award and a $50 gift certificate to a local bookstore.

While it may be difficult to adopt the Google 20% practice, organizations and companies can still take steps to build learning for innovation into their culture and practices. Not all employers are ready to adopt Google’s 20% rule. Their company culture may not be ready for such a shift, or they simply many not be able to readily adjust their business process and goals to accommodate spending this much time to what they consider research and development. Perhaps Google’s other secret to success is that they seem to be skilled at hiring people who are inquisitive, life-long learners, and natural experimenters.  These are people who take to using the 20% time to explore and discover the same way a duck takes to water.

Brrrr-ainstorming online learning activities

I have a little bit of time to think about generating as many ideas for online learning activities. This list of course is not exhaustive, and I will probably benefit from the contributions of colleagues, at work and not at work.

Click to view larger image.

I’m trying to keep these activity ideas simple and as ‘familiar’ as possible. Not all stakeholders are open to newer forms of learning online. Whenever introducing a strange or unfamiliar tool or technique (for example: using synchronous chat or Twitter to facilitate discussion)  I try to pair it with a similar or analogous term use for traditional or face to face training.

In my past experience, I found that designing learning opportunities is only the first part of good online learning design. Facilitator preparation and training is the next key piece to achieving success. In my last position I was fortunate enough to work with a crack team of Instructional Designers who worked hard not just to create the training materials, LMS (Learning Management System) simulations, and activities to prep our facilitators by helping them adjust to the ‘culture’ of working online.

Last week I was able to quickly develop a slide set that covers my take on successful online facilitators based on what I’ve learned from my experience. You will have to download the presentation via Slideshare to view my notes.

Can your Workplace Adopt/Embrace the Informal Learning Concept?

Many, many moons ago I wrote a post on Knowledge Management Systems that illustrated Marc Rosenberg’s KM model. This model depicts an organization that has a truly integrated system of sharing knowledge that includes formal training and an ongoing mentoring system for it’s employees. This model includes use of social media to connect employees.  Since I wrote this post, the use of social media online for both connecting and learning has exploded. Many more company executives (though not as many as there could be) are now schooled on the finer points of using social media as promotional vehicles as well as within the organization to enhance employee learning and knowledge.

Recently, On his blog, Jay Cross presented an adapted version of Jane Hart’s 5-Stage Model of the Evolution of Workplace Learning.

Here’s the visual that illustrates this.

From (Jay Cross)

As Cross points out in his post, the more familiar your workers are with online networking tools and media,  the more they can readily use social networking support to improve their learning and skills.   You need to be able to assess where your audience of learners skill lies in the following areas: Web/Tech Expertise and Social Networking Familiarity.

From (Jay Cross)

Going back to the “5 Stages” illustration shown above, the newbies or novices to the workplace, culture, organization, or system would be FIRST guided to the LMS where formal learning can take place (your essentials such as terms of service, legal information, safety, organization mission, organizational structure, job skills, compliance training, etc.). If you need to track learning in a blended model (both face to face and online), you can use the LMS to keep track of who’s completed what training as they come into your workplace or program.

In the grand old days when most training was done in face to face sessions complete with massive binders and glossy handouts, training really only took place at the beginning and employees or trainees were expected to absorb what they could from the training. If they couldn’t remember everything that was okay because they had their gigantic binders as a print reference.  This system works when the nature of the work can be completely documented in print and is static. In other words, nothing changes about the nature of the job and there are NO variables.

Some workplaces assign ‘buddies’ or coaches to new employees. It’s often part of the work coach’s job to model or teach these learning behaviors to their employees. At one entry-level job I had many years ago, I remember my work coach or mentor telling me something as basic and obvious, as “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” In sharing this with me she was essentially letting me know, “It’s safe to ask questions here. We’d rather you do things right or learn by asking, and we won’t punish you for what you don’t know.”

Can you imagine what would happen if this guy afraid to ask questions about his job?

A truly rich “Informal Learning” environment can provide learners with the support they need to deal with variables NOT covered in formal training. And here’s the big “But,” you have to teach effective mentoring behaviors to all staff and reinforce these behaviors as much as possible. The informal learning model explicitly sets the expectation that learning and workplace improvement inherently part of the work culture. Employees must see it as part of their job responsibility to take  the new guy under their wing. The sooner you get the newbie up and flying the sooner everyone can be productive and creative. Managers and employees can build checklists of knowledge, skills and ‘tribal knowledge’ that new employees need to know. These lists and even ad hoc information can be shared during social or work activity.

