Chapter Seven

Open Learning at Work

Part One: Learning-Powered Innovation

On the evening of 1st February 1880, Charles Clarke, a young civil engineering graduate, began his first day’s work at a factory complex in rural New Jersey. To start a new job on a Sunday evening was somewhat unusual, but Clarke was willing to do just about anything to earn a living. The United States was only just seeing the end of the ‘long depression’, triggered by the financial crisis known as the ‘Panic of 1873’. Since the depression brought the expansion of the railroads to an abrupt stop, Clarke had done a succession of unfulfilling jobs.

Whatever hopes he may have had about his new job, he must have been disappointed with the starting salary: $12 a week, and significantly less than the $20 a week he’d received in his last job, teaching at a school in Philadelphia. He must have also been quite taken aback by the working practices, which must have seemed anarchic. America’s manufacturing industry was in the grip of the ‘scientific management’ methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production. 

Clarke’s boss, a scruffily-dressed and dynamic man in his early thirties, had other ideas. Charles’ arrival coincided with a midnight feast, with hampers laid around the pipe organ the owner had installed to encourage regular sing-songs. In the initial few weeks of his employment, he would be asked to support a wide variety of tasks: one minute his hands were drafting designs, the next, thick with grease, fixing machines. 

Job descriptions were non-existent – most of the young men who had recently joined the company were labelled ‘muckers’ (an English slang term), available to do whatever the boss ordered, and were frequently found to be ‘mucking about’, verbally abusing each other, indulging in practical jokes, occasionally giving each other electric shocks. 

The boss, who despite his age was known affectionately as ‘the old man’, expected a minimum of 60 hours per week, from the muckers, though 80-hour weeks were not uncommon. Recognising the pressure of such arduous work, he regularly organised impromptu fishing trips and drinking sessions for his 20 or so employees, and was the first to roll up his sleeves when experiments went on all-night.

Unsurprisingly, the long hours and constantly changing roles took its toll, and staff turnover, in 1880, was 50 percent. But Charles Clarke was never happier. Writing about the ‘little community of kindred spirits’ he remarked, ‘I was constantly observant of all that was going on about me working and studying overtime, as the ambitious young should ever do if they expect to move onward and upward.’40 

Francis Upton, Clarke’s old college pal, was responsible for getting Clarke his job. He clearly felt he was back at college too, writing to his father, ‘I find my work very pleasant here and not much different from the time when I was a student. The strangest thing to me is that the $12 I get each Saturday for my labor does not seem like work, but like study and I enjoy it’.

As you may have guessed halfway through that description (where else were workers giving each other electric shocks in 1880?) the ‘old man’ was Thomas Edison, and the factory was Edison’s Menlo Park hamlet in New Jersey. I’ve begun this section on how the Global Learning Commons can host the dynamic workplace to remind us that innovative learning environments didn’t just appear overnight in Silicon Valley start-ups. Indeed, I can think of no better setting for the values, actions and motivations behind ‘open’ than those found in Menlo Park during the six years that Edison set up his ‘inventions factory’ there, from 1876 to 1882.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the prodigious innovation and productivity of that small group of men. In those six years over 400 patents were filed, creating products which shaped the 20th century: the invention of the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, stations which could generate and transmit electricity, and the incandescent light bulb. It’s hard to imagine how the past century would have been without the entrepreneurship and innovation of a man who has, with some justification, been labelled ‘the father of inventions’.

What the Inventions Factory Tells Us Today

It’s a testimony to Thomas Edison’s vision and imagination that we still look to his life and work for inspiration. And many of the leading creative workplaces of the past 50 years, including Google, Facebook, 3M, have sought to emulate the innovative culture of Edison Labs.

Edison’s success was built on the realisation that innovation could only flourish in a learning environment shaped by collaboration and curiosity. Despite the phenomenal number of patents filed, Edison asked to be judged, not on his successes, but by the number of experiments carried out each day. In contrast to many present-day organisations, innovation at Menlo Park was powered by learning, not a need to find more customers, or to create a return on investment.

This was no solitary wizard – his ability to find and attract talent, and his skill in creating a dynamic learning environment was Edison’s real genius. What can we learn from the culture and structure of Menlo Park? I believe there are five key ingredients, listed below, together with some contemporary manifestations:

1. Create A Machine-Shop Culture

Menlo Park was known as the ‘inventions factory’. Its naming was intentional, bringing together the head (having the idea) and the hands (making it work) – creativity and craftsmanship. Most companies do one well, but rarely both. Edison fashioned a learning culture where head and hands were equals. In doing so, he imported the practices he’d seen in the machine shops in Newark, New Jersey. 

A machine-shop culture is built around the concept that the craft and skill of the artisan needs to be nurtured and supported. The work was organised, monitored and managed to give dignity, value and independence to the work of the ‘muckers’, and everyone was expected to ‘muck in’ and get their hands dirty. 

