Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 1)


“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others.  It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people.  And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.”  -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science

We live in a hyperconnected world, which in many ways has provided us a wealth of access and answers to the challenges that we face, while adding new complexities to an already complex world.   In the midst of this hyperconnected world, we are seeing the rapid rise of networks, both informal and formal, serving as engines for new learning and innovation.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review shares, “With the rise of new digital media platforms and social networks, people are absorbing information at a greater velocity and from a wider set of channels than ever before; they are also using that information in new ways.”  For which they add, “Leadership has become distributed and collaborative.  The new reality is that leaders don’t lead alone.  We are all part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals-public and private-working on different parts or the same problem or even the same part of the same problem.  The most influential members of the collaborative are increasingly harnessing new technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build knowledge for the field.  Leaders are no longer just steering their own ship; they are helping a network solve problems with the best and must current thinking available.”

It is in this hyperconnected world that we are just beginning to see new distinctions drawn between what some term as communities and networks (communities vs. networks).  While there are distinctions between the two, the better option is in enhancing and leveraging both for better access to greater learning and innovation.  This is best achieved by engaging the AND of both communities AND networks.  As Team BE of Wenger-Traynor state, “For most groups, however, the aspects are combined in various ways.  A community usually involves a network or relationships.  And many networks exist because participants are all committed to some kind of joint enterprise.”  So, while we’ve become much more accustomed to working in “communities” of learning and practice within our organizations, the digital transformation and this hyperconnected world has led to an exponential rise and engagement in both formal and informal networks to support and infuse greater idea flow and new learning into our organizations, leading to better innovative value for both our individuals and organizations.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”  

In Learning to Improve, Bryk and his co-authors build on this idea of AND, drawing on the work of Douglas Engelbart in what he termed Networked Improvement Communities (NIC).  It is in this Networked Improvement Community that Engelbart has created an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement.  As Bryk shares in Learning to Improve, there are “three interrelated levels of learning” which serves as the basis for this ABC Model.

Level-A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice.”

Level-B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace.”

Level-C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.”

This idea of an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement and Networked Improvement Communities was cast over 35 years ago by Engelbart in his assessment and determination that the “complexity and urgency [of world problems] are increasing exponentially, and the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps.”

The one thing to realize is that most organizations, even individuals for that matter, do not operate well in all three (ABC) of these learning areas.  Engelbart shares that “most organizations operate in at least two dimensions,” which is most often Level A and B.

Which is where much of our future work in networks lies, especially since Level C work is vital to improving the learning and the innovative work of our individuals and organizations.

As Engelbart shares, “Most organizations already have all three activities going on, but the ‘C’ activity is generally pretty haphazard and the ‘B’ activities suffer accordingly.”  Whether Engelbart or Bryk’s work in Learning to Improve, we see an emphasis on the importance Level-C.

As Bryk adds in Learning to Improve in regards to Level-C learning, “It is an especially potent form of knowledge generated as ideas are elaborated, refined, and tests across many different contexts.  The development of Level-C learning is not a simple, naturally occurring extension of Level-A and -B learning.  Rather it requires deliberate organization.  It is catalyzed and orchestrated by a network hub and relies on appropriate technologies for rapid communications about insights developing across distributed sites.  Operating in this way enables a network to accelerate how it learns.”  For which Bryk adds, “When individual insights are systematically pooled, collective capabilities grow.  Moving this to Level-C learning radically speeds up this social learning process.  When many more individuals, operating across diverse contexts, are drawn together in a shared learning enterprise, the capacity grows exponentially.”

Understanding the value and importance of networks and the platform they provide for the acceleration of social learning is going to be vital to the future relevance of our organizations as we seek to improve both individual and organizational learning and capacity.  In a world of exponential shifts, the only true advantage to parallel pacing the speed of change that we are will be facing, will be found in how we enhance and improve our ability to learn, at pace and scale.

