Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History, Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/

Why boring conference calls are amazing

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Where phone and Skype remain the gold standard for one-to-one communication (and learning), many of us find value in conference calls, irrespective of the technology (phone, Skype, Webex, Hangouts…) used.

Conference calls may seem as unimpressive or mundane as that other piece of paradigm-changing learning technology, the whiteboard – but that’s the point. They are learning technology that is already embedded into the fabric of work, and directly contribute to informal and incidental learning across time and geography.

The pedagogical affordances of conference calls include structure, transparency, dialogue, and accountability.

  • “Structured agenda”
  • “Used as a to-do list”
  • “Ensures that I’m focusing on kind of priority one-two-three”
  • “A very good way to stay organized when you have people traveling”
  • “forces us to be transparent”
  • “If there are cloudy areas, it exposes [them] and moves us forward.”
  • “anyone can join ”
  • “a forum”
  • “open discussion”
  • “conversation is a much more efficient way to work than using email in a lot of cases”
  • “So you say look: why don’t we get on the phone and talk this through. ”
  • “your peers and your colleagues are on the calls”
  • “allows for people to say, by the way here is an issue that I am facing that I haven’t thought about.”

Photo: Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History,  Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/

Ici on consulte le bottin, panneau à la Closerie des Lilas, Paris (Hotels-HPRG/

How do we use technology to embed learning into work?

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Of the myriad technologies in use, we may find it useful to focus our attention on those that (1) are now widely used, to examine their benefits and the process for their acceptance; (2) continue to be used, despite the existence of better alternatives; or (3) are new and in use only by early adopters.

We may also classify technologies depending on whether they are synchronous (need to be connected at the same time) or asynchronous (anytime, anywhere), networked (for group communication) or individual (self-initiated or self-guided).

In this next series of posts, I’ll look at the relevance and limitations for learning of conference calls and webinars, as well as the place of print-centric publications in our learning (work) lives.

Photo: Ici on consulte le bottin, panneau à la Closerie des Lilas, Paris (Hotels-HPRG/

More face (Stephanie Sicore/

Skepticism about learning innovation

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Online technologies have afforded us many ways in which we can now learn even when we are not in the same location. Yet, some of us remain skeptical about the impact of new technologies, and in particular about new ways of learning that rely on technology. We prefer to do things the way we have done them in the past. New approaches to learning may be seen as too complicated in our task-oriented learning culture. Furthermore, we question whether experience can be taught or transferred.

With some members in the network, access to the Internet may be limited either due to resources, policies, or culture, deepening the Digital Divide even for simple tools that many of us take for granted.

And, of course, we remain attached to the face-to-face culture that has been our primary source of learning, enabling us to form our networks of trust, to directly experience and observe multiple contexts of work. How could poor connections of garbled or squeaky sound we strain to hear and fuzzy talking heads whose expressions we strain to read possibly substitute for the experience of actually being there?

Such skepticism is understandable. The technologies (e-mail, newsletters, webinars, learning platforms, publications, mailing lists, and phone/Skype) we have to connect to each other and to network members remain mostly transmissive, from the center (headquarters) to the periphery (field), and often require us to initiate communication (command-and-control, top-down).

Yet, slowly but surely, technology that affords us the ability to work (learn) from a distance seeps into all the realms of our work (learning). We already live in a blended world, a “mix of all of these things because it’s one of the effective ways of doing things, but certain things really you can’t achieve [online].” We no longer reflect on the pros and cons of conferencing software or Skype, at least not when they work the way we need them to. And the same process is likely to recur with other technologies as turnover and succession in the team bring digital natives to the workplace.

Photo: More face (Stephanie Sicore/

Tons of shattered glass, Robert Smithson's Map of Broken Glass at the Dia:Beacon (Augie Ray/

We need learning processes, not just tools

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Knowledge management and informal learning processes are not resourced, even when the organization may have made a significant investment to build containers for knowledge or its sharing. This “build it and they will come” approach has failed, time and time again.

Yet the seemingly intangible nature of knowledge and learning processes makes it difficult to build a case to resource learning itself. As a cross-cutting, often unrecognized activity that enables work rather than produces results, how do we convince donors that it is worth the investment – paradoxically when donors are increasingly skeptical about the value of formal training?

Photo: Tons of shattered glass, Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass at the Dia:Beacon (Augie Ray/

Shards (Martin/

Wishful thinking cannot fix broken tools

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“Continuous learning at the individual level is necessary but not sufficient to influence perceived changes in [performance]. […] Learning must be captured and embedded in ongoing systems, practices, and structures so that it can be shared and regularly used to intentionally improve changes in [performance]” (Marsick and Watkins 2003:134).

“I still can’t find it. And I still need to work on it. It’s a mess.”

“That’s a struggle. I don’t have a good system on that.”

In the last five years, we have mainstreamed the use of electronic media for communication and, to a lesser extent, for formal learning.

The tools we use in learning (whether formal or informal) may change, based on need and context. We know that constant and rapid advances in technology and their costs make it difficult for headquarters (center) and field (periphery) alike  to afford or use the latest, cutting-edge tools. Tools that are officially sanctioned or supported may seem hopelessly out of date, too difficult to use, or both. We look for the pragmatic, lowest common denominator that “just works”. Often, we end up using a mash-up of products, some of which have become nearly as ubiquitous as e-mail, such as Dropbox, Webex, Skype or Excel.

Our tools are dated, yet – no matter how clunky or inefficient – their familiarity is reassuring.

Anchoring (focus, ignoring distractions) and filtering (extracting knowledge we need) require either better tools or improved competencies in using the ones we do have. Still, we lose precious time trying to retrieve information we need.

