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A Conversation with Elliott Masie, Chair of the Learning Consortium, on the Future of Organizational Development

March 11, 2011

Elliot Masie is the Chair of the Learning Consortium and the host of Learning 2011. He is also the editor of Learning Rant, Raves & Reflections and he’s credited with introducing the term ‘e-Learning’ into popular culture.  He was a keynote speaker at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit, where I had the opportunity to speak with him about the future of learning.

Tell us what you spoke about in your keynote address.

I talked about how change is impacting the world of OD. Technology is confronting and creating new opportunities for OD professionals; so we explored that.

What are the greatest changes in organizations today? You come up with three buckets: market places are changing, workforces are changing, and technology is changing. All three of them are interactive.

I believe that OD can play a unique role in how organizations deal with the behavioral dimensions of technology. For instance, I’m sitting here with my iPad. iPads are interesting. iPads might be cool. Mobile devices are intriguing. But how do we deal with the behavioral impacts of these devices? How do we use these devices to help people overcome hurdles or close performance gaps, and how do we want to shape the culture that grows up around this technology?

The other day, I went to a meeting, and three-quarters of the people at that meeting were multitasking. They were checked out of the meeting. Now, that’s a culture issue. If it were my organization, if I was there as an OD consultant or as an OD coach, I would have probably rung the bell and said, “Stop for a moment. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.” The reality was that most people were being pinged pretty aggressively by their managers who had no perception that they were, in fact, at the same time, supposed to be investing in a very important dialog for the organization. Technology suddenly allows the reach of the manager into the culture of that person on a minute-by-minute basis, but they haven’t yet developed a way for them to post something that says: “Really busy right now.”

That’s an OD role. How do we take the technology – which can be good, bad or neutral – and how do we craft that culture? It is actually an opportunity for us to create culture. OD professionals are going to be able to use new technologies for collaboration, to do micro-coaching, and to poll large crowds and to shape culture.

Have you seen organizations or OD professionals do this particularly well?

I’m beginning to see some. I think it’s a very new role for us to play. There are the early adopters of technology and there are the cautious followers and then there are the late followers. That’s true of OD folk, it’s true of managers, it’s true of engineers.

I have seen a fairly high level of OD professionals embrace technology because it plays into their role as learners and as connectors and the like. What I haven’t seen yet, is an articulation of how I might actually map these technology affordances to my own practices.

We’re seeing some folks who are starting to data mine the social media that’s out there, in order to create a visualization of what’s going on in the culture and be able shape that or have conversations about that.

Elliott Masie speaking
Elliott Masie at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit

Are there any particular tools that you point OD professionals towards, whether it’s Yammer or Rypple or iPads?

I’m encouraging them to take a more classical view of these tools of change. If, as an organization, I’m going to use micro blogging to accelerate the sharing of knowledge and information, ask, “What does that do to power and authority? What does that do to diversity? What does that do towards safety?”

I’m really excited about seeing OD teams that have people of different generations in them, so that we both embrace the opportunity that new tools give us, but also connect to some real historic principles of organizational development.

The other day, I was in an airport and I saw somebody and she was very aggressively working on her blog and having a great time. I had a conversation with her and I asked, “How would you apply blogging to your own role in your own organization?”

She said, “You know what? We’ve never talked about that in our organization.” People have been intrigued by the new tools, but the technology usually arrives a fair amount of time before the methodology and an even longer time before the wisdom around which methodologies are most appropriate.

I think OD professionals are going to have to play with it, get their fingers wet, understand it, but stop short of becoming advocates; rather, become strategic coaches on the best and the inappropriate uses of technology in our cultures.

Tell me how technology is changing the way humans learn.

We are moving into a self-service environment. My ability to get at knowledge without asking for help is huge. I go all around the world and I have simple questions that I ask whether it’s in Saudi Arabia or Brazil or South Africa.

I’ll ask: “When you need to learn something, what is your first step? Do you read a book, do you take a course, do you take a structured e-Learning module? Do you do an online search?” Inevitably, 80, 90, 95 percent of the hands in the room go up.

That’s provocative. That wasn’t true five years ago. Two years ago, if we did that search we would primarily get text and now we get video clips. Increasingly, I want to do that search and get a person, somebody I can connect to and with whom I can have a real-time or an asynchronous dialog.

Elliott Masie iPad
Elliott Masie addresses the crowd in Chicago

So, we’re moving into this concept of empowered learners, giving them access to tools, and putting them in communities that have trust. The interesting challenge for organizations is going to be, “How do we build on that, rather than be threatened by that?” If I’m involved in leadership development, how do I allow and support and encourage my learners to get knowledge from the cloud and then bring it back? What does that mean for first line managers? What does that mean for delegation? How do you use these principles and transfer them into the organization? What are the alignment issues with that?

Tell me about your book, Learning: Rants, Raves & Reflections.

It’s actually what I do all my life. I seem to be either having a rave, talking about something I love; having a rant, where I talk about something that’s really frustrating; or having a reflection. This morning I was in a taxi and the driver was driving at about 60 miles an hour and texting while he was driving. I had all three, you know?

Learning Rants, Raves & Reflections is basically a collection of learning professionals from around the world answering these simple questions: what are your rants, what are your raves, what are your reflections on the changing world and why?

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