Mind the innovation [insert well-known retail company name here]

I had an interesting experience in a well-known retail store the other day. A great example of not leveraging employee networks for innovation.

I had downloaded their mobile app, which was quite nice. Mainly, though, to get a discount. 

When it came to pay, I had a great conversation with the person working the checkout. 

"How are you finding the app?" she asked. I gave her some feedback and then asked her the same. She gave me a detailed reply that told me the developers had obviously not thought about her experience when creating the app. She also had some very neat ideas to improve both the employee and customer experience of the app and more generally. She was a super-responsive employee.  

"How do you pass on this feedback?" I asked after heading her ideas. "Well, I can tell my manager, who might pass it onto the area manager. But, really, what's the point?" I sympathised - it's all too familiar. Disconnented companies, top-down companies - where innovation goes to die.

What a wasted opportunity to loop employee networks into a crowdsourced development opportunity. Who talks to customers the most? Who works with your app the most? Who can continually get feedback in a conversational, empathetic way? Your front line staff. 

It doesn't matter how many cool design labs your development team run, or how many post-it notes end up on the wall. If your company doesn't tap into their innovation networks, it's another Innovation opportunity lost. 

Funnily enough, she had enough authority to decide what counted as "t-shirt" for the promotional deal of the day. Or was it she wasn't given any clarity or a place to ask?

Top-down companies: where innovation goes to die

The more top-down stuctured and controlled a company, the less innovative. Why? Because to be innovative you need to leverage networks. Internally, externally, partnerships, industry, government, ecosystems. Networks need trust. Top-down breeds mistrust. 

I was thinking about this when talking to the organizer of the Social Workplace Conference (at WeWork in London, June 10th - I'm facilitating a session!). A social workplace, whether in person or virtual is all about creating connection, building value networks, and knowing how to harness and deliver on that value. It's far more than just "getting along". It is far deeper than "partnerships".

This is crucially important. I've been reading some interesting articles such as this one that say we're at the lowest point of innovation in over two decades. It may be that the digital revolution is getting embedded and we'll see things pick up. But I think the issue is cultural and organizational. Our companies are not set up to deliver on networked or ecosystem innovation.

By ecosystem, I don't mean more apps for a particular platform. I'm talking about the large networks that need leveraging to solve some of the most complex issues facing society (and your company).  

You see, innovation is about people: connecting people and ideas. It's a cultural thing, not a technological problem.

As Steve Case explains in The Third Wave, it's about generating trust. He's talking about the AOL-Time Warner merger in this quote, but the book explains how trust and large-scale collaboration/innovation networks are crucial in order to exploit the digital innovation potential that currently exists:

"The searing failure of the merger of AOL and Time Warner came down to people, relationships, and culture. We had a pretty good sense of what we should do, but we didn’t have the right people, or the right culture, to capitalize on the opportunities in front of us. The lack of trust crippled the company’s ability to be successful."

Sounds like a history of many M&As. And now legacy companies are trying to catch up by creating venture funds, inovation labs. These sometimes hope to co-opt the start-up/entrepreneurial cultures of other companies (or at least hoping it rubs off). But because they are not viewing innovation as a process that includes networks and large scale collaboration, the ripple effect is going to be small. If you can't even harness your organization internally for new ideas, the chances of seeing the bigger picture are pretty low.

The funny thing? Big companies could have network-building economies of scale. They have lots of employees, their products and services invariably involve huge collaborations, they are used to working with government and industry. But becuase of their organizational structure, leadership, purpose and vision, they are LEAST placed to leverage this huge potential.


I don't know which article of so many to link to from these people, so here's a list of people I ready frequently. Go read the experts: Niels Pflaeging, The Ready, Jack Martin Leith, Harold Jarche, Mark Britz and Jon Husband (my diagram is in homage). And many others. 



Leadership Development: Analogue and Outdated

Most company leadership development programmes are outdated, analogue, and not fit for the digital workplace. They might use fancy LMS systems and incorporate all kinds of excellent experiential learning methods. They might also incorporate some famous academics (apart from company ego, I still don't understand this) and have a social/peer learning element. But in essence they are the same old programmes that we're seen for the past two or three decades. And - guess what? - nothing changes.

To be a leader you've got to be:

  • Authentic - check.
  • Situational - OK.
  • Accountable - yep, got that.
  • Transparent - well, I'll try.
  • Good at simplifying - yes, well, that's not going to happen at XCo..
  • A good listener - now, I don't have time for that too.
  • And whatever our company believes is important too - I'm tired.

And when you're finish the programme, you head back to work and try to be a better leader. But then the work gets in the way,  the reward and promotion processes act as disencentives, and only some of it sticks...maybe.