E-mail is the de facto lowest common denominator, but we expend time, energy, and skills to avoid drowning in it. Even though the promise of e-mail is that of a ubiquitous, low-bandwidth, ultra-fast knowledge and conversation medium to connect us, many of us experience it as a “complete anchor”. Because we treat it as formal communication (not conversation), it is not conducive to the informal learning and sharing that build trust in our working relationships.

Is there really an alternative to the time lost on repetitive tasks made necessary only due to their inadequacies? Doesn’t trying a new, untested tool not (yet) supported by the organization add a series of unknowns and risks?

The platforms we have to work with may feel broken, and attempts in the past to build better platforms failed.

We still look for the one best tool – silver bullet or Holy Grail – and continue to wish for the centralized platform that will single-handedly solve our knowledge problems, despite the repeated failure of previous attempts toward such solutions.

New tools are still conceptualized with the intent to manage, control, and direct activities or outcomes – even though we may intuitively feel that this is not what we need most.

Yet, we have learned that the real value of a new tool is not the tool itself, but what the tool enables.

Most of the technologies we use to enable, accelerate or support our work (and, therefore, our learning) are now online. Finding our way through the constantly-changing jungle of new and old technologies online requires constant effort.

We often start by duplicating the functioning of physical activities in an online space. For example, this shift first happened when Skype increasingly replaced the phone, eventually attaining such a monopoly that it will be difficult for better solutions to displace or replace it. It is ongoing with Webex and other conferencing software (free like Hangouts or enterprise solutions purchased by the organization).

We question traditional approaches and actively seek new methods and tools that can empower people in the network to connect to our global community of knowledge.

We strive to adapt to a changing world in which new electronic tools come into widespread use in some places, when they remain unavailable in others.

Photo: Shards (Martin/

Soon, my pretties... The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Disney Hollywood Studios (Hector Parayuelos/

Life-work balance

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Our connections include not only social life with colleagues, but also our personal lives with our partners, families and friends. Parental responsibilities, traffic jams in long commutes, or other challenges we face in our personal lives impact our level of energy and motivation for learning and innovation.

We call for leadership that recognizes the need for better balance between work and family. The wellness of our families has a positive halo effect on our motivation to do more than what is needed simply to hold down our jobs.

Party time (Thomas Hawk/

Party time

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“Everybody in a fun environment knows more of each other.”

We interact at a human – not only utilitarian – level to form social spaces in which we can build friendships that foster and reinforce the trust we have in each other’s work. Despite frequent mission travel, when and where team members are in the same physical location, they report a variety of shared social activities, described as “opportunities to interact”. The value of such social activities is recognized as fostering trust and friendship. Social events organized more formally by the team during work hours legitimize the value of our social interactions. We also recognize that there may be times when we are not available for socializing.

Photo: Party time (Thomas Hawk/


Base of silo (Astrid Westvang/

Learning is in the network

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“I knew them very well. That’s why it worked. Because we do work together.”

We take responsibility for our own learning, yet keenly aware of the value for learning of engaging with others. It is when we find ourselves alone or isolated that we may best perceive the value of connecting with others for learning.

One of the justifications for working in a silo is a very high level of specialization that requires being fully-focused on one’s own area of work – to the exclusion of others.

We form networks of informal learning and collaboration in our team, with other departments in the headquarters, with the field, and with people and organizations outside the organization.

Asking people is often faster than sifting through information.

Technology facilitates building and sustaining small networks of trusted colleagues, large formal working groups, and more anonymous forms (mailing lists, discussion forums, etc.) that keep us connected.

In our volatile working environment, what we know (usually thought of as content-based knowledge) is replaced with how we are connected to others. That is how we stay current and informed.

Networks are a powerful problem-solving resource that people naturally turn to when they need help. We rely on small, trusted networks to accelerate problem-solving (learning).

Photo: Door at base of silo (Astrid Westvang/

Christakis, N.A., Fowler, J.H., 2009. Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown.

Connecting to the environment

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“[…] you learn that you are not alone in dealing with a technical problem and sometimes you just need a second technical opinion. Sometimes, it does help if you listen to people who see it from a totally different perspective. To give you an example: [suppliers] are the providers of equipment and we are the demand side. There sometimes are good discussions to come to a common solution, which you don’t get if you sit at your desk […]. This sharing of technical knowledge as well as brainstorming around the technical problem with different stakeholders who see the problem from different sides, I find that really refreshing or rewarding. But that again, this is not formal training or whatever.”

Photo: Christakis, N.A., Fowler, J.H., 2009. Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown.

Silent silos (Indigo Skies Photography/

Against insularity

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“We came to understand because we have very good global connections.”

How do we connect with other people, with other member organizations in the network, and with those external to it? How do we form and leverage networks? Where is learning in these networks? Beyond utilitarian purposes, how do connections with our colleagues and their organizations enrich our experience?

We cannot afford to remain insular and inward-looking.

Some of us may still feel that itis “more relevant” to “look into what we have internally already instead of looking too much externally”. Increasingly, though, we question the insular and inward-looking aspects of our learning culture.

We cannot afford to remain ignorant of or uninterested in experiences outside of our membership, not when we recognize the need for change. We see that members are now more open to working with external partners and it is our responsibility to embrace and support this.

What are the benefits of learning outside the silo?

We learn from people working in other areas of work, other organizations, or other industries. We access information sources that may or may not be directly related to our work to expand our horizons, stimulate our creativity, or to “see what are the current problems and just try to understand which things have are outside the field of vision of our area of work”.

Although we spend most of our time trying to improve our knowledge performance to drive results, too reductive a focus on utility may stifle our creativity. In some cases, we enjoy learning about issues with no direct relation to our specialization.

“We are all something,” says Blaise Pascal, “but none of us are everything”.

Photo: Silent silos (Indigo Skies Photography/