Learning from failure or success

In a round up following KM Australia, back in August, Shawn Callahan has challenged the notion that we learn best from failure. I think he has a point — the important thing is learning, not failure.

Harris Hawk missing the quarry

Here’s Shawn’s critique.

During the conference I heard a some speakers recount the meme, “we learn best from failure.” I’m not sure this is entirely true. Anecdotally I remember distantly when I read about the Ritz Carlton approach to conveying values using stories and I’m now delivering a similar approach to a client on the topic of innovation. Here I’ve learned from a good practice. As Bob Dickman once told me, “you remember what you feel.” I can imagine memory being a key first step to learning. And some research shows it’s more complex than just learning from failure. Take this example. The researchers take two groups who have never done ten pin bowling and get them bowling for a couple of hours. Then one group is taken aside and coached on what they were doing wrong and how they could improve. The other group merely watches an edited video of what they were doing right. The second group did better than the first. However there was no difference with experienced groups.

I wish I could access the linked study — Shawn’s summary and the abstract sound very interesting. Here’s the abstract.

On the basis of laboratory research on self-regulation, it was hypothesized that positive self-monitoring, more than negative self-monitoring or comparison and control procedures, would improve the bowling averages of unskilled league bowlers (N =60). Conversely, negative self-monitoring was expected to produce the best outcome for relatively skillful league bowlers (N =67). In partial support of these hypotheses, positive self-monitors significantly improved their bowling averages from the 90-game baseline to the 9- to 15-game postintervention assessment (X improvement = 11 pins) more than all other groups of low-skilled bowlers; higher skilled bowlers’ groups did not change differentially. In conjunction with other findings in cognitive behavior therapy and sports psychology, the implications of these results for delineating the circumstances under which positive self-monitoring facilitates self-regulation are discussed.

Based on these summaries, I would draw a slightly different conclusion from Shawn’s. I think there is a difference between learning as a novice and learning when experienced. Similarly, the things that we learn range from the simple to the complex. (Has anyone applied the Cynefin framework to learning processes? My instinct suggests that learning must run out when we get to the chaotic or disordered domains. I think we can only learn when there is a possibility of repeatability, which is clearly the case in the simple and complicated domains, and may be a factor in moving situations from the complex to one of the other domains.)

The example Dave Snowden gives of learning from failure is actually a distinction between learning from being told and learning by experience.

Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction cold provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.

In the burned finder scenario, success (not touching a burning match) is equivalent to lack of experience. Clearly learning from a lack of experience will be less effective than learning from (even a painful) experience. By contrast, the bowling example provides people with a new experience (bowling) and then gives them an opportunity to contemplate their performance (which was almost certainly poor). However, whatever the state of their performance, it is clear what the object of the activity is and therefore ‘success’ can be easily defined — ensure that this heavy ball leaves your hand in such a way that it knocks down as many pins as possible by the time it reaches the far end of the lane. As the natural tendency of learners at early stages in the learning process is to concentrate on the negative aspects of their performance (I can’t throw the ball hard enough to get to the end of the lane, or it keeps going in the gutter), it is understandable that a learning strategy which focuses on success could have better results than one that merely explains why the bad things happen.

In the bowling experiment, no difference was found between the negative and positive approaches when experienced bowlers were studied. All this suggests to me is that we need more work in this area, especially considering learning in the complicated or complex domains. Even for experienced bowlers, the set of variables that affect the passage of a bowling ball from one end of the lane to the other is a predictable one. There is not just one cause and effect, but the laws of physics dictate that the relationships between all the causes should have predictable outcomes. By contrast, much of what interests us with regard to knowledge and learning in organisational environments does not depend on simple causal relationships.

In those complicated or complex organisational situations, I think we can learn more from our own failures than other people’s successes (which I think is the point that Dave Snowden is making). I think Shawn is also right to suggest that we can learn from our own successes too. However, that can only be the case if we take the time to analyse exactly what was the cause of the success. So we need a commitment to learning (which brings us back to deliberate practice, amongst other things) and we need the insight into our actions and activities that allows us to analyse them effectively. I think the will to learn is often present, but insight is often missing when we consider successful initiatives, possibly because the greater distance between cause and effect means that we cannot be confident that success is a product of any given cause. On the other hand, it is usually easier to identify causes of failure, and the process of failure also provides an incentive to work out what went wrong.

As for the quality of the lessons learned from failure or success, I am doubtful that any firm conclusion could be drawn that as a general rule we learn better from failure or from success. However, as we become more experienced and when we deal with fewer simple situations, we will inevitably learn more from failure than success — we will have more experience of failure than success, and other people’s successes are of limited or no value. So, although we can learn from our successes, my guess is that more of our learning flows from failure.

