Is the quest for engagement a red herring?

With due apologies for a possible click bait title, I worry that the quest for engaging content is becoming a problem. It may have been a problem for some time and I am slow on the uptake. That has happened before.

There is a risk here that opposing the creation of engaging experiences is, inevitably, seen as opposition to a self-evident good. Engaging experiences are good experiences, don’t you want things to be good? To qualify my perspective a little, I am thinking mostly of corporate or organisation based experiences – the role for entertainment in consumer markets is as clear as day. In the world of work, less so.

My worry is that engagement is too broad a goal to be instructive in deciding what to make. Equally, ‘making good things’ is not a discerning strategic goal. We need to know why something is engaging – what it is good for – and focus on that. Seeking engagement can allow us to pretty much justify any goal but does not guarantee an impact that will make a difference.

The real problem with the quest for engagement is that it excuses the creation of content in which there is little or no interest from the audience. Too often engagement equates to sugaring the pill or placing lipstick on pigs (to say nothing of polishing poop). There is little audience demand or pull, so the push is lubricated with the application of ‘fun’.

Focus on what is interesting and useful.

Back in the earlier days of Twitter (when it was a more temperate and calmer place to bathe) there was much debate about whether there was value in sharing and reading snippets of information within a 140 character limit. Not much of any worth can be captured in these bursts ran the argument. I was a fan of Twitter and seeking justifications of my behaviour. I was struck by Graham Linehan’s argument for using the service and as a guide for who to follow: I focus on what is interesting and useful. (It was a while ago, so I am paraphrasing).

Back in those earlier days, I was working in the search engine industry. (Believe it or not, there was a period when the sector was competitive, before Google swallowed the world). The purpose of the products in the sector is to provide the most relevant response to a users query. Relevance in search is everything. That relevance is personal and is decided by the author of the query not the search engine. A good and abiding definition of personal relevance is what the user finds most interesting and/or useful. Fifteen or so years later, I belive these are the most valuable goals of content creation and of user experience: make it as useful and interesting as possible. The chances of audience appreciation will rise and you might earn the right to do more.

Find things out and get things done

This is why the, perennially excellent, Top 100 Tools For Learning is so instructive. The tools listed there not the tools of fun and entertainment but of productivity, connection and communication. They help us find things out and get things done. Netflix and Xbox, for example, are not on the list. Google search is in the top three ,with that relentless focus on personal relevance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playfulness. It can be a very important editorial value in the stories you tell. It can signal humanity and empathy. A playful tone might support the usefulness of your products or content. Snapchat worked that out but have not let it get in the way of the utility of their service. It is a playful experience but does not try to be a game.

David James has ridden this hobby-horse to a great destination a few times. The right questions to ask before we make are along the lines of “What problem are we trying to solve?”. “What use or interest is there here for a user”? Certainly, this might be a less exotic palette of flavours but they are satisfying and when done well, they are returned to often. Frequency of use is a great metric to test how helpful content and services are for users. The closer to once a day you can get the better. So often the ‘fun’ is added to help “drive engagement” for experiences that are low down the priority order for users or are the products of compulsion. Make these short and simple, don’t worry about fun.

The, hopefully historic, proposal of a ‘Netflix for learning’ falls at this hurdle. If it was a good idea, Netflix would have created a learning category amongst its giddying array of options. They haven’t. (A YouTube for learning is a much better idea, which is why there is one. YouTube). Netflix works because it is well designed around our desire to be entertained. How about a Netflix for Internal Comms or Policy Documents? No. Me neither.

I propose that we halt the quest for engagement and focus our energy and imagination  on the search for personal relevance. By personal relevance, I mean experiences that are interesting and useful to the individuals using them.


Stakeholder fixation syndrome: the elephant in the digital room

From my unscientific sampling, the realisation that ‘digital change’ is about people seems to have dawned quite widely now. From the proceedings of Learning Live to blog posts and contributions on LinkedIn and Twitter the ‘digital is about people and culture’ theme is gaining momentum. This is a good thing and will, hopefully, dissuade folk that installing that grand system upgrade will make much of a difference in the pursuit of their goals.

