I am currently working on a project about communities of practice that is making me think back to my years in learning and development and recalling the different ideas I submitted to my management and leadership in the form of strategy papers. Many of these never transpired to anything due to budget, resources or simply not aligned with the vision of some of the team I worked for. A few came to fruition and were exciting to lead for a while however, I always had in the back of my mind, the words of some of my negative performance reviews received in the early years where I was told that I lacked “big picture thinking” and “unlikely to ever be in a strategic role”.
I think about these few reviews often and wonder why I ever let them dictate my behaviour by casting doubt over what I could and couldn’t do.
*Sigh*. What a waste of my time and energy…
But isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? I realised I did have big picture thinking but went about it in the wrong way which caused my frustration. Mistakenly I thought rather than taking action by myself first, instead, I’d get people excited about the possibilities and find who would come on the journey with me. I figured having a team who supported the idea may make management and leadership support and endorse my proposal too. So I researched, I spoke to people, I wrote long Strategy Papers and created beautiful Powerpoints, presented to managers and eagerly awaited approval, permission and support. Ah, such naive thinking…
If I only knew what I know now. I would have said to myself , “If it’s not on management’s radar, don’t even bother getting permission. Just go ahead and do it and seek forgiveness afterwards .”
So what brought all this about?
One night in bed I remembered that I had submitted a strategy paper and presentation on establishing a community of practice between two countries Australia and the United States years ago. I got up and rummaged through the cupboards to located the long forgotten CD with all my work files. I fired up the computer and then looked through each of the documents all of them each of them bringing back memories.
It was 2004 and at the time, I was working as a Learning Solutions Consultant for a small Melbourne based company called Omni Asia Pacific (which no longer operates). We provided custom courseware e-learning design and development for corporate clients. It was a role that excited me because I worked with different clients but it also frustrated me because I felt we focussed too much on content and not on the people side to learning. That is, we didn’t provide full consulting advice on blended learning approaches (the 70 and 20) instead focussed on the development of custom e-learning courses and content.
Also the word, “social” was not around then in corporate learning.
At the same time, I was also in the Navy Reserves and worked as a Public Affairs Officer once a week in the evenings, along with some weekend work and two weeks full-time every year on operations, deployments and exercises that required public affairs and media support. Both my civilian and military roles complemented each other. It was a great blend of learning and development, marketing, corporate communications, reputation management, media relations and change management.
I recall providing a strategy paper to my public affairs management to explore and implement a community of practice using an online community discussion board and forum.
At the time, I didn’t receive any feedback or acknowledgement of my submission so I instead decided to apply for the Prince of Wales Award, a professional development opportunity open to one Reservist every year to travel overseas to observe, participate, learn and exchange knowledge and information on two projects: one aligned to their civilian career and the other to their military career. I figured if the idea had merit, I could be selected to travel overseas, share knowledge and information with others and implement the idea back in Australia. It was going to be a long shot because the Prince of Wales Award was popular and only one person from each Service was chosen for this prestigious posting but I had to give it a go.
I chose my two projects and set about writing the papers and presentations for them. My military area of interest was to investigate the creation of an international community of practice between Australian Naval Reserve and US Navy Public Affairs teams so that we could learn and share our public affairs knowledge and experience between the navies.
On the other hand, my civilian area of interest was focussed on exploring on how to incorporate engaging and interactive simulations on context-based business scenarios for the corporate market. At the time, even though both these projects had an underlying peer-learning and contextual basis to learning, for whatever reason, I treated them as distinct and separate to each other.
(Part of the selection process was to provide evidence that you had contacted places, companies and people whom you were going to meet, attend, observe and participate. I had made these connections via email and planned out a 4 week itinerary across the US to spend 2 weeks exploring communities of practice and another 2 weeks exploring simulation training with various vendors and military establishments. If selected, it was going to be a whirlwind journey but one filled with new connections and learning – I was excited!)
When I found my submission to the POWA Award on CD, I flicked through the PowerPoint slides of my civilian research project and now, ten years later I was amazed that Learning and Development are STILL talking about the same issues when it comes to engaging e-learning. Even working for a custom courseware development house, in 2004, I still felt that we were ‘missing’ something and it was the peer social interactions within our programs.
I just never articulated it properly or even made the link to how my military project on communities of practice could have been the solution to both research projects.
Once again, in hindsight I now see that I hadn’t made the connection or articulated the importance of social learning in both those cases. I was focussed on the medium (the community tools, the simulations – the content) and not the people. I believe this is why Learning and Development is still having the same argument years later. We focus too much on the content and the media – the how, and not enough on the why or the who.
So finding my old work on communities of practice and peer learning networks made me think about my ‘big picture’ thinking. Maybe I was ahead of my time? Why didn’t I see the link between both projects? How could I have explained the value to both my military and civilian management teams?
Back then, I was still trying to make people see the value in people learning with each other through each other but it seems the concept is still nebulous today to some as it was back then. It’s getting clearer now thanks to the social tools that allow us to connect with each other without effort.
Corollary: Was I successful in the Prince of Wales Award? Alas, no but I was incredibly honoured to have been selected in the first round to go through to selection and interview stage which took part in Randwick Sydney one weekend. During the selection weekend, I got an opportunity to meet some of the brightest and professional people in the services in their fields of endeavours all with passion and enthusiasm for their research topics. My community of practice research project was not selected but instead the POWA Award Winner was a worthy project in the field of research in Dengue Fever. A few years later I did however, present the strategy again to management but this time instead of discussion boards, use a relatively unknown site called LinkedIn and their groups functionality but was knocked back..again.
If you have an idea, don’t ever wait for approval. Just run with it.