It feels like there is more research to do into these questions.

Learning from experience?

I find it useful to keep an eye on developments in our universities. Two reasons: our future lawyers are seeing and using teaching and learning techniques that they might expect to find replicated in the firms they join as trainees; and just knowing what is going on elsewhere can give us insights into new possibilities.


With that in mind, I was interested (in catching up with Paul Maharg’s blog) to see that he has been developing his work on professional legal education at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law.

Over a period of years Paul and his colleagues have developed an online simulation-based learning system to support professional education at the GGSL. This requires students to engage with realistic legal problems at to solve them individually and collaboratively, through “transactional learning.” This requires, in Paul’s words:

  • active learning
  • through performance in authentic transactions
  • involving reflection in & on learning,
  • deep collaborative learning, and
  • holistic or process learning,
  • with relevant professional assessment
  • that includes ethical standards

The presentation from which this is taken (embedded below) provides a tangible overview of the system, and there is a more detailed paper to go with it, as well as the site itself.

Having read all of this, I was particularly struck by one of the concluding slides (slide 41) in the presentation, which is headed “there’s no such thing as experiential learning.” Citing Schratz and Walker, Research as Social Change: New Opportunities for Qualitative Research, Paul claims the following:

  • We don’t learn from experience
  • We learn by working to interpret experience, given that, when learning:
  • we have different prior knowledge
  • our aims are always different in subtle ways
  • we learn different things from the same resources
  • ‘resources’ means symbolic objects like books & web pages, but also people, including ourselves
  • we can learn intimately and deeply from any resource, given a suitable context
  • Teachers and students need to encode those interpretations as complex memories, habits, skills, attitudes or knowledge objects if they are to re-use them

 That first bullet point is a real challenge to the attitude of many practising lawyers. “Learning on the job” is a classic response to the question, “How do you maintain your knowledge of law and practice?” I am not sure that this approach typically includes “working to interpret experience.” Nor will it often include a formal opportunity for feedback and assessment (of the learning, not the work).

Turning to a recipe for the future, Paul suggests a move away from the current traditional model (in workplaces as well as educational institutions, although his focus is primarily on the latter) (slide 43):

Still focused on:

  • Organisations, ie LMSs, silos of knowledge
  • Products, ie handbooks, CDs, closely-guarded downloads
  • Content, ie modules, instruction, transmissive content
  • Snapshot assessment of taught substantive content

The replacement will require a rather different emphasis (slide 44):

Focus shifts to:

  • Organisation has weak boundaries, strong presence through resource-based, integrated learning networks, with open access (open courseware initiatives, etc)
  • Focus not on static content but on web-based, aggregated content
  • E-learning as integrated understanding & conversation, just-in-time learning
  • Assessment of situated learning

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a fascinating and accessible introduction to the art of communicating messages so that they really make a difference. Towards the end of the book, the Heaths look at the power of narrative and how it is linked to simulations. (I have been interested in this for a while, but have really caught the story-telling bug since attending a workshop led by Shawn Callahan last month.) It appears that good stories allow listeners to participate by picturing in their minds the sequence of events, the emotions, the situations and reactions, and so on. This process of imagining (or imaging) actually invokes the same areas of the brain as performing the actions or experiencing the emotions described. I have long been familiar with physical simulators that are used to train pilots and astronauts, but I hadn’t realised that mental simulation can be nearly as good at building skills. As the Heaths explain:

A review of thirty-five studies featuring 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone — sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish — improves performance significantly. The results were borne out over a number of tasks: Mental simulation helped people weld better and throw darts better. Trombonists improved their playing and figure skaters improved their skating. Not surprisingly, mental practice is more effective when a task involves more mental activity (e.g., trombone playing) as opposed to physical activity (e.g., balancing), but the magnitude of gains from mental practice is large on average: Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.

For me, this also links to the theme of deliberative practice, which I have touched on a couple of times in the past, and which Shawn has also picked up on during his trip to the UK. In his second post, he responds to a comment on the first which suggests that we might not have time to be experts in a business context.

To put the effort in to be bloody good requires time and dedication. Consequently we need to pick our desired expertise carefully. Here are some things to consider:

  • do you love the skill that much that it doesn’t seem like work to you?
  • is it a skill you can use in any job?
  • will people value and recognise your expertise and therefore motivate your ongoing efforts?
  • can practice feel like play? If so then there is much more chance you will keep practising.