I further hope that it will focus effort on changing the ways teams work: the skills they include, how they are lead and their focus on their users. (For those interested in exploring this topic further there is an interesting new course from the Digital Leaders Academy looking at that and related themes of digital. Disclaimer: I am facilitating these events).

Conversations beneath the surface of this topic have uncovered a cause for some concern, however. There is a cloud on the digital horizon obscuring a clear view of what users need. To qualify a little, this cloud is most prevalent in the skies of the internal digital initiative but not exclusively so. It takes the form of what I call “stakeholder fixation syndrome”.

Symptoms of stakeholder fixation include a lack of user evidence in development, preference of aesthetic design over utility, insufficient user testing and worst of all, the introductory video from the CEO/SVP/MD (persuasion to use and understand a tool is not a comforting sign at the top of the home page). These are signals of a product which is being steered inwards and upwards to the central viewing platform of the organisation. Senior stakeholders often reflect requirements that might be needed by the organisation and consumers they would like to serve. Frequently, they will articulate the user needs they want to see or believe should be there. Distance from the frontline and a lack of familiarity with the troops often obscures the reality. These needs differ from the, often messy and confusing, ones of real users frequently lacking time and attention to make such tidy, rational choices. Products need to be steered directly for users to have a good chance of success.

In the early months of 2011 many senior stakeholders arrived back at work after Christmas with their brand new iPads. It was a heady time. Heads had been turned and the new form factor was heralded in boardrooms far and wide. I remember a mock-up of overnight TV ratings being shown to a senior fellow (almost always a chap) on his prized device and generating much excitement for a project. The fact that tablet usage was in the low single digits, at best, was swiftly overlooked as the designers took their new direction from on high. As we now know, tablet usage is a thing of the past by and large and it never really did have a significant impact. Rupert Murdoch seems to have had a visit from Santa around that time too.

Most information systems selection and implementation goes through the stakeholder mill in a similar but more structured fashion. The needs of the end-user play a quiet second fiddle to the lead of the senior stakeholder with the noise amplified by their peers. The diagram below simplifies one example of how this might look in the case of the humble learning management system. A steering group and governance function can easily decide what would be ideal rather than what will work best.

LMS chain

A surefire sign of stakeholder fixation syndrome taking hold is the creation of the one-stop-shop product. One-stop-shops are beguilingly tempting for stakeholders: they look tidy, unified and organised and answer the internal logic of the business (or a perception of it). Sadly, from a user perspective they are often irrelevant and restrictive. We tend to prefer to have a problem solved with singular effectiveness than all of our problems wrapped into a monolithic solution. We are accustomed to mess and with well designed tools can navigate it well enough. Even Amazon has not launched a social network or a search engine.

Stakeholders are problematic, yes. Ignoring them creates even greater problems, however. They are keepers of decision gates in organisations and of the oxygen of budget and headcount. Not to be trifled with. Evidence of user need and behaviour are always sound allies. Reports and presentations help but the principle of “show don’t tell” often serves best. Show the evidence gathered from testing and experimenting. Show the quotes, recordings and conversations from testing sessions (video is great if you have the time and people). Show the prototypes and the experiments themselves and how the design has evolved. Better still, install the app for them and let them play and tinker. Bring users to life and the worst impulses can be replaced with insight. Furthermore, be clear about the metrics that will signal success and failure and make sure they are easily and simply available.

I realise that enlightened stakeholders do exist. In many cases they are keen to learn as well. I also know that other kinds of stakeholders are prevalent and need careful handling. So, whilst the realisation of the human elements required of digital transformation is to be welcomed we also need to recognise some of the more senior human challenges in making those changes stick.





Don’t leave digital transformation to IT (or learning technology teams)

In a few weeks time, I will be hosting a panel session at Learning Live on the theme of digital transformation. It is, in various guises, a major theme of the event and a significant preoccupation of the LPI membership. Fortunately, I have a wise and esteemed panel to rely on for answers to “What you’ve always wanted to ask” about the topic.

