Tag Archives: Change

50 suggestions for implementing 70-20-10 (2)

50 suggestions for implementing 70-20-10

Part 2 (Here’s Part 1)

The 70 percent: learning from experience

People learn by doing. We learn from experience and achieve mastery through practice.

apprenticeship

Apprenticeship & peer learning

Apprenticeship is a time-honored method of learning by experience, but I suspect that it didn’t go down like the history books tell us. Imagine being an aspiring sculptor Continue reading

Succeed in business: mimic sardines

It’s not easy being a business leader these days. The rules changed at the turn of the century.

In the 1900s, a good plan, hard work, and a winning smile were the ticket to success in business. The 21st Century is a totally new deal. Consider:

Change. More happens in one of your minutes than in one of your grandfather’s hours. Measured in terms of accomplishment, the 20th century will see not 100, but 20,000 20th-Century style years! Business has become a roller-coaster ride.

Information. More information was created in the last twelve months than in the previous history of civilization! College curricula, training courses, and nonfiction books are obsolete the day they’re published. Staying ahead has been replaced by finding the answer you need when you need it.

Volatility. Abnormal is the new normal. Highs are higher; lows are lower. Extremes prevail. Financial markets. Weather patterns. Entire industries have been vanished. Remember vinyl records? Typewriters? Kodak film? Local bookstores? Healthy newspapers?

Value. In 1980, 80% of the value of American corporations was tangible. Assets on the balance sheet — plant, equipment, cash — accounted for the bulk of what shareholders invested in. Twenty years later, that value had migrated to intangibles — know-how, relationships, and secret sauce. Ideas have become more valuable than things.

Connections. International used to mean you had offices in Paris and maybe Tokyo. Today competitors from countries you’ve never heard of eat your lunch. The quality of your deliverables depends on suppliers and partners spread around the globe. Everything’s connected to everything else. Success rides on relationships.

Unpredictability. Man plans; God laughs. Only fools make ten-year plans, for nothing’s certain in our complex world. Should you hire a futurist? Don’t. Recent studies find that you’d be equally successful throwing darts blindfolded. Embrace change.

Work. Simple work has been automated. Procedural work is being outsourced. The work that adds value is conceptual. Conceptual work involves solving novel problems and doing things that don’t appear in job descriptions. It’s perpetual improv. Success requires the ability to adapt in real time.

Speed. Fourteen years ago Intel’s CEO likened his company to a car racing down the highway at 150 miles per hour. Intel knew there was a brick wall up ahead but it dared not slow down. Factor in the acceleration from Moore’s Law, and that car is topping 250,000 miles per hour today. Slowing down is still not an option.

So what’s a company to do? They must figure out how to change course in real time in order to survive. They need to be able to swerve when even the hint of a wall appears on the road ahead.

Cars are machines. Turn the steering wheel to the left; the car changes direction. If only business were this easy.

Organizations are people. Turn the wheel and most organizations continue barreling down the road in a straight line. “Turn left! Turn left!” shouts the CEO. Nothing happens. That’s why the life-span of a Fortune 500 company has fallen below fifty years and the tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO below seven years. Their organizations keep running into the wall.

The ideal organization would behave more like fish. Last month I watched schools of hundreds (thousands?) of sardines swimming in perfect synchronization in the giant kelp forest tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I couldn’t discern a leader of the pack. There was no sardine CEO. Yet the school moved as one. Workers need to act like sardines, changing direction in concert when they sense there’s a hungry shark or a brick wall up ahead.

Instead of the “schooling” of the 19th and 20th centuries that sought to indoctrinate people with the formulas that had worked in the past, our new schools of workers need to know how to read the signals quickly, trust one another to turn in the right direction, share what the environment is telling them, and be ready to swerve when they sense that wall ahead.

Instead of erecting walls between departments and functions, flexible organizations tap into a shared flow of intelligence fed by every tributary where action takes place. People work in concert, continuously ping their environment is search of opportunity (and looming walls) and share their insights. Everyone’s empowered to influence the group, like a line worker at Toyota or a sardine that senses an octopus near-by.