We will always need content experts. Your social network should help you connect to these valuable folk. What will also need are people who can thrive in complexity and the skills we’ll need to deliberately practice will include designing, leading, managing, innovating, storytelling, strategizing, implementing, sensemaking, and engaging (I’m sure you can think of others). These skills will be helpful in any job and so feel free to dedicate 10,000+ hours to any one of them and know you haven’t wasted your time.

The key, yet again, is to focus and prioritise. And visualise…

It’s just this thing, you know?

We are on our way towards a place where some of the technologies that currently astound us will be so commonplace as to be boring. This is a truism. It was true of the spinning mule in the 1780s, and it is true of Web 2.0 software today. The longer we are astounded, the less likely we are to prepare for this inevitability, and therefore the worse prepared we will be.

James Dellow makes this point in his blog post, “Time for an upgrade? Wiki 2.0” and Luis Suarez drives it home with a pointer to a really engaging video on the impact of these technologies on learning (and therefore on business).

One of the interesting people speaking in the video is Stephen Heppell, who has been an educational innovator in the UK for what seems like decades (I certainly first encountered him in the early 1990s).

Children are living now in a different space. They are living in what I call a “nearly now”. Nearly now is that space that they text in, the space that they update their Facebook entries in, the space that they twitter in, you know, the space that is not quite synchronous. It’s a really interesting space because it’s not adversarial, it’s not pressured. It’s a space where people can — it’s all the R-words — they can reflect, and retract, and research, and repeat. It’s a very gentle world. I tell you what: it’s a great world for learning. (1’14”-1’45”)

Now we’re looking at a whole different range of schools. We are looking at schools that produce ingenious, collaborative, gregarious and brave children who care about stuff — like their culture. To build schools that do that is a whole other challenge. And around the world, you know, people are testing out the ingredients of what makes that work. Those ingredients are being assembled into some just stunning recipes in different places. It’s a very exciting time for learning. It’s the death of education, but it’s the dawn of learning. That makes me very happy! (4’31”-5’00”)

This idea of the pervasive “nearly now” is implicit in James Dellow’s post, and some of the things he links to. One of those things is an article by by Matthew C. Clarke, “Control and Community: A Case Study of Enterprise Wiki Usage“. He concludes as follows:

I predict that Wikis will disappear over the next 5 to 10 years. This is not because they will fail but precisely because they will succeed. The best technologies disappear from view because they become so common-place that nobody notices them. Wiki-style functionality will become embedded within other software – within portals, web design tools, word processors, and content management systems. Our children may not learn the word “Wiki,” but they will be surprised when we tell them that there was a time when you couldn’t just edit a web page to build the content collaboratively.

As James Dellow puts it: the wiki will become more of a verb than a noun. This is the future that Stephen Heppell sees, and will come more quickly than the mechanisation of the textile industry. We need to be prepared for it, not by resisting it like the destroyers of the spinning mule, but by being open to the opportunities it offers. As Clarke puts it in his penultimate paragraph:

By putting minimal central control in place an enterprise can gain significant benefit from this simple technology, including improved knowledge capture, reduced time to build complex knowledge-based web sites, and increased collaboration. Although enterprise Wiki use requires a greater degree of centralized control than public Wikis, this need not impinge on the freedom to contribute that is the hallmark of a Wiki approach. The balance of power is different in an enterprise context, but fear of anarchy should not prohibit Wiki adoption.

James Dellow is not quite so starry-eyed, but his note of caution is not a Luddite one.

I’m not sure its good enough to add wiki-like page editing functionality to an information tool and expect it to behave like a social computing tool suddenly (if that’s your intent). I think what’s more interesting is the evolution of enterprise wikis, as they add other types of social computing features. Other social computing platforms may also threaten these wiki-based solutions by adding the capability to manage pages and documents.

The key thing here is that we need to blend our corporate demands with the opportunities that working and collaborating in the “nearly now” will bring. The result of that blend will inevitably mean that the technologies will develop in slightly different ways. Modern textile machinery is very different from Crompton’s mule, if only because a modern health and safety regime requires it. Similarly, the openness of some of our current social networking and collaboration tools will need to be toned down in a corporate environment, to allow for the right level of knowledge and information sharing consistent with regulatory and ethical compliance.

As we tread the path that will lead us towards that future, I agree with David Gurteen that it is our responsibility to engage with the new technologies to help work out what the future will look like. As David puts it in the introduction to his latest Knowledge Letter, “I am surprised at just how many people especially knowledge managers are not using social tools (not necessarily internally but on the web for personal use) and consequently do not really understand their power as knowledge sharing and informal learning tools.” It surprises me too. David drives home the link with learning.