ROI? Well, the industry is worth billions to providers. But I'm not sure about value to those paying for either external solutions or in-house development. 

There are two problems I see every day:

First: leadership development does not incorporate actual work. It is side of the desk stuff. The people delivering the programmes usually have no experience in the business. They have an intrerest in leadership and are experts in the theories (or at least folk tales of leadership).

But second and most important: leadership development programmes don't use the tools a company already has for work. It adds more tools - sometimes really fancy ones. But it doesn't, for example, show you how to collaborate on a document with your team, to hold open meetings on a video call, or to build your value networks using social media.

It's the second problem that I see as most critical. The new digital tools that are arriving in the workplace require the behaviours I listed earlier. Then, they can scale the behaviours to a wide audience. I can't emphasise enough that the tech itself does nothing and changes nothing. It can only scale what we already do.

I truly believe that helping a manager get comfortable and successful using digital tools would be far more effective than most leadership programmes. For example, working with their team using Skype, Yammer and O365. Or Google Docs and Hangouts. Or see my previous post on how an ESN is a great social media practice ground for execs. In all situations, collaborative behaviours and skills are best learned by collaborating.

If we want our companies to be innovative, creative, and agile (or the buzzword of the week) this is what needs to happen. This is the new change "management". It's also scalable and more able to adapt to circumstance. Get potential leaders using the tools, acting in a way that makes them effective, and delivering measurable value. Or, even better, coach those who are already using the tools effectively because they are your real future leaders. After all, no analogue leadership programme deals with #DigitalCultureShock.

I've been interesting in digital leadership ever since I used to sit in an office, writing "leadership programmes". I was excited to learn about the research and methods to develop "leaders" but was disappointed to feel that the programmes didn't bring the value I was expecting. I believe was because they were not tied to the immediate work people needed to actually do or the systems they used to do it.

There have been a lot of interesting pieces on Digital Leadership skills recently - like this one. Or anything written by Harold Jarche. Writers on the new wave of leadership talk about people adept at human skills and bringing the best out in others - using digital tools to expand their influence (in a positive way) and opening new spaces for others to excel. Current leadership development does nothing of the sort.


Adoption is a Sales Metric, not a Value Metric

I was at a Microsoft event a few weeks ago. Their take on "any-device" collaborative technology is interesting and could yield huge benefits to organizations (if they are really ready for it!). But I found one thing frustrating about much of the discussion.

It was the focus on adoption as the key measure of success.  

I hear the same metric bandied about in IT, comms and HR (LMS "adoption" anyone?). To me, it's a useless measure. It's a metric for salespeople to measure their success, not for users getting value. Indeed, Microsoft even rewards their salespeople based on client adoption numbers (or at least they did in 2012). 

I've been working with social collaboration technology for years, in IT, HR and Comms departments. Often, I've had my dislike of adoption as a useful metric questioned. But I'd rather have 20% of the organization using new digital technology and getting deep value (i.e. it's completely embedded in work processes) than 80% just turning it on every day.

Yes, there's the argument that you push towards a tipping point in numbers of people using a technology. But really, how do you know that people are getting value: e.g. engagement in their work, reduction in technology-related stress, improvement in business processes, greater sharing or learning? These are outcomes. Adoption is not an outcome. These things take time and a focus on deep integration into work. Adoption focuses on IT as the outcome, not the desired changes in systems, processes, behaviours and culture.

This is why the latest buzz term "digital transformation"  means different things to different types of organisation. Old terms stick and new terms get appropriated to mean old things. And metrics like adoption stick around far too long.

Social Media for C-Suite? Get on your ESN first!

I've been reading a lot of marketing stuff recently about "social" CEOs. You know - Branson and others who use Twitter and Facebook to promote their brands. (Although no-one ever mentions whether they personally use these accounts or have teams of social media PR people writing for them).

I get it - having your leadership talk up your company and products is a great thing. It can show authenticity, passion and help to build social "proof" of your products or services. And it's no surprise or coincidence that the top social CEOs also run some of the most successful companies (e.g. see http://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-what-the-worlds-top-50-ceos-do-on-social-media-2015-06-05)

However, when I read about the reluctance of many c-suite execs (or anyone else for that matter) to use social media in a genuine way, the answer of the marketing and PR industry is to just "do it" (and pay armies of consultants to help).

They are missing a step and a crucial practice ground - the corporate Enterprise Social Network (ESN). If you can't or won't model successful social behaviours with your own employees, why would you talk to your consumers/customers? If you can't be [open, transparent, authentic, accountable, conversational] on internal social media, you should not be on external social media.

Above all things, an ESN is a learning platform. Use it to learn and see what works or doesn't work. Work out loud.

