The Cult of Bare Minimum Learning
Cerys shares some thoughts on the insidious spread of digital sameness inside our organisations, and how we can use learning and curiosity to combat it
The past few years have seen an increasing investment in solving the growing digital skills gap within organisations. There are pockets of employees, even in leadership, who adopt learned helplessness with a chuckle - as if it is OK to lead in the digital age without even the most basic of digital skills.
One of the side effects of these increased efforts to engage the workforce in learning has been the standardisation & commodification of digital skills learning materials - short, snappy, only what is needed - with little thought to the overall journey. Anything without an immediate, clear ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) has been set aside in favour of brevity and simplicity. But the lack of team-level personalisation, or even functional specificity in these learning snapshots leaves us with a mass of undifferentiated digital sameness amongst employees. A pretence that the digital skills in finance, operations and marketing are all the same, or that they should use the same tools in the same way for reasons of standardisation.
What organisations really need from everyone is innovation in the centre and at the edges, creating a better digital future of our organisations.
Digital Sameness in the Org
For a while, we have seen analysts deplore the sameness created by social media platforms, making it harder to be truly unique. In fact, efforts to be unique often lead to more homogenisation thanks to the platforms and algorithms that dictate what we see online (we’ve been talking about this for a while!).
But what are the pros and cons of this mono-culture inside organisations?
Of course, digital sameness can seem attractive on the surface, providing benefits as well as causing issues. For example:
PRO: Consistency in ways of working
PRO: Standardisation in information flow & processes
PRO: Increased peer-to-peer support available so reduced IT service desk costs
On the flip side:
CON: Lack of creativity & innovation
CON: Inflexibility in ways of working based on specific needs
CON: homogenisation of the workforce
CON: Reduced curiosity for learning outside of sanctioned ways of working, tech & future of digital transformation in industry
Whilst many of the pro’s sound positive on the surface, they serve only the organisation in terms of cost savings and are probably rather short-sighted - it is an approach borne of monopolies, certainty and only exploiting an existing business opportunity, not exploring for new ones. In short, without innovation, difference of opinion and diversity of design ideas, the organisation will become the next Nokia or Blockbuster. To architect a new type of organisation, we need to maximise curiosity and minimise group think.
Evolving Learning to Combat Digital Sameness
So how do we challenge existing, embedded everyday learning approaches that are allowing employees to deploy bare minimum efforts to demonstrate development? How can organisations, with a duty of care, challenge individuals to bring curiosity, experimentation and a ‘what's in it for my team and my future’ mindset to the table? The answer is not more L&D focus on learning basic digital skills. It’s been tried, and the results are … disturbing as well as disappointing. Digital skills are not a tick box exercise, and you can’t learn design thinking in an eLearning Suite nor master agility in a classroom. So how can we evolve a new approach to learning for our teams and employees?
Evolution 1 learning stakeholder → learning partnership: We need to partner coaches and mentors with our most high-value teams, ready to recommend or create in-the-moment, open learning experiences in any digital capability that offers a market advantage. We need to overcome the credibility issue currently experienced by many coaches (it’s just a certificate, lack of business acumen, lack of technical knowledge, just a fast-track to promotion, etc) who offer only one framework - if a team is to achieve the very best in delivery, they cannot learn agility this year, design thinking next, digital adoption and change the year after. A blended approach, delivered by those with a deeper expertise & years of experience delivering digital products and services at the coal face is the only sensible approach.
Evolution 2 standardised learning journeys → open world learning: We need systems that allow for open learning journeys, directed by a teams capability goals AND powered by individual curiosity. They need to allow a team to gather around a learning mission whilst seeking out learning materials that help them towards their goal. They need to give teams a sense of history & identity, bonding them through learning experiences, rather than being an isolated experience required on-top of the flow of work.
Evolution 3 Ad hoc hybrid leadership → Hybrid Leadership System: We need to help leaders embrace the full end-to-end requirements of a hybrid work approach, and accept that inevitably there are no places to hide from the basic digital skills required in a hybrid world. By embracing a full systems approach to running a hybrid organisation, leaders have no choice but to mandate learning as a key team success measures and address their own digital skill short-comings … as a leadership team, together.
Team-centric Techniques for Success
As we all know systemic change takes time, where can we start as teams & individuals? What techniques can we harness to start showing our organisations the way forward?
Set clear learning OKRs - although in the original OKR model, there was no such thing as a learning OKR, a number of teams have since realised that if they want to embrace an explore mindset, there is too much uncertainty to answer the question ‘what should we achieve in the next 90 days?’ and have shifted towards ‘what should we learn in the next 90 days?’. This focus on learning as a primary team goal, not something to fit in around the edges based on the whim of an individual, helps keep focused on what is actually important for the team in-the-moment.
Bring learning reflections to your retrospectives & After-Action Reports - retrospectives are, of course, designed to focus on getting the squad to work effectively together, and we can only evolve into what we can see, so bringing learning objectives together with ways of working reviews such as Start/Stop/Continue or Sad/Mad/Glad can help focus learning efforts & anchor them in the practical, rather than the theoretical, whilst expanding the possible experiments beyond the realm of existing team experience.
Collaborate on learning missions to help your team orchestrate a learning symphony - not everyone needs to learn exactly the same thing for a team to work together well. How a designer and a developer use ways of working should be different, as long as the overall framework is aligned, their differences and appreciation of each others roles in that framework creates compounding benefits. The team should spend the time to create the framework, and give all team members freedom within it to create their own complementary and harmonious systems. In the personal app space, we are starting to see AI dabble in the space of personal orchestration, I am sure it will not be long before a nascent enterprise offering appears somewhere!
What are you doing to challenge the Digital Sameness emerging in your organisation?
Remember, embedding team change in the weekly agenda is more effective than tackling a big ‘ways of working’ change once a year!