Organizations that ape the military by barking orders down a chain of command, embracing a caste system of officers and staff, and relying on strategy laid out far in advance of battle are doomed. Today’s victors knit together responsive networks where every worker has a voice. Their guerilla tactics win out over rigid, unyielding structures every time.

Resilient companies help workers bond like schools of fish instead of schools of teachers and students.

 
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Unmanagement

It’s how to get things done in the 21st century.

Forget planning (the world’s unpredictable), organizing (self-organization’s better), directing (people are self-directed ), and controlling (control is an illusion).

Welcome to the era of unmanagement.

Internet Time Alliance is partnering with organizations that are ripe for change to co-develop the means to put the behaviors of unmanagement into practice. If your organization shares our belief that 20th century management practice is obsolete and change is necessary for survival, let alone prosperity, let’s talk.

 

21st Century Leadership

The Network Era
When the economy went to hell in a handbasket a couple of years back, my gut told me this was not a downturn. Rather, the network economy had finally taken the wind out of the sails of the industrial age. The economy was not going to “bounce back.” Instead, we were entering a new era. This was a total game changer. A new normal.

We’d entered an age of unparalleled volatility, uncertainty, and accelerating speed where ideas had become more valuable than physical things. Financial markets sensed this and shifted investments from what’s on the balance sheet to bets on the ever-nearer future. Intangibles — know how, know who, ideas, and the tacit lessons of experience — have limitless potential; plant and equipment can be millstones that hold you back.

Relationships are the glue that holds networks together. Enlightened businesses would shuck off the factory mentality that sees people as interchangeable parts. Rigid command and control systems would give way to a spirit of “we’re all in this together.” Barriers that wall off customers from suppliers would come tumbling down. Collaboration would crowd out giving orders. We’d end up enjoying one another’s company.

Change or Die
I’ve struggled to articulate what this new world will look like. Managers who are set in their ways think I’m full of it; they don’t believe they need to change; they long for the return of the old days. I see this situation in black and white: change or die. Companies that don’t abandon the insular industrial mindset are not long for this world. Evolution will render them extinct.

A new CEO with a grand vision of social networks, openness, innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement is not enough to turn a large organization around because she’s saddled with a legacy culture. Managers and professionals who have grown up taking and giving orders simply don’t know how to adapt. The CEO and her team flip the switch but the lights don’t go on below because they’re wired differently down there. I’ve taken this on as a challenge, undoubtedly the greatest of my career.

My calling is to help people improve their satisfaction in life and performance on the job. I’m sticking to that. But now there’s a big complicating factor: the world has changed. It’s no longer sufficient to help hands-on managers and professionals learn better tips and techniques. What’s required today is a wholesale shift to a new way of doing things. The knowing/doing gap surrounding the advent of the network era is humongous.

The 21C Leadership Project
I’ve joined with Jos Arets and Vivian Heijnen at TULSER and my colleague Harold Jarche at Internet Time Alliance to create the on-ramp for leaders to adopt the behaviors that will make them and their organizations successful in the 21st century workplace. Our shorthand for the project is 21C Leadership.

Not everything has changed. Business organizations still need to perform their classical functions:

  • making sales
  • building customer relationships
  • decreasing time-to-execution
  • decreasing bureaucracy and busywork
  • cutting costs, improving efficiency
  • developing new products and services
  • feeding the talent pipeline
  • improving morale and reducing turnover
  • responding to change

As always, companies also need to streamline and improve their processes to fight entropy and hardening of the arteries:

  • implement new strategies
  • improve organizational circuitry
  • create a continuous flow of new ideas
  • leapfrog the competition through innovation
  • keep everyone on the same page
  • partner with distributors and the value chain
  • avoid re-inventing the wheel
  • align workforce with core values
  • optimize the results of collective intelligence

However, unless managers and professionals, the “units of one,” are behaving in tune with the memes of the network era, the organizational objectives will never be reached. That’s why the 21C project is tackling the behavior of individuals: to empower their organizations to head in the directions they choose.