But Informal Learning isn’t just what you’d learn about your fellow employees from washroom or smoking break talk. Informal Learning can happen via chat and discussion forums. The other day a work colleague and myself noted that we both got ourselves unstuck from work-related ‘problems’ by looking up similar situations or issues in professional forums online. It’s just as easy to set up an internal online work chat or forum.

I’ve seen some older employees cringe at the words “Informal Learning.” Many of the more ‘traditional’ workplaces place a lot of value on formal learning (lectures, lessons, face to face training, etc.)  because that’s the people, are used to.  I think  the key to building a truly learning rich environment and workplace is to highlight where social learning is really happening naturally and successfully and then introduce less familiar methods of leveraging informal learning. But again, if your company or organization doesn’t have a clear definition of what it means to learn effectively (outside of formal training) the concept of Informal Learning will be a hard sell. Maybe it’s just a matter of re-branding it or camouflaging it.  As for the acceptance of learning via social media… Maybe we just have to wait until the technologies that propel Informal and Social Learning (forums, chat, wikis, etc.) become more commonplace and accepted by the majority.  It will happen, eventually 🙂

Applying Eastern Philosophy to Online Learning

Wu Wei

Wu Wei

A few months ago, I attended this virtual presentation at the 2009 TCC conference that really got me thinking: The Tao of Online Facilitation. I’ve linked my notes from this talk.

I can’t seem to escape the idea that good teaching online requires the online facilitator to be more of a guide rather than a spewer of knowledge.  Much of what the presenter, Scot Robinson, shared falls in line with the idea that Online Learning is most beneficial when it applies constructivist learning practices.  Students can be guided to drawing conclusions or applying knowledge effectively through both hands-on and scenario-based learning activities as well as well-crafted questions (posed by the facilitator or teacher). This all reminds me of this adage I heard once: “Telling is not knowing.”

In his presentation Robinson made the point that facilitators are responsible for directing the flow of energy during an online training. Through their questions, they can help generate meaningful conversations that reinforce and promote extended learning.  They can also engage students in online participation in knowledge building via wikis and blogs. They can design creative activities and applications of these technologies to promote learning via collaboration.

Robinson also cautions we Westerners to ease back on the “active” or “dynamic” approach to doing things.  As he said “Westerners are tuned into action…” and it’s hard for us not to act when we see a opportunity or problem. Instead, the savvy online educator should practice Wu-wei or “actionless action.”  Following the line of thinking that encourages the teacher to contribute to the flow of energy in a learning activity, the teacher must observe the flow and “go with it.”

Bruce Lee put it well when he said… “Be water my friend.”


In my mind, I’ve started developing pictures of the Tao of Online Facilitation looks like vs. what it doesn’t look like:

Frustrated online facilitator: Is very upset that the students are not participating and adding information in the wiki according to her plans.  Keeps on directing students back to the original line of inquiry on the wiki. Sometimes panics when things are not going her way.

Sensei online facilitator: Sees that the students are going in a new direction with their wiki resource posts. Watches and observes the exchange of knowledge before providing feedback. Encourages discussion and collaboration, but still gently nudges the group back on track if they get too far off the mark.

Anyone who teaches online can be taught the behaviors that epitomize the Tao of online facilitation.  For myself, I realize that have some very western impulses when it comes to learning and teaching.  I noticed this when I was teaching a sock-knitting class a few weeks ago.  I had to fight the impulse to pick up one very vociferous and frustrated student’s work and help her work it out. I stopped myself because I knew this would be counter-productive for her learning, and after listening to her complain about a previous class she took where the instructor did the work for her, I wanted to help her understand that she could be successful. I stopped for a while and observed her. I noticed from her words and body language that she seemed a very self-conscious about failing in class. I suggested that she meet with me for an hour session outside of class. I was able to get her started using larger yarn and needles. In the end she was the only student to finish the socks during the class. Now, I’m aware of the fact that I had an advantage over online facilitators who cannot read their students’ body language, but I believe that the online facilitator can use a student’s online behavior to diagnose some possible problems with learning. Also, there are questions an online facilitator can ask or observations they can make to better analyze the student’s success or failure to learn.

Practicing the Tao of Facilitation means training online instructors to break old habits and engage in different ways to “perceive” learning.  You can train people up to a point, but if they don’t buy into the philosophy it will not work.  I’ve seen a few  good ideas and e-Learning projects die because the e-Learning development team didn’t adequately prepare the facilitators or trainers adequately. They didn’t coach them to ‘direct the flow of learning’ or even understand what this ‘flow looks like.’ They used that “If we build it they will come” logic rather than looking long term by providing a plan for assessing whether or not the learning endeavor was a success with measurable results from both teachers and students.

