Demolishing the office

I think the palm was dead for around four years before it was finally cut back and cleared: my resounding memory of that first office is one of dead foliage and mouldy coffee cups. The palm had been there forever, the desperate green fingered grasp of some previously incarcerated inhabitant to bring a touch of life and light to an otherwise drab prison, at some point it finally gave up the ghost and retired, but with nobody to own it there was nobody to clear it, and so it became, like a portrait on the board room wall, simply part of the scenery. A dead tribute to workdays gone by.

Demolishing the office

The office is changing: away from a physical space towards an idea. Organisations need to adapt their thinking and action to keep up.

The office is a symbol of infrastructure: a museum to the days when organisations gave you a phone and a computer and you cared enough to thank them for it: a time when a laptop was a status symbol and which floor you sat on reflected your status and authority in a prehistoric, stratified and fossilised hierarchy that was slowly subverted by social change and collaborative technology.

Offices were not just a place to sit: they were a mechanism of control, the personification and embodiment of policies and procedures to ensure that what you did was for the good of the company, not the booking of your holiday. Offices used to embody hierarchy and provide access to resource.

Until we called time and demolished them. Not the physical edifice of course, which still stands, but rather the concept, the idea of the office as the organisation made physical. Offices used to be about visibility, about heritage, about community, but they became about habit and routine at a time when the ecosystem of the emerging Social Age demanded agility and innovation.

So we started to subvert them: first through the cool startups that eschewed older mechanisms of drab authority and favoured open, colourful and democratised spaces and, latterly, by dissolving the physical boundaries altogether and changing the office to an idea instead of real estate.

The office evolved from being a physical mechanism of control to being an idea that we carry around in our heads and our tablets.

Effective organisations can keep what was good about the Office Age, but lose what was bad, restrictive. They should operate a model of talent magnetism, aiming to provide community and resource that is empowering and agile, attractive to the best and the brightest because it invests in collaborative spaces, collaborative technologies and has a mindset fit for the Social Age. Magnetic organisations value people: they recognise the value of reputation and actively build it in others. They are not threatened by the visibility and vitality of their community but rather seek to enhance and build it.

We need infrastructure and process, but we need agility and creativity too, and one needs to be in service of the other.

It’s no mistake that some of our newest and most successful companies have a campus instead of an office block. A university has always been a place where people collect to learn, to share, to develop new ideas. Just calling it such doesn’t make it so, but if our mindset is a campus one too, we are well on the way.

But how do we evolve beyond the office mindset: what are the skills and approaches that organisations need to foster and develop?

They need to be fluid with technology: don’t view technology as something you need to own, view it as something you need to use, and something we need to experiment with. Remaining agile in our relationship with technology is a very good thing to do. Encourage experimentation and reward outcomes.

They need to respect and develop the building of personal reputation. Reputation sits within a Social Leadership approach and is built in social spaces, not just formal ones.

They need to recognise that policies will not give control or mitigate risk, unless they reflect the true realities of the Social Age. Work with communities, not against them and iterate your approach rapidly as evolving social trends and legislative frameworks dictate.

They need to be responsible: to safeguard against people being disenfranchised through the rapid and global pace of change.

And they need to put learning at the heart of working: the idea of constant development, of access to expertise and a longer term view of talent.

As the old notion of the office as a physical space is fully subverted by the mental construct of collaboration and community, as the technology matures to be effortless and everywhere, we have to adapt our working practices and mindsets. There is pressure on both sides to adapt: individuals and organisations can’t afford to be lethargic, but whatever happens, you don’t want to end up the dinosaur, dead in the corner that nobody has swept away yet.

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How do stories work?

I’m just back from a weekend in the Netherlands, which included a visit to Efterling, one of the world’s oldest theme parks and home to the Enchanted Forest. As the name suggests, it’s a woodland setting for a range of set piece dioramas, illustrating many classic fairytales. For example, there’s a real castle for Sleeping Beauty, where you can climb to the tower to see her sleeping and follow the sound of snoring to the guard slumbering beneath a tree. It’s a combination of the old fashioned, dioramas and simple animatronics, rambling architecture, and modern video projection.

