Let 2021 Be A Year of Mistakes

We are finally at the end of a consequential year that few of us will forget soon. Now what should we do?

Standing on the precipice of a new year, it is easy to fall back on the usual greeting card good wishes:

  • Out with the old, in with the new: may you be happy the whole year through. Happy New Year!
  • May this year bring new happiness, new goals, new achievements, and a lot of new inspirations on your life. Wishing you a year fully loaded with happiness.
  • Wishing every day of the new year to be filled with success, happiness, and prosperity for you. Happy New Year.

But, given the year we’ve just come through, I think a different approach might be in order. While it would be only natural to wish for a return to “normal,” a return to life pre-Covid-19, that is neither realistic nor wise.

So what is the better approach? Follow Neil Gaiman’s advice:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

We were given a tremendous gift in 2020 to experience a way of working and living that was inconceivable to most of us (and our employers) in 2019. But the transformation is not finished. Now we have to experiment further to find an even better way of working and living. For that, Gaiman’s advice is absolutely right.

As long as we make intelligent mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes, we can ensure that 2022 will be even better than 2021.

To that end, I wish you a fabulous 2021 filled with great mistakes!

[Photo Credit: Annie Spratt]


Integrating Learning and Development with KM #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeakers: Dr. Susan Camarena, Chief Knowledge and Learning Officer, Federal Transit Administration; Turo Dexter, Knowledge Resources Manager, US DOT / Federal Transit Administration

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

Session Description: KM coordination may reside in any of several parts of an organization—for example, human resources, research, or IT. At the FTA, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, KM is tightly integrated with the Learning and Development function in its own group within the Office of Administration, where FTA’s chief knowledge and learning officer is a peer with the director of HR and the director of IT. The powerful synergy of FTA’s integrated Learning, Development and KM strategy supports employees as learners—and also as teachers—from onboarding to exit, throughout every branch of the agency. This dynamic presentation illustrates FTA’s strategy development, describes the major program activities that support FTA as a learning organization, reviews the metrics used to evaluate program effectiveness, and offers a template and process to help participants identify key facets of knowledge related to each business function in their own organizations.


  • Not just KM, but LKM: They focus on Learning AND Knowledge Management to enhance individual, team and organizational effectiveness by connecting people with what and how they know, what they need to know and how they can find it.
  • Evolution of LKM at the FTA: Initially their KM effort had neither staff nor budget. They started with a knowledge audit, appointed local knowledge coordinators in each of their 20 offices, provided facilitation for meetings across the organization. Then they created an initial KM strategy. When their Training Officer retired, they merged their learning & development organization with their KM organization. This created the Learning, Development and Knowledge Management department. These functions together became a real force multiplier within the organization.
  • Learners and Teachers: Their overarching goal is to support all FTA employees as learners and teachers from onboarding to exit. It is those individuals who “manage the knowledge,” not the KM department. (The KM department make manage some information from time to time, but they support individual KM.)
  • Initial KM Strategy:
    • culture of knowledge and experience sharing
    • efficient and effective business processes
    • leverage knowledge and experience for decision making and strategic planning
  • Current Strategy: They are creating a strategy that integrates learning, development, communications and engagement. All of this needs to be responsive to the agency’s goals (i.e., to the business goals).
  • Metrics:
    • They do regular audits
    • Learning and knowledge assessments
    • Employee viewpoint survey
    • Training evaluations
    • Testimonials and success stories
    • Increasing course enrollment
    • Increasing requests for services.
  • Lessons Learned:
    • Facilitate and support — It is our job to provide facilitation and support throughout the organization
    • Just say yes! —  We may sometimes say “later,” but we will never say “no” to any request for help.
    • No ask, no get — This is particulary
    • Never stop learning! —  Ask after every engagement and every interaction, what did I just learn?
  • How to Prioritize Resources? Is KM in service to L&D or vice versa? Both are in service to the agency (the business). The department cross-trains its personnel so that they can perform both functions together.

Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?


Social Learning: The Newest Evolution of Learning [#e2conf]

Keith Myerson (Director, Learning & Development, Neiman Marcus Group Services) discussed how social learning (i.e., “sLearning”) will change the way L&D professionals see themselves, promote learning in their organizations and prevent brain drain from the “impending war for talent.” He may be contacted at Keith_Myerson@neimanmarcus.com or on Twitter @KeithMyerson.

