July, 2012

Social Tools Collide with Talent Management Software

Josh Bersin

Social networking tools have transformed our lives. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest (read my commentary about Pinterest here), Reddit, and many others have significantly changed the way we. Bersin & Associates, Leading Research and Advisory Services in Enterprise Learning and Talent Management.

The Hallways of Learning

Conversation Matters

A number of years ago I wrote an article, “The Hallways of Learning” published in Organizational Dynamics , in which I suggested that we might look at the creative, open ended conversations we have in the hallways of our organizations as a metaphor for the kind of conversations we need in the many organizational meetings we hold each day. Our hallway conversations have several useful attributes; they remove some of the sense of hierarchy making participants in the conversation more equal; they invite multiple perspectives because anyone who wanders by is invited in; and likewise, people are free to move on if they find the conversation uninteresting. The article was read by some members of a research group at the National Institute for Working Life (Arbetslivsinstitutet) in Stockholm, Sweden and they saw the ideas as a way to enhance their own collective learning. This was a group of about 20 researchers and, as the name implies, they studied workplace issues, including, environment, safety, labor, and management. The normal practice of this group was for each researcher to work on a different project, although infrequently 2 or 3 would collaborate on a project. The group was in temporary quarters while waiting to move into a new building. In the new building the research group was to occupy one whole floor of individual offices. They began to contemplate what a design would look like that would facilitate greater collaboration and learning among them and decided they needed a “Hallway of Learning.” One of the researchers was an architect who was very interested in how space impacts the way people work and learn together. The small group met with her to explain what they were thinking about and asked her help to design a “Hallway” in the new space which they wanted to call Researcher’s Square. I was doing some consulting work with the Institute and while I was there they told me about their plans to build a Researcher’s Square. Together we constructed a small study to test whether having a “Hallway” would make a difference in their ability to learn from each other and to collaborate. We agreed that I would interview all the researchers before they moved into their new quarters and then return in six months after they moved in to conduct a second set of interviews to see what impact the “Hallway” had on the way they worked together. In the initial interviews I asked each person five questions. Following are the questions and the general response I got to each: 1. “Tell me about your own project”. Everyone was able to explain their own project in great detail. The researchers were doing some very interesting work and as the interviews proceeded, I began to see connections between the projects that were being described, although the interviewees themselves did not suggest any connections between projects. 2. “Describe the projects of others in the research group.”. The responses I got about others’ projects were vague. Each person knew something about one or two other projects, but when I probed, I quickly reached the limits of their understanding. No one mentioned any successes or difficulties other projects were having. “Jan does something with municipalities.”. “Tommy studies union issues.”. “Marianne and Lena are working on the Ericsson project. But I’m not sure what it is about.”. 3. “How would you explain the overall mission of the research group?”. On this question the responses were quite varied. There seemed little agreement on what the mission of the research group was. 4. “During any given week, how many people would you casually stop by their office to chat for at least 5 minutes, maybe just standing in the doorway?”. Each person was able to name 2-3 individuals they chatted with for at least 5 minutes once a week. 5. ”How do you anticipate using the Researcher’s Square?”. Except for the group that had invented “Researchers’ Square,” responses were primarily about food rather than conversation. Most saw it as a glorified coffee bar. “I don’t think I will use it much, I have too much work to do to spend time there”. “I might go down to get a newspaper and read it for a few minutes while I drink my coffee.”. “I think I’ll probably eat my lunch there and chat with others.”. “It will be good to be able to get a quick cup of coffee.”. A few months later the research group moved into the new building. Researcher’s Square was in the middle of a long hallway and took up the space of 4 offices. The real hallway proceeded through Researcher’s Square, so to get from one end of the hall to the other people had to walk through Researcher’s Square. On the Northwest side of the space there was a coffee bar with a number of bar stools and opposite it on the Northeast, were several café tables and chairs. On the South side of the hallway was a large conference table with chairs around it. At one end of the conference table was a white board and on the other end a rack that held the recent publications of the researchers. For illustration purposes (I have only shown three office on either side of the Researcher’s Square, but their were actually 10 per side for a total of 20 offices.). This