Once upon a time

Stories have many functions: they can take on a life of their own. We need to explore and understand where they get their power from and how we can be better storytellers

Despite a poor grasp of Dutch, the stories were mainly well known to me: fairytales straddle cultural boundaries between countries, addressing as they do some common subjects and challenges, so whilst the names may vary as does the exact makeup of the fantasy pantheon, the stories are recognisable.

Stories serve many functions: they can provide warnings of the danger of straying far from home, the importance of honesty, the value of humility or the need to be brave. They can celebrate heroism, or help us come to terms with the unknown.

Stories are not inherently truthful, but they may hold truth within them, albeit from one particular viewpoint or stance.

They’re certainly contextual, as we see with older stories that may have lost their political or social context and hence, to large extent, their meaning. For example, one diorama shows the ‘Little Match Girl‘, who we see out on the street in the winter, huddled in the snow, selling matches to make a living. In the diorama, as she lights a match, we see scenes from her life played out in the smoke, until the final match goes out. At that point, a ghostly figure comes down and we see her soul leave, to be reunited with her mother as both head up, presumably to heaven. Happy ending or damning social comment on neglect and a child freezing to death?

On one reading, a salve for guilty conscience: don’t worry that we didn’t make her life better, at least she was saved in the end. Or a story to reassure young children that they will never be alone, even in their darkest hour?

One could view this story as Christian propaganda, or as a call to arms for social reform. Maybe it was intended in one context and subverted for another, maybe it’s lost it’s context and now has a new, socially derived one?

Story elements

Storytelling is made up of many elements: choosing genre, style, stance and tone of voice, among them

Stories may serve a purpose that we intend for them, or another, entirely different one, which is emergent as situations change: we see this with photographs, which can be repurposed, cropped, contextualised or, indeed, edited, changing their meaning, altering their story. Recently one of the UK daily papers ran a story about food banks, alongside a picture of a child crying. A sad story. But the photograph was actually a stock image of a girl who was sad because her pet earthworm had died: her grief had been appropriated for a different story. A lie? An illustration? Depends what the purpose of the story was in this case: social commentary, or factual news. And was everyone clear about which purpose it served?

Stories sit at the heart of learning, providing context for our narratives and building shared understanding. They are convenient packages for information and support the creation of meaning. Social leaders need to be great storytellers, but they need to understand the power of stories before they can use them. To blunder into the world of stories without recognising their power and independence can be risky. Take Quantas, who tried to tell a story of ‘first class moments‘ only to have their story appropriated by irked passengers experiencing epic delays. You can write a story and tell it, but can you ever really own it? Once stories are told and retold, they take a life of their own.

Terry Pratchett refers to his fictional element ‘narrativium‘, the stuff of stories, and he may be onto something. Once we recognise we are within a storytelling context, we adapt our interpretation accordingly. Indeed, this is the basis of the misunderstanding (or misdirection) in the newspaper story i related earlier: telling a story in one was whilst the audience had a different context.

I guess the function of stories is as varied as the functions to which we put them: they are adaptable and subversive, they lack ownership or accountability as, by their nature, they can be fictional or factual (or somewhere in between…). And, true to the best communication theory, story told may well not be story received.

Whilst we may not be able to understand or master every story, the skills of the storyteller nevertheless sit within social leadership, and with good cause: it’s hard to be effective without an ability to shape and share stories.

In the evening, there was a storytelling character at the theme park: a wizened old man with flowing beard, cloak and staff, all iconic storytelling artefacts and traits of wisdom earned through age and experience. Children gathered in rapt fascination on low benches as he told them stories, leaning in and getting quieter at times, so that they leant in too, then bellowing and leaning back, banging his staff on the ground to make them jump at the resolution of a particular thread or chapter. All of this i understood, without even understanding more than a few words of the language. The visual and aural techniques of storytelling transcend the stories themselves (a theme i explore much more around music and learning).

The authenticity of the storyteller depends to a large extent upon their mastery of these techniques: a great story told in the wrong style may lose impact. There’s more than words to stories, just as there’s more than notes and lyrics to a great song. There is passion and purpose, intent and energy. Storytelling is a co-creative process, a dance between audience, author and the story itself, which writhes and twists between their respective grasps, searching for it’s meaning, finding it’s purpose.

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The Social Age is upon us: a time of constant change.

The ecosystem we inhabit has evolved through a combination of technology and social trends.

The distinction between work and play, between formal and social is blurring. This is both a good and a bad thing.