Status
We began by identifying 21 performance drivers that are the essence of sustainable, rewarding 21st century leadership. This week we are talking with visionaries to refine and flesh out the original list. We’ll report on our findings here as we go forward. We’re seeking partners and guinea pigs. If you’re interested in working with us, drop us a line.
 

21st Century Leadership

The Network Era
When the economy went to hell in a handbasket a couple of years back, my gut told me this was not a downturn. Rather, the network economy had finally taken the wind out of the sails of the industrial age. The economy was not going to “bounce back.” Instead, we were entering a new era. This was a total game changer. A new normal.

We’d entered an age of unparalleled volatility, uncertainty, and accelerating speed where ideas had become more valuable than physical things. Financial markets sensed this and shifted investments from what’s on the balance sheet to bets on the ever-nearer future. Intangibles — know how, know who, ideas, and the tacit lessons of experience — have limitless potential; plant and equipment can be millstones that hold you back.

Relationships are the glue that holds networks together. Enlightened businesses would shuck off the factory mentality that sees people as interchangeable parts. Rigid command and control systems would give way to a spirit of “we’re all in this together.” Barriers that wall off customers from suppliers would come tumbling down. Collaboration would crowd out giving orders. We’d end up enjoying one another’s company.

Change or Die
I’ve struggled to articulate what this new world will look like. Managers who are set in their ways think I’m full of it; they don’t believe they need to change; they long for the return of the old days. I see this situation in black and white: change or die. Companies that don’t abandon the insular industrial mindset are not long for this world. Evolution will render them extinct.

A new CEO with a grand vision of social networks, openness, innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement is not enough to turn a large organization around because she’s saddled with a legacy culture. Managers and professionals who have grown up taking and giving orders simply don’t know how to adapt. The CEO and her team flip the switch but the lights don’t go on below because they’re wired differently down there. I’ve taken this on as a challenge, undoubtedly the greatest of my career.

My calling is to help people improve their satisfaction in life and performance on the job. I’m sticking to that. But now there’s a big complicating factor: the world has changed. It’s no longer sufficient to help hands-on managers and professionals learn better tips and techniques. What’s required today is a wholesale shift to a new way of doing things. The knowing/doing gap surrounding the advent of the network era is humongous.

The 21C Leadership Project
I’ve joined with Jos Arets and Vivian Heijnen at TULSER and my colleague Harold Jarche at Internet Time Alliance to create the on-ramp for leaders to adopt the behaviors that will make them and their organizations successful in the 21st century workplace.  Our shorthand for the project is 21C Leadership.

Not everything has changed. Business organizations still need to perform their classical functions:

  • making sales
  • building customer relationships
  • decreasing time-to-execution
  • decreasing bureaucracy and busywork
  • cutting costs, improving efficiency
  • developing new products and services
  • feeding the talent pipeline
  • improving morale and reducing turnover
  • responding to change

As always, companies also need to streamline and improve their processes to fight entropy and hardening of the arteries:

  • implement new strategies
  • improve organizational circuitry
  • create a continuous flow of new ideas
  • leapfrog the competition through innovation
  • keep everyone on the same page
  • partner with distributors and the value chain
  • avoid re-inventing the wheel
  • align workforce with core values
  • optimize the results of collective intelligence

However, unless managers and professionals, the “units of one,” are behaving in tune with the memes of the network era, the organizational objectives will never be reached. That’s why the 21C project is tackling the behavior of individuals: to empower their organizations to head in the directions they choose.

Status
We began by identifying 21 performance drivers that are the essence of sustainable, rewarding 21st century leadership. This week we are talking with visionaries to refine and flesh out the original list. We’ll report on our findings as we go forward. We’re seeking partners and guinea pigs. If you’re interested in working with us, drop me a line.

Welcome to the 21C Leadership Project

The 21C Leadership Project is creating an on-ramp for hands-on managers and professions to adopt the behaviors that will make them and their organizations successful in the 21st century workplace. We are developing written materials, shooting video, identifying supporting sources, and putting performance support tools on the web.

