Tag Archives: practice

Design for America – Fast Company (and the story behind the story)

What Fast Company this week recognizes in its design issue – an educational innovation called Design for America  — is a compelling story not only for what it is today, but how it came to be in the first place.

Several of my MSLOC colleagues were/are deeply involved in the startup of the program at Northwestern University and its subsequent expansion. Jeanne Olson writes eloquently about that growth in Design for America: Co-Creating with Tomorrow’s Designers (an article also published this week) in Core77. Sami Nerenberg, a designer and currently graduate student at MSLOC, is currently Director of Operations at DFA and has a huge hand in spreading the program to other universities (Cornell’s DFA activities were profiled by Fast Company). Other colleagues have been coaches and advisors, or in the case of alumni Katy Mess, were there in the very beginning making the vision real.

Olson’s Core77 piece offers a great look at the back story of how the program co-creates the learning environment with its students. And the result is not only real know-how about design – but incredible impact on the communities in which the DFA students operate. Anyone who is drawn to the idea that education should start and end with actual practice (doing the work of real practitioners) should study the design and growth of DFA. When students get this excited about their education, we need to pay attention.

Expertise, practice, policy and value

I have just completed another academic quarter teaching a course (Northwestern University – Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change) that introduces graduate students to a way of seeing knowledge at work within organizational settings. On the Themes page I’ve posted a list of the key concepts and themes that guide the course, but have also included them here.

What this represents is my own mental model for unpacking knowledge sharing and creation challenges faced by an organization. And in teaching it, I’ve found it to be effective in shifting people’s mindsets away from seeing knowledge management as a narrow, tactical, technology-infused specialty. Which is important because the graduate students in my classes include executives and emerging leaders from both the business and not-for-profit worlds. These leaders need to be engaged in thinking about how organizational knowledge impacts performance — and not just delegate it as an issue to be addressed by the IT organization.

The themes below create a lens through which to see organizational knowledge sharing and creation as a system that involves elements incorporating individuals, groups/networks and organizations. I’ve left out one additional theme I use in the course (which I’ll add to the Themes page shortly) regarding “design.” A good design process — observe, visualize, prototype, implement, and then repeat the cycle — is necessary to test out whether your hypothesis of how to address some organizational knowledge issue actually works.

But here are the key themes that provide the starting point:

Experts and expertise (individual perspective). In looking at knowledge sharing and creation, we cannot shortchange the focus on people and the impact of knowledge (know-how, know-what, know-when, know-why) on an individual person’s way of thinking and doing. This may seem like a blinding glimpse of the obvious but shortchanging the focus on people is a trap into which it is easy to fall (e.g., “knowledge management = technology”). We also need to go beyond thinking about the “people” side of knowledge sharing as just getting the right piece of knowledge to an individual at the right time. That’s an important piece, but it puts people in the role of actors in a system, rather than experts who think and do.

Experts develop a personal way-of-thinking based on learning, doing (lots of it) and reflecting. And if we view expertise as something that exists on a relative scale — there are novices and there are experts and all sorts of points in-between — then we begin to see that a key outcome of any knowledge sharing activity is how it contributes to the development of expertise in individuals.

Practice and activities (groups/networks). “Practice” in the sense used here is intended to define how work or organizational activities are actually performed (e.g., “the practice of teaching.”) And in a more subtle way, the concept of practice is also intended to capture the unique nuances of how work or organizational activities are performed in the messy, social, ambiguous, time-constrained context of the real world. Ask anyone you know to tell you how they actually get things done in their job and you’ll begin to hear stories about people they rely on (or don’t); tricks of the trade; tools they use and don’t use; rules they follow and ones they are supposed to but don’t follow; etc.

“Activities” is simply a way of defining some goal-oriented actions taken by a group of people. A social service not-for-profit organization engages in the activity of providing programs to its target consumers, but also in fundraising, in collaborating with other organizations, in advocating, and more. Paired with the concept of “practice,” activities are useful when they are time-bound and outcome-focused. A not-for-profit organization may have some formal fundraising structure and process — but if you begin to look at the “actual practice” of how fundraising is performed by all the people involved in the activity of this year’s annual campaign drive, you begin to see things in the organization as it is “lived” and not just how it is designed.

Policy, structure and process (organization). Practice and activities help us see the “lived organization.” Policy, structure and process make up the “designed organization.” Think about the difference between an organizational chart — titles, roles, reporting structure — and the “hidden organization” underneath the formal structure that can be revealed by social network analysis. The social network analysis reveals who relies on whom as trusted sources of knowledge, with often surprising insights into which individuals have influence well beyond what their formal roles or titles may suggest.

It is understanding the interplay between these elements — the formal policy, structure, process and the informal practice and activities — that is important in improving capabilities in knowledge sharing and creation. Only by continually prototyping or tweaking the formal elements can you learn how they either enable or constrain effective practice; and only by understanding actual practice can you effectively inform the design of new prototypes or tweaks to the “designed” system.

Value (organization). Value is the “why” behind an organization’s existence and provides the strategic rationale for looking at knowledge sharing and creation practices. And in any organization that is focused on creating a positive social impact — whether not-for-profit, for-profit, or social enterprise — we should be able to express “value” as a hypothesis of how the organization’s activities meet that desired goal. Microlending empowers women and improves family well-being. Urban farms improve access to healthy foods. In each of these two statements we begin to understand the hypothesis for generating social value. Knowledge sharing and creation strategy, then, should be tied to improving performance in delivering on these hypotheses.

Doing Good Work

I am fascinated by the conditions under which people successfully perform “good work” — and I’ll unashamedly steal the definition of good work as “a calling that combines excellent performance, expresses one’s ethics and offers a pleasing sense of engagement” [taken from the Donald Goleman article in the Sunday Business section of this past week’s New York Times].

Goleman’s piece pays homage to the work of Howard Gardner and peers in the Good Works Project, a collaboration of several great minds tackling an issue worthy of their capabilities:

“The GoodWork® Project is a large scale effort to identify individuals and institutions that
exemplify good work—work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningfulto its practitioners—and to determine how best to increase the incidence of good work in our society.”

Goleman is the author of Emotional Intelligence and, through that effort and his subsequent work, a significant voice in the understanding of work, practice, cognition and emotion. And if you doubt the connection and power behind the integration of those elements, just Google “Obama.”

In any event, Goleman’s piece in the NY Times tells the story of Govan Brown, an New York bus driver and Deacon of a local Baptist church who elegantly (and with an astonishingly large dose of American ingenuity) combined his personal ethics with his “job” transporting people along a bus route in midtown Manhattan. His story is — once again — the story of the possible. The context is different, but the underlying concepts are the same, I think, as the story of Jan Blittersdorf and NRG Systems of Vermont (or pick any one of the employees of NRG Systems).

It is the same story I heard from Colleen Barrett, the President of Southwest Airlines who spoke at a recent Winning Workplaces conference. Colleen talked a lot about living by the principle of the Golden Rule — a common element of her upbringing that she shared with Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. What they believed — and executed — is a vision based on positive possibilities.

None of these stories are exactly the same in the way they play out. The protagonists draw their inspiration and guidance from different sources. But the underlying spirit shares common ground — a strong belief in the power of positive actions, executed in innovative fashion.