On the plus side: social learning draws upon the ‘sense making‘ power of communities, making us more effective.

On the down side: we run the risk of disenfranchisement and a loss of privacy.

It’s unclear who owns the rules anymore.

What else is happening?

Formal hierarchies are being subverted in all walks of life: reputation forged in social spaces subverts formal hierarchies of authority. New business models subvert long established notions of retail, communication, banking and so forth. This change means that only the agile, innovative and creative will thrive.

Is that all? No, the changes in technology and society are outstripping the pace of change in organisational structure and attitude: simply doing nothing will lead to irrelevance faster than ever before.


It’s easier to experiment, to be creative, to share and join communities than ever before.

So the picture is mixed: change and opportunity, risk and challenge. Rapidly iterating.

It requires a holistic view of change simply to keep up. Addressing one element in isolation is not enough: technology won’t save us, nor will new policies or another acquisition to make up for a lack of core innovation.

It needs a mindset for the Social Age.

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The Pain of Change

I used to work in a museum of timber framed buildings: medieval architecture and technology, preserved and interpreted for the twenty first century. Timber framed building are organic, almost living entities, constantly moving as the humidity and temperature change. Their construction is based around concepts of bracing, tension, compression and opposing forces. Whilst stone buildings are bonded by gravity, timber frames are self sustaining: if you turn a church upside down, it would collapse, whilst a timber frame would hold itself together quite happily.
Timber Frame
I like some of the lessons we can learn from timber: it’s ability to flex and adapt to prevailing environmental conditions, the way one part braces another, the organically interlinked nature of the construction, which gives it durability through adaptation, not inflexibility.

Effecting change is hard for two reasons: it takes us into new territory, which is daunting, and it requires us to leave safety behind, which is painful. And it requires momentum, which is why we rarely do it well. Without the braces, the forces unleashed can tear things apart. Without an understanding of the forces involved, we can’t effectively constrain them, which is risky.

The Social Age is a time of constant change, so an organisation’s ability to drive and manage change is vital, as is our individual capacity to thrive in these fluid environments.

There’s another analogy to buildings we can relate to change: the forces working upon them are not purely external. Whilst the timber frame is built to withstand the forces exerted by nature, the real reason for their demise and subsequent transfer to a museum was their inability to deal with the internal forces of change. Social trends in living mean a need for different spaces, different standards of insulation, safety, headroom, draft exclusion, all lead to newer types of buildings and the gradual redundancy of the old.

Great bastions, built to last centuries, still standing but left redundant in function by evolved social needs and expectations. Sound familiar? Look around the high street, look at many of our largest organisations, built for the last century, at risk in this one unless they develop an agility to change.

Take retail: the very concept of a marketplace evolved from the earliest fairs and cattle markets to our modern high streets: but now it’s the Amazon marketplace we turn to. The transactions have evolved beyond the physical constraints of the high street that limited them, first to ‘out of town‘ and now to ‘online‘.

Take banking: when my parents bought their first house, you still went to see the Bank manager, in his suit, and he still kept ledgers of written accounts in the vaults. Today, we see disruptive models of banking, powered by technology, innovative ideas bought to fruition in months and launched on an unsuspecting market, still served by twentieth century infrastructure.

Change is hard: but our ability to drive it and thrive on it is vital.

From an organisational perspective, it’s about understanding the forces at play and engaging with them: the ideal we have to aim for is a co-created and co-owned model of organisational change, not a model driven down from on high.

This is where our ‘sense making‘ communities can come to the fore: engage in these spaces and we can harness the power of the community to drive and impact on change. These communities can act as the braces, the spaces where we absorb and make use of the forces that are imposed from outside, turning them to our advantage. Refining and harnessing methodologies to do this is a strong approach for organisations to take.

Our view of change is often focussed on the external forces: we can expend so much effort on resisting the storm without that we fail to recognise our creeping irrelevance within.

Many disruptive models are so effective because they address this internal lethargy: they take something that everyone thinks is untouchable and they kick it right out of the door. Like online retail, or eBay, or WhatsApp, or Vine, or any one of a thousand thriving new ideas.

The safety and security people strive to hold onto is illusory at best: recognising the state of constant change in the Social Age is important as it can help us get over inertia. If staying still isn’t an option, we may as well be open to change and embrace it.

