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I remember the first time my freshman counselor handed me a class schedule. My learning opportunities were neatly arranged in 55-minute periods. It was my responsibility to get to each on time and in order. It seemed like such an ominous challenge for a 14 year old.  In each first class, the teacher handed out the syllabus and books with assignments marked for each class.  This is how real grown ups learn. I was sure of it. I had the computer print out, the syllabus and the class notebooks to prove it.

My model of education and learning was formed at that point, and nothing over the next 12 years of formal education really did anything to change it. Education was packaged. Go to this school, get this professor. Get this professor, get this reading list. On some occasions, even grades had a formula. Want an “A”? Here’s the price. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if the 55-minute periods even changed all that much.

I understand why this model of efficiency worked for institutions. It’s more organized than having people wander randomly into classes, or deciding which classes were necessary by asking students to vote with their feet. And, I still see merits of a curriculum, especially in fields where certification is required. But I’ve since come to believe that the pre packaged, organized model of education suits institutions more than students. For the most part, it taught me how to complete requirements. Not sure it taught me how to direct my own learning, which is too bad, because that’s what I needed to do in that place called “the real world.”

The biggest disruption seems to come from the outside, and so it seems with education. Technology is opening up entirely new opportunities for self-directed learning. Students of all ages, locations and needs have a range of online opportunities available to them.  Some are taught by the leading experts in their field. Many are free or nearly free. If you haven’t checked out a MOOC yet, (massive open online courses) just look to see what’s available. Here’s a place to start. If you want to anything from brush on second language skills to understand finance to discuss the great books, there is a class available for you. For free. You can watch the videos and do the work at midnight or noon.  You can participate in class in a suit from work or in your PJ’s from the couch. All you need to do is participate and learn.

My colleagues at Northwestern University’s MSLOC program have been talking about PLN’s (Personal Learning Networks). I recently joined one to find out what all the buzz is about. In my words, a PLN is a group of people interested in the same topic who connect through a variety of media. People connect and share information through online collaboration site, like Google +, through Twitter and on blogs. When you join a PLN, you set and manage a personal learning goal. It’s your responsibility to use the network to reach your goal, and to help others reach theirs. One of my goals is to understand how PLN’s work, and how they can be adapted to an organizational setting.

Many, many years after I received my first class schedule, I am still learning. The opportunities are far different.  No one decides what I need to know, when I need to know it and where I need to go. This presents the blessing of freedom and the burden of responsibility. No one decides if I study for 10 minutes, 55 minutes or for hours. Because there is no schedule, I might decide not to study at all. Sadly, this is the often the case when I frame learning as something to do when I have the time. I don’t even see the people I learn with, which is really interesting because I often learn so much more from them than the person I sat next to for ten weeks and now can’t remember their name. Instead of neat blocks of designated time, I now have access to 24 hour learning.

As I jump into the brave new frontier of learning, I’m interested in your experience. Have you participated in a MOOC or a Personal Learning Network? What’s your advice to get the most from it?

Five Things I Wish My Commencement Speaker Had Mentioned

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Once again this year, no institution invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog! It’s the perfect vehicle to list five things I wish my commencement speaker had mentioned.

Continuous learning is your lifelong asset.

One thing that’s common to all careers is that requirements change. Stay relevant through learning. Learning is not limited to formal education. But all learning can be facilitated by cultivating curiosity, establishing the habit of reflection, an openness to new ideas and trying a different way to do things. From cycle after cycle of disruptive change, those most willing to learn are those who thrive. Those stuck in what they once knew wonder what happened.

Happiness and generosity are related.

Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has research to support the view that generosity contributes to the happiness of the giver. Give two people $20.00 with directions to spend it. The one who gives it away to someone who needs it more often reports being happier than the other who buys “stuff.” It doesn’t matter if happier people are more generous or if more generous people are happy- the undeniable relationship also exists in the workplace. Be generous with your support, wisdom and resources. See if what you give away makes you happier at work.

People skills, not technical skills, are your competitive edge.

Technical skills are the price of admission for your job. Hired as programmer?  It’s hard to write code significantly better than the others hired with you. Hired as finance pro? Everyone has access to the same software, spreadsheets and formulas. Those with similar smarts, education and experience will produce technical results that fall in a narrow range. Those with the strongest interpersonal and leadership skills more frequently engage others and thereby produce a greater impact. Technical skills get you in the door. Technical skills supported by strong people skills create your success.

Walk on the edge.