If you believe in scaffolded learning, the internal ESN is a safe practice place where you can build your social media knowledge and practice, practice, practice. Above all things, an ESN is a learning platform. Use it to learn and see what works or doesn't work. Work out loud. Ignore the marketing/PR stuff for now and connect with your company first.

Speaking Different (Business) Languages: social organizations and legacy orgs

Everyday, I see two different business languages that don't connect in meaning. I’m wondering if there is even a middle ground to bridge the two.

The differences depend on beliefs about people. You either believe organizations are complex and social, comprised of people who need to connect and collaborate. Or you believe organizations are machines and people are the cogs (who just take orders from the top).

Business Model Generation, Lean Startup, agile, holocracies, sociocracies, culture, purpose, engagement, learning, innovation, community, networks, design, decentralization, plain english (or your language of choice). This is the language of new organizations. 

Productivity, efficiency, re-structuring, shareholder value, control, management speak. This is the language of legacy organizations. 

I use the language of new organizations every day when talking about the value of enterprise social networks (ESNs). It lands well with small groups and fits well with aspirations and wishes of those people who genuinely want a change in how organizations are structured and operate. However, over time, the language has lessened in impact. I've been wondering why? Mark Britz has written an excellent post on how the vendors of enterprise social changed their words to suit old business language.

I think it’s also one step further - that goes wider than enterprise social networks. Old business has incorporated new business language into old business models. The language is changing, but the models are not changing significantly. In my case, the power of the words that were used to sell the idea of social organizational change is disappearing. Now we have the equivalent of “new business” greenwash - in employer branding and leadership speak. It leads to workplaces that talk such a different talk from reality that the difference is jarring.  

Legacy companies speak of innovation, creativity, design, agile, learning etc. But they may lack the deeper, shared understanding of these ideas that newer organizations possess. And that's why I feel we may not bridge the divide. It comes down to belief: in people, their capabilities, and how you think humans should treat and work with one another. You either believe a human organizations or don’t. To believe the latter but talk new business language makes our lives harder by lessening the impact of transformational ideas, words and evidence.

I'll work every day to prove myself wrong, but at heart I don't think I am. Maybe FB at work will change things, as Carrie Basham Young has eloquently written? But even then the metrics she talks about lack meaning and are still wedded in traditional business models. Has time run out on the promises of ESNs and other hopes for real change in legacy orgs? (ESNs are one small part – definitely not a cure-all). Are you able to bridge the divide?


I remember the first four days of my new job at PwC. It was back in 2006. Sitting in a room learning IT: all functional, technical, how to use software. All day for four days. Click here, click here, click here. It was such waste of time because no-one remembered anything. You didn't need the information until you needed to use the software.

But I also noticed there was nothing about the skills and behaviours that drove the tools. Nothing about how the "employer brand" came to life. And it was a world away from the collaborative experience I had in university, even then. 

I experienced Digital Culture ShockThe difference between the collaborative digital culture you are used to to and what you experience in a new environment. 

Recently, I've been working with two groups of undergraduate students from the University of Michigan with a research project on this topic (together we coined the phrase Digital Culture Shock). They have found out the same is still true as I experienced in 2006.

These incredible students come from collaborative university environments. Collaboration is the norm, with behaviours and skills that work well with technology. Google Drive is standard, social apps keep them connected both inside and outside the classroom. The behaviours and skills they practice are for work, as well as fun. University is social, so they learn what working socially means. Tech and culture go hand in hand. But essentially, to get good grades, it's the people side, the social side. Tech is just a facilitator around different schedules and priorities (is it a surprise university life is not 9-5?).

Poor students. They leave this environment to experience a complete culture shock at work.

We have found that while most companies might train on the tech, they don't broaden their approach to the behaviours and skills that make collaboration successful. 

Almost all companies pitch an "employer brand" about collaboration. But the reality is so much different, sometimes painfully so. I would guess about 90% of legacy companies have uncollaborative cultures. They might well have good technology, but don't unlock its potential.

How do you help young employees stay resilient in the face of such a different work environment? Never mind the silly HR warnings: "the millennials are coming!" (or "Gen Z" sigh) ... perhaps they should stay away? 

We want to find the 10% - the companies that bridge the collaboration gap between school, college/university and work. If you work in such a place, please reach out so I can connect you with the student teams. 

Learning Social

If you accept that almost all learning is the transfer of knowledge/skills from person to person (with practice, repetition, support and all that entails) then helping people to connect is the core of facilitating learning.

You don’t need to create “false” social learning experiences. You don't need a "social" LMS. Help people find a purpose to connect and maybe facilitate at the beginning. That might be through technology; it might be on post-it notes on a wall. The key is continuous practice of new behaviours - learning social. 