Everyone involved in conceptual worked is a leader. Our goal is to help leaders at all levels adopt and use these practices:

  1. Shoulder responsibility. Take charge of yourself and for getting things done on the job. Bootstrap; lead yourself. Drucker said the next challenge was “managing yourself.” Make a commitment to your own personal development. Be all that you can be. Figure out your personal knowledge management strategy. Build an effective network. Agency. This is personal leadership.
  2. Don’t hesitate. Do it now. Don’t mistake thinking for action. Close the knowing/doing gap. Always know the next step. Actions speak louder than words. Do what you can to make things happen. Excuses get you nowhere; action is required. Take charge of the situation. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Change the things you can. Agency. Make the world and the workplace better.
  3. Manage agilely. Use self-organizing groups to get things done; that involves daily meetings, rapid prototyping, iterative development, living by customer feedback, extreme flexibility, short deadlines, sprints to accomplishment, and multidisciplinary cooperation. Originally confined to software development, agile management is being adopted for more general projects.
  4. Delight customers. This is the new goal for business generally. “Good enough” is no longer good enough. Delighting customers includes exceeding expectations, forming meaningful relationships, and destroying crap like pushy telemarketing and mass advertising. This is what The Cluetrain Manifesto called for and it’s the new field of competition. Zappos, JetBlue, Apple. The purpose of a business is to create and keep customers….
  5. Focus on results. If it’s not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. Make the mission explicit. Cut bureaucracy, busywork, redundancy, politics, unnecessary costs, and other obstacles. Protect your margins. Understand the organization’s goals and what it takes to accomplish. them. Know the organization’s history and culture. Live by the organization’s core values.
  6. Make sound decisions. Make projections and assess probabilities. (Predict the future.) Systems thinking. Apply business acumen. Balance the pros and cons.  Leverage time. The large once ate the small; now the fast devour the slow. The pace of time has accelerated. Winners make things happen sooner. Time-to-accomplishment is the primary metric of performance. Opportunity cost is huge. Balance short and long term perspectives.
  7. Make things better. Change or die. Innovation is now everyone’s job, not just something that’s stuck in R&D. It’s continuous process improvement. Ofttimes, it involves transplanting an idea or concept from one domain into an entirely new area. Encourage fresh thinking at all levels. Change is all there is. Welcome it, take advantage of it, don’t fight it. (You’ll lose.) Be open to possibility. Life is beta. Remain flexible. Probe, sense, respond. Perspective.
  8. Generate enthusiasm. Instill passion. Instead of downer performance reviews, follow Dan Pink’s Drive formula. Optimism. Esprit de corps. Celebrations. Show linkage to greater purpose. Help people flourish. The positive psychology movement has moved on from happiness to a fuller concept that includes accomplishment and feeling meaningful as well as positive affect and cheerfulness.
  9. Nurture serendipity. Be open, explore, be alert, try hard — and often an unexpected breakthrough results. Make time for reflection. Google’s 20% innovation time fits here. (or maybe the innovation driver gets folded into this one). Take your eye off the ball. All work and no play… Trust is the glue that brings people together. It occurs on several levels. There’s ethics — trusting someone to be sincere and do the right thing morally. And there’s competence — trusting that a worker knows how to get the job done. This is a two-way street: being deemed trustworthy by others as well as knowing others well enough to trust them. Letting someone know you trust them empowers them to act. Ties in to values of openness, authenticity, and narrating the work.
  10. Coach courageously. Provide specific, constructive feedback. Conduct frequent one-to-ones, co-creating solutions. Inspire others to greatness. Challenge people with stretch assignments. Tell it like it is. Be open to bad news. Be transparent. Courageous conversation.
  11. Commune & collaborate. Individuals don’t create value; groups of individuals do, and they do so by collaborating (co-labor), that is, working with one another. Think teams. Net-Work (work the net). Understand and exploit the power of connections. This is where we address social business, making connections, social network analysis, web 2.0 tools, and so forth. Get tech-savvy. Building and participating in communities of people with shared interests. Shifting responsibility and power from hierarchies to interest groups. Share what you know.
  12. Learn voraciously. Learning enables work. Increasing your capabilities, your repertoire, enables you to tackle more a greater challenges, to play a higher game, to add more value, to lead a more fulfilling life. Bring in social, co-creation, informal. (This one, like most of the drivers, has an individual and a group component. The group aspect is nurturing an ecology for learning.) Encourage conversation. Ask questions.
  13. De-stress. Chronic stress kills performance. Robert Sapolski (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) is the source on this. TED. Root out fear, have a solid network to turn to, etc. Lots of advice out there on this one. At the same time, be healthy: sleep, exercise, meditate, don’t overindulge. Manage crises to help others avoid stress.
  14. Make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not daring enough. Change happens at the edges, out of your comfort zone. To make more progress, fail faster. Similarly, encourage others to push the envelope. Praise lessons learned and experimentation; don’t punish attempts that don’t work out. Eliminate fear. Reward risk-taking.
  15. Tell great stories. Stories carry culture. Narrative is more powerful than any other prose. It’s a vital skill for influencing behavior. Communicate a compelling vision.
  16. Conduct kick-ass meetings. Most meetings in organizations are a waste of time. They are demoralizing, over-long, set up wrong, etc. Group graphics practices belong here, too.