conference table was the only one on the floor. If a group wanted to have a meeting they conducted it in Researcher’s Square, which allowed passersby to overhear the conversation. Passersby could also read whatever was on the board and if it was a topic that interested them could stop and listen for a few minutes or even add their own ideas to the conversation going on around the table. Six months after the researchers moved into the newly designed office space I returned to continue working on the project I had started earlier and I took the opportunity to interview the researchers again using the same questions. The difference in their responses were remarkable. • Question 2 - there was a tremendous increase in knowledge of what others were working on. Some interviewees knew some level of detail about every project and many knew the issues, both successes and frustrations, of at least half of the projects. Moreover, the researchers were able to say how one project connected to another and to find intersections between the projects. They talked about how they had made suggestions to others or asked others for help on their own project. Questions were asked and answered on methodology, statistics, content, proposal writing, references to articles and information about client organizations. • Question 3 about mission revealed that a much greater alignment had developed among the researchers about the organizational vision and purpose. The responses were broader and more inclusive of other research efforts than they had been initially. • Question 4 about the number of doorway conversations showed an increase of 300%. Increasing from 2-3 doorway conversations a week to 9-10 a week after Researcher’s Square. Although the conversations were more likely to happen in Researcher’s Square than in the doorway, or to move from the doorway to the Square. • Question 5 originally was, ”How do you anticipate using the Researcher’s Square?” Since researchers had now been using the Square for six months, I changed that question to, “How are you now using Researcher’s Square?” As opposed to the earlier responses, very few of the comments were about food. Rather interviewees told me about learning from others and building relationships. “Sometimes when I pass and see a group sitting around the table I can see what others are doing.”. “Maybe that’s the most important thing: since its a living room it makes living here easy!”. “When you go to someone’s room you have a purpose, but in the Square you just bump into each other. I think I have learned something from everyone.”. “The Square makes what everyone does more transparent, otherwise it’s more secret.”. “You can understand one thing in light of the other through discussions in the Square.”. “I can see now that it is easier to go and talk to those people that I get to know during lunch and coffee breaks.”. “I can read on the whiteboard what other things are being done.”. Four Concluding Observations. • Structured Socialization. We see from this example that people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves. Before Researcher’s Square, the researchers at NIWL daily saw their colleagues coming in and out of the building, passed them on the staircase, or nodded to them in the hall, but they learned very little from one another. Moreover, when I asked them to anticipate how they might use Researcher’s Square, they could not envision a benefit beyond coffee and food. But when NIWL created a place for structured socialization* they not only learned from each other, the whole organization became more aligned and collaborative - in a word, more effective. Structured socialization named by my colleague, Robert Dalton , is the intentional design of processes and space that bring people together in conversational formats to create and share knowledge. • Connection before Content. Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage. In Researcher’s Square, the coffee, food, and small tables for chats, all provided an atmosphere in which the researchers were able to build the connections that then allowed content to flow. • Cognitive Diversity. The researchers proved to be more interested in others’ projects than they thought they would be. They assumed that what others were doing would be of little interest to them and likewise that others would have little interest in what they are doing, after all the projects they were engaged in were greatly varied and appeared to have little in common with each other. However, in Researcher’s Square these differences also brought with them an attribute that boosts creativity and innovation within a group, cognitive diversity. When people are cognitively diverse they bring to any problem, a larger set of tools derived from multiple perspectives, problem solving tactics, heuristics and interpretations. • Conversation Rather Than Presentation. The learning that occurred in Researcher’s Square did not come from presentations, rather the knowledge gained was through conversation. When we think about learning from others our first thought is to have someone make a presentation. But as ubiquitous as presentations are, they are a poor way to learn from peers. Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other. NIWL created a Hallway of Learning that changed the organizational culture. How We Learn in Organizations Knowledge Management Strategies cognitive diversity collaboration connection before content Hallways of Learning knowledge management knowledge sharing Learning learning space

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