“It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”  Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science



The Disruption Is Near


“Every single job function we can identify is being fundamentally transformed. Even “old” industries such as construction are in the throes of disruption.” –David Rose via Exponential Organizations

In the midst of the chaos and disruption brought on by this new velocity and turbulence of change, the organizations that often fail to remain relevant going forward, are often those that choose to batten down the hatches and look to ride out the rough patches.  They look to insulate and protect themselves and the organization from these disruptive forces that are knocking at the gates.

Whereas the organizations that tend to remain relevant and even flourish, are those that are able to find the opportunity in the midst this same chaos and disruption.  They see possibilities where others see obstacles.  They approach these VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) times with a renewed sense of creativity and inventiveness.

Unfortunately, what many organizations have failed to realize in the midst of the upheaval brought on by this heightened pace of change, especially in today’s VUCA world, is that every organization, in every sector, be that education, government, or business, is ripe for creative disruption.  The question very often is not whether you will be disrupted, but how?  And in the face of this challenge, what we need to fully realize…is that we have a choice on that how.

So, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that no one and no organization is immune or safe.

Or as Peter Drucker has shared, this is the Age of Discontinuity.

When we continue to pace everything we do in linear, incremental, and sequential ways of thinking and create our processes and build our structures to operate in this manner, while the world around us shifts to a much more non-linear, exponential manner of thinking and doing…something has to give.

Somewhere along the way the incoherence and misalignments become so incongruent that recovery is often no longer possible, irrelevance has already set in or has completely taken over and the only question left to answer is how long the organization can or will hang on.

Or as the Ismail, Malone and van Geest share in Exponential Organizations,

“One of the key issues in an exponential world…whatever understanding you have today is going to rapidly become obsolete, and so you have to continue to refresh your education about the technologies and about the organizational capabilities.  That’s going to be very challenging.  Rapid or disruptive change is something that large, matrixed organizations find extremely difficult.  Indeed, those who have attempted it have found that the organization’s “immune system” is liable to respond to the perceived threat with an attack.”

The problem is that the biggest threat to most organizations, is not the external forces at the gate, but our own inability to disrupt ourselves internally.  To build the internal ability and capacity to learn new, learn faster, become more agile and adaptive, to know when to continue the journey and when a pivot and shift is in order…or in other words, to be able to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

Remember, the status quo will fight and push back every step of the way.

The one thing that we cannot do anymore is to allow ourselves to be caught unaware or choose to further insulate ourselves from these tremendous and overwhelming shifts that are now changing the very face of our societal systems, especially in light of how Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the digital transformation has shown us that, if anything, this new pace of change is doing more to accelerate and speed up than to slow down anytime in the near future.

So as you consider your organizational response, because a response is and will be necessary if you are to avoid irrelevance, I will leave you with these words from Ismail, Malone, and van Geest from their work Exponential Organizations

“History and common sense make clear that you cannot radically transform every part of an organization—and accelerate the underlying clock of that enterprise to hyper-speed—without fundamentally changing the nature of that organization.”

Neurating Curiosity


“There is nothing more important or more strange than curiosity.”  -Ian Leslie ‘Curious’

Curiosity makes us want to explore.  Curiosity turns us into pioneers.  Curiosity makes us willing to leave the safety of our comfortable lives and our known world.  Curiosity drives us out of the ordinary and mundane, in search of the hidden and the unknown.  Curiosity makes us want to take things apart, to know how things work, to see what makes them tick.  In many ways…

Curiosity is disruptive.  

Curiosity is impulsive.  

Curiosity is powerful and difficult to deny.

Curiosity is a gateway…one that leads to imagination, creativity and innovation.  To all that which makes us human.

Curiosity makes us ask questions that change ourselves, our organizations, our lives and even our world.  Curiosity is infectious, irresistible, even compelling.

But in a world where everything has become instantaneous…are we losing our will, our want, our need to be curious?

Have our minds become numb to curating curiosity?

As Ian Leslie shares in his work ‘Curious’…in the “age of immediacy” we may have lost “desirable difficulties.”  Or as he adds, “We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort.”  “In a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being leveled, a new divide is emerging – between the curious and the incurious.”