However, in addition to affording equal respect to intellectual and practical pursuits, there are values you’d want to have in place, if you want to build a machine-shop culture:

a) Flatten structures – Looking at photographs taken inside the machine shop at Menlo Park, it’s virtually impossible to tell which one is Edison. ‘Lead experimenters’ held no particular authority over ‘muckers’. Edison knew that good ideas could come from anywhere, and that creativity hates hierarchy. 

b) Encourage unorthodoxy – The rigid working practices emerging through the industrial age, held no attraction to Edison or his workers. ‘Nine-to-five’ frequently meant working through the night and sleeping the following day. Acutely aware that they were making history, the culture had to foster counter-intuition. Menlo Park’s modern-day equivalent is probably MIT’s Media Lab, where inventions include E ink (which made digital book readers possible) the $100 laptop used in the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ programme, and the hologram used in your credit card. They have a long tradition of encouraging unorthodoxy. Writing about its formation in 1979, Media Lab’s Chair, Nicholas Negroponte, notes: ‘New ideas would emerge from a heterogeneous collection of edgy, unorthodox people… those people came from various parts of MIT, from architecture to physics, from music to maths. In some cases those faculties were no longer welcome in their home departments. In that sense, the founding faculty was a veritable Salon des Refusés. Misfits’.41

c) Welcome diversity – Negroponte suggests that the Media Lab is ‘anti-disciplinary’, that even the notion of a ‘discipline’ is now starting to fall apart. For many learning environments this may seem a step too far (for now) but Edison consciously created machine shops where a diverse range of skill sets worked in the same room. The advantages of multi-perspectives was not lost on 3M:

“Thomas Edison believed that a small group of people with varied backgrounds could be the most inventive. That's what I found when I joined (3M's) Central Research. I could talk to an analytical chemist, a physicist, people working in biology and organic chemistry – people in all the sciences. They were all within 50 yards.’’42

d) Learn by tinkering – MIT, Google and Edison Labs are all examples of ‘inventing by doing’. In learning theory terms, this is a constructivist approach, where learning is built, layer upon layer, informed by the personal experiences/experiments of the learner. Contrast this with the ‘company manual’ approach where, for all but a few employees, learning is consumed, not constructed. Great machine-shop companies live and breathe tinkering philosophies. Edison maintained ‘I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.’ Media Lab’s early motto was a playful twist on the academic ‘publish or perish’: ‘demo or die’, meaning don’t write up what it can do, show it.

2. Keep It Social 

When Edison set up the organ for communal singing, or extended his prototype electric railway so it could take his workers fishing, or provided beer and food for all-night invention sessions, it wasn’t very different to the free massages, laundry and food available at Valve. And it probably provided the inspiration for Mark Zuckerberg’s pizza-fuelled, all-night ‘hackathons’ in the early days of Facebook. 

As we see more widely now, the dividing line between work and play is often deliberately blurred in intensively creative workplaces. The remarkable thing about Menlo Park, however, is that the general public was encouraged to join the commons:

“The shops were places to socialise as well as work. Visitors were allowed easy access to the shops, whether they were men looking for work, boys looking for amusement, or amateur inventors looking for new ideas.”43

We’re increasingly seeing companies become social businesses – working with employees, partners, suppliers, and customers to ‘maximise co-created value’. Scott Drummond is Social Media Director for HOST, one of Australia’s leading advertising agencies. For him, helping companies develop a social media strategy is never really about the media:

"It's the low-hanging fruit for organisations that have been used to talking at people. They say 'now we can talk at them through another channel'. But eventually they get past that and say 'oh, they're talking back!' For some people social media becomes a bridge to becoming a social business." 

More and more business are coming to see that a business that’s social, is not just a better way of connecting with customers, it’s a route to better employee engagement. Scott Drummond again:

"Switching social media on in a company is easy. Finding a way to legitimise it in a business context, to make people more capable, to incentivise them, to make them happier in their job – that should be a metric that we care about. Not just 'are we wringing an ounce more productivity out of them, but are they more engaged at work?'" 

3. Make learning horizontally relevant

As we saw in the previous chapter, learning is most powerful when it is ‘horizontally relevant’. In the Edison Labs every experiment, every ‘learning moment’ was trying to solve the problem immediately facing Edison and his muckers. Suppositions weren’t filed away for later development. They were tested, however late the hour, there and then, in what Marcia Conner calls ‘the moment of need’:

"The Head of Human Resources in a large international company that I work with aims for learning agility throughout the organisation. He wants people to hear new ideas and put those into practice quickly and easily. Learning isn't just the taking in, but it's the application. It's thinking about how we're going to use what we're taking in and apply it in the moment of need, to what the business needs to be done." 

4. Give learners the ‘right-to-roam’ on the commons

We saw, in Chapter Four, how games developer Valve insists that all employees choose the project they wish to work on, by following their passion. Google, 3M, and a host of other companies now offer ‘free time’ to employees. So, a true learning commons needs to give learners the right-to-roam, if only for some of their time. 

At Menlo Park, the practice of moving between projects was known as ‘tramping’. Workers were encouraged to work on a number of projects at once, rotating between them, when their expertise was needed, or when they thought they had something to offer. Critically, tramping doesn’t just expand the learning of individual employees – it ensures that knowledge doesn’t remain within silos, but circulates throughout the organisation. 

5. From individual to collective, from formal to informal

By now, you’ll have seen the emerging pattern: innovative companies create a learning environment that’s fluid, collaborative, democratic, autonomous, and integrated into the work being done. This may not seem overly radical but it’s a very long way from where most organisations currently sit.

