Learning, leading and Spartacus moments

smart systems

This post muses on the possibility of people taking control of their own experience of work, and using online learning networks to keep them going. It’s a belated follow-on from the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris, which took place over a month ago at the time of writing.

Whole systems of learning and leadership

The 2014 Enterprise 2.0 Summit was stimulating and encouraging – I was particularly impressed by how many people were talking about stuff they were actually doing. The stars that stand out for me in that respect were Rachael Happe, Dan Pontefract and Celine Schillinger. I’m not saying they are the only ones, they’re just the people I heard speak.

Dan Pontefract, in his keynote address, spoke about study after study reporting poor levels of employee engagement. The Canadian company that he works for, TELUS, has high levels of engagement. How do they do it? Through a combination of leadership philosophy that is systemically sewn into everything the company does, including performance measures, and learning treated not as an event but as continuous, connected, collaborative, formal, informal and social.

But research repeatedly shows that high-performance companies like TELUS have in the past been in the minority. It will be very interesting to see how far that changes and how increased take-up of high-performance systems comes about. Their slow diffusion is linked to a lack of leadership and management skills – and it seems that there’s a huge job to be done there.

I’ve been exploring and researching high-performance work systems and agile, quality and lean systems for over a decade. Both are built systemically around distributed leadership, innovation as everyone’s business and continuous learning. Dan left out one study from his list of employee engagement surveys, and that’s the 2007 Towers Perrin survey of 86,000 respondents from 18 countries.

I heard two of the researchers present the early findings at a conference in 2007 at the University of Waterloo in Canada. One of their conclusions was that a key enabler of engagement is whole systems of leadership and learning.

I still don’t think that the E2.0 conversations that I’m hearing reflect just how far the shift to new ways of working predates social technologies. As it happens, a recent McKinsey Insight article is saying what I’ve going on about for a while now – that there’s lasting value in lean approaches. This unsurprisingly includes a focus on systematic learning and organisations providing support mechanisms so that people can “truly master their work.”

Taking control of our own destinies

It seems to me to me that Enterprise 2.0 conversations have tended to focus on how social and collaboration tools can be integrated within an organisation’s formal systems – as is the case with TELUS. There’s absolutely no quibble with that, especially considering what I’ve been saying about the continuing value of formal systems based on lean and learning.

But it’s the opportunities afforded through connected, creative shadow networks that I find particularly compelling and exciting. This is where the ideas of dualities, reciprocal determinism and creative shadow activities come together – powered by social and collaboration technologies. What are these ideas? Let’s have a quick look.

Reciprocal Determinism

Albert Bandura is one of my favourite academics. He writes on a number of themes like social learning, self-efficacy and moral choice.  I am persuaded by his idea of reciprocal determinism.

He does not accept that the environment is “an autonomous force that automatically orchestrates and controls behaviour”, instead “by their actions, people play a role in creating the social milieu and other circumstances that arise in their daily transactions.”

If Bandura’s right, people are not prisoners of rigid organisational systems. He says that “within the processes of reciprocal determinism lies the opportunity for people to shape their destinies as well as the limits of self-direction.”

Shadow Systems

Ralph Stacey’s analysis of shadow systems is – to my mind – consistent with reciprocal determinism. Stacey says that every formal organisation has informal shadow systems that can be destructive or creative.

He describes the tension between an organisation’s formal systems and shadow systems, saying that there is a “murky relationship between legitimate structures and shadow systems … the shadow system is in effect seeking to destroy the current legitimate system in the interest of creativity and thus better long-term prospects of survival.”


A research-based book from more than a decade ago, The Innovating Organisation, found that the ability to accommodate ‘dualities’ was one of the characteristic of innovating organisations.

Dualities “reflect opposing forces that require art and skill to accommodate, as well as sensitivities to local contexts and complexities.” Examples might be hierarchy and networks, internal and external, control and autonomy, or centralised and decentralised. I think that a duality of particular interest for E2.0 and Social Business ways of working is the relationship between formal and informal organisational systems.

Outside-in learning and transformation

Old notions of hierarchy melt away through people individually and collectively taking responsibility for their own experience of work, for their own benefit, their colleagues and ultimately the business benefits. If organisations are slow to put in place whole systems of leadership and learning, then people can take responsibility for themselves and just do it – that’s if you think, like I do, that organisations are fractal and interlinked.

Social technologies now create the phenomenal possibility for creation spaces – connected, informal learning networks that reach across multiple boundaries (geographic, organisational, cultural, demographic, and professional), challenging the constraints of inside and outside, formal and informal, top-down and bottom-up.

But who will take responsibility?

We rushed to embrace social technologies without permission, and disrupting whole industries like broadcast media and entertainment in the process. I used to believe that, despite their huge potential for self-determination and learning, social technologies would only ever be used predominantly for entertainment. But the MOOC movement is proving that view wrong, and revealing widespread appetite for self-directed learning.

Even so, passively consuming online courses isn’t enough. There might be widespread appetite for learning – how much of an appetite is there for taking personal responsibility for self-directed action and learning from it? Shaping our destinies means doing something.

In my experience working with senior executives trying to make the transition to new performance cultures and ways of working, changes were sometimes kicked off because the business was in trouble. Change is hard enough when you bring people along with you – it’s particularly difficult when people are in fear of losing their jobs.

The alternative was that there was a visionary person who set the ball rolling because they knew the new way of doing things was what they wanted to see happen and was the right thing to do. I can see many of these people in my mind’s eye – typically determined, persuasive, driven by values and resilient enough to take the criticisms that get lobbed their way. Committing to challenging the status quo is not for the feint-hearted.

Reciprocal determinism in action

I can see two specific opportunities for outside-in learning. One is people who might have influence over a particular bit of an organisation. For example a senior nurse in charge of a hospital ward within the UK’s sprawling NHS who decides to change the performance culture on her ward (I know her).

The other might be people who have more clout in creating the conditions for more widespread, systemic change. For example, a deputy head of a city who is determined to introduce customer-focus to service delivery (I was his learning supervisor).

Euan Semple says that the internet is full of Spartacus moments. I’m taking a punt on the belief that there are many more similarly courageous, value-driven people who care about what they do at work and are willing to step forward and do something about it. Going back to the Enterprise 2.0 Summit, I was so impressed by how Celine Schillinger kicked off change in a conservative and regulated industry. You can read more about her contribution to the Summit and what people thought about it here.

I’m trying, in a very small way, to kick off a sort of social business school. I want this to be a resource and source of social support – particularly for people in operational roles, whose work is becoming more socially, technically and politically more complex. Will I succeed? Who will step forward? How will I find them?  Frankly, I don’t know. But I’m having a go.

Link to original post

Leave a Reply