…when I ask people why they do not do the same the answer is always “Oh I’d love to but I am too busy. I just do not have the time.” But I think in reality the truth is that in our busy lives we never have enough time to do all the things we would like to do. So we prioritise things and taking the time to learn tends to fall off the bottom of the list.

I think that many people are so busy they have got out of the habit of informal learning – maybe they never got into it. Its not seen as a priority. So can I make a suggestion – if you are one of those people who are not keeping up with your with new developments and thinking in your field of endeavour then take a few minutes to think about how important is it to you compared with everything else that you do. And if you decide it is important then commit to doing it.

As the video above makes clear, the world of learning is changing fast. Our world of work will change to follow it. We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and our organisations not to sit back and wait for the changes to overwhelm us. The tide is coming in — swim out to meet it.

Rethinking sport and life

My monthly copy of The Word magazine arrived last weekend. As usual, it is full of interesting articles about music, film and books. This month, however, there is a bit of a sporting flavour. This is provided by an interview with Ed Smith, who has combined a glittering academic career with top-level professional cricket, including playing for England. The interview itself is in epigrammatic form, but a number of Smith’s comments rang true with me when considered in a business context. Here are some excerpts.

Beware Academies — You could take the Platonic or Aristotelian attitude to creating winning sportsmen. The Platonic one is that you have an academy and you tell them how to do it. The Aristotelian one is, let them find out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. … Sometimes I think that rebranding something as an academy gives it some legitimacy. It gives it none. Too often you get enshrined versions of mediocrity or systematised blandness.

When we think how people learn in organisations, we are often torn between Plato and Aristotle: between the training curriculum and learning on the job. I don’t think Smith’s point is that we should turn our backs on the Academy and embrace enlightened amateurism exclusively, but that we need to think carefully about the outcomes of different types of learning experiences. We also need to consider whether the people in the Academy are actually the right ones.

You have to trick your conscious mind — Bob Dylan said creativity is not a freight train on the tracks. It’s not something you can control. The best thing you can do is not get in the way. Most creative people have a cooperative subconscious. They keep their subconscious and rational minds aligned. The problem is, professionalism wants to understand how that works. You get some young player who’s very inconsistent and try  to make him consistent. …[Y]ou take somebody who is intermittently brilliant and you make them never brilliant.

This is a really perceptive comment about how we nurture brilliance of any kind. Often the hothousing of talent actually flattens it. Just like plants, people become more vigorous when they are subjected to the buffeting of their natural environment. When we take them out of that environment, and isolate them from the wind and rain (in the case of plants) or failure and feedback (in the case of people), we make them weaker rather than stronger. In the end, Smith is probably right that individuals are probably better off managing their own creativity and brilliance. When organisations get involved, they run a real risk of losing the brilliance along with the mystery.

It’s not about passion — Anyone can go around beating their chest; it’s winning that’s so damn hard. … I don’t pay good money to watch a conductor stamp his feet. I pay to listen to good music. The choreographer George Balanchine once said that the more he wanted passion, the more he found himself having to talk about precise, very technical things.

This last sentence is a real gem. So often we see so-called ‘gurus’ or leaders talking about the need for passion, but with very little behind it. Balanchine’s remark is much more useful. People cannot deliver with passion and flair (for the benefit of their clients, the firm or themselves) if they go not have a perfect grasp of the technical details. Some of them will never be able to show that passion anyway, but even so they would still have deep technical competence. That has a value in itself. Passion without command of the detail is worthless.

Unfortunately, the interview is not online, so if you want more you’ll have to buy the magazine. Alternatively, Smith’s recent book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, apparently covers similar ground.

Where do lawyers come from…?

From a number of directions, there is a lot of son et lumière at the moment about the relationships between legal education and law firms and law firms and their in-house clients. As someone who has sat on two of the three sides of these fences, I naturally have a view.

Before I started working in a law firm eight years ago, I spent nearly 13 years teaching law — for the greater part of that time at the University of Bristol. During that period there was considerable debate (fostered for the most part by the late Peter Birks) about the proper relationship between the legal academy and the profession (I speak of a singular profession, although there are actually two in England and Wales — solicitors and barristers). Birks was adamant that the legal profession should prefer law graduates to non-law graduates, but that the profession should leave the question of defining a suitable law degree to the universities. I thought he was wrong about the former question, but right about the latter. My view has not changed in the years I have spent since then observing lawyers at work.

As a law teacher, I saw many students who had clearly signed up for a law degree solely for the purpose of smoothing their progress towards a lucrative career in a commercial law firm. Some of them really resented the subjects that they were required to complete in order to get a qualifying degree, but which they saw as irrelevant to legal practice. Since I taught two of those subjects (Public Law and Jurisprudence), this resentment was plainer to me than it might have been to some of my colleagues. (Since then, many of my former students have said that in retrospect they value the wider perspective on the law that those courses gave them.)