[These are my notes from the Enterprise 2.0 Conference 2012 in Boston. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • What’s Social Learning? sLearning isn’t just another form of electronic learning (eLearning) or mobile learning (mLearning). It harnesses the power of social technology to help employees find the information and training they need at the moment of need by connecting with their colleagues. At Neiman Marcus they have deployed a social platform that allows employees to share learning, particularly through focused discussion threads.
  • Social Tools Don’t Meet Every Training Need. L&D professionals need to think creatively and dispassionately about appropriate uses of social technology. While a Q&A might be well suited to a social platform, training on improved customer service that involves observing tone and body language is better suited to face to face sessions.
  • Tie sLearning Initiative to Business Metrics. It can be a challenge to establish ROI on social technology projects, so plan early to collect meaningful data. In the case of Neiman Marcus, they were able to establish that their sLearning initiative led to demonstrable (and quantifiable) improvements in customer satisfaction. Given that each one percent increase in customer satisfaction results in a specific dollar amount in improved revenues, they could connect sLearning efforts to better financial results. This is a great outcome for an Enterprise 2.0 project. It is also very different from the traditional approach of providing a training session and then pretending to measure impact through “smile sheets” (i.e., questionnaires that request trainee views on the session) that don’t typically connect to business performance.
  • The Impending Talent War. For years, people had been predicting an enormous brain drain when the Baby Boomers retire from the work force. In Keith Myerson’s view, most organizations have dodged a bullet since the economic downturn has forced many Boomers to remain employed. Similarly, some younger high-performing individuals have elected to stay put with their current employers until the economy improves. This means that once economic good times return, organizations should expect a mass exodus of Boomers and younger high-performers. This will result in a brain drain and the “impending war for talent.” Until that happens, however, organizations have an opportunity to foster knowledge transfer and hone their succession planning. Social technology and sLearning can help with this.
  • What Does sLearning Mean for Knowledge Management? The Neiman Marcus sLearning initiative has created a dynamic collection of current know-how that is quite different from the static intranet or portal collections. In fact, users are driving change by asking that their content be moved from the intranet/portal to the sLearning platform. [The implications of this for traditional knowledge management should not be ignored. Clearly L&D and KM professionals should be cooperating to ensure that an organization’s knowledge base is as current and complete as possible. Creating yet another disconnected silo of information is not helpful for the individual employee or for the organization as a whole.]

We All Need Training

Hand washing poster from Yale Do you know how to wash your hands? Now, before you complain about bloggers who ask dumb questions, let me rephrase that question slightly: Do you know how to wash your hands properly? Chances are you don’t.

This issue arose when I found myself getting frustrated by restaurants that piously posted signs in restrooms instructing employees to wash their hands carefully, yet those same restaurants refused to provide hot water for hand washing.  How on earth could that be hygienic? This set me down the path of learning more about hand washing. Although I’m a scrupulous hand washer, I soon discovered that I had a lot to learn about the mechanics of hand washing. Among the things I learned are the following:

  • While hot water is nice, it’s not necessary. If you were serious about using water temperature to blitz the bacteria on your hands, the water would have to be scalding hot.
  • The key to effective hand washing is friction — it’s the rubbing of one soapy hand against the other that dislodges the oil that holds the dirt and bacteria on your skin.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control, you must scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds to clean them properly. How long is 20 seconds? The time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice.

So clearly, even after a lifetime of diligent hand washing, I need to go back to hand washing school. What about you?

Now even if you do better than I do on the hand washing test, how are your hand drying skills?  (I can hear you asking yourself, is she crazy?  How hard can it be to dry your own hands???!) Bear with me a moment.  Even if you know the basics of how to make wet hands dry, do you know the best method for every context?  For example, what’s the best way to dry your hands if you’re trying to keep your hands germ free? What’s better: a cloth towel, a paper towel or one of those jet air dryers?  (Hint: it may not be the jet air dryer.)

What if you only have paper towels to dry with? Doesn’t that damage the environment? Is there a way to dry your hands and protect the environment? It took an entertaining TED talk by Joe Smith to show me how to dry my hands without ever needing more than a single paper towel.

This foray through hand washing and drying is intended to illustrate a larger point. If we still have much to learn about tasks we’ve performed nearly every day of our lives, why do we believe we don’t need ongoing training for the tasks we perform at work? Technology changes, contexts vary, best practices improve.  Are you confident that you have learned and incorporated the latest training into your work?  If not, why not?

The next time you wash and dry your hands, consider what other areas of your life could benefit from a refresher course.  We all need training.

[Photo Credit: Patrick J. Lynch]


Bring Games to Work

This is not about that solitaire game you play surreptitiously when you should be filling out expense reports. And, it’s not about office politics or power struggles. Games at work is serious business and they offer interesting possibilities for law firm knowledge management and lawyer professional development.

A press report about the recent acquisition by Reed Hastings (NetFlix CEO) and Charter Fund of DreamBox Learning got me thinking about the potential positive impact of breaking out of the rather contained way many law firms approach knowledge management and professional development. DreamBox Learning allows children to “learn at play” by offering hundred of lessons via online games.  These lessons currently teach math concepts.  Over time, the company intends to extend their offerings to cover a variety of other subjects.  Each child playing the game first selects an avatar and then dives into the game.  According to DreamBox CEO and Co-Founder, Lou Grey:

`The kids can go off on a million different paths, depending on their own pace of learning,’ Gray said. `We give them individual hints and can track their progress.’