Margaret Wheatley suggests that our optimum experience and development comes when we walk on the edge. You know the edge -the point where you are outside of your comfort zone but not into chaos. Your path is doable, but demands your full attention and effort. Shooting for over the edge encourages chaos, walking far inside of it minimizes your talent. Stay sharp and find the edge.

Make self-awareness your most valuable trait.

Don’t worry so much about your “leadership style.” By the time you read this, your personality preferences are set. Trying to be someone you are not will ultimately be inauthentic and ineffective.  Do put effort into cultivating self-awareness. Self-awareness is like a GPS for leadership navigation. Find ways to take in feedback to know when to tone down or dial up your preferences.  Know when the route to success requires your strengths or someone else’s.

What have you learned that you would add to a commencement address?

To 2012 graduates everywhere, congratulations on your achievement. May this important passage be one of your many successes.

What Bike Rides Teach Us About Life

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Does spring weather remind you of early bike rides as a kid? We learned a lot from those first rides. One of my earlier blog posts reminds us that it’s never to late to hop on and learn.

Remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike? I do. I even imagined how it would be during all through trial runs with training wheels. I saw myself racing down the street, legs pumping for speed, deftly making turns into circles.  Just like all of the other kids.

The day the training wheels came off was a big day. Heart pumping, palms sweating, I hopped on. I pushed off. I fell down. Hopped on again and got a gracious assist of a push off. The bike was moving. Now what do I do? How do you stop it, again? How do I keep it straight?  How much do I move the handles to turn? The wobbling, shaky 20 ft. ride to the end of the driveway was nothing like what I imagined it to be.

My wounded pride and I got back on the bike the next day, and the day after. Every day until I took for granted that I could hop on a bike and pedal away.

What You Really Learned When You Got on the Bike

My first bike ride, and perhaps yours, is the perfect metaphor for the learning process. It requires stepping up, letting go, trial and error. And falling. Lots of falling and getting back up. Peter Jarvis, professor of adult learning at The University of Georgia, describes the sensations produced by the first bike experience as “disjuncture.” It is the state of disequilibrium in a novel experience that shakes us out of our comfort zone.  It demands our attention. It is the feeling that our current knowledge or previous experiences  (our self “biography”, according to Jarvis) isn’t helping. We become uncomfortable . Disjuncture motivates us to learn so we can close the gap from being uncomfortable to comfortable.

So, we become better with the new thing.  We find our way. We practice. We commit it to memory. We take for granted that we know how to the thing that once made our palms sweat. Part of “take for granted-ness” is good, as we’d be really frustrated learning how to figure out how to speak, read or write every day. But too much “take for granted-ness” puts us in a comfort zone where we don’t do new things. We don’t experience disjuncture. We don’t have to learn. We become, as Jarvis describes, “trapped in the bars of our own minds.”

Even if we could arrange our careers to stay comfortable with what we already know and are good at, those things will change. We can stay in the same job, but it changes as we work with people from different cultures. We can sell the same products, but evolution in user needs will force them to change. We can work for the same company, but it may be sold to new owners. Even the things we try to keep the same will change, creating discomfort from that old friendly source.

The nature of disjuncture is sometimes you go to it and sometimes it comes to you. Reframe it as a friend instead of a threat. It’s the shake out of  “take for granted-ness” that alerts us that things have changed. The good news is that we can change, too. We already know how to learn; recognize shake-ups as the motivation to do it.

Three Ways to Encourage Learning Now

  1. Remind yourself of occasions in your life when you successfully learned something from the beginning; perhaps something that is now strength. When talents become strengths, we sometimes forget that once upon a time we had to learn it, too.
  2. Do the thing you’ve been putting off because it’s unfamiliar, uncertain or unclear. If you can’t do it all, take on the parts you can master.
  3. Find someone for help and encouragement. Perhaps it’s a mentor, a friend or a teacher, but find someone who can show you the way and believe that you can. And when you breakthrough, pay forward his or her favor to someone else.

Remember, we’ll always wobble in the new stuff. But to get better or get to great, just remember how you learned to ride a bike.

Are You Ready for the Resource Revolution?

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Family shopping In Pondicherry, India

My blog took a hiatus recently when I had the good fortune to visit South India. Through visits to large cities, tiny villages and small towns, the change sweeping India was evident. In a crude comparison using observations from a previous trip five years ago, there appeared to be more collective energy, prosperity and hope. If changes in India are reflected in all developing markets, the magnitude of change facing us is enormous.