At the same time, I knew many young lawyers who had studied law, but who spent much of their time wishing they had been able to read further into subjects that interested them more, whether that be History, Physics, or Underwater Basket Weaving. That made me wonder whether the right approach would be to turn Law into a postgraduate degree. (In the Anglo-Scottish tradition, Law is an undergraduate degree, with a postgraduate professional component for those intending to go into practice.) I do not now think that would be right — such an approach would effectively exclude from legal studies those with a genuine interest in law as a human and social science, but who had no intention of becoming joining the profession.

The natural conclusion of these views is that the legal profession should be open to those with law and non-law undergraduate degrees. That is the position in England and Wales today, as it has been since the profession became closed to non-graduates. Certainly, non-law graduates should be required to take a postgraduate course in law, but I do not think they should be excluded altogether. My observations of lawyers in practice has not changed this conclusion — without knowing someone’s academic history, I have found it impossible to tell whether or not they have a law degree. That does not prevent those with law degrees being convinced that they have a right to priority entry into the legal profession, as some of the comments on this report in The Lawyer illustrate.

One of the reasons why a law degree is not an essential prerequisite to a legal career in the England and Wales is that the vocational training of lawyers takes place entirely after the degree is obtained. I have been intrigued by the discussion of the value of a JD in business and the subsequent discussion between Ron Friedmann and Doug Cornelius, captured on Ron’s blog. Historically, only 70% or less of English law graduates enter the legal profession (I wish I had a citation for this, but I haven’t been able to track one down — it was certainly my recollection of Bristol graduates). In some other European countries, where Law is also an undergraduate degree, the proportion is even lower. In Italy, for example, there is a long-standing tradition (exemplified by Gianni Agnelli — nicknamed “l’Avvocato”) of law graduates going directly into commerce and business. Ron and Doug’s discussion makes it clear that European assumptions about the merits of legal study are not shared by our North American counterparts.

And what of that vocational training? Toby Brown has argued powerfully that BigLaw contributes significantly to the development of lawyers who can then turn their back on those firms and strike out on their own. This argument is even stronger in England and Wales. Once our fledgling lawyers leave the classroom and the lecture hall, they still need two more years (in the case of solicitors) before they can call themselves qualified. That two years on a training contract is typically spent in medium-sized to large law firms. (A search on LawCareers.Net suggests 180 firms in that category, which will typically have 5-100 places on offer each year. In addition, another 750 small firms are listed, but most of these will have less than two places on offer.) The solicitors’ profession therefore depends heavily on large commercial firms to train their new blood.

Which brings me to clients. My guess is that all clients of all law firms everywhere are pressing for lower fees (or at least reduced legal costs). If those fees are considered to be solely reimbursement for services rendered, law firms run the risk of short-changing themselves: of failing to be recognised for the wider benefit that they offer to the legal profession — especially its future. Many in-house legal teams in commerce, industry and the public sector add to the pool of qualified lawyers by offering training contracts. However, their contribution is small compared to the training work that law firms do, and to the numbers of qualified lawyers employed in those teams. My guess is that there is a net flow of qualified lawyers from private practice into in-house teams. The problem for those businesses is that their short-term cash-flow concerns might cause a shortfall in the pool of available talent in the longer term by making it more difficult for the firms to offer as many training contracts as the market will need in the future.

At the beginning of the year, I read a powerfully-argued polemic comparing major law firms to a dysfunctional coffee-shop.

Then I notice a coffeehouse that I had never seen before. It’s surprising because it’s bigger than normal and has a very staid, conservative name. More like a string of names, actually, followed by a “P.C.” I take this to mean “professional coffeehouse,” or something.

The first thing I notice inside is that the décor is heavy on the mahogany and expensive modern art. A sign on the wall talks about how they have stores in 30 states and eight countries, and that they just opened a location in Shanghai. The sign suggests that they’re very excited about this.

I go to the counter and I’m greeted by a tired-looking twentysomething. Her nametag says she’s a “Coffee Associate.”

When I’m all but delirious from my lack of caffeine, my barista finally tells me that my latte is ready. It seems well made, and it tastes fine, although I would have preferred to have it more quickly. The young woman thanks me and wishes me a good day.

“But I haven’t paid you yet.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll send you an invoice.”

Nearly two months later, I receive an envelope with the name of the coffee company on it. By now, I’ve already forgotten what I had gotten. I open the envelope and nearly faint.

And so on.