For a start, many businesses still focus upon individual learning, but what we see in great learning organisations is a shift towards the collective knowledge of the company. Social media has transformed the ‘reach’ of knowledge availability exponentially. This means that learning managers have quickly gone from ‘how do I get the answer into your head?’ to ‘maybe the answer’s in the room’ to ‘the answer’s not even in the room, it’s in the network’. Forget e-learning – the concept of Personal Learning Networks, facilitated through social media, is the biggest disruptive innovation to have hit workplace learning in 50 years.

Organisations, therefore, need to widen their focus. But company leaders who have not learned socially themselves, usually fail to appreciate the scale of the shift taking place. Indeed, Harold Jarche argues that, to understand it, you have to experience it: 

“Working and learning in networks is a fundamental shift from working and learning in a hierarchy or in the structured organisation, and the only way to really understand how different it is, is to engage it... You can't do a web-learning strategy for your organisation unless you're a web-learner; you don't realise what blogging does unless you've blogged; you don't know the power of Twitter, until you've used it." 

Companies also need to see that, when it comes to work-based learning, they have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I highlighted the consensus earlier that about 90 percent of an employee’s learning is informal – through experience, from mentors, or through their personal learning networks (which will reach beyond the company). The remaining 10 percent is gained through formal training. Why, then, do companies reverse these ratios when it comes to investing in learning? Ninety percent of company spend is on the formal, and only 10 percent on informal learning. That doesn’t seem like a sensible use of money.

Here, however, is the paradox in going ‘open’: organisations are beginning to see that they need to become intentional about informal learning, and, in particular, social learning. A transition to more informal learning has to be managed, and they have learning officers to do just that. But, for informal learning to be effective, it depends on pull, not push. So leaders increasingly need to create the right growing conditions (culture and structure) sprinkle some seeds, and see what comes up, rather than imposing social learning on their businesses.

So Why Can’t We All Be Like Edison? 

Why Some Companies Learn and Others Fail  

Successive studies highlight the main anxiety that keeps CEOs awake at night: adapting to change. One only has to look at the fortunes of Kodak – once the dominant business in personal photography, now declared bankrupt – to see the importance of creativity and agility. Innovation is pivotal to growth. Growth and innovation have been described as ‘the inseparable twins of contemporary economics’. It’s estimated that half of America’s gross domestic product lies in intellectual property that for the sake of simplicity we’ll define as the creation and exploitation of ideas.

Business Week’s list of 2010’s most innovative companies demonstrates a clear and consistent link between innovation and revenue growth: for proof, simply look at the performance of Apple, Google, Amazon, Nintendo and India’s Reliance Industries (gas and oil production) – all in the top 20 companies for innovation and all enjoying revenue growth in recent years of at least 30 percent. So, why don’t all companies take inspiration from the modern day inventions factories, some of which are featured here, and all of which are dominating their industries? What’s stopping everyone from having their own Menlo Park?The simple answer is that, while every CEO wants their company to be innovative, there is less certainty and less still in how to build a vibrant learning culture. 

It’s now over 20 years since the publication of social scientist and management expert Peter Senge’s seminal ‘Fifth Discipline’ book, in which he persuasively argued that companies needed to become intentional about learning if they were to become successful organisations and fix the learning disabilities that led to organisational failure. 

Despite widespread acknowledgement of Senge’s case, we are, in many ways, not much further forward in our understanding of how companies can foster learning.

Corporate Learning’s Identity Crisis

This vagueness is graphically illustrated in job titles given to people that I interviewed who have a responsibility for learning in companies – variously described as Chief Information Officers, Knowledge Managers, Learning & Development Officers, Training Officers, Directors of Learning & Collaboration, Learning Evangelists, even Catalyst for Magic (we’ll meet her in a little while). 

Despite learning’s identity crisis, however, there are companies who see the need to create an innovative learning commons in their factories and offices. In order to do so they’ve pretty much abandoned everything they learned in business school (if indeed they ever went to one). In Part Two of this chapter we’ll examine how they have done this, and hear from some of the leading learning professionals on the paradox entailed in managing a process by letting go of it.  

For now, though, let’s try to unpick the reasons why some companies succeed in creating learning commons while others can’t or won’t. Given that learning is an intensely personal process, it won’t surprise you to learn that most of the blockers reflect people’s personalities, insecurities and motivations.

Failure of Leadership

Though stating the obvious, it’s nevertheless true that if a CEO is unconvinced about the need to create an innovative learning culture, it probably won’t happen. Citing a study published in the British Journal of Management, Dan Pontefract, Head of Learning & Collaboration at Canadian telecoms giant Telus, writes: “leaders must not only make deep investment, they must scream from the hilltops that it’s an important piece of organizational culture. Collaborative learning in a positive environment is critical to success.”44

Recent research, however, would suggest that they not only have to believe in it – they have to live it, too. Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen and Jeff Dyer, in researching their book, ‘The Innovator’s DNA’, found that CEOs at innovative companies spent twice as much time modelling innovation (asking questions, experimenting, connecting unconnected ideas) than those who led less innovative companies.  