For example, helping a team collaborate more effectively is learning - more easily done with small, purpose-driven interventions. Helping people share issues is facilitating social learning - it's why people who Work Out Loud tend to progress faster in organizations.

If you can get to a point to take yourself out of the middle, you have been highly successful. Well done. 

That’s why most organizations are not learning organizations. They do not facilitate connection and collaboration. With middle managers as information gatekeepers and micromanaging leadership, learning cannot happen because connections between employees are not easily created and therefore don't return anywhere near the potential value they could. 

In fact, being human, we bypass the structure because we want to connect, we want to know (to get context), to learn, and we want to enjoy our work. 

We buy more and more technology to "solve" this problem. But having a "digital workplace" doesn't change any core issues. At heart (and I mean that), the problem is simple. Far simpler than most technology vendors would have us believe. 

Purpose-driven connections create engagement. Engagement drives collaboration. Collaboration drives innovation. The key is unlocking all this potential. It's all learning social. 

"Social" Business: What do I do? Where do I go next?

This post has been on LinkedIn for a while, but I thought I would re-post here too. Original post is here.

I’m trying to work out how to explain the value of what I do and where I go from here career-wise. I hope this post helps others in similar community/learning/collaboration jobs find it useful. 

There’s an emerging role in organizations and I’m lucky enough to have one of them. However, it’s hard to pin down a definite description, despite the enormous value such roles bring. Many people ask what I and others like me do. Here I'll try to explain, based on my experiences and conversations with others. 

We are internal culture entrepreneurs, stripping away power to help people to connect at a human level. The purpose of our work is to make big, traditional organizations more human, agile and responsive. We bring enormous business value (productivity, engagement, innovation etc.) as we work with others to co-create new ways of working. 

We understand the business value of social learning, community, collaboration - all facilitated (not driven by) collaborative technology. From my experience, we tend to come from backgrounds in L&D/HR, Communications, IT or marketing (my background is in L&D). We use techniques from a diverse set of ideas including lean startup, marketing, design, and product psychology among many others. We work with individuals or small groups at a time. We sell new ideas about ways of working every day and bring business value with each one.

And we are changing organizations from the bottom-up. Using methods unlike traditional formal change management efforts, we rely on the informal, conversational and experimental. This tends to complement formal efforts. But much of the time, the informal is far more effective. 

We like technology, but are not beholden to it. It’s an enabler, not a cause of these changes. We tend to go undetected, generally under-appreciated, and under supported (very often a team of one). Usually, we sit in HR, Comms, or IT, but really should collaborate across all three and business units. 

Neither a special generalist nor a general specialist, we have a role that is hard to pin down and even harder to establish any clear career path. There are many areas of expertise we understand and draw upon to develop our ideas and experiments. We may not be experts in the wide variety of areas that I list below, but we understand these well enough conceptually to apply practically. 

Where do I head next? "CLO", HR/OD strategy, IT strategy - they don't seem to fully "fit". I'm intrigued to understand others' experiences. 

Have I managed to speak for a wider “we”? Do you find yourself in a role like this? What are your career plans? What else can I add to the list? 

 The List:

  • Personal Knowledge Management
  • Social and informal learning (not traditional “training")
  • Performance support
  • Qualitative and quantitative research and analytics
  • Innovation and creativity through connection
  • Networks 
  • Agile
  • Lean startup
  • Product psychology
  • Psychology of engagement (employee, etc.) 
  • Coaching
  • Facilitation
  • Community management 
  • UX
  • Design thinking
  • Process redesign
  • Sociology of organizations 
  • Sales/selling
  • Digital marketing
  • Social media
  • “Future of work” Technology
  • Crowdsourding 

Org Learning is Bringing the Inside Out, Not Outside In

I’ve been having lots of conversations recently about transforming organizations. How do we help them become more agile, human-centric and responsive?

Many of the conversations revolve around the idea of bringing the outside in - opening up your organization to new ideas and changing accordingly. However, this idea sits uncomfortably with me. While it’s not wrong and makes sense as a first step,  something kept nagging at me that it’s missing so much.

I think it’s this - bringing the outside in is passive. Sure, it’s about listening and  accepting new ideas, but there’s nothing active in it as a concept. You are paying consultants to analyze, being benchmarked, commissioning reports - it’s all being done to you. You get to hear new ideas, what other organizations are doing. Great first step, but then what? I think you're only 20% of the way there.

The next step is to take the inside out - take the discussion and ideas out into the world. Engage the outside: share what you and your organization does and be prepared to debate, listen, agree and disagree. Everyone in an organization can do this, but it starts with leaders. 

Always concerned with ROI on all of this? Take a look at your spend on the passive column and compare to the results of those organizations who already bring the inside out. 

Here are a few examples of what I mean - do you have more I can add: