Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

Innovate and Die?

Posted: September 26, 2014 by Ian Gee in Incentives, Leadership, Learning


I guess we have all heard the saying “innovate or die!” but I am wondering if there are times when the maxim should become ‘innovate and die’? My thinking about this topic came about as a result of a really interesting chat the other day with Adriana Ramos Hernandez, an MSC student at UCL. She wanted to explore innovation in management and ways of working.   We talked about how the workplace is changing and the challenges this presents for both organisations and the people who work in them. Towards the end of our chat, Adriana suddenly said, “Well, I guess it is a case of “innovate or die?”   Out of nowhere I thought about how innovation may not be the “Holy Grail” and has the potential to either severely wound you and your organisation or may, in some circumstances, even kill your organisation stone dead and lead to you losing your job! In essence, a passion for innovation rather than taking your organisation to the next stage of its evolution becomes something that stops it dead in the water.


Anybody who has been reading the papers in the last couple of years will have seen what appears to be a tsunami of stories detailing corporate bad behaviour and business scandals. Here is one recent example; a UK pay day loan company c, has had to pay out over £2 million in compensation for sending out letters to people, who were defaulting on their payments, from a fake solicitors firm. A firm they had in essence ‘made up’. The letters threatened legal action if people did not pay back their loans. They were charging people £40 for these letters; adding the charge to their ever growing debt.  You can read more about it here. Another good example would be the Libor scandals, have a look here for more details. Basically a number of national and international banks and other financial institutions were caught rigging the interbank lending rate and have been fined by regulators sums that run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

I started to wonder if, before they were found out, did the individuals and companies concerned consider these to be wonderful corporate innovations? Ideas that would have a direct and positive impact on the bottom line and give the company a ‘leading edge’ over the competition? The kinds of innovations people get lovely bonuses and recognition at appraisal time for? The kinds of innovations that other people look jealously on and wish they had come up with?

But what happens when the innovation turns out to be unethical? It is very interesting to read the reactions of the senior leaders to being found out. In the cases mentioned here CEO’s and senior leaders lost their jobs, the chairs of a number of boards lost their jobs and millions of pounds were wiped off the value of the companies involved. In addition and much harder to measure is the impact and damage the scandals have had on their brands. These innovations could literally have killed the companies.

If you do a web search for ethics and innovation what you will find is mostly linked to technological, medical and scientific innovation with very little about the relationship of ethics to organisational or managerial innovation. Of course from an OD point of view we would be looking at issues of culture and values. But I am wondering if in the arena of ethics and innovation there is a gap that we in OD should start to explore and fill and if so how? What do you think?




Lost Paragraphs

Posted: March 23, 2014 by Ian Gee in Learning, OD, Organization, People, Writing

Lost paragraphs

You may have noticed that Matthew and I have been a bit tardy in blogging this year.  It’s not that we have lost interest in the Illusion of Work, in all its forms, it’s just that we have been busy writing a book!   Last year we were asked by Palgrave Macmillan to write about our experience and practice of working with and supporting communities in the workplace. The book goes to the publishers at the end of May and will be published, fingers crossed, in January 2015.

Our working title for the book is Communites@Work.  The publishers aren’t that keen on the title, feeling the @ is a bit hackneyed. We like it, but are open to suggestions!  Let us know what you think and if you have any ideas!

This is the first time either of us has written a book and it’s a very interesting process on many levels.  One of the strange things I have found is how attached I can get to paragraphs!  When the heavy lifting of mapping out the chapters was complete and the editing started, I found a number of paragraphs that just did not work.  In some cases they did not fit where they were placed and could be moved to another part of the chapter or book.  In other cases, though not badly written, they were just out of place and did not fit anywhere.   As I was editing I found it harder and harder to just delete them.  I ended up starting a new document called “Lost Paragraphs” to store them!  I now have an eleven-page document that reads like something a crazed post modernist has written!  Something Gertrude Stein would be very happy with I am sure!

The lost paragraphs document has been more useful than I thought. It is not just been an archive or a repository but incredibly useful.  At times when I have felt stuck, something I am sure anyone who has written an extended piece will no doubt have experienced, I have read it through and found new inspiration!  The lost paragraphs have given me new ideas and a way forward, unsticking me in the process.

Here are a couple of examples of lost paragraph.  Though I suppose once they are published on the blog they will no longer be lost, but become found!:

What may look dysfunctional in a hierarchy may be perfectly normal and helpful in a workplace community.  For example, in a hierarchy people are normally discouraged from challenging authority, in an explicit and direct way.  Within a community, as leadership is a shared function, people find it easer to challenge and take on the mantel of leadership themselves. 

And another

Is what is happening in your workplace community what you expect to see and experience?  Do you have any slight niggles that things may not be totally as they should be? Use the community health diagnostic to raise community member’s awareness of this. It is always better to deal with issues as they arise, rather than wait for them to become major problems and stumbling blocks….

I am coming to the conclusion that there is something about the processes of creativity and writing where we need to be attached and committed to what we are doing while we are doing it and at the same time, be ready to let go and say goodbye to it!  In my case the lost paragraphs document is about letting go but not forgetting. As who knows when they might come in useful!