Take Garry Ridge, for example. Ridge is a typically outspoken Australian who moved to San Diego, eventually becoming the CEO of WD-40, the company whose mission is ‘to create positive, lasting memories by stopping squeaks, getting rid of smells and getting rid of dirt’. WD-40 may not seem like a hot-bed of innovation but, in a fiercely competitive environment Ridge has more than doubled WD-40’s turnover in his 12 years in charge. What’s more, the $300m annual sales are achieved by only 300 employees – equivalent to $1m per employee. 

In the early years of being CEO, Garry walked the talk, completing an executive leadership Masters programme at the University of San Diego (USD). The company now pays for other employees to complete advanced leadership programmes at USD. Ridge has also created a lunchroom library, where employees can borrow books on learning and leadership, and the ‘Leadership Academy’, where staff can discuss issues and listen to guest speakers on a wide range of interests – not all related to WD-40’s core business. 

Modelling the learning you wish to see in others is possibly the single most important thing that a CEO can do in creating a learning organisation. Sadly, too few CEOs are like Garry – for most, the personal learning journey ends once they’ve reached the head of the company. 

Out-dated Organisational Structures, Cultures and Practices

Ridge inherited a learning culture, in which knowledge stayed in departmental silos:

“So my biggest challenge was ‘how do you turn silos of knowledge into fields of learning?’ Why weren’t people sharing? Well, they were scared out of their pants.” 

In order to get people to share freely Ridge had to remove the fear factor:

“So, we don’t make mistakes at WD-40 company. We have ‘learning moments’. We had to start rewarding people for telling us that they’d screwed up. Not that they’d screwed up in a negative way, but that they’d screwed up in a positive way, and that they’d learned something from it.”

Creating an innovative learning culture rarely produces a direct line between cause and effect. So learning managers are often under pressure to justify their existence through layers of evaluation. It also nudges learning back to the safe and predictable classroom-based models, because we all know how that works: present, test, forget - but at least we’ve got completed test papers.  

Of course, e-learning was supposed to fix all that. But a lack of imagination in course design can’t be rescued simply by being digitised. For too many e-learners (though please don’t call them that), death-by-PowerPoint was replaced by death-by-clicking, and conversation was replaced by the multiple choice test.

The problem isn’t the technology, it’s the pedagogy (don’t fret if this word is foreign to you, there’s a passage coming up on the three ugliest words in the English language – pedagogy is one of them – but they’re easily explained). Most formal training suffers from ‘push’ – what someone thinks you need to know to improve performance. By contrast, the learning which happens socially oozes ‘pull’ – which makes the training room seem like an even more alien place.

Mishandling Expertise, Creativity and Motivation 

In most companies, therefore, learning still equates to training; expertise = content; creativity becomes a synonym for innovation, and motivation is found in a paycheque. Incidentally, if you’re not sure of the difference between creativity and innovation, think of it this way: if you’re the type of person who has lots of new ideas, you might be creative; you’re only innovative, however, if you take some of those ideas and produce something with them. 

Professor Teresa Amabile (whom we met in Chapter Five) has identified three core components of creativity: creative thinking skills, motivation, and expertise. She believes that managers can significantly influence each of these components, positively and negatively, through workplace practices and conditions. Though not directly part of her research, it goes without saying that work-based learning has a critical bearing on all three. 

Amabile makes the important point that creativity killing practices are rarely the fault of a lone manager, but more often arise out of long-standing, usually unchallenged, systemic processes – how we do things around here. She points to a number of ways in which employees’ expertise and creativity is blocked:

  • Awarding false freedoms – giving employees apparent freedom to explore the means to a specified end, but in reality severely curtailing such freedoms, by proscribing the route, or frequently changing the destination.

  • Cultivating a (inadvertent) culture of criticism – bosses usually don’t set out to be negative towards new ideas. But Amabile’s research suggests that ‘(other) people believe that they will appear smarter to their bosses if they are more critical - and it often works. In many organisations, it is professionally rewarding to react critically to new ideas’.

  • Putting together homogenous teams – managers may look good if teams come to a solution quickly and without dissent. Job done. ‘But homogenous teams do little to enhance expertise and creative thinking. Everybody comes to the table with a similar mindset. They leave with the same’.45

The cumulative effect of management mishandling, or micro-managing, creativity and expertise is that motivation drains away, and learning becomes a management-imposed chore, to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

In order to better understand the difficulties corporations face in trying to foster collaborative, engaging, learning cultures, I met with Matt Moore, Knowledge Manager at Price Waterhouse Coopers, Australia, at the company’s offices in Sydney’s business district. Matt, a migrant Brit who doesn’t look entirely comfortable in a suit, suggested we relocate to the nearest pub where, over a beer, he began by highlighting the tensions between personal development and motivation, and the need to build collaborative learning:

“What gets badged as ‘organisational learning’ is really just the mass training of individuals. Corporations have to balance three levels of learning: the individual, the group and the corporate. When they get it wrong, it’s usually the group that gets neglected.” 