“Curiosity is contagious.”

and yet…

“So is incuriosity.”

Curiosity is a primal part of what makes us human and the very reason we ask why…

In a world that has become much more uncertain, curiosity pushes us forward through the ambiguity and fear that threatens to paralyze us into inaction and immobility.  In other words…

“Curiosity is the sweetest form of dissatisfaction.”  -Ian Leslie ‘Curious’

Our Modern ‘Jurassic’ World


“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” -Dr. Ian Malcom Jurassic Park

When we look at our turbulent, often chaotic, shifting world from a holistic, 30,000 foot systems view, we come to the realization that we must begin to uninsulate ourselves from the cocoon we create…from the buffer bubble that shields and protects us from today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.  We have to begin to acknowledge the reverberations rolling out from rapid changes within our ecosphere and how they are affecting our societal systems in a myriad of intense and often unexpected ways.

This is not to say that these changes are necessarily bad, but they do come with ramifications.  Which is why the opening quote is so central for considering this shifts we are and will face in today’s fast-moving modern society.  When we lose a systems perspective and become so fixated on moving forward, we can be blindsided by the myriad of minor shifts that ultimately gain momentum and cascade into giant tsunamis.

And a tsunami it will be, if we don’t recognize how the current shifts in our systems are upending our current view of education and society in dramatic and exponential ways…

Let’s begin with two examples that have the ability to invoke resounding ramifications upon the future as we currently see it:

In a 2012 Forbes article Andrew MacAfee of MIT sounds the alarm on the “acceleration of digitized labor”…one of which many of us have failed to notice.  In which he shares that “technology is being injected into the economy at such a staggering rate that there is a decreasing need for human workers.”  For which he adds, “the comparative advantage of human labor over machines is washing away before our eyes.”  He even points to the work of a company called Narrative Science and their ability to actually write stories from an algorithm (which has only become possible in the last few years).  So the question that he puts forth to us is…“So what are we to do, as more and more jobs are lost to this entirely new species of highly skilled machine?”

And it doesn’t end there…

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne share that they, “estimate that 47% of all U.S. jobs were ‘at-risk’ of being computerized over the next twenty years.”  They are not talking 5 or even 10 years down the line…rather, just 2 years!  The article focused on how they are now teaching robots to learn how to cook (which you may or may not determine to be a big deal), except that the robots “are learning how to cook and follow human instructions, instead of needing to be programmed for each specific task.”  In fact, they were creating what they called a “robotics knowledge service”.  From which they ask the same question that Andrew MacAfee puts forth, “As machines increasingly perform complex tasks once thought to be safely reserved for humans, the question has become harder to shrug off: What jobs will be left for people?”

It is these advances, these shifts, and these questions…that ultimately require us to uninsulate ourselves from the cocoon that has shielded us from a society that is moving and changing at an exponential rate.  The definition of college and career ready is changing right before our very eyes.

And it begs the question…

How are we preparing our children, our students, to be agile and adaptable enough to create their own momentum and velocity to keep pace in a world that is very different than the world we grew up in?

Fluidity: A New Organizational Literacy For Leaders


Fluid is often seen as the antithesis of permanence.  When released from the confines of the predictable, it spills out in very unpredictable and nonlinear ways.  Flowing from compliance to creativity, encompassing all that it comes in contact with as its borders expand and capacity is stretched.

Today’s individuals and organizations must have the ability and agility to make and remake themselves on an ongoing basis.  We need to have much more fluid foundations.  And while organizations and individuals must have deep knowledge in what they have been created or hired to do…that no longer serves as the ceiling, as much as it serves as the door.

Today’s organizations and individuals must be able move past the idea of depth, and learn and pull from an ever-widening width of resources.  One trick pony experts will not have the breadth of resources to substantially keep pace with the level of information and learning that is now being created in our modern world.  Both individuals and organizations must have the agility and ability to evolve themselves on an ongoing and ever-fluid basis.  It is a current reality for relevance.