I carry out an exercise when mentoring people, asking them to record every month whether certain key indices have improved, stayed the same or got worse. For busy people, feeling under pressure, it’s valuable to understand what forces acting on us are transient and which are environmental. If we are stressed and ineffective against prevailing environmental conditions, it’s our behaviours that are at fault. We can rail and rant against environment as much as we like, but if we don’t adapt, we will be weathered away and fail. Just recognising this fact is a good start.

Building survive if they can hold up to environmental forces playing on their surfaces and social trends eroding their purpose internally. Can your business do the same? Are you able to ride the waves of change or stand there like a rock, eroding slowly?

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The New Work

When we sat exams at school, there was a little ritual at the start where everyone unpacked their pencil case: ink cartridges, sharpeners and a collection of mascots, in my case, a plastic dinosaur i think. My first office job also bought my first desk, which i treated in much the same way (substituting a computer for the pencil case and with the addition of an inbox to store unwanted paperwork in). In time, i graduated to having a team, which bought a larger desk, several monitors for the computer and a persistent headache.
This morning woke early and took my coffee out into the garden. At the weekend i planted a herb patch, and i sat there in the sun, admiring my handiwork and clearing some emails on the iPad. It’s a beautiful day here, the sun streaming through the trees, so i decided to walk into the office for an hour.

It’s a rare occurrence: our office is in the loft above a pub, a light and airy space full of energy and activity from the studio, but i find it a disruptive place to write, so, when i’m not travelling, i confine myself to cafes and trains, which are strangely more productive. Still, as i’ve been travelling in Asia for the last month, time to show my face.

Walking in, i heard a shout as Rich cycled past, also on his way in, and we walked the final stretch to arrive in time for the Google Hangout, where our dispersed team dial in for a 15 minute session every day.

After an hour, time to leave: i’m mid way through editing the new book, planning for workshops in the US and Asia and sharing some ideas around a couple of potential conferences. Oh, and i’ll record a new podcast for an Australian Mobile Learning course later today as well. On my phone.

Everyday i engage with multiple communities in multiple spaces, often facilitated by technology, occasionally accompanied by coffee. Some people i know only from my communities, others i’ve met face to face. Many i’ve worked with in the past, some i will work with in the future, all i share with widely and collaborate with at every opportunity. This community offers me challenge and support as well as momentum in my writing and a sense check on my weaker ideas (of which there are many: you have to start somewhere in this first reflective space!).

The office is dead: we still have them, we often inhabit them, they form a place to keep our computers and to meet up in the kitchen, but do they really foster innovation and creativity, do they make us agile, able to respond to constant change, do they make us fit for the Social Age?

When i was planting that herb patch, i found a pot with something in that i couldn’t identify: an unknown intruder into the garden. So i took a photo and shared it to my social network (and texted it to my mother). Sure enough, the answer came back rapidly: wild mint. Why didn’t a look at a book? Because this was easier: i reached into my pocket, took the photo and shared it with a short story. Efficient: fast.

The podcast i’m recording later will be used by students in Australia: people i’ll probably never meet in person, but who will be part of my network, without an office, without a formal relationship, without anything as organised as a structure. United by common interests.

It’s funny how the things that give us status change over time: those large office buildings that organisations love to have, the huge aggregated teams, the IT infrastructure, the process and systems. All of it conspires towards inertia, lethargy, an inability to respond, to react. It’s not infrastructure that makes us agile: it’s mindset.

Process, the very thing we rely on to drive consistency, is the very thing that can mitigate against our success.

It’s not that we don’t need offices anymore, it’s just that we need a more agile mindset towards what we do in them. The office shouldn’t constrain work, it should facilitate it. Our systems shouldn’t restrict our capability, they should enhance it. Social technology, collaboration, agility.

Increasingly the office includes virtual components: social and semi formal spaces where we collaborate and create meaning, and only some of these are owned by the organisation. Time and again i hear stories about people who collaborate in the formally sanctioned and owned spaces of the organisation, but who create real value in shared spaces that sit outside of it. Semi formal, often unsanctioned, sometimes actively forbidden, but strangely magnetic to all concerned.

Why do people congregate in these spaces? Why do they increasingly seem to be the places where we find real value? Because of their very nature: they are sense making communities, places for sharing, for challenge, support, tempo, co-creation. Their magnetism is because of the value they add, which is far more than i ever got from those monitors, comfy chair and large desk.

The new work isn’t just about environment, it’s about the very ways that we work: look at Harold Jarche‘s work on knowledge management and organisational structure, John Stepper‘s work on #WorkingOutLoud and finding value. These, and so many other pioneers, are not cranks out on a limb peddling outlandish New Age ideals of liberalism. They’re engineers, examining how systems perform, sharing stories of what work and what’s broken and coming up with practical demonstrations of how to fix them. And none of them are exhorting the value of four walls and a desk. It’s all about understanding networks, understanding the dynamics of social spaces and communities and being effective. They’re pioneers in the new work (don’t take my word for it: they express their visions best in their own words).

My own work around Social Learning and Leadership is inspired by the changes we see: an evolved nature of work, an evolved social contract, the need for socially responsible and effective business and the need for effective learning methodologies that function across all modalities, be it mobile, social, face to face or eLearning. It’s all tied up together for me: the new work.

And why do i write about it? Because this is a movement, a mandate for change, a call to arms to examine what we’re doing and decide what we can stop, what we can change.

Because sharing is at the heart of social learning, at the heart of social leadership. And because it’s more fun. Because working within these global communities is so much more sustaining and nourishing that it ever was to sit in a dingy office constrained by four walls, dreaming of the garden.

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Evolutions in Leadership

Evolution is about change over generations: about adaptation to suit the prevailing environment. It’s not a fast process, but it has an inevitability, and we all know what happens to the losers. Look back a hundred years and our view of leadership was one dimensional: leaders told others what to do.

Ingrained behaviours in class led societies, the legacy of Victorian era industrialisation, the rise of the new city states, where money and influence were ever more concentrated, these factors mitigated for strong leaders who gave orders and expected compliance.

So much has changed: the technology that forged the ploughshares continued to evolve, through steam engines, jet airplanes and iPhones. Increases in communication technology gave rise to greater social mobility: as we saw how the other half lived, we were free to aspire to emulate it. Mass production of cheap cultural artefacts led us all to fill our homes with plastic televisions and warehouse sofas: aspiration was now the foundation of change.

Latterly we’ve seen a continued evolution of the workplace, away from a space defined by four walls towards a connected environment existing entirely in the ether: ephemeral, defined by relationships, shared values, trust more than MDF desks and telephone systems. The telephones still play a vital role, but more as collaborative, communicative technology, and most likely to let you join a shared social space than a pure retro telephone call.

Evolution of Leadership

As the prevailing environment changes, so too must our approach to leadership

As the structure of our society has changed, as social dynamics have moved away from authoritarian models towards more socially collaborative ones, backed up by the speed, breadth and fluidity of communications, so the nature of leadership has changed too.

No longer purely authoritarian (although often needing to include elements of this), there is a more constructivist dimension: leadership created in the moment through consensus of the community. Leadership of it’s time: a time when communities enable us to be more effective, to create ever stronger meaning and share it ever more widely.

Yesterdays leaders may have been about bluster and orders, today’s are about curation, sharing, social capital and trust. Today’s successful leaders gain support through their communities and provide a light touch of leadership on decisions that are co-owned throughout the community.

Social Leadership is a style of leadership for the Social Age: a time when older, hierarchical, authoritarian, positional forms of leadership are losing traction. They are still there, but need bolstering by strength in social spaces.

There is still a need for authoritarian forms of power: the military and police rely on it, but it doesn’t have to preclude social power. Indeed, it can’t afford to. The failures in culture of the Metropolitan police highlight that older hierarchies are becoming irrelevant, unable to deliver the leadership needed for the Social Age. Unfair, unjust, unequal.

Military planners require thinking soldiers: individuals able to reframe and adapt thought and action in response to rapidly evolving tactical situations, situations often enhanced by technology and the need to communicate effectively. They need hierarchy and control, but also fluidity and open mindsets that allow agile learning and action.

Failed cultures in financial services have shown the need for newer styles of leadership: ones that are socially responsible and fair, ones that are suited for the new ecosystem of the Social Age. Older, vertical, unequal balances of power and authority have led to inequality and the disenfranchisement of large parts of the organisation: redressing this requires a fundamental shift in our views of authority and regulation, ownership and change. Social Leadership, consensual and moderated by the community (both the internal community and the wider stakeholders in society) can deliver this. It’s not a replacement for formal models of authority: it takes them and builds in a social element.

Social Leadership looks at three core dimensions: ‘narrative‘, where we take our stance and curate our space, developing the storytelling skills that let us share our messages and make us effective within communities. ‘Engagement‘ is about our ability to identify our communities and make us effective within them: it’s about building reputational authority over time. ‘Technology‘ is about fairness, about opportunity, about building social capital and truly collaborating to drive change.

The NET Model - two layers

The NET Model of Social Leadership in full, showing the three Dimensions and nine Components

Evolution is a slow process, but ignore the ways that the ecosystem is changing and we slowly lose tough with the prevailing reality. We’re fourteen years into the 21st century, well past the time for change: organisations need to foster a collaborative mindset, to build spaces for creativity and innovation and learn to change graciously and effectively. This is the time for Social Leadership.

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Social Technology: it’s the little things that count

After a month of travelling, i’m back in the UK and settled in to start editing the book. Starbucks is a favourite local writing spot: somehow i’m more productive in busy, noisy environments. I use their loyalty card App, which has done stirling service for several years: until today. In the latest upgrade, it’s defaulted to signing you out every time you close it. Which means every time you get to the front of the queue to pay, you have to type in your email address and remember your password. Contrast this to yesterday, when i just had to open it and type a four digit passcode.

Social Technology and the need for ease

Social Technology is all around us, but it needs to work on our terms. The smallest things make a difference to engagement

Social Technology has to be effortlessly social, or it’s not social at all. The reason so many of the dinosaur, legacy, enterprise systems that large organisations spent so much money on failed was that they failed to meet the needs or expectations of users. They were built around the requirements of IT teams, compliance teams, learning teams, but not the people who actually count: the people who use them.

In many walks of life, we are seeing the true impacts of the Social Age taking effect: i was talking to a friend at the National Trust yesterday who recounted a story of how one of their tenant farmers took to Twitter to ask the organisation to fix his boiler. And why not? Most of the apparatus of consumer service that organisations have put in place over the years suits them very well, but suits us, the consumers, very badly.

Call centres with queue systems and clever call filtering may suit organisations trying to reduce overheads, but for me, ringing up about my insurance, to be told “we are experiencing unusually high call volumes” doesn’t cut it. It’s easier for me to Tweet them and wait for the response: it’s communication on my terms.

For Starbucks, its an issue of mindset: having played about in the new app, i think i’ve set it to use the passcode, but only because i’ve fiddled about to find out how. A social business with a social mindset would have stopped to think ‘how is a consumer going to use this app’ and would have solved the problem before i even realised i had it. It would have been easy to put a message on the login screen to this effect, instead of investing their time and money in a nice blurred background photo that looks nice but doesn’t contribute to my experience.

A small issue? Of course, but as i say, it’s about mindset, about understanding the realities of the Social Age and our relationship with both technology and the organisations that use it.

Nearly good enough isn’t good enough: there is no slow spectrum of attrition for me around technology that isn’t quite good enough. It’s either good, and i use it, or it’s not, and i don’t. It’s the same with my bank: they’ve crafted four separate Apps, each of which does something different with a cool and trendy name, but each of which uses different login and validation methods and, frankly, i have no idea what they all do. Is the fault mine, or theirs? I’m looking for efficiency, they are looking for engagement. The two don’t always match up. I don’t want to engage with my bank: i want them to be efficient, on my terms. Selfish? Yes, it’s a buyers market: even established industries that fail to recognise the need for agility are susceptible to disruption in the Social Age. Just because your bank has been here for 300 years doesn’t mean it will weather the next five.

I’m talking about consumer technology here, but the challenges are the same for learning technology in all it’s forms. Systems that are built for the organisation, but fail to recognise the needs of the individual will fail to gain traction. Systems that deliver on social terms to individuals will succeed. We see this with mobile learning all the time: is it truly social? Does it truly support performance? Or does it let the organisation assess you whilst you’re on the bus? One is a social mindset, the other isn’t. One will succeed, the other will fail to generate engagement.

Posted in Learning Technology, Mobile Apps, Mobile Learning, Social Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment