The HR Juggler

Day 18: The Long and Winding Road

Posted on: December 18, 2013


Day 18 is written by the super smart Dr Anne Marie McEwan, who can be found on Twitter @smartco and over on her blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


I am very grateful to Alison for giving me the chance to reflect on work, success and failure this past year. I’ll start by thinking about the long and winding road that leads to an event I went to earlier this week in London, pausing to reflect on the way on Simon Heath’s call to action in the first of these Advent blog posts.

The Road Travelled

I am no flash-in-the-pan, future-of-work type. Although I have been co-facilitating, along with the Director of Workplace Innovation of a large US corporate, a network of IT, HR and Facilities people to explore global trends and how they are impacting work and the workplace – we had our first meeting in 2006 and the last one in March this year in Paris.

Travelling the road towards trying to understand how businesses create the operating conditions where people can give of their best began twenty years ago when out of the blue I got the opportunity to do a PhD at Cranfield University. I am an accidental academic who is now trying to become a recovering academic. But that’s another story.

Manufacturing had begun shifting from traditional ways of organising work – managers do the thinking, operators do what they are told – to approaches that fundamentally depend on a philosophy of involving the whole workforce in continuous improvement, knowledge-sharing and problem-solving. This interested me a lot and so I explored how businesses created enabling cultures and systems.

The next bend in the road took me in a different direction – still the same road though.

I was part of the team in a UK university that developed an experiential learning approach for senior executives with a business problem to solve. Together with another team from the same university, we further co-developed the approach at a university in Moscow.

The aim was to scope a practical project that would serve two purposes – project objectives would emerge (or not) from activities, and at the same time reflection on the experience provided opportunity for learning and developing skills.

The Call To Action

“We have a multitude of tools at our disposal. We’re connected like never before. Our time has come. Our time to act.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I thought. There’s a load of overlooked insight from manufacturing on designing for knowledge-sharing and customer-focused performance. This and lots more besides is ripe for discovering, sharing and experimenting with.

And social technologies are democratising. For the first time, people who previously had no access to a business school education can now get it online. Social technologies have taken a big can opener to the previously privileged experience and prised open opportunities for anyone committed and courageous enough to challenge themselves.

Despite our lack of time, we rushed in droves to embrace MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses are online and free. The most famous MOOCs were initially offered by famous American universities but other academic institutions all over the world are now clamouring to join the party.

Some high-profile MOOC efforts are failing. Although MOOCs are maturing and developing, so far I think they are mostly taking old world learning, ‘the sage on the stage’ lectures delivered by subject experts, and making it available to anyone with a connection to the internet.

What the MOOC explosion says to me is that despite our lack of time, we are using social technologies to educate ourselves. I think the real opportunity for democratised, self-driven learning is in the ‘C’ bit of MOOC, ‘c’ for conversation and connecting as well as courses.  My vision is for Massive Open Online Conversations supported by mentors, coaches, facilitators and – most importantly – each other.

So I approached a UK university and managed to get them to accredit a work-based Post Graduate Certificate on High Performance in the Digital Age – do a practical thing at work and come together online for discussion and reflective conversations. Hurrah, well done me. Except for one thing. It has been a really hard sell.

This as you might imagine has led me to lose confidence and question my ambitions. An online business school experience for people who would not normally have the chance? Who do I think I am? Am I nuts? Deluded? Should I pull the plug? Etc.

The Event

And so it was that I went to London to attend the EUWIN (European Workplace Innovation Network) conference earlier this week. I met many old friends – I have known some of the network members for a long time. I must be honest and say that I went with the expectation of a Groundhog Day experience. I had read one of the research reports saying many things I had heard before.

Well, was I in for a surprise. It was the most enjoyable, energetic and engaging conference I have ever experienced. Yes the issues we talked about and explored were very familiar. Organisations have until now been very resistant to high-performance work practices. But it was the fresh way that familiar themes were introduced that made me feel differently.

We had Forum Theatre introduce a story about the client demanding delivery in an unreasonable time, a shop floor operator with a good idea and a manager who would not listen. There was no script, perhaps the bones of one. Anyone in the audience could shout ‘stop’ to make an observation and the cast improvised. It was very funny and brilliantly done.

But it was the summary of the academic research that was so entertaining – I know, I can’t believe I’m saying that! The review started off conventionally enough, introduced by Professor John Bessant (external examiner for my PhD, I am proud to say). Then we hear a guitar and Professor Bessant picks up a guitar and the two men are joined by a singer.

Very clever and again funny, including a sing-along. I will find out the names of the musicians especially since I am about to quote some of their lyrics. One song included the line “It’s not who you know, but who you know who knows it” and another “Take a risk and play with matches but be prepared to get burned.”

This oddly reassured me. It can be risky to do something different. I know some of the mistakes I have made. I go into 2014 a bit wiser but also knowing that there will be many more obstacles in the way. And if you are trying to do something different in 2014, connect with others doing the same and surround yourself with good energy – the energy from the conference has unlocked something in me. I’ve picked myself up, dusted myself off and will start all over again.

3 Responses to "Day 18: The Long and Winding Road"

Slightly mysteriously I have managed to accidentally disable the comments section for today’s post! I am trying to fix this…but if you have a comment to share please let me know and I will add it manually.

Comment from Anthony Allinson (@allinsona) submitted by email –

I have been reading about MOOCS for a while. Mostly in The Economist.

The early attempts appeared to fall into the trap of doing things than can be done rather than what should be done. In fact the Massive bit (what the ‘M’ stands for) strikes me as a fundamental error.

There are many things that enable me to learn. Context, in particular a peer group I am closely connected to (organisationally or merely through intense interest in something) and wherever possible.

I can see some of the “we can so we should dogma” being replaced with a more complete perspective.

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

Reply from Anne-Marie

“Massive bit (what the ‘M’ stands for) strikes me as a fundamental error” – that’s a really interesting observation. You are right. The conversations that matter are informal, friendly, where you can be yourself, often incidental and small-scale among trusted peers in particular contexts.

In fact I am struggling to find the words to describe what is a feeling of conversations where what is not spoken, because the bonds and common experiences are so deep, is as important as what is said. I suppose ‘massive’ to me describes a movement, an agglomeration of intimate, transformative, reflective, small-scale conversations.

Thank you so much Alison for the chance to write the piece, for your comment and the chance to think a bit more about what I mean. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Am off to have a look at the Economist link . Have a wonderful Christmas.

Anne Marie

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