Similarly, Matt believes that employee engagement programmes encourage individual advancement over collegiality. They usually offer rewards (salary increases, bonuses and non-monetary recognition) and participation (having a say in your workload, having input into company decision-making). Both are designed to bond the individual more closely to the company, but neglect the concept of the group. Moore also feels that employee engagement schemes fail to recognise the importance of intrinsic motivation as a key driver of engagement, and offer financial reward as a default, particularly if the company itself is driven by extrinsic factors (profits, sales). 

Teresa Amabile reinforces Matt Moore’s convictions: ‘when people are intrinsically motivated, they engage in the work for the challenge and enjoyment of it… Managers in successful, creative organisations rarely (need to) offer specific extrinsic rewards for particular outcomes… The work itself is motivating… the most common extrinsic motivator managers use is money, which doesn’t necessarily stop people from being creative. But, in many cases, it doesn’t help either.’ 

In other words, companies can’t mandate learning, because engagement – a pre-requisite of learning – can neither be bought, nor instilled. This, in part, explains the appalling inefficiency of most corporate training programmes. Remember Jay Cross’s calculation that only 15 percent of what's learned in a formal setting is ever actually applied on the job? It’s a safe bet that if you don’t have the engagement of employees when you’re teaching them, they’re not likely to apply it in their work.

Part Two: Bringing the Commons to the SOFT Company

The changes we looked at in the preceding chapters – economic turbulence, the democratisation of knowledge, the shift from cultural consumption to production, the crisis of disengagement – all point to societal shifts, which can do no other than radically alter the world of work. The prolific growth of social movements in this century points to something more than passing unrest or dissatisfaction. Instead, we may be at the start of a new epoch, where we see the world, and how we should live our lives, as we’ve never seen before. Peter Senge eloquently sums it up:

“At the deepest level, I think that we're witnessing the shift from one age to another. The most universal challenge that we face is the transition from seeing our human institutions as machines to seeing them as embodiments of nature… If you use a machine lens, you get leaders who are trying to drive change through formal change programs. If you use a living-systems lens, you get leaders who approach change as if they were growing something, rather than just ‘changing’ something.”46

Senge is saying that the era of top-down change, driven by a heroic-leader, is at an end; that if institutions and the people who work in them are to survive, then change needs to be cultivated, not driven. Senge argues that new growth comes through personal commitment, not compliance:

“I have never seen a successful organizational-learning program rolled out from the top. Not a single one. Conversely, every change process I've seen that was sustained and that has spread, started small. Usually these programs start with just one team… Deep change comes only through real personal growth – through learning and unlearning. This is the kind of generative work that most executives are precluded from doing by the mechanical mindset and by the cult of the hero-leader: The hero-leader is the one with ‘the answers’." 

In other words, we have to bring the Global Learning Commons into the company, and that means subscribing to the SOFT values and actions we identified in Chapter Three: Sharing, Open, Free, Trust. In the case studies that follow, someone, or some people, recognised the imperative to unlearn, and to shift hearts and minds away from closed to ‘open’ systems. All change starts with a value proposition and here are some to inspire.

Sharing: Telus 

Telus, the Canadian telecommunications company, has an explicitly stated, and award-winning, commitment to lifelong learning. In 2012 it made a learning investment of $23m for its 35,000 staff. It has won the BEST award (Building talent, Enterprise-wide, Supported by the organization’s leaders, fostering a Thorough learning culture) from the American Society for Training and Development seven times, and enjoys very high employee engagement scores.  

Collaboration and ‘spirited teamwork’ are one of their non-negotiable values: employees are known as team members. Their CEO, Darren Entwistle says, “You are successful when the appetite to learn is held as a responsibility shouldered by the entire management team and not by a functional remit within human resources.”

Through Twitter, I met Telus’s Senior Director for Learning and Collaboration, Dan Pontefract. High on his list of many achievements has been to shift from a model of learning, which was essentially didactic, to a blend of formal, informal (acquired on the job) and social (acquired, largely through social media). Underpinning this shift has been the Telus Leadership Philosophy, a model of simplicity, and therefore its power. The TLP has four jargon-free values: We embrace change and initiate opportunity; We have a passion for growth; We have the courage to innovate; We believe in spirited teamwork.

These values are delivered through a ‘fair process’ for all team members, who have an entitlement to: Engage; Explore; Explain; Execute; Evaluate

This process builds a collaborative culture through: Connected Learning; Leadership Framework; Social technologies.

And that’s it. In honouring these values and processes however, a whole swathe of learning has happened, almost all of it collaborative. Training courses in emotional intelligence, coaching and leadership skills, negotiating and presentation coaching, career development, and much more besides. 

Dan also introduced a range of social media tools. Habitat Social is Telus’s own collection of tools that emulate YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, SlideShare, Blogging, Wikis, Flickr and News aggregators. Repairmen and engineers in the field are able to upload videos of the problem facing them, and get a range of potential solutions in seconds. 

A commitment to sharing radically alters the culture of organisations. Micro-blogging on Telus social media tools avoids departmental divisions, or water-cooler cliques. A new employee can be quickly plugged in to ‘how-tos’ and workarounds, hitherto only discovered through tacit learning, and potential costly errors can be averted, or nipped in the bud. 

There’s no doubt that social media is having a huge impact on sharing and collaboration. But I still maintain that it isn’t driving it. What continues to drive it is the desire to meet with like-minded people, to connect ideas, and to take collaborative action, to achieve something that we couldn’t achieve alone, and to feel good about it. Social media is actually facilitating more face-to-face sharing than ever before. It’s not about the media, it’s about the social.

