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

2 people who love learning, love what they do, and love each other. (This is their wedding photo.)

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.

When your audience says: “No time. No money. No thanks.”

Almost as soon as I began, I knew I was losing them.

I was in a retail banking branch, trying to explain the benefits of our new collaboration platform to the staff. And they were skeptical.

“We’re very busy with clients. We don’t have time for other things.” “How much does it cost? We’re very focused on profitability.”

Words like “Jive” or “social intranet” or “micro-blogging” didn’t mean much to them. I quickly needed to change my approach.

“What’s the point?”

The problem was that I was talking about what I had instead of talking about what they needed. They didn’t want yet another tool or thing to do. They wanted help.

So I started over.

“Our goal is to make things easier for you. Easier to find answers and experts. Easier to share better ways of working with people who do what you do. Easier to coordinate work in your group and across groups.

If we make all of that easier, we’ll make your jobs better while we unlock tremendous value for our company.”

Making work easier in 3 ways

They weren’t convinced, but focusing on making their lives easier bought me some time. Now I could describe how our collaboration platform could make their jobs easier.

Sometimes, you need to go to a place – a destination – to get things done. It could be the latest information on a project or about a client or a product. It’s just a website, but a website with some modern advantages. You can see feedback from other people – comments, ratings, or “likes” – that let you know what’s helpful or not. And searching is simple and fast.

These are all things you’re used to at home but not in the office. Now we can fix that.

The second way we make things easier is with a Facebook-like stream. It lets you follow things you care about – people, groups, documents, websites – and get notified in real-time. The things that matter to you are delivered in a way that’s easy to skim quickly but that also allows for comments and other feedback.

And the tools themselves are convenient and engaging. That means iPad and iPhone access, for example. It means consolidating several of the tools we have into one place. And it means integration with our email system, Outlook. That lets you see all collaboration activity right from your inbox. And lets you turn email threads into online discussions that can now be searchable and more inclusive.

Business examples in their language

You can describe the platform and the 3 ways it makes work easier in a long elevator ride. After that, the key is relating it to what people do every day.

In the retail branch, I asked how they get answers to questions about products or processes.

“There’s a number to call,” they said. “Sometimes we have to wait on the phone for 10 minutes.”

So I talked about ways we can use the new platform to increase self-service at work. About what other companies like Apple and T-Mobile have done using the same collaboration platform.

I asked how they learn the best ways to do certain things, like selling particular products.

“There’s a website for the basics. But usually I ask other people in the branch, and they’re often too busy.”

So I talked about richer websites maintained by trained curators. And communities of practice where people in similar jobs across the firm can share best practices and help each other.

Getting answers. Finding experts. Sharing best practices. Coordinating work. Across divisions and across firms, you tend to find the same collaboration needs and patterns. The jargon will differ, but the underlying concepts and issues will be the same.

Depending on how much time you have, you can keep going through your common use cases and relating them to your audience.

Making it personal

Towards the end, I made it personal.

I asked people in the branch how they would know about great jobs in other branches. And how would anyone besides their manager know about them and their skills?

There was a pause. A young woman answered, somewhat wistfully, “Some people work in the same branch for 30 years.”

So I talked about how collaborating online makes their work visible. How it gives them control over their reputation – who they are, what they do, and how well they do it – and unlocks access to good jobs.

Speaking multiple languages, for example, was in high demand. Would a Frankfurt-based bank employee who spoke Italian be interested in a job on the Amalfi coast? Would they contribute on-line if it meant they could be more visible?

“Yes, of course!” she said, smiling. “That would be great.”

Always. Be. Closing.

Social business platforms are good for the individual. They make their job easier while giving them a way to shape their reputation and access opportunities.

And they’re good for the firm. Good for finding waste and eliminating it. Good for finding commercial opportunities and exploiting them. Good for finding great people and giving them the best jobs.

The audience had warmed up. Heads were nodding. Eyes were shining.

“Now, let’s set up our next meeting. Let’s start changing the way you work.”

Is your firm as good as PS 89?

It was a strange juxtaposition of events – bonus day at my firm followed by a tour of the local elementary school where my daughter will attend kindergarten.

The contrast was jarring.

The principal did mention money (or the lack of it) at one point, but it didn’t dominate the conversation. It was the kids – their education and their welfare – that dominated the conversation.

Throughout the tour, I was struck by the combination of skills, innovation, and caring I saw. There was evidence of it everywhere – in the halls, in the classrooms, and in the eyes of all the staff.

What if our firms were like that?

How can they do it?

Ronnie Najjar is the principal of PS 89 and has been since the school was built in 1998.

Like many corporations, the school has to deal with tight budgets, changing regulations, and a turbulent market. (Residential population in the school zone has risen manyfold, wreaking havoc with logistics.)