The Resource Revolution
A recent report from McKinsey and Company outlines the enormous challenges and remarkable opportunities we face. Three billion people will move into the middle class over the next 25 years, creating a global consuming class of 5 billion people. They note people in China and India alone are doubling their per capita income at 10 times the pace of England during the Industrial Revolution at 200 times the scale. McKinsey claims that the world has never experienced this rate of growth and resulting demand on resources. It will force us to reconsider how resources are produced, distributed, managed and consumed. Demand for energy, food, water and public services will reach new highs. Regardless of where you live, you won’t be able to sit this one out. See the McKinsey Quarterly report Mobilizing for a Resource Revolution.

The enormous implications of rising aspirations of billions of new consumers require our best collective thinking and efforts. We could have the perfect marriage between the need to change and the breakthrough capabilities to make it happen. New pressures will force us to re-imagine and reinvent how we produce and consume with new technology is merging to help us to it.  Noted venture capitalist Vinod Khosla suggests that time and our capability is ripe for disruptive technologies that change our assumptions. We don’t need to face new challenges armed only with old solutions.

So What?
Our role as leaders and organizational members is to prepare for these changes so we can inspire ideas and create momentum for a re imagined future. The implications are so vast that finding a place to start in itself is a challenge. As this is a blog about choices people and organizations make to be great, consider the questions below as a place to start or continue thinking about your readiness for change.

Do we cultivate agility?
Agility requires that we understand our differentiating capabilities, the ones that set us apart in the market, and how to adapt them to new products and services as change requires. For example, IBM has a deep understanding of data and its uses. It’s offered this differentiating capability through different vehicles, as change required, from modular computers to laptops to services.

Organizations cultivate agility through combining deep understanding of their differentiating capabilities with awareness of megatrends producing different needs. They don’t change what they do well, but adapt to deliver it with new vehicles.

Check out Michael Cusamano’s book Staying Power: Six Enduring Principles for Managing Strategy and Innovation in an Uncertain World for more insight into cultivating agility.

Do our talent management practices reflect our future?
The fundamental requirement for talent management practices is that they align to support organizational needs. It’s easy to speculate that your organization wants to be more innovative, flexible, increase sustainability and be relevant in new markets. It expects consumers and customers to be increasingly diverse. Do your talent management practices recruit, develop, evaluate and deploy people to deliver on these expectations? Do they support needs relevant in the last decade but not the next? The MIT Sloan Review article Six Global Practices for Effective Talent Management offers a roadmap and examples to make talent management an ally of your organizational strategy.

Can ideas and information flow quickly up, down and across the organization?
The key word in the question is “quickly.”  If ideas and information have to pass through layers, gatekeepers and screeners, then the answer is “no.” Fix that.  Do you personally build and use a network to acquire and spread ideas? Start now.

According to McKinsey, conservation and production opportunities in four areas represent 75% of the resource management solution: energy, land, water and steel. Talents in organizations around the world are working on solutions in these areas, perhaps in your organization. A robust knowledge management practice can accelerate solutions through networks bound by shared interests and connecting experts to problems. According to a recent IBM survey, high performing organizations are 57% more likely to provide global teams with social networks and collaboration tools than other companies. Is you organization one of them? To learn more, check out the MIT Sloan Review article Building a Well- Networked Organization.

Are we excellent at learning?
Learning agility is the ability to engage in novel experiences that expand comfort zones and build new capabilities.  As organizations and people, growth comes through testing and reflection. It’s not simply skills acquisition, but expanding capacity for ambiguity, risk tolerance and working with others who see things differently. The ability to learn may be our most critical personal competency in the coming decade. The more we practice, the better we get. We can all learn to learn. When we do this collectively, organizations learn.  Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: Art and Science of the Learning Organization is a classic work in this field. Peter Jarvis’ work Human Learning is a bit “wonkier” but it still delivered the “wow” factor for me.

Are we eager enough?
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to an elementary school and secondary school in a tiny, remote village in Tamil Nadu with a few hundred people. Many, but not all, were poor. There were no satellite dishes nor WiFi access; No laptops, TVs or video games in sight.

We concluded our visit by meeting with a class of 10th graders. Their studies for this year consisted of English, Chemistry, Physics and Calculus (Algebra, Biology and Geometry were required previously.) The school day is 9 to 4:30 five days a week with six to seven hours of homework every night.  The 10th graders must pass a proficiency test at the end of their ten-month school year. They proudly showed off their new Physics lab and listened intently as the headmasters encouraged them to compete against themselves every day.