Until the technology came along, collaboration like this couldn’t have happened at scale, or at speed, but it’s the social that gives ‘pull’ to the learning. Once companies fully embrace sharing, phrases like ‘return on investment’ become redundant. As Telus’s Darren Entwistle said of Dan Pontefract “The reason it works is because he has created the pull. People see the business logic of it. They get the return on learning.”

Open: Ingenious Media and AMP 

Patrick McKenna is the CEO of Ingenious Media. Based in London, Ingenious Media is an investment and advisory group specialising in media, entertainment, sport, leisure and clean energy. They have advised some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Channel Four, and invested in festivals, TV production companies and financially backed major films, including Avatar, the biggest grossing film of all time. 

As a former Chairman of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group, and one of the biggest media entrepreneurs in the world, Patrick appears, refreshingly, to play against type. He is a thoughtful, softly-spoken man who is as far removed from the image of a brash investor as possible. If he has an ego, (and it’s hard to imagine someone who has made a fortune out of drama not having one) he keeps it well hidden. 

I’ve known Patrick a long time and though he clearly knows a thing or two about money, it’s been his involvement in education – he was a board member of The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts when I was Director of Learning there – that allowed me to work with him. I was curious to see how the financial sector, famously discrete with its knowledge, was coping with a world gone SOFT, and coping with concepts like radical transparency. How for example did they deal with their biggest asset: intellectual property?

“It’s a bit like the open source software model. We give a lot of our knowledge away, so that people will engage us to deliver some implementation of that knowledge. We tell people everything we know. We don’t have any great insights that we wouldn’t want to share with everyone, because we're either raising investments, giving consultancy advice, or we are making investments. The only way we can sell those insights is by sharing what we know. The reason why we don’t worry about giving that knowledge away is because most people can't implement what they know. The capital value of something these days is the ability to implement it rather than to create it originally.”

That’s the business case for going ‘open’. But there’s another, more pragmatic reason. These days, it’s almost impossible to keep a secret:

"Some of our original funds were marketed under confidentiality agreements, but the information still found its way out. Confidential information in the marketplace today, is tomorrow's reading for the rest of the world, so why bother trying to hide it? It's actually becoming much more open. We're the market leaders, so we have to take that approach – others have had to keep new funds that they're launching under the radar for as long as they can. When we first started we were a bit more circumspect about telling people what we were doing and why we were doing it. As time has gone on, we've learned to be much more transparent about our thinking."

Being more transparent means that their advisory activities are strengthened by their independence, and that their influence becomes greater:

“The music industry was the first to be hit by digital technology. It put its head in the sand and thought it would all just go away. They don't pick their heads up very often to view the landscape, so they needed to be reminded. As consultants to the music industry, we're not incumbents chasing sales and following repetitive old-fashioned practices. We act to provoke them into thinking what they ought to be doing next. Of course they (the music industry) all have their own strategy units, but they tend to be quite weak within the organisation. They're owned by the organisation, and are restricted in what they can say. Whereas independents, such as ourselves, can come in to look at future investment opportunities, and we can say where all this is heading.”

Ingenious is a good example of ‘inside-out’ thinking to influence change. Advising and advocating change in an industry in which you have considerable investments makes sound business sense. A true learning commons, however, has no boundaries and learning also works ‘outside-in’. Our next case study is a brilliant example of cultivating innovation by welcoming outsiders into the learning commons.

Amplifying Innovation

Let me introduce you to the aforementioned ‘catalyst for magic’, Annalie Killian. I met Annalie, almost by chance, at the end of a working trip to Australia. She kindly invited me to her house for dinner, so I interviewed her while she chopped food. With a job title like that, you might think that Annalie works for a whizzy, high-tech start-up. In fact, she works for AMP, the largest, and oldest financial services company in Australasia. 

AMP deals in superannuation, pension plans, and life insurance – not the kind of company you expect to be at the cutting edge of collaboration tools. Companies like AMP have to have a brand that is seen as dependable, responsible and as reliable as the building they occupy (it’s the iconic one which dominates Sydney’s Circular Quay – you can’t miss it). But they also have to be innovative. For Annalie Killian, creating a learning culture that supports innovation has been a slow process. Getting people to invest time and effort to seek out the technological and societal shifts, which have a significant bearing on AMP’s future investments, hasn’t been easy: 

“I started working with innovation champions and said 'I'd like to take you with me so we can go and visit places. And you would think people would think 'well, it's a break from work'. But no, their comfort zone and the tyranny of the urgent would invariably win. So I said to my boss 'I want to bring ideas into the organisation so that people have to trip over them’. And she understood that there wasn't enough 'outside-in' thinking going on."

And so the Amplify festival was born. Amplify is unique – think TED talks47 for accountants, and you wouldn’t be far wrong (having spoken at one, it’s a lot more fun than that sounds). Although Amplify posts its speakers’ presentations online, its primary audience is AMP employees:

“In 2005, we ran the first Amplify festival of ideas over one day. In 2007, we did it over one week. Anyone in the company can attend, and we do it so they can plan their work around it. Amplify has a specific agenda: to look at technology as an indicator of social change. When technology changes, it changes the way human beings interact with each other. When that happens, business shifts. So we ask, 'what's happening at the edges and how might that change us five years from now?'”