They’ve also had to figure out how to survive the 9/11 attacks (just 2 blocks away) and how to accommodate kids with special needs.

The people who work at PS 89 do all this – and do it well – for less money than they’d make in most corporations.


“With an apple, I will astonish Paris”

It’s not simply because PS 89 is a school. (There are plenty of poorly run, ineffective schools)

The secret, I think, is that the people who work there genuinely care about what they do and feel connected to the community. And when people are engaged like this, the mundane becomes miraculous.

They don’t just have an art project on apples. Instead, children’s paintings are beautifully arranged under the quote from Cezanne: “With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” Their clay models are carefully arranged in a glass showcase along with artful photos of the kids engaged in the process.

They don’t just follow the standard teaching script. They have detailed points of view on the benefits of “integrated co-teaching” for teachers and children. They know the latest developments on working with special needs children in the classroom in a way that’s both sensitive and effective.

Working with 535 young students every day can be demanding. Yet, as a boy runs by us, briefly distracting the tour, Ronnie doesn’t admonish him. Instead, she smiles and quietly says, almost to herself, “I love that kid.”

Then a PTA member whispered to me: “She knows every kid by name.”

Can we do it, too?

It’s not naive to think we can have this kind of environment at work. Quite the opposite. It’s our responsibility.

But it requires a shift. It requires that we re-humanize our corporations. That we think of them as social businesses instead of machines with people as parts.

It requires that we replace bromides like “people are our most important asset” with environments that truly address basic human motivators: autonomy, purpose, personal mastery, and community.

If we create caring, connected workplaces, we can transform how we work.

A public elementary school in New York City did it. Our corporations, with all their resources and possibilities, can do it too.

The perils of privacy in the enterprise

When I show people our collaboration solutions, I talk about the commercial benefits and the possibilities of changing how we work. I describe how people can now shape their reputation through on-line, public contribution and unlock access to opportunities.

Eyes shine. Heads nod.

And one of the first questions, invariably, is:

“How can I restrict who sees it?”

Who “needs to know”?

In large firms, particularly regulated firms, there are laws that restrict who can see what. So the ability to restrict access must be a part of any collaboration solution.

The issue arises when we over-use that ability.

Simply put, the vast majority of the work people do can and should be shared openly.

Here’s a quote from the commission that investigated 9/11, decrying the “need to know” policy at the CIA:

“The biggest impediment to all-source analysis…is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information…. [The ‘need to know’] system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. Those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate.” – The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, (WW Norton: New York, 2002), 416-17.

3 extraordinary costs of privacy

It’s not that “information wants to be free.” (If you’re discussing a potential acquisition or an employee relations issue, then you need to limit who participates in those discussions.)

It’s that restrictions have a cost. And these costs should be considered before you restrict anything. Here are just 3 examples.

Cost of missed opportunities 

The book “If only we knew what we know” describes at length the costs of barriers to internal knowledge transfer. (The title was inspired by a quote from HP’s CEO, Lew Platt, in 1993: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”)

Common corporate slogans like “Deliver the firm” all embrace connecting different parts of the firm to deliver extra value for the customer. But it’s hard to connect the dots if the dots are hidden.

Cost of administering entitlements

Every restriction is an explicit rule that must be maintained. As organizations churn and needs change, those rules have to be updated, imposing an administrative burden on the firm. Even worse, given the complexity of some rules, that burden may fall on highly-skilled people.

Cost of information leakage 

While controls may help prevent leakage, they work only up to a point. Complexity is the enemy of good governance. And a complex web of entitlements, difficult to maintain, will ultimately lead employees to use more convenient – and less secure – ways of sharing information.

Start by being open

What bedevils many social business efforts is the “implicit assumption” described by the 9/11 Commission: that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits.

In the enterprise, the natural inclination will be to limit access to the information within teams. This, in effect, casts the intranet and firm knowledge in the shape of the org chart.

You have to fight that inclination. The CIA describes their desire for a nuanced approach:

“The 9/11 Commission found great fault with the stovepiping and bureaucratic hoarding of national security information, some of which (in proper hands and at the right time) might have aborted or altered the devastating terrorist assaults in New York, Washington, and in the skies over Pennsylvania in September 2001. The recipe for correction, however, was an overstated, virtually unqualified call for greater sharing of information–an implicit overturning of the prevailing “need to know” culture, one admittedly in need of revision.

The challenge for the IC [Intelligence Community] is to right the balance between finding the appropriate safeguards and compartmentation of information on the one hand, while on the other sustaining candid, analytical reporting from across the world…”

“Balance.” That’s the key word in that quote.

Even the CIA sees the need for balancing openness and restricted sharing – and your firm isn’t the CIA.

Before you think about locking things down, consider the costs and consider the alternatives. Start with an open system of sharing information and restrict access only when it’s required or has true business value for the firm.