In preparation I have been doing a little more deliberate reading around the many and varied themes. I cannot decide whether a focus on L&D will help the debate or hinder it? On the one hand, we can concentrate on topics closest to our work and our immediate priorities. On the other a, mistaken, belief that learning is a special case in the digital world leads to many misguided decisions. Specialist learning systems are a major reason why learning remains in a technology ghetto rather than a daily tool kit.

This post by Jeff Imelt, ex CEO of GE is a useful input. There are some helpful observations on leading and organising digital transition in here. Unsurprisingly, leadership clarity, trust and empowerment are crucial factors. As important, is the assertion that digital ultimately needs to be a part of everyone’s day job at some point. Whilst a specialist team may be prudent to gain momentum in the early days, everyone needs to make the change and adopt digital ways of working to sustain the changes. This is worthy of consideration for L&D folks. Many organisations have digital specialist managers and teams (often born from a learning technology background) but struggle to make the transition beyond that point. I would like to hear some views on that hypothesis in the session, from attendees in particular.

Imelt also asserts that digital change cannot be the preserve of the IT functions. In many ways these are outsourced technologies and activities which operate at too great a distance from the core business to generate valuable change. I really like this point. Too often digital is seen as the preserve of techies and systems folks, under-cooking the potential it can have and limiting the radical change needed. Technology as a function is often too far removed from decision making to create far-reaching changes.

In the L&D world, I suspect (and observe) that digital change is often handed off to learning technology teams. This limits the changes required – digital transformation is about people and how they work as much as it is about technology. In anxious organisations, there can be an insulation from digital because it is seen as a specialism of technologists. Successful change will not occur under these circumstances. I would also like to know wat people make of this observation. It has happened to me directly. As Director of Digital, I have been given responsibility for digital transformation with only technology levers on which to pull. The remainder of the department remained distant, labouring under the belief that ‘digital’ would be solved for them and launched at them. No. It didn’t work.

A related challenge to the preoccupation with IT lead implementation of digital change is the misplaced faith in systems implementation as a source of digital change. Fundamentally, the revolution of digital has been a product of the widespread adoption of digital ways of working. Inherent to these approaches is the ability to experiment and adjust to seek valuable solutions. Any transformation means the old rules no longer apply. Systems implementation, by definition, precludes experimentation and denies the arrival of unexpected value. The computer will say no.

ERP systems, of which the LMS is a prime example, will not deliver digital transformation for this reason. They will deliver efficiency, order and accuracy (hopefully) to established systems or in the embedding of new ones. This is not to be sniffed at, but is not transformative. User needs are rarely anywhere to be seen either.

Other digital tools are where signals of value can be found. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to look outside our own industries in seeking clues to make far-reaching changes. Social media, digital advertising and content publishing have some useful pointers to offer in designing a really helpful user experience. (They also have some useful lessons in questionable business ethics to look out for).

Plenty to chew on for that session at Learning Live then. What else?


(learning) Culture and technology – muddle or plan?

I am seeking help to lift me from a muddle. Anyone reading this (data suggests that you may be into double figures), I suspect, has wisdom to spare.

The theme of “learning culture” has risen in my working world recently. (It has been there all along, of course, but not so often called out with such deliberation). This lead me to call for help on LinkedIn a week or so ago. I was looking for some clarity on what learning culture is and how to best work towards its enhancement and creation. There are some very helpful contributions in that post. Clarity remains elusive, however.

My best shot at a definition derives from the exchange between Nick Shackelton-Jones and Matt Ash. “A learning culture is a culture in which learning readily occurs”. Nick used the word flourishes. I like that. Yet, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that might denote a strong learning culture. Furthermore, the philosopher in me worries at the circularity of this definition. This is my first fall into muddle.

I was also struck that, as usual, those outside of the worlds of HR and L&D don’t really care much about learning culture. Or, to be fair, they care for a productive and healthy culture in an organisation. One feature of such a culture is that people in it learn and instruct (maybe teach?). Other features probably include ready communication, shared values, clear objectives and sense of purpose, shared language, trust, respect and the ability to act on decisions. These features carry as much weight as learning culture. All are interwoven anyway as they enable and support each others presence. So it is a muddle…but in a good way.