Annalie’s list of invited speakers for Amplify reflects her own unbounded curiosity. For 2013 (theme ‘Shift Happened > Transformation Needed’) Amplify’s presenters included research scientists, storytellers, data analysts, social innovators, submarine designers, film producers, social innovators – many financial institutions might question the value of bringing such a diverse range of thought leaders into their headquarters. But the return on investment is already apparent:

“On the back of Amplify, we've managed to get very large investment in our data centre. And we've also had investments in bio-engineering, so it's affecting the direction of our current investments. We're now experimenting with business models. In a few years from now, for example, we think that 50% of work will be free-lance, so we're working with people to build co-creation spaces in which people rent time, rather than floor-space.” 

The lesson from both Ingenious Media and AMP is that ‘open’ demands a complete mind shift: from seeing internal knowledge as a property to be slavishly guarded and then exploited, to seeing it as a process, constantly being tested, augmented, challenged by visitors, and rethought, so that it creates a ‘corporate mind’, able to connect, imagine and innovate.

Free: 3M

3M make everything from skin care to car sealant, from touch screens to Scotch tape – 50,000 products, generating annual sales of more than $20bn. They’re big. They got to be so big by having a ‘tolerance for tinkerers’ and, more importantly giving all staff time to tinker. Their ‘15 percent programme’ was first implemented in 1948, and variants of it been adopted by many other companies since (including Google and Hewlett Packard). ‘15 percent time’ has given birth to many of 3M’s 22,000 patents. One of its most successful is worth detailing.

In 1968, Spencer Silver, one of 3M’s corporate scientists, used the ‘15 percent programme’ to come up with an adhesive that wouldn’t leave any residue when removed. It was a novelty in search of a problem. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work very well in its primary function: to hold things together. A glue that could come unstuck didn’t seem like much of a proposition, and Spencer’s colleagues found the whole venture rather amusing. Since the freedom to fail is built into 3M’s DNA, Silver’s innovation was put down to experience, and not taken into development. 

Eight years later, another 3M scientist, Art Fry, was getting frustrated that the improvised bits of paper he was using as bookmarks in his church hymnal, kept falling out. “If only there was a way to get bookmarks to stay in place,” thought Art. Remembering Silver’s failed attempt at non-residual glue, Art used his ‘15 percent time’ to tinker with the consistency of Silver’s adhesives, and thicknesses of paper so that it could become a repositionable bookmark. 

But he still didn’t know what use the product could be put to, and there wasn’t much of a market for repositionable church hymnal bookmarks. It was only – so legend has it – when he had to take a phone message for a work colleague who wasn’t at his desk, that he grabbed the paper, stuck the message on the desk, and the light bulb came on. What was originally called a ‘Sticky Note’, became the ‘Post-It Note’, and thanks to the freedom to fail and the use of ‘free time’ an industrial icon was launched.

Art Fry, however, is the first to admit that 3M needed an extraordinary collaborative learning culture to allow scientists to make the most of their ‘15 percent free time’:

"I'd had 20 years of experience of developing new products prior to Post-It Notes. If I'd had the idea right out of college, I could never have made it a success, because all of the chemistries and the processes involved were not something I learned in school – I had to learn them at 3M. At 3M we had the research people… out there on the fringes, bringing new materials out of the darkness. Then there are people like me who are in new product development who look at these things and say 'I wonder how they could solve problems?' We have an organisation called Technical Forum that shares technologies throughout the corporation. So, I was always going to seminars… to find out what was cooking."48

3M invests over $1bn a year in R&D, so 15 percent of that represents a substantial commitment. But all of 3M’s employees are entitled to 15 percent time, not just the boffins,. This extraordinary employee entitlement marks the importance the company places on autonomy and the right-to-roam in the learning commons. The reward isn’t simply a highly innovative culture, but loyalty, which measures careers at 3M in decades, and employee engagement stats which are off the charts.

But if simply giving employees 15 percent ‘think-time’ works, why hasn’t it transformed the fortunes of those companies that have copied it? Well, it should be said that for at least one – Google – it has paid off, spectacularly. But Google, like 3M, put two other building blocks in place: a remarkable learning environment, and freedom to fail. For most of the copy-cats, the other two legs of the stool are missing.

At 3M, internal ideas can be taken externally and potentially bought back in, thus relieving pressure to ‘repay’ the company’s generosity. But there is a tolerance for experiments that don’t come off. And here’s something to ponder: over half of 3M’s inventions ‘fail’. 3M has undoubtedly created a classic learning commons culture. One of the key success factors – and why others fail to copy them – is the capacity to share new ideas across ‘open’ structures. 

Trust: IBM

Without trust as a core value, the other three values will never flourish. Building trust in an organisation is not simply the base that provides the safety net for innovative employees, it is repeatedly seen, in surveys, as the lead source of employee motivation. Remuneration, mistakenly considered the prime employee motivator, is only the sixth most important factor.