In fact, I don’t think major law firms are coffee shops. They are more like the motor dealer servicing departments. When one buys one’s luxury car new or nearly new, the need to maintain its resale value as far as possible means that one tends to go to the most expensive (but hopefully most up-to-date) place for regular servicing and repairs — the franchised dealer or service outlet. As the car gets older, and knowledge of the technology in it is more pervasive, it makes more sense to save money by finding a local mechanic who can work on it. But the local mechanic can only do that if he can tap into the expertise coming out of the main dealership. He and, by extension, you the customer depend on that expertise. You have paid for it in the past by using the main dealer, and now you can reap the reward by using a cheaper alternative. This analogy is still not perfect, but it is not as pernicious as the coffee shop one. Making coffee is not as complex as maintaining a modern car, which is nowhere near as tricky as training a lawyer.


Dave Snowden has reminded us that the English word “manage” is derived from manège (French: “the handling or training of a horse…”) and, ultimately, maneggiare: (Italian: “to handle”). The ways in which we work with those around us can be compared with different approaches to equine training.

Horses are, by nature, herd animals. Despite their suitability for the roles we have historically imposed on them — beasts of burden, carriage or draft — they do not take to those roles naturally or, sometimes, easily. They need to be accustomed to the harness, to the weight of a rider or pack, and to following instructions given by weight, pressure, whip, heel, hand or stick. That process of accustomisation is traditionally known as horse breaking.

Horse breaking can be a process by which the animal’s spirit is literally broken: it is driven to submission to the human’s need for a servant animal by being worn down and forced to comply. An alternative approach, exemplified by Monty Roberts’s techniques, is to work with the horse’s herd instincts. This effectively encourages the horse to think itself as part of the human’s herd. It can produce incredible results — trust, willingness, and human-equine communication.

I was reminded of this by Jack Vinson’s blogpost, “Messing the managers,” which concludes:

Management needs to “get out of the way,” but there is still plenty of facilitation and direction to be provided.  Having a completely open field can be just as problematic as attempting to put everyone on the same single-track path.

I think one key to effective facilitation and direction is to approach management in a similar way to horse breaking. A forceful approach is just going to rub people up the wrong way in the end, but if you find ways to work with people’s natural instincts it is more likely that everyone will trust you to find the right direction for the herd.

A key feature of the Monty Roberts approach is that the horse is encouraged to see the human as a fellow member of the herd. Traditional horse breaking depends on a relationship of inequality — the human and the horse occupy different places in the “system” — there is no herd. Jay Cross takes a similar view in his critique of the traditional approach to organisational learning.

In a knowledge society, learning is the work, and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace. It’s time for less push and more pull, less topdown and more bottom-up, less going through the motions and more creating.

Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes and bumps. If workers take a training course but don’t learn, what’s their reaction “The training wasn’t any good.”

Cross’s article compares this approach to learning with the work of the late Hans Monderman in the field of traffic engineering. Monderman’s basic rule was that streets are shared space for the use of all — pedestrians, cyclists, cars, lorries, old and young — all equally. The Wired article illustrates the result brilliantly.

Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

There is a trend here — the equestrian world is turning its back on the more barbaric approaches to horse-training; traffic engineering is starting to recognise that a less controlling, more equal, approach to road use reaps real rewards in terms of accidents and injuries; organisational learning is starting to take notice of the need to treat people as adults — able to control their own learning experience. As Lee Bryant noted in his short presentation this week at Lift09, the need for control was an aberration of the 20th century, and led to the most appalling consequences. We need to use all the means at our disposal to reverse the trend and return to a more natural approach — based on basic human instincts like trust and empathy.

Personal KM

Confession time: I think there is a link between improvements in personal productivity or effectiveness and increased organisational performance. (Where the organisation may be as small as a team or as large as a firm.) However, I am happy to admit that I know of no real evidence for this assertion: it is a bold statement to make without qualification. I am sure there are many examples where personal endeavours have not led to improvements in the business — because other factors have intervened, or because the individuals’ activities were poorly focused.

That said, I would be surprised if Doug Cornelius doesn’t turn out to be a real asset to Beacon Capital Partners because of his personal knowledge management practices. As Doug explains in his old blog, he has been using a blog as a learning platform in his new role as Chief Compliance Officer, and he has just opened it up to wider viewing.

It was an interesting experience using a blog as a learning tool. The blog was a very convenient way to link to relevant articles, cases, statutes and regulations that play a role in my job.

If I were in law school now, I would use a blog to keep my notes. The blog platform is just a great way to keep information organized and retrievable. The blog posts are arranged in chronological order, making them easy to find based on date. I use the categories to keep the posts organized by topic. I use the tags to organize the posts around sub-topic, author and publication. Pages provide an overview, with easy editing.