This list — and everything on this site — is beta. This is where we’re building the project. Please add your thoughts and comments.

Change or die


LX Briefing

Mixing case studies, stories, and actionable recommendations together with humor and easy-to-understand language, Jay Cross provides much more than buzzwords and back-patting, or so says his bio. He also has some very strong opinions on the future of workplace learning. A Harvard MBA and Princeton undergrad, he has been improving business processes since developing the first business curriculum for the University of Phoenix three decades ago. Jay covers topics from 50,000 feet to ground level, depending on audience and need. He has spoken with executives, marketers, entrepreneurs, chief learning officers, sales staff, instructional designers, HR directors, bankers, and academics. He has keynoted conferences in the United States, Canada, Austria, the United Kingdom, Germany, Taiwan, Australia, Portugal, Monaco, and Abu Dhabi. He travels the world, but increasingly delivers presentations and events in real time over the web. He took a few moments to answer some of our questions.

Learning Executives Briefing: Performance is a wonderful yardstick, and the world is still somewhat governed by accountants. As the economic environment improves, will the fear factor fade a bit and send organizations back to their old ways of relying mostly on numbers?

Jay Cross: Those who follow the old ways will die. This isn’t just a bend in the road or some sort of bounce in a cyclical trend. This is a total phase change. (Author and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge) John Seely Brown would call this “the Big Switch.” We are going from throwing off the yoke of the industrial age, when you had one class of people telling another class of people what to do, into a network age, where if you don’t empower the people of your organization, the people are going to leave. That is the defining characteristic of this new way of looking at the world. No more efficiency models, and no more Six Sigma. Forget that. We aren’t in a stable environment and won’t be in a stable environment. We have to have our people go out and experiment, innovate, and invent. Job descriptions, competency management systems, and all that legacy stuff are needless baggage.

LXB: In The Working Smarter Fieldbook, you and your co-authors suggest that invisible assets, such as relationships and know-how, count for more market value than visible assets such as plants and equipment. How does that manifest itself in the new world?

Cross: If I am a financial analyst looking at a public corporation, I can figure out what the valuation stands for—the fixed assets, money in the bank, and all of that. We used to call it net worth. Then I look at the value over and above net worth. I look at Google and see that they have $8 billion in fancy kitchen equipment and server farms, and the stock market values the company at $157 billion—so where is that other $150 billion? It is in know-how, intellectual property, and the relationships. It’s all of this stuff that is in the mind of the investor. They think these guys have the secret sauce and they are going to keep churning out future earnings, so I am going to keep investing in them. That’s the proof. And maybe that is something that people in training don’t often get—the value of a company is more than what the accounts add up [to be] on the balance sheet. LXB: How does that differentiate a new-era organization such as Google from a company such as Buggy Whips International? Cross: Even Buggy Whips International these days has more value in its intangible assets— its knowledge and relationships—than it does in plant and equipment.

LXB: Do you still believe, as you have said many times before, that learning is too important to be left to the training department?