Fighting Management Preconceptions about Social Learning

I just found this wonderful preso on Social Learning. I kept on slapping thigh laughing as I read… “Oh yeah, that’s a good one!” For me the highlights were:

Yes, Play is OK – you need it to grow innovative, collaborative and fast-adapting employees.

“Control is an illusion” – Okay… this is where I slip into incredulous teenager mode: Duh! You can control what people are learning and sharing about as easily as you can keep water in a sieve.  The presenters note that “80% of learning happens outside” of formal learning systems in their control. This is “Informal Learning” in action. The faster leadership realizes that building a company culture where learning is valued, the quicker they will start fostering a truly effective organization. Also, it’s very important to build the expectation that employees are really responsible for learning (their job and how to enhance their work).

People already share bad information – no kidding. Everyone has experienced the grapevine effect in a workplace. Human beings honestly seek knowledge about the goings on, some need it to function and work effectively without fear. They will even speculate on management’s behavior when they have no information, which is why transparency is less dangerous than keeping your lipped buttoned.

I also really liked the fact that they provided some solutions for measuring ROI (Return on Investment).(CRUD: I actually wrote this section but it got lost in the blog ether when I was trying to save my post)  I think it’s possible to tie a company’s increased success to social learning initiatives through anecdotal stories.  Also, connecting increased levels of innovation could also be possible. Think James Burke’s Connections (the show from the early eighties). Much of the show argued that the worlds most famous and influential innovations such as the combustion engine would not have happened if people did not make connections with each other.  I think if you analyzed the history or development of a particular innovation at your company you can actually trace the connections that were needed to make the innovation happen. You may be able to identify whether or not these connections would have happened with the social networking  efforts in place.

Some excellent points were made, but I suspect that no amount of brilliant arguments will convince the hardcore curmudgeons that insist that Social Learning/Networking is bad and evil. My only question… Can I work for the folks who made this presentation?

What Does the Ideal Virtual Workforce Look Like?

I was talking to my manager the other day about writing some sort of article that highlights the skills and talent needed to manage a virtual team. Last year I was able to briefly describe the ideal virtual employee. I decided to come up with characteristics for both virtual managers and virtual employees.  This is what I came up with so far… I’m still working on it.

Ideal Virtual Workforce

Click on the image to view the full sized mind map

I based the qualities and behaviors of managers on several of the managers I’ve had in the past whom I felt to be highly effective. In a nutshell, I really liked/like working for these people and I’d pick up another job with them in a heartbeat if it was available.

Honestly, I feel that the first thing an effective manager of a virtual team does is hire ‘the right people.’  In a sense, half the chore of managing a team is done once they’ve hired the correct type of person. This isn’t easy, because good employees are often hard to come by, and I speak from my own experience on hiring panels in a corporate workplace. Often interviewees have been coached to “talk the talk,” and a hiring manager needs to be able to see through this. A good virtual manager will probe employees to see if they can truly demonstrate the qualities and behaviors of the “ideal virtual employee.”  Moreover, a virtual manager will request and thoroughly review a portfolio of the prospective hiree’s past work before the actual interview. They will aslo ask pointed questions about how the interviewee accomplished or made these portfolio items.

To be honest, when I enter an interview, I actually look for the behaviors I described above in the hiring manager.  I want to know that the person who’s leading me is capable of managing me and the whole team effectively. There’s nothing worse that being hired into an extremely dysfunctional team. I’ve often thought of scripting scenarios that take the best moments from interviews I’ve had with managers.  I’ve even thought of taking the best coaching moments I’ve experienced and sharing them.  So many of us have in the past worked for or currently work with poor managers, sometimes It’s good to know that there are good ones out there. While the economy is bad right now and many people might be willing to put up with working in a dysfunctional workplace, it’s still important to hire good managers (virtual or not) who encourage productive innovation. Innovation and the ability to change and adapt readily is what helps companies survive in succeed in trying times.

Addendum… thanks to Twitter, I’ve found a number of interesting articles on virtual workers:

Innovation Tip: Surround Yourself with a Few Sharp and Inquisitive Newbies

Great article from the NY Times: “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”

One of the key messages of this article is you need partner the experienced with the inexperienced and make sure that the newbies have a voice in any team. Looking back at history this may explain the stagnancy of bureaucratic governments and cultures. Ah ha…. but this may be hard for those who believe in a pecking order or the value of the experienced over the inquisitive. It must be terribly difficult to get this idea across to organizations or even professions that are structured hierarchically… Oh, well, they loose out.


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