Imagine what mandatory continuing legal education would look like if we took it out of the classroom or conference room  and put it online in a game.  Imagine if we were to compensate associates on the basis of knowledge and skills acquired during a training game and then used in an actual client engagement?  The associate’s knowledge and skill acquisition could be measured and tracked objectively via the game rather than just subjectively via the sketchy written review provided long after the fact by the associate’s supervising partner. Imagine if we could use the tracking data to deliver to a lawyer specific knowledge resources that are pitched to their level of expertise.  In other words, a junior associate might receive introductory materials covering the subjects that were new to them, while a partner might receive a bullet-point list highlighting key policy or judgment issues that usually arise in a particular type of transaction.

The idea of dynamically adapting the resource to the user is a powerful one:

DreamBox Learning has been successful in part because it designed its software to be adaptive. That means when kindergarten through third graders play the online math games, the software tracks their progress and adjust the game to match the difficulty of the lessons based on each child’s scores.

Is this something we could try in a law firm?  Or, are law firms too serious for even serious games?

[Photo Credit: libraryman]


Tales from LegalTech: Emerging from the Wringer

LegalTech 2009 is over and we’re exhausted.  There’s something absolutely draining about all those inputs, all those people talking at you, and all those little plastic toys.  It’s enough to make even extroverts like me run screaming from the conference hotel.

It will, undoubtedly, take us a few days to process what we saw and what we learned.  We have the quick notes we tweeted from the various sessions to remind us, but we don’t yet know if they will prove to be  invaluable or completely ephemeral.  In addition, some hardier souls (like David Hobbie and Kelly Talcott) have already published their blogs on various sessions.  I’m in awe of their ability to synthesize information so quickly and grateful that we have the benefit of their views.

For me there is something about the learning process that requires a period of quiet reflection in order to consolidate the disparate bits of information I’ve picked up.  And when I’ve been drinking from an information firehose as I was at LegalTech, it takes even longer.  Starting tomorrow, I’m going to indulge in a little quiet reflection and when I emerge, I hope I’ll have something sensible to say about what I learned at LegalTech.

Before I hibernate, I would like to thank the good folks on the LegalTech Advisory Board and at Incisive Media for organizing a conference rich in possibilities and opportunities.  I was glad to have a chance to participate both as a speaker and a blogger.   Best of all, LegalTech provided a wonderful lab for demonstrating how we interact with and learn from each other.  The multi-layered interchanges that bounced between the conference rooms, the Twittersphere, the Blogosphere and the hallways  made for a very rich learning environment. Thank you to everyone in New York and online who made this possible.

[Photo Credit:  cobalt123, Creative Commons license]


Dare to Share: Knowledge Management Toolkit

KM4Dev recently featured Dare to Share’s Knowledge Management Toolkit. Beginning in April 2007 and running until December 2008, Dare to Share will highlight one proven KM and/or learning technique per month. Thus far, they have focused on:

– After Action Review
– Collegial Coaching
– Yellow Pages
– Good Practice
– Knowledge Fair
– Exit Interview
– Storytelling
– Experience Capitalization
– Mentoring
– Visualization
– Peer Assist
– Briefing

For each technique there is a definition, followed by a brief description of how to implement the technique. Dare to Share also provides a link to a much longer discussion of the approach for readers who want to delve deeper.

Not every one of these techniques will work for you or your organization. Even still, this is a great resource if you’re looking for new ways to expand knowledge sharing and learning with your colleagues.


A Match Made in Heaven: KM +Organizational Learning

Knowledge management efforts that focus solely on deploying technology to deliver content efficiently are missing a vital element: they don’t provide the means of helping the knowledge worker learn collaboratively from the experiences of colleagues. In other words, they don’t create or exploit natural learning processes within an organization that lead to the adoption of best practices and lasting cultural change.

A 2007 study sponsored by the Swedish Agency for Development Evaluation, entitled “Knowledge and Learning in Aid Organizations” noted that

Although the main focus remains on the development of technology for the effective handling of data, the recognition that knowledge transfer involves extended interpretation processes rather than simple information communication has led to a certain rapprochement between the knowledge management and learning organization fields. Knowledge management initiatives are increasingly seen as parts of larger organizational strategies aimed at creating climates and cultures that facilitate sharing and collective learning from experience (Pedler et al. 1991).

[I found this study courtesy of KM4Dev, a great website offering knowledge management resources for development professionals.]

What are some ways of exploiting the synergies between KM and learning (or training/professional development)? In the law firm context, ensuring that the firm’s professional development materials are included in the knowledge management collection is a good start. More importantly, no new best practices guide or model document should be distributed solely by e-mail. It is far preferable to tie the launch of the new KM content to a specific training session where participants can talk with the authors and each other about the document. The resulting interaction broadens and deepens the opportunities for learning and cultural change. Then periodically, sponsor a session at which lawyers can review current practices or model documents to see if they still reflect the best of the firm’s experience and judgment. Each session reinforces the learning and cultural change that should be the desired outcome of knowledge management efforts. And, along the way, the firm also creates lawyers who produce higher quality work product more efficiently.

Purposefully marrying formal training opportunities to knowledge management content is a great way of leveraging both and creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.