Cross: Training departments should just be blown up. They perpetuate old thinking instead of looking at new ways. They are afraid to give power to people to do their own thing. That is a lot different from companies that have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid and say we’ll take ideas from wherever they come. Everyone is involved, including the customers. We are transparent. If I compare that to companies that play it too close to the vest and are afraid to even give their employees Internet access, it seems silly. If you have high expectations of your people, they will live up to them. If you have low expectations of your people, they will live down to them.

LXB: Why hasn’t it happened in a big way yet? Or has it happened, and the training department has just been given different tasks?

Cross: It’s spotty. We are in a time of transition. People of our generation are holding things back. But that is always the case. People get a little power, and they try to hold on to it. There are some companies that haven’t changed their core philosophies and management practices in 100 years and they never will. There are others that are hiring new kinds of leaders, and they are changing in a big way. There is going to be a bloodbath with the companies that dig in their heels and say we are going to do things the way we have always done them before. Well, “before” is over. We are in a rapidly changing, mind-blowing overly complex world out there today. It is a different world, and the old ways of prospering are a formula for disaster.

LXB: Again, you and your co-authors write: “Management itself, the art of planning, organizing, deciding, and controlling, will fall by the wayside.” If so, what replaces it?

Cross: I am not giving up on managing, organizing, and controlling. But it is going to be more of a shared responsibility. And it is going to be shared with workers and this group of people we don’t have a name for—the people who used to be on the payroll: outsourced, or consultants, or some other thing. And customers are going to be involved. A company that doesn’t involve its customers in its product planning is missing the boat. Procter & Gamble is a good example. They are the West Point of brand management. They now crowdsource 50 percent of their innovation. Talk about opening the door. I thought it was more than a little striking that P&G traded workers with Google. Google wanted to understand how old-style companies (worked) and P&G wanted to know how new-style companies could turn on a dime.

LXB: If training becomes obsolete because, as you note, “it deals with a past that won’t be repeated,” doesn’t some baseline learning still need to exist?

Cross: I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but if you have an employee who is entering a new area, such as being posed to China or being involved in programming, whatever it is, if it is new to them and they have no framework, then formal learning is the way to get them up to speed—to learn the lay of the land, the technique, and the structure. But as soon as you form a complete tableau in your mind of that domain, then you are empowered to go out and fill in the pieces. It has context. As it starts out, it needs to be very formal. Formal and informal never exist in isolation.

LXB: You have mentioned Daniel Pink in some of your writing and his notion that we are in a new conceptual age. Do you think the rewiring of our brain is still going on?

Cross: Yes, I do. When I talk to people today in a lot of different contexts, it is only a matter of time before they say the word design. They never used to say design, but now it pops up all the time. For me, that is code for getting the right side of the brain working. This country has missed one of the best opportunities for employee development and worker fulfillment by not asking the employee her life aspirations. Once you identify that and let the people you work with know that, you plan together to make it happen. If the employer has a spot for someone with your particular interests, then they have created an employee for life, and one who will work his butt off for you to make things happen. People talk about work-life balance, and I think that era is over—it is going to be just life. Period.

LXB: Come next year, what trend or advice should the CLO ignore at his peril?

Cross: The biggest thing for the CLO to do is to stop focusing on programs. Don’t kid yourself that your learning needs are just going to take care of themselves. You need to get in there and make things work better. Unless you establish an environment for learning—where you can focus specifically on your learning ecology and what will make it healthy and grow—it won’t ever get better. It involves making it easy to access expertise. Who knows what around here, and do we have a culture for sharing? This involves making mentoring and coaching de rigueur. If you have a manager who isn’t willing to participate in making people better, then throw him out the door. Focus on the platform. The program stuff will get what they need if they have the right platform and things are hooked up. I call it the workscape.

In some ways I am talking about expanding the training department to locate it with everything the business does.


Read excerpts from The Working Smarter Fieldbook by Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, and Clark Quinn. Join the discussion on Facebook.

Jay Cross was interviewed by Learning Executives Briefing editor Rex Davenport.

Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

In this month’s Atlantic, Nicholas Carr shows us his thinking has not improved since his lame-brained diatribe that claimed “IT doesn’t matter” in Harvard Business Review several years ago. This time around, he blames the net in general and Google in particular for putting his mind in such a jumpy state that he can no longer read books cover to cover.