Most CEOs instinctively know this. Being able to turn this into ‘doing’ is another story. Many of the qualities that make CEOs dynamic change agents aren’t conducive to trust-building. The stereotype of the decisive, macho leader isn’t someone who favours listening, acknowledges mistakes, shares credit, or refuses to blame (remember the stat in Chapter Five that 37 percent of workers felt their boss had ‘thrown them under the bus’ to save themselves?). So, part of the reason for the knowing-doing gap is temperamental.

A bigger part, however, seems to be fear. If we allow staff to share, how can we rely on them to be responsible? How can we trust them to only use social media for work purposes? Or perhaps they fear what might happen if information is opened up. As Clay Shirky pointed out, one of the unknowns behind big data, is that you can’t predict how people will use it:

“The thing that drives me craziest in conversations with large institutions about large data sets, is that they want to know, in advance, what will happen: 'why should we open up our data?', to which the answer is, you open up your data to see where the value is. It's the value you can't even predict until you try it, that you get back.”49 

Fear and trust are antithetical and it’s fear, rather than trust, which is on the rise in the workplace. Bullying at work, for instance, has steadily risen during the past decade, to the point where, in 2010, 35 percent of all US employees claimed to have been bullied at work – that’s over 50 million workers.50

Giving employees the freedom to fail, and to choose what, how and where they work would trigger anxiety attacks in many team leaders. But, as we have seen, the best ‘learning moments’ are in those moments of failure, and the most creative employees are found in situations where they have autonomy.

IBM was known for its closed-system operating systems, most notably the OS/2 platform. Such systems had provided the company with a huge market share of the business and personal computing industry. But with the open source software movement gaining ground, IBM was faced with a dilemma. To work with Linux and simply give away what they had hitherto made enormous profits from, was a high-risk strategy, and entirely dependent upon the community of developers making innovative use of their source codes. 

Hindsight has shown that going ‘open’, and trusting their community was a commercial masterstroke, but it’s only part of the story. IBM has truly become a Global Learning Commons in the past ten years. It was an early adopter of social media: its wiki central has hundreds of wikis, with hundreds of thousands of registered users; it hosts over 3,000 blogs and its own ‘BlueTube’. 

Having held the same company values for almost 100 years, in 2003 IBM crowdsourced a new set of values, through a three-day ‘Values Jam’ on IBM’s global intranet. (Remember this is the company whose lack of autonomy was typified through its employee acronym, ‘I’ve Been Moved’.) The results were three values that now drive the company: Dedication to every client’s success; Innovation that matters for the company and the world; Trust (that word again) and responsibility in all relationships.

From being a company faced with a bleak future, IBM has transformed itself through learning commons principles. In 2012, it was recognised as first for leadership and fifth most admired company (Fortune magazine) and the eighteenth most innovative company in the world (FastCompany). 

Corporate learning cultures cannot thrive unless fear is replaced by trust. No one can learn if they are fearful. Though first published 30 years ago, W. E. Deming’s seminal ‘14 Points of Management’ reminds us of the interconnection between trust and learning: ‘Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality... institute training on the job... break down barriers between departments… institute a vigorous programme of education and self-improvement… drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company’.51 

Despite a million company change programmes and a plethora of management theories it’s remarkable how little progress has been made. As Marcia Conner observed, ‘W. Edwards Deming encouraged management to drive out fear and break down barriers between departments, and still worry and walls are the two constants that most organisations share’.52 

It’s often said that control-and-command management is (or should be) dead in today’s work environment. The lesson to be learned from IBM is that trust demands courage; the courage to let go, the courage to trust others, and, more than anything, the courage to jump the knowing-doing gap. 


All of the case studies I’ve shared are proof that bringing the commons to the SOFT company not only makes for an innovative learning culture, but it makes business sense too. But there’s another more compelling reason to change, and it’s this. These values and actions – Share, Open, Free, Trust – are looked for and displayed every day that we interact socially, outside the workplace. 

We, as citizens and customers, now expect these behaviours to be modelled by organisations, just as much as we expect to see them being socially responsible and green. If we don’t see the values and actions that we display to each other elsewhere in business, we’ll simply take our business elsewhere.

Revolutions happen in the space between an old system breaking down, and a new one becoming established. The old system of work-based learning was designed for the industrial age, but the ‘open revolution’ has not yet shaped the learning system we’ll need for future needs. There is, however, no point in waiting until it all settles down. 

As Clay Shirky argues, whatever embarrassment organisations feel when they go ‘open’ is more than off-set by the improvements they make as a result: 

“Open systems always look completely terrible and shoddy when we first look at them, because we're used to institutions that hide all of their failures. But it's actually institutions that expose what it is they're doing to public criticism that improve the fastest.” 

Arie De Geus, Head of Shell’s Strategic Planning Group, once famously said that ‘the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage’. Like Thomas Edison’s invention factory, Google’s capacity to fail fast and iterate, is what has not only given them a competitive advantage, it has also made them the most desirable company in the world to work for. There’s a good reason why Googlers at the Mountain View HQ describe it as ‘the campus’.

What we’ve seen, from Menlo Park to Mountain View, is that the most innovative companies in the world regard work as learning. And what we’re about to see is that the world’s most innovative schools present learning as work.


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