I currently have no interest in compliance and business ethics, but if I did Doug’s notes would be an incredible resource. In the period since late September, when he took on the new role, Doug has posted over 360 items to the blog.

If anyone needs an example to demonstrate how effective blogging can be for knowledge and learning, I think Doug’s new blog is perfect.

Time and Promotion

Heather Milligan has just published the third blog post in a series on “Marketing Me.” The series (of four planned posts) is intended as a counter to what Heather calls “the worst piece of advice I ever got.” This was: “Do a good job, Heather, and they’ll notice you.” Naturally enough, they didn’t.

The third post, entitled “When do you find the time?” contains some really useful tips:

  • Manage your process
  • Avoid distractions
  • Clear your life
  • Make social networking part of your job
  • Take Advantage of Technology
  • Filter the Noise
  • Have faith, it will settle down

One of the actions under the heading “clear your life” resonated with something I wrote about last year. Here’s Heather’s story:

I went through my calendar and started to cross out everything that really wasn’t necessary, beginning first with the television. What was I watching that I didn’t enjoy? What was complete junk that I really didn’t need to watch? Gone.

And here is Clay Shirky:

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

Coincidentally, Charles Arthur has posted a link to a long interview with Clay Shirky in the Columbia Journalism Review. He then poses an interesting question:

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

The comments on Charles’s post are worth reading as well. There is an emerging theme that we tend to fill what we think is empty space with things like TV, radio, music, video games and so on, and that the increasingly portable nature of those things makes us think that we have no time to spare. In fact, those activities represent someone else’s priorities and we could use the time better to think about things that are more important to us.

That leads to Heather’s point about social networking:

I was asked recently how I was learning/managing social networking and my work load. Well, part of the answer is that my continuing education, which is what this was for me in the beginning, is part of my job. As the marketing professional for my law firm, I must keep up with not only the happenings in the industry, but the advances in technologies.

In addition, by marketing myself, I am building relationships with peers, vendors, reporters, publishers, and other professionals which all benefit my firm.

That is clearly more important than watching yet another cookery programme on TV, surely? I certainly think it is. If your life is too intense, I think you need to work out whether that intensity is being driven by things that are in fact of  little interest and value to you.

Measuring maturity

There is a small number of meta-questions about knowledge management that people regularly grapple with. The most obvious is “what is knowledge management?” After that, the next most frequently asked must be “how do you measure KM success?” I have found at least 23 answers (or challenges) to that question, and there are undoubtedly more. I recently found an interesting commentary on the measurement game in a different context, which might shed some light on the matter.

I maintain a watching brief on the higher education sector in the UK. Partly for nostalgic reasons, partly to see trends that might affect our future lawyers, and partly because serendipity is part of this job and I think that only comes with practised observation. So I couldn’t miss Jonathan Wolff’s recent insight into the way in which the UK funding and quality agencies monitor universities.

Suppose you have applied for a job, any job. You are at one of those macho interviews where the panel members compete to see who can make you sweat the most. And this is the winning question: how do you plan to monitor and evaluate your own performance in the role? … 

Suppose your job is in business of some sort and, ultimately, you are employed to make the company money… In the end, the only thing that matters, then, is the profit you bring in. But it may take some time to build up a client base and to gather the dosh. It would be foolish to say that in the short term you should be judged on how much profit you make for the company. Rather you should monitor your activity: how many meetings you have taken, how many letters and emails you have sent, how many briefings you have been to. But, of course, that is only for openers. If the meetings don’t result in business, then you are wasting your time. So in the second phase of monitoring, you stop counting meetings and start counting things like contracts signed, goods shipped, turnover generated, or any other objective sign of real interaction.

But, once more, this is only an interim goal. You are there not to generate turnover, but profit. And once you have been around long enough that is the only thing that matters. In the third and final phase you count how much you make for the company, and stop worrying about meetings, letters or contracts signed. Who cares about how many of these there are if the bottom line stays juicy enough?

Pithily put, and accurate too. (Perhaps one should expect nothing less from a professor of philosophy at the institution inspired by Jeremy Bentham.) Unfortunately, Wolff’s tale does not end there. Our universities are stuck at the first stage — they can only monitor and measure the most obvious stuff they do. They haven’t worked out how to demonstrate how well they do at their core tasks: educating students and producing excellent research. They know that those are the bottom line (the profit equivalent), but they cannot measure how close they get to it.

The lesson from business is that over time, if you can’t count the right thing, counting the wrong thing isn’t a substitute. It isn’t even just a distraction. It is the road to ruin.