Carr accuses the Googleplex of masterminding a plot to Taylorize the world’s culture. He says Sergei and Larry think humans would be better off were our brains replaced by artificial intelligence. “In Google’s words, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation.”

Carr confuses the ease of search with the result of what search finds. When Google delivers my Zen koan of the day in seconds, my contemplation is no less arduous than if I found the koan in an old-fashioned book.

Speaking of books, maybe Carr’s inability to concentrate is due to the quality of what he reads. These “Business Bestsellers” are a sad commentary on the intellectual prowess of American businesspeople:

CIMG8452

I am partway through Here Comes Everybody, The Lucifer Principle, Smart World, The Design of Future Things, Subject to Change, Weird Ideas that Work, Dreaming in Code, and Out of Our Minds. And I’m loving it. Today i decided to lock in another week of reading and reflection. I think I’ll give up reading The Atlantic.

Mu.

Beta today, beta tomorrow, beta forever

Effectiveness

Chief Learning Officer, December 2007

Forever Beta

Astute CLOs keep all their programs in beta. A dozen years ago, software developers said a program was “beta” if it was nearly finished but not ready for release. (“Alpha” meant the application was a collection of scraps that only a developer could run.)

Netscape changed the meaning of beta forever. Instead of limiting beta tests to a small, handpicked group of users outside the company, Netscape posted beta releases on the Internet. Anyone could download the latest beta version. Many of us did. Improvements in the Web’s early days came fast and furious, so we downloaded betas time after time after time. Netscape received feedback and suggestions from thousands of users. This accelerated product development, and that led to even more frequent beta releases. Running the most recent beta version was a sign of derring-do.

Traditional software companies continued to release new versions every year or two rather than incrementally. Customers might not see new features until a year or two after they appeared in beta. This exacerbated customer frustration over missed deadlines. Journalists published lists of vaporware. At one point, Microsoft was more than a year late delivering a promised release of Windows.

ogle.jpgYears later, Google became the poster child for the perpetual beta. Google Search was beta for more than a year. Unlike Netscape, which offered an official release alongside the betas, Google offered only beta. Google Labs highlights programs that are pre-beta experiments.

Google is not simply releasing products before they are finished, because from the word Go, Google’s betas have been more reliable and polished than most firms’ final releases. Rather, Google is setting high expectations. The implication is that what’s good enough for other software companies is only a beta release for Google.

Beta users have a different relationship with vendors. Their input is valued. What used to be a complaint becomes a suggestion for improvement. The developer and the user are partners, working together to improve the product. This is why Tim O’Reilly says that the perpetual beta phenomenon is a core aspect of Web 2.0.

A developer who calls a release beta recognizes that nothing is ever finished. There’s always room for improvement. This lack of arrogance is endearing, but something more profound is going on.

Everything is connected to everything else. That’s the heart of the network age. And it’s why every product is beta. The world is forever changing: Everything flows. Thus, when a company says a product is beta, it demonstrates its recognition that nothing lasts forever and there’s always room for improvement.

Peter Drucker said the purpose of business is to create and maintain a customer. A developer who says, “Here’s what we’ve got now, but something better is on the way,” forms a relationship of mutual self-interest with the customer. The developer who says, “This product is final. We won’t be doing anything more with it. This is as good as it gets,” gives the buyer no incentive to participate in a continuing relationship. Beta empowers the customer to decide what’s good enough. Nothing’s set in stone. Nothing is absolute.

It’s even more important to label learning beta than software. All learning is cocreation, a product of a learner and an outside agent.

A professor gave her class a paper on urban sociology to read, explaining that they would be tested at the end of the hour. The professor gave another class the same paper and instructions plus a warning that the material was controversial; it might not be correct. In other words, the paper was beta.

The group that read the beta paper scored higher. Why? Because uncertainty engages the mind.

This is why it makes sense to label all learning activities beta. Engage the learners’ minds. For that matter, mark plans beta: It will invite participation. And make your department beta — after all, everything’s an experiment