The number 1 capability: comfort with ambiguity

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to find myself in a social media golden moment. (Plenty of social media moments are a whiffy, mustard brown these days, so I count my blessing there). I posted an open question on Linked In asking for thoughts on which capabilities should be within a ‘modern learning’ organisation and which might best come from the market – the ‘build vs buy’ debate. Many smart and helpful people made many useful and insightful contributions. I have been thinking through and working on capability maps/frameworks and models for around a year or so with a range of clients and the chance to hear from others is so valuable. I am more confident now that there is no single answer and that context and history are crucial factors (as Michelle Parry-Slater advised). There do seem to be consistent themes and advice however.

Amongs the variety of views, two capabilities cleary won unanimous support. Firstly, learning professionals need to be true consultants to their clients. This was framed as askers of good questions, analyser of situations, teller of uncomfortable truths and as the mythical “sayer of the word NO”. (As in, “no you don’t need a course/programme/module”). Further, we need to be designers of solutions: diagnosing and exploring problems, evaluating and testing options and ongoing managers of an evidence based answer. Hurrah! to the development of both of these really tricky roles I say.

One theme was threaded through that Linked In discussion but was not called out specifically: the ability to handle ambiguity and comfort in working amongst it. This is wedded to the realisation that old certainties and methods are no longer sufficient, or no longer relevant, in solving current, and probably future, problems. “What got me here won’t get me there” is a blunt and obvious point and it can really upset professional apple carts and undermine personal confidence. We have all worked in environments of false certainty which can make an ambiguous position seem unhelpful and obstructive. It is not. It is the most useful position we can take.

In my humble opinion, this is the foundation capability we need to develop or discover in offering useful solutions in the digital environments we now work in. We have to find ways of accepting a lack of a sinlge clear path and welcome the need to explore and test our way to greater confidence. Two routes to this might help us as indivduals: make a start and give it a try and talk about it and ask for advice from shared experience.

One irony of this position is that a pure digital answer may not be a good solution at times. Trying things out in the real world, analogue or not, is a requisite test of new behaviours and attitudes. Just because a digital tool has worked in the past or in another corner of life, does not mean it will apply readily to a current work context.

By chance, I bumped into the IdeoU podcast this morning. The most recent episode is a useful hagiography of David Kelly, Ideo founder. He calls the ability to manage effectively in ambiguity the designers superpower. Whilst a little narcissistic, I think there is a good point there. The most useful colleegues and team members are those who can help us take valuable decisions where outcomes are uncertain because information is imperfect or lacking. It is the root challenge of digital design.

There was an interesting set of views on whether content production should be in-house or not. In my mind the ability to produce, publish and promote video, audio, text and images is a must-have of any useful learning function. The discussion did not dissuade me of that view. It may be expedient to buy in specialist production and test new formats depending on context and demand.

Data seems from that, ahem, unscientific polling to be a major new concern for an effective team. Whether the analysis and science is in-house or not, awareness and competence in framing analysis and appying the results is a new foundation to create.

There was a late call for marketing skills as well. Raising awareness of what we do, targeting messages and managing ongoing campaigns is so vital, and I fear, so often missing. My experience of internal comms efforts colours my perception here – it is not to be relied on as a useful way to fill this gap. Self-help has served me better.

And finally, of course, effective use of digital social tools is a new vital capability. Conversation with and amongst users is oxygen. That is where this post comes from, after all.

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