I have not experienced anything approaching the eagerness, energy and high expectations of these students in some time. They expect a better future for themselves and their community supported by a willingness to work exceptionally hard to get it.  What about your organization? What about you? Are you excited about the future or worried? Energized or complacent? Eager or tired?  The competition for the future includes those 10th graders in Tamil Nadu and their peers in hundreds of cities, towns and villages in the developing world. They are optimistically charging toward the future. Are you?

What Else?
These are the basic questions I think about in preparing for our future, but there are many more. What would you add?

Finally…
The unprecedented demands on resources and rising expectations of a exploding consumer class will change our world. The unanswered question is whether it will be for the better or worse. The stakes are very high, but so is my optimism. You might be optimistic, too, if you could see the bright eyes and bubbling enthusiasm of children who know they have opportunities their parents could not dream of.  With new thinking and improved practices, we have the opportunity to recreate how we live and work in a way that improves all of our lives, including billions of people previously trapped in poverty. Are you ready?

References

Dobbs, R., Oppenheim, J. & Thompson, F.  (2012). Mobilizing for a Resource Revolution. McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Company, January 2012

Cusamano, M. (2010). Staying Power: Six Enduring Principles for Managing Strategy and Innovation in an Uncertain World. Oxford University Press.

Stahl, G., Bjorkman, I., et al.  (2011). Six Global Practices for Effective Talent Management. MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 53, issue 2.

Schweer, M. Assimakopoulos, D, et al. (2011). Building a Well-Networked Organization.  MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 53, issue 2.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art ad Science of a Learning Organization.
New York: Random House.

Jarvis, P. (2006). Human Learning. Routledge: New York.

A Bike Ride Through Life

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Remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike? I do. I even imagined how it would be during  trial runs with training wheels. I saw myself racing down the street, legs pumping for speed, deftly making turns into circles.  Just like all of the other kids.

The day the training wheels came off was a big day. Heart pumping, palms sweating, I hopped on. I pushed off. I fell down. Hopped on again and got a gracious assist of a push-off. The bike was moving. Now what do I do? How do you stop it, again? How do I keep it straight?  How much do I move the handles to turn? The wobbling, shaky 20 ft. ride to the end of the driveway was nothing like what I imagined it to be.

My wounded pride and I got back on the bike the next day, and the day after. Every day until I took for granted that I could hop on a bike and pedal away.

My first bike ride, and perhaps yours, is the perfect metaphor for the learning process. It requires stepping up, letting go, trial and error. And falling. Lots of falling and getting back up. Peter Jarvis, professor of adult learning at The University of Georgia, describes the sensations produced by the first bike experience as “disjuncture.” It is the state of disequilibrium in a novel experience that shakes us out of our comfort zone.  It demands our attention. It is the feeling that our current knowledge or previous experiences  (our self “biography”, according to Jarvis) isn’t helping. We become uncomfortable . Disjuncture motivates us to learn so we can close the gap from being uncomfortable to comfortable.

So, we become better with the new thing.  We find our way. We practice. We commit it to memory. We take for granted that we know how to the thing that once made our palms sweat. Part of “take for granted-ness” is good, as we’d be really frustrated learning how to figure out how to speak, read or write every day. But too much “take for granted-ness” puts us in a comfort zone where we don’t do new things. We don’t experience disjuncture. We don’t have to learn. We become, as Jarvis describes, “trapped in the bars of our own minds.”

Even if we could arrange our careers to stay comfortable with what we already know and are good at, those things will change. We can stay in the same job, but it changes as we work with people from different cultures. We can sell the same products, but evolution in user needs will force them to change. We can work for the same company, but it may be sold to new owners. Even the things we try to keep the same will change, creating discomfort from that old friendly source.

The nature of disjuncture is sometimes you go to it and sometimes it comes to you. Reframe it as a friend instead of a threat. It’s the shake out of  “take for granted-ness” that alerts us that things have changed. The good news is that we can change, too. We already know how to learn; recognize shake-ups as the motivation to do it.

Moments of greatness are possible when we choose the vulnerable step out of our comfort zones.

  • Remind yourself of occasions in your life when you successfully learned something from the beginning; perhaps something that is now a strength. When talents become strengths, we sometimes forget that it wasn’t always that way.
  • Do the thing you’ve been putting off because it’s unfamiliar, uncertain or unclear. If you can’t do it all, take on the parts you can master.
  • Find someone for help and encouragement. Perhaps it’s a mentor, a friend or a teacher, but find someone who can show you the way and believes that you can. And when you breakthrough, pay forward his or her favor to someone else.

Remember, we’ll always wobble in the new stuff. But to get better or get to great,  just remember how you learned to ride a bike.