The idea of lost paragraphs started me thinking about other ‘lost’ things I have written over the years.  Such as proposals for work that were never taken up, OD interventions I designed but never implemented and even emails written but never sent!  If I still had them, I wonder what new thoughts and ideas they would stimulate and what I could learn? I guess this is all good for the soul in terms of developing a Buddhist type of non-attachment.

Matthew and I will share a bit more about our book and the writing process as things develop.  So watch this space!  In the meantime I will be really interested to hear if any of you have had a similar experience of not wanting to let go of what you have written or are doing, even if you know it doesn’t fit or doesn’t work? What do you do? What has your experience been?

MOOC me up Scotty

Posted: March 1, 2014 by Matthew Hanwell in Human Resources, Learning, Organization, People


Evolution of distance learning (source:

Guest post by: Asif Zulfiqar

Growing up, I faced tremendous family and social pressure to do well in school. Doing well really meant passing exams with higher grades rather than actually acquiring any knowledge. Apart from failing intermediate English class terribly, I lived up to the expectations for the most part. As a kid, I never understood our society’s obsession with earning good grades in standardized tests. Earning good grades, by the way, meant endless hours of memorization – the ritual I was terrible at. I still can’t relate to this obsession but at least I am able to appreciate where it comes from – the evolution of learning, or the lack there of.

My understanding of human learning is heavily influenced by Ken Robinson, who believes human life flourishes on three principles – diversity, curiosity and creativity. Unfortunately today’s education and learning systems, for the most part, do quite the contrary. One-size-fits-all learning curricula support conformity, not diversity, limiting what can be achieved; use of structured assessment to measure success rather than learning diagnostics curbs curiosity and supports compliance; and the culture of success and fear of failure is simply killing creativity.

One doesn’t need to go back millions of years or explore Adam and Eve’s lives to study human evolution. There’s no doubt we have changed and we have changed tremendously. The way we gather information, relate to each other and process knowledge has evolved significantly even in few short decades. I am convinced the way we learn has evolved too. The question is though, have the systems that support our learning kept up with our evolution? I seriously doubt that.

The industrial revolution did something remarkable for human race. It brought structure, systems and standardization to pretty much every facet of life. It made perfect sense for the education system to compliment this by offering one-size-fits-all curricula to educate masses. State of the art education system came with a state of the art, standardized assessment. Eventually industrial revolution became thing of the past and we declared ourselves knowledge economy. Even the knowledge economy label have started to fade away now but we continue to hang on to the education and learning system we adopted during industrial revolution.

Anant Agarwal, a Computer Science Professor at MIT and President of edX, believes the real innovation in education was printing press, enabling mass production of textbooks and learning material. This allowed us to create the one-to-many learning structure to educate masses. In 1920’s NYU and other universities offered education through radio, which was then taken over by TV a couple of decades later (as a child I remember TV timeslots dedicated to Allama Iqbal Open University training courses). By 1980’s we had the ability to link training/class rooms to remote locations via close-circuit video to support distance learning. Of course the arrival of internet led to the concept of E-learning. One might think of all this as fantastic chain of innovative revolutions in learning. However, the fact is, all these activities supported broadcast style education with structured, one-size-fits-all content in a non-personalized way which contributed little to the diversity, curiosity and creativity of human beings.

Profound ideas are always simple. Salman Khan of Khan Academy took profoundly simple idea to revolutionize the way humans learn. His style supports personalized learning, continual concept development and testing as diagnostics tool which compliments fundamentals of human learning, curiosity, diversity and creativity, like never before. Likes of Dave Cormier and other educators took this idea further and made 2013 the year of MOOCs. Although the underlying purpose of MOOCs is to capture broader audience and some later educators have used this term quite loosely, but in principle MOOCs can truly encourage learners through open and transparent learning, engage them in knowledge creation & assessment and build communities of knowledge.

What does it mean for the corporate world, one might ask, where learning has historically been prescribed for primarily adult learners? I’d say a lot. Learning is natural when you’re young but adult learners must see purpose and reason to educate themselves. Over $170 billion training industry does not have as much to show primarily because of this disconnect. We have seen global engagement through massive engagement jams, open source software development, and other crowdsourcing activities. Coming together to learn from each other shouldn’t be an uphill battle. Organizations can leverage existing expertise, diversity of workforce and plethora of content to craft MOOC style learning management systems. The only limitation is their mindset. The exact nuts and bolts of this type of learning system will most likely be different for different organizations. But for this change to take place the organizations would need to demonstrate characteristics of true learning organization – transform in the wake of changing environment.

When Harvard Business Review asked David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, Professors of Harvard Business School, to name organizations that truly meet the test of being learning organizations, they came up with one – General Electric. From my recent interaction with GE I am convinced this organization have the ability to work the idea throughout the organization on one hand and the courage to act on it on the other. GE has the processes, they have the climate and most importantly leadership behaviors to revolutionize corporate learning the way Khan Academy and MOOCs did to education in general. I am sure there are other organizations in this club and there must be plenty more close to joining. Luckily organizations are under no social pressure to earn “good grades” or memorize any content but their success will largely be driven by the extent to which they incorporate fundamental needs of human development, diversity, curiosity and creativity, in their learning systems. This will not only ensure bigger bang for their learning buck but will also make my friend Ken Robinson very happy!