And it is not just fluidity as a new literacy for our individuals and organizations…it affects our teams, our leadership, our hierarchies, as well as our structures, processes and systems.  We talk a lot about moving from silos to more collaborative environments, but still find ourselves siloed and boxed in to static structures and hierarchies that limit our willingness to better engage the talent, knowledge and capacity of those within our organizations.  Our willingness to become more fluid is often contained and controlled by organizational structures, processes and systems that limit a more fluid approach that will enable us to push beyond current organizational borders and permanence.

This work will require organizations to equip their leaders with a more creative and innovative mindset, if we are to engage this landscape in a more fluid manner.  If we are to better allow our organizations to grow and utilize the talent and knowledge that is already within.  We still find that too many organization are more than happy to incorporate outside expertise than engage and grow the capacity of those within.

Fluidity requires a new kind of leadership mindset and organizational stance that better prepares our organizations to not only tap into the capacity that lies within, but pivot and shift to meet the demands of an exponentially shifting and changing world.

Fluidity allows leaders and organizations the opportunity to invest in the processes and systems that move against the ingrained nature of organizations to ground themselves in permanence, stasis and status quo.  It allows us recreate and remake not only our perceptions of current organizational capacity, but how to push and move beyond those boundaries in a more constant, routine, daily manner.

But this idea of fluidity requires that organizations and leaders understand, when you unbottle it, it tends to flow out in often unexpected and unpredictable ways.  Both organizations and their leaders will have to get used to this…which strikes against the predictable, linear and risk-free environments that we try so hard to create.  In order to have this fluidity, to better engage the creative and innovative spirit of our individuals and organizations, we have to be willing to spend time suspended in the uncertainty and ambiguity that accompanies this process and work.

But willingness to do this will not only improve the capacity of our individuals and organizations, it will lead to the experimental and discovery learning that will drive us to deeper and better work.

“It is not the absence of hierarchy or the uniformity of decision-making authority that makes an organization fluid.  It is the ability to shift and morph those things in the service of accomplishing more.”  -Jamie Notter ‘When Millenials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculously Optimistic Future Of Business’

Measuring Creativity And Innovation?


“Our future prosperity depends on the quality of our collective imaginations.” -Eric Ries

In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries shares the thought that, “When I meet with most entrepreneurial teams, I ask them a simple question: How do you know that you’re making progress?  Most of them really can’t answer that question.”  For which Ries adds, “It’s not enough to just give it a whirl; you’ve got to give it a whirl with purpose and direction.”

Which is an interesting idea on how startups should operate.  Especially when we tend to think of startups as these shifting, pivoting, freewheeling, innovative, and agile juggernauts.  We have this idea that for an organization to be creative, innovative and agile…measurement and metrics would not only get in the way, but dampen and diminish the energy and flow of the organizational culture and environment.

Which runs contrary to how creativity and innovation actually work…

Creativity and innovation is not something we indulge because it sounds cool, rather it is the process of looking at new and novel ways to add value to the work and lives of those we lead at all levels of our organization.  It is not an event, as much as it is a way of operating, doing and being.

It is about designing a better user experience…from the classroom to the boardroom.

And to do this, we need to determine not only if we are progressing with our work, but that it is providing value we intended to the user.  Whether that value is in something that has been curated or created, the use or implementation of technology or tools, or even the flows,structures, processes and systems we have built up within our organization.  Inability of any of these to add value to the user experience is not only a flaw in the design, but initiates frustration as the innovation is found to be useless, tedious, obtrusive or unnecessary.

And why shouldn’t this design of the user experience be the goal of education?  Why aren’t we looking to design a better learning experience; from the learning spaces we create to the curriculum we curate…value, rather than completion should be the focus of our work.  The creator should always be working from the eye of the user.

But this has not been the traditional way of how we have approached education.  Input in, output out.  We have traditionally spent more time determining a pacing guide than the learning environment and experience where it would be initiated.