Then to my second moment of muddle: is learning culture enough for a successful culture? I don’t, at this moment of typing, think so. But in the L&D/HR zone, it tends to be the set objective and therefore risks being insufficient from the outset. Probably.

So, perhaps learning is a necessary but insufficient element of a broader healthy organisation culture. That view is less muddled in my mind. Does that, in turn, mean that pursuing a learning culture is not worthwhile in itself because it falls short of the greater goal? That seems like an odd conclusion. A learning culture seems valuable whether it is referred to as that or not and whether the wider world sets it as an objective or not. It may not be the loftiest of goals but it remains a valuable one. Slightly less muddle.

And so to the “how does one encourage a learning culture?” question. The comments on LinkedIn offered “embedding”, “learning DNA”, “championship”, “allowing time to learn”, “inspiring managers” and “leadership” as important ingredients in the recipe. There was universal agreement that delivery of learning does not contribute much to learning culture, not alone, at least. The human factors are those with most purchase on culture – they are the behaviours that demonstrate what is valued and offer an example to others. When exhibited by those with authority, they have greater influence and impact. Leadership is a crucial ingredient.

In the digital realm, attention tends to focus on technology products and services that enable learning culture. The relative ease with which learning can be made available is a cause for optimism. It has also, I fear, lead to a great deal of digital learning production in the hope that it will inspire learning culture. Experience says otherwise. A common refrain in my line of work is that “we have too much digital stuff”, suggesting that the culture in which the stuff resides is not lapping it up in the hoped for manner. Production and publishing is not a cultural trigger.

Similarly, a golden thread of digital development is that of connection. Digital experiences connect us as users with content and with people. The promise of enterprise social networks is that, at the click of an icon, everyone can connect with everyone and share knowledge across boundaries. Another refrain in my line of work is that “we have implemented Zamster/Buzzplace/Chatspot/Facezone but only a couple of teams are really using it”. Culture beats technology every time.

A case in point: a large UK based public service broadcaster implemented an ‘official’ instance of Yammer to build on the unofficial usage and signs of momentum with the product. This was to be the digital water cooler at which staff would share opinions and ideas on the transformation programme to be unveiled. The starter gun was fired with a post from the most senior of leaders inviting conversation to begin. That post was both distant and tone deaf. It was also the first and only post by that user. There was a brief flurry of activity, the wind dropped and the water was stilled. Hope for an open, technology enabled cultural renewal was beaten out by the cultural reality of a workforce who were conversing elsewhere, if at all.

For technology to usefully enable cultural change, all those elements of positive culture need to be nurtured and supported as well. Which leads me to another (third/fourth?) muddle: the circularity of learning culture and technology. Cultural change will be powerfully enabled by technology but needs the human features for the technology to be relevant and useful. Without the technology, those human features will be more difficult to detect and amplify, making progress much more laborious. If the culture does not have a digital imprint, it is now significantly more difficult to identify and detect. That is one of the effects of a world in which Facebook has 2.2 billion active users.

I think I will pause here in the recognition that this topic is probably impossible to unmuddle. As with much of human affairs, it is complex and defies simple explanation. That also, to me, signals that it is valuable and worthy of pursuit and debate. So I will continue to ponder. Perhaps learning culture is a little like pornography (in only one respect) – very difficult to define but we know it when we see it.






Think before you make. There is plenty of stuff already…

I stumbled across this quote whilst listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago. It is a great turn of phrase and has did not quite leave my mind, where I have been turning it over since.

“Never do for others what they can do for themselves”

Saul Alinsky

I had not heard of Saul Alinsky before. He was a radical of the twentieth century. A leading thinker and practitioner of community organising. He was, it seems, someone who focused in a dedicated fashion on effecting social change. His thrust, as I understand it, is that freedom and sustained change was best enabled where communities are able to resource their own betterment. Acts of charity may feel good but they do not necessarily create the circumstances for sustained change.

My own reflections on the his words are more quotidian. It made me think about making digital content and when and why we might do so. (No mentions in despatches for me).

In the domain of online content, “doing something for ourselves” usually equates to finding something on Google. This is the competition we have for publishing information. Or rather, this is what our content can be substituted with when we make it.

This is a tough challenge as many of us feel, rightly or wrongly, that making stuff is our job. It is a tempting assumption: making something is a ready hallmark of productive effort. We can point at what we have made and measure it.

Making content is also beguiling. (Here I am doing it right now). This is the primary reason why there is so much crap around. Conversely, it is also the reason why there is so much useful stuff around. Google is ever so good at spotting those items and using it is now our reflex. So, as custodians of a good content experience what can we do to avoid adding to the ocean of content already surrounding us all?

Here are some questions to ask before you make something:

  • Does a good enough version already exist on the web?
    • By “good enough” I mean for a user rather than your stakeholders
  • Does that version work for your audience?
    • Find out – don’t just assume
  • If an accessible version exists, can you make a better version? (By better I mean more useful for your audience, not more engaging).
  • Can you make a better version than someone else can make?
  • Or, do you know an expert who can make one – or who you can help make one?
  • Can it be easily found? Or…can you make it easier to find?
  • If there is a good enough version already available, how can you help to make that more discoverable and searchable?
    • Can you add context to that for your users?

Some questions to ask if you are absolutely sure you need to make something:

  • Do you have somewhere useful to put your thing when made? i.e. somewhere discoverable, searchable and browseable*?
  • Is it clear what it is for and why it is there?
    • Can your users find out where it is from and who made it?
    • Can they easily see how old it is?
  • Does the user need to be led through or have something explained or can they figure it out for themselves? (This is an important one – it is very easy to underestimate audience intelligence. Stakeholders and subject matter experts do it all the time).
  • How will your users let you know what they think of what you have made?
  • Can you measure what happens when you publish it?
  • Can they share it?

I would suggest you hold off on making something if you are not confident in the answers to these points. Easy to say and hard to do, I know. But in may experience, these are ueful tests.

* Not sure this is a real word but it seems OK to invent it for this purpose? That is my contribution to the ocean.

Does it matter to L&D that barriers to learning are so low?

Editors note: I arrived back at my blog, after a too-long pause in writing, to find this title saved as a draft. I cannot recall what I intended to write before I abandoned the headline. I do like the ring of it though and have had a go below. Let me know if you think it was worth the effort.

As minds turn towards the Learning Technologies Summer Forum I have noticed the theme of what the learning profession is for is still in fashion.

Sukh Pabial posted on the theme only this week. As a thorough and open-minded thinker, he did not call his position on learning versus (or with?) performance consulting. More consideration required – always a sound judgement. Performance consulting is a great ambition but…can the profession authentically claim that territory? It’s certainly quite a change of pace and direction. David James, his interlocutor, was more positive in that direction suggesting that L&D needs to claim the territory to prove relevance and value beyond training design and delivery. I, rather unhelpfully, think I agree with both of them.

Performance consulting might be the best direction to head in. If so, a lot of change is required. Consulting, in many guises, does not require making anything. Most often, it requires asking good questions and teasing out useful responses. L&D makes stuff as a reflex – sometimes with the questions, sometimes without. Courses, eLearning and content are the go to solutions of the training game. There may be a long journey to go on to earn that consultant mantle.

To be fair to David, his position is that L&D (and any other function) needs to focus on helping to solve the problems of the workplace. This may or may not require learning. “Reducing friction” is his desired result. This will help people (not necessarily learners) get to their goal with as little unnecessary effort as possible.

I wonder though whether this is the most pressing challenge for the profession. What it is called is an attractive side-show. It’s purpose and value are central, however.

The barriers to learning have fallen away…

The central challenge for L&D as a function in the digital age is that anyone can now do it. It seems to be very easy for learners to satisfy their learning needs without help and support of an L&D professional. The combination of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn and Twitter make for an excellent tutorial environment for many many needs. It is also increasingly easy for intermediaries to take the place of the L&D function with no professional background and heritage. The mighty and impressive Stack Exchange is an excellent example, providing direct access to qualified and recommended expertise and experience for developers. It has grown into an indispensable tool worldwide. Not an L&D manager in sight.

Sunlight is a slightly different take on a similar outcome. A relatively fresh start-up, it claims to facilitate access to “any course, book or event in the world”. In a well managed product package, with a pre-set budget allocation for users, a trusting workplace can step away from allocating and assigning learning and let the business, its managers and teams decide what and how to learn. It focuses more clearly on user choice than a traditional learning system might.

Similarly, a motivated and moderately aware subject matter expert can be found and asked for advice. Some of the most valuable will create and publish their advice freely and openly. The now hackneyed examples of the YouTube “How to…” videos are commonplace: boiler maintenance/make up/gardening/guitar playing etc. etc. . Some of them are great. Some should not be allowed out of the house. But the platform helps raise the best closer to the top with useful signals of relevance and popularity.

Clearly, these tools can be facilitated and guided by L&D folks as part of the services and tools the consultation recommends. The point is that this is no longer a necessity. As with so many industries and professions, L&D is being disintermediated  in the digital world. The value of the learning professional is in the expert facilitation of access to expertise and experience. Direct access at the moment of need makes that value harder to demonstrate.

As L&D folks we need to be very clear about the extra value we are adding to those, enormously successful and popular, self-help learning products. (My own dealing with SMEs suggests that they do, often need help in editing advice out. Their enthusiasm often overcomes the need to delete some of their advice before pressing ‘send’). There needs to be a clear role that the user or the expert is not fulfilling on their own. I suspect that the value is best found supporting the extraction and distribution of expertise in a way that users find most helpful. Then getting out of their way.

A value to L&D is often ascribed from the curation of the best content on offer to save learners time. This does make some sense – choices can be hard to make amongst a genuine array of options. That curation needs to stand up to comparison with good search, however (and yes that means Google). There is a role for flagging official and sanctioned content in the corporate context. That might take some experience and organisational knowledge to achieve, It also needs official approval. I wonder if the skills of the librarian and editor are helpful here as well – curation is not the sole province of L&D.

Barriers to learning are so low now:

  • Platform barriers are only a matter of time and effort – WordPress, YouTube, Facebook Workplace, LinkedIn etc. are available for many requirements
  • Content development is a falling barrier and has been largely removed (WordPress again and H5P etc.) unless you are unfortunate enough to require SCORM compliance to hide content in an LMS.
  • Audience access is available more readily – it is always hard-earned however
  • Cost of production continues to fall and production values are not always the barrier they used to be.
  • Content supply is no longer a challenge as discussed above – content organisation is certainly needed but that is not the sole province of L&D and other publishing sectors set the standard in this respect.
  • Connection with individuals and groups is enabled via social media (although some horrible business practices have eroded trust and greater care needs to be taken in those waters). Actually, good old email has a useful role to play here too.

All of this has a rather negative ring to it on reading it back before I press publish. That is not my intent. This post is born more from curiosity in trying to answer the question I found earlier. Everyone is trying to do a good job. Furthermore, one of the greatest features of the L&D world is that everyone is trying to help people realise their potential and make personal progress. Few professions can claim that territory so readily.

Maybe this is a useful, analogous way of thinking about the issue. If you were an investor (a VC perhaps), looking at the ease of learning stuff and offering learning without specialist help, would you invest in an L&D service versus a digitally enabled self-help service? An investor would look for signals of sustainable value and for evidence of a long term return. Investors don’t typically back the traditional intermediaries unless they have found a new role to play in the value chain.

That feels like the role to try to play.

Making a start on digitalness part 3 – organising for digital

It has taken longer than I hoped to get round to this post. This is the third in the series of loosely themed pieces about what it means to ‘be digital’ and some ideas on how to make a start. The first and second pieces are available for the curious/persistent reader.

The impetus to write this post came from leading the first of a series of sessions for Digital Leaders on Developing a Digital Mindset. Future sessions in London and Leeds are available as part of their Academy courses.  The sessions are short, workshop style events aimed to give those with less hands-on experience some ideas and techniques to consider in their work with their teams. The premise is that we all need to be more digital – so how might we go about it.

During the session there was discussion about technology integration programmes in organisations and the fact that they are often pitched as transformation efforts. This, in turn, lead to exploring the notion that ‘being digital’ is not really about technology  – or that, technology alone is insufficient for real digital change. Technology programmes can generate efficiencies, speed and lower cost (they can also deliver none of those things, at their worst). But they probably won’t change the organisation much, and are less likely to change it in the far-reaching ways ‘transformation’ promises.

Some of the most significant elements of a digital mindset are how groups plan, behave and organise. Being digital is about people more than it is about technology (or at least as much) – hence the significance of culture. The ways and means of systems implementation will not support or sustain a digital mindset. Don’t be fooled by systems implementation houses that pitch this as an outcome from use of technology.

Anyway, with that in mind, this post is about organising for digital. Again, in no strict oder of priority, here are some of the most important features of digital organisations or teams. They are:

  • Flat (or flatter). This is not to say that there is no hierarchy. Some people are in charge and need to be (some decisions will need a ‘buck stops here’ approach). A flatter team or organisation will, however have shorter routes between a decision and action. It will also have less mediation and introduce less confusion between a decision and the enacting of a plan to carry it out. (Empowered and accountable teams can get things done with less fuss. as explored in Post 2). From my personal experience, the BBC is not a flat organisation – it is lumpy and bumpy in arcane and vertical ways. Time to and from a decision to action is best measured in planetary metrics. Spotify, on the other hand, is pretty flat and swift in movement and action.
  • Open (or tending to openness). This goes hand in hand with flatness and trust. It is easier to get things done quickly if access to information and to people is more open. Open document stores and open access to performance data are principles that digital organisations have been energetic in adopting. Team members are trusted to use data responsibly, making the apparent risk of open sharing lee problematic. (Organisations with a parental leaning will struggle to adopt digital ways, I believe. They are better suited to programmed waterfalls and the committees needed to steer them).
  • Accessible. Teams working in an open environment are easier to access – and anticipate ease of access in turn. This is partly a facet of openness and the access to information that results from it. It is also a cultural feature that allows for access to expertise and experience throughout an organisation. The structure and model of Stack Overflow echoes this across technology disciplines, being built around the expectation that access to expert guidance is readily available. Tools like Slack and Trello facilitate open access.
  • Small. A productive digital team tends to be a small team. Or, not too big. It will be large enough to get stuff and be self-contained but not so large that it becomes unwieldy, slow and over complicated. Jeff Bezos still stands by the principle of Two Pizza sized teams at Amazon. The optimum size of a team is one that can be fed by two pizzas (probably in the range of 8 to 10 people, depending on pizza size and appetite). It is easier for this size of team to take decisions and to communicate those decisions and share relevant information. Big is not beautiful but a large organisation can have many two pizza teams within it.
  • Multidisciplinary. Those small, self-contained teams are made up of the required skills and capabilities to be self largely self-sufficient and productive. A productive team will have the ability to:
    • Gather and analyse data and communicate information and usable insights from it
    • Design, test and improve a good user experience (this will include but not be limited to user interface and visual design)
    • Develop and test code – or at the very least, have access to and control over developers
    • Manage a the activity, inputs and outputs of the team, most often in the form of an agile project manager
    • Take responsibility for marketing, communication and distribution. Otherwise known as “if you build it they really might not come”.
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around user needs and priorities
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around commercial needs and business outcomes
  • Flexible. These small and multi-disciplined teams are easier to form and reform around shifting priorities. There is less organisational heavy lifting required on behalf of the business. Similarly, extended and complex orientation is less likely to be needed as new teams group around their objectives. More mature digital organisations will also have developed production tools and infrastructure which supports this flexibility and can be applied across many or all areas of business.
  • Clear.  Whilst the objectives of the team are clear, this is equally true of the individuals of the team. A smaller team is easier to direct in this respect. The daily stand-up of the agile world supports an open sharing of the activity and next steps of all team members. Accountability is individual and well as team based, as is responsibility.

There are many ways to get things done and no set of guidelines can simply be applied to the unique circumstances of any organisation. Unlike systems, these ways of working cannot be implemented to a preconceived plan. These things take time and effort to bear fruit and find the right shape and size for the circumstances. They are worthy of consideration, however and it is relatively easy to give them a try and adapt them to your needs. Easier and cheaper than a technology programme that is.