As a result, our universities are trapped in an immature relationship with their market and their paymasters. My memory of that relationship is that it was characterised (on both sides) by petulance, truculence and pedantry. I don’t think things have changed much in the last seven years.

Where does that leave KM? We go through the same phases. In the early days we demonstrate the value of our work by showing people the simple numbers — this many documents created, stored or accessed; that many people involved in knowledge sharing. Later on, we can look at the quality of this stuff — how good are these documents, is there good feedback on knowledge sharing. Ultimately, though, we need to work out what our bottom line is: what are we here for and how good are we at delivering that value. In any given organisation that may take a while, but if we stick at simple measures we shouldn’t be surprised if our paymasters and clients see us as an irrelevance. If we can show the impact of our work on profitability, we should always aim to do so (and loudly). Nobody is going to blow our trumpet for us.

Prescriptivity and appropriateness

One of the links in my blogroll is to Language Log, which is home to some of the most rigorous blogging on the internet. As its name indicates, it deals with language and linguistics, but in the broadest possible sense. So its authors have taken on sex differences and biological determinism, science journalism, lolcats, and legal language. However, one of the best posting categories is “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” When you need a break from pedants whingeing about split infinitives and dangling prepositions, this is where to come.

David Crystal’s book, The Fight for English (subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot, and left”) is also an attack on prescriptivist poppycock. In it, he describes how language pedantry developed during the eighteenth century, and outlines how an understanding of appropriate language can help people to understand grammar and language generally. (A point completely lost on this Amazon reviewer.) This is why appropriateness matters:

One of the aims of education, whether by parents or teachers, is to instil appropriate behaviour. If we behave inappropriately, we risk social sanctions. Language is a form of social behaviour, and it is subject to these sanctions as is everything else. The main aim of language education has thus to be the instilling into children of a sense of linguistic appropriateness — when to use one variety or style rather than another, and when to appreciate the way in which other people have used one variety or style rather than another. This is what the eighteenth-century prescriptive approach patently did not do.

When he turns to the history of grammar teaching in the UK, Crystal’s reduces his argument to a simple analogy. (Until the mid-1960s, English language teaching in the UK depended heavily on prescriptive texts. After that point, virtually no grammar was taught as part of the school syllabus. From the 1990s, following a period of intense academic study of English language and grammar, the National Curriculum for English incorporated language teaching that (a) balanced the study of language structure and the study of language use, and (b) aimed to instil a sense of language awareness in children.) The balance is important:

The basic problem [with historic English teaching] was that there was no means of relating the analytical skills involved in doing grammar to the practical skills involved in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The grammarians argued that there just had to be a connection — that any child who learned to parse would inevitably end up being a better user of its language. But there was nothing at all inevitable about it. And there was an obvious counter-argument, best summed up in an analogy. I have a friend who is a wonderful car mechanic, but he is a terrible driver.

The analogy is worth developing. To be a good driver takes a lot more than knowledge of how a car engine works. All kinds of fresh sensitivities and awarenesses are involved. Indeed, most of us learned to drive with next to no understanding of what goes on inside the bonnet. It is the same with language. …[S]omething else has to happen if children are to use a knowledge of grammar in order to become better speakers, listeners, readers, or writers. A connection has to be made — and, more to the point, demonstrated.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of something else I read today. In the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan quotes a passage from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Here are the first couple of sentences:

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail.

I had intended to write about this anyway, because it struck me that an approach to legal education (and, by extension, KM) that focuses on things like transaction processes and prescribed documents (held in databases) does not help to develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers. I have a feeling that many lawyers find improvisation difficult (please excuse the generalisation), and so they are happiest with KM that creates know-how databases and precedent banks. Such an approach does not actually serve them as well as they think it does.

As for the legal education point: a story from my wife. She is a corporate partner, with 20 years experience. A couple of years ago she was leading a very complex transaction, but the other side was represented by a much more inexperienced lawyer. More significantly, it was clear that this lawyer had been taught some standard transaction processes and had not developed enough imagination to see that the clients’ goals could be more readily met by diverging from the standard. Because of this, my wife and both sets of clients were frustrated until the other lawyer finally gave up on her approach and caved in. At this point, I am not privy to the details, but my guess is that the result of this change of heart was not particularly beneficial her client. At the very least, her intransigence will have prolonged the deal and increased its cost to both parties.

Prescriptivism may be dying out in the British educational system, but it is alive and well in law firms. In the current climate, how long will clients stand for it? And what are we doing to connect lawyers’ database instincts with their improvisory instincts in order to give them the understanding to become better advisors?