Moving away from these traditional approaches will require not only more experimental learning, but delving much more often into trial and error, discovery learning.  Requiring our educational institutions to learn how to become more creative, innovative and agile as organizations.  Especially when shifting and pivoting has not been a necessary or prevalent part of our educational vernacular.

However, it is not enough to transform and evolve our work towards being more creative, innovative and agile, if we are unwilling to take that same trial and error, discovery learning mindset towards the metrics and measurements we use to determine progress, both individually and as organizations.

As our work evolves and transforms, so must our metrics and measurements…

Which means we are going to need to get more creative and innovative on how we set the metrics and measurements if we are going to do the creative and innovative work necessary to prepare our students for a rapidly shifting and changing world.  Innovative work, bound by traditional metrics and measures, leads not only to deepening levels of frustration, but creates misalignment at all levels of the system.

In the end, the goal is not to determine if we can measure the creative and innovative thinking and ideas of our students and educators, but can we determine if growth and learning is actually occurring.  And to tell you the truth, we just don’t need a rubric to tell us if that is or isn’t happening.  If you really want to see if something is working, if value is being added, you have to go to ground level and see for yourself.  Just watching, along with a few minutes of conversation can provide us a plethora of information and real time data.

Remember, we like to repeat the mantra that what get’s measured…is what gets done.  But the funny thing about data, just like the questions we ask, is that if we are measuring the wrong things, if we are asking the wrong questions…don’t be surprised if we don’t end up with or where we expected.

I will leave you with this final Eric Ries quote from The Lean Startup, “Our educational system is not preparing people for the 21st century.  Failure is an essential part of entrepreneurship.  If you work hard, you can get an ‘A’ pretty much guaranteed, but in entrepreneurship, that’s not how it works.”

If we want to prepare our students and educators for this rapidly shifting and turbulent world, then we may need to become not only more creative, innovative and agile as organizations and individuals…but more creative and innovative of the metrics and measurements we determine to chart our path of progress.

Designing Ongoing Loops Of Influence


“We design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.” -Anne-Marie Willis

There are these two wonderful clips from Jason Silva from Shots of Awe where he discusses this idea of ontological design.  Which Google describes as “the design of a way of being – not just creating crutch of the mind but rather facilitating the evolution of human capability.  Systems focused on facilitating situated human cognition while expanding.”  Which, as a definition, probably does very little to providing us a deeper understanding of what ontological design is and why it may be important.

Whereas, Silva takes us a bit closer to understanding just what ontological design is and why it just may be an important concept for us to consider and understand.  Silva talks about how “we build the tools and the tools build us.”  Which harkens back to the opening quote from Ann-Marie Willits article on ontological design where she imparts that “everything we design, in turn designs us back.”

The implications of that, which Silva shares in Shots of Awe is that “we are being actively designed by that which we have designed.”  He adds “our thoughts shape our spaces and  our tools and our tools and spaces return the favor.”  It is this active feedback loop that is not only transforming our world, but transforming us, and back again, over and over.  As Silva shares, it is this idea of “circularity” that makes ontological design so important.  For that which is not designed well…

Just consider this quote from Costica Bradatan, “Just as you grow into the world, the world grows into you.  Not only do you occupy a certain place, but that place in turn occupies you.  It’s culture shapes the way you see the world, its language informs the way you think, its customs structure you as a social being.”  

So the more we think about this idea of ontological design, the more we see the importance of the spaces and things that we design…especially if they are designing us back.  Poor design in turns provides poor systems and environments, often leading to frustration, disengagement and even dysfunction.  Understanding this idea of ontological design and seeing its importance in our organizations may provide better reflection and insight into creating engagement in a world and workforce that has become more and more disengaged.

Especially in a time when we need to better ignite and extract the creative and innovative thinking and ideas of all our people.  Maybe ontological design and reflecting on this loop of influence will provide us a more inviting path to creating the cultures and environments that engage and unleash the best of our people and our organizations.

“Our thoughts shape our spaces, we design the world, but those spaces return the favor.” -Steven Johnson via Jason Silva and Shots of Awe