8 Dirty Words

by Jay Cross on January 24, 2010


CLO online edition

Dirty Words

by Jay Cross

Last year I led workshops in London, Madrid, San Jose, Quebec, and Berlin on how to sell social networking and informal learning to senior management. Top executives have little time so it’s important to have a one-minute elevator pitch ready for chance encounters with them. The workshops culminate with everyone role-playing that interaction.

We all know that you shouldn’t use training jargon (e.g. Kirkpatrick levels, Gagne, kinesthetic) when talking to executives. Many CLOs fail to realize they should also purge some common words from their vocabularies because they trigger negative thoughts among decision-makers.

Comedian George Carlin had a skit about the seven words you were not allowed to say on television. Most of them are four letters long. His words were dirty; mine are bad for business. Here we go:

Learning is a dirty word because executive managers have a hard time hearing it. You think of improving skills and increasing knowledge. They think of classes, teachers, and school. They remember how ineffective school was at getting things done. You forget most of the lessons before you have a chance to use them. Learning taints the conversation. Better to speak of collaboration or boosting brain power. I changed the name of my new book from Informal Learning in the Cloud to Working Smarter.

Learner is banned because no one but the training community uses the term. They are workers first, and learners second. Talking about learners conjures up the bad old days of taking people off the job to learn. Increasingly, learning takes place on the job. In fact, I foresee work and learning converging at an astonishing rate.

Social learning is the hottest thing since electricity among web enthusiasts. However, MIT’s Andy McAfee warns that executives who hear social flash on scenes of Woodstock and other non-business activities. (See The S-Word on McAfee’s blog.)

Likewise, executives hear the word informal and take it to mean haphazard. Most job-related learning is informal, and there are enormous opportunities to make it better. Collaborative networks, expertise locators, reducing fear of failure, graphic design, workspace architecture, and many other techniques increase the productivity of informal learning. Better call it collaboration if you want to sell it.

Knowledge management may be two words, but it’s a single concept. That concept is broken. Knowledge is inherently unmanageable. Traditional, top-down KM has failed over and over again. It’s based on the assumption that an elite can figure out what workers need to know, package it as explicit data, and serve it up in a database. Most of the knowledge workers seek is tacit and beyond the reach of databased systems. The smart money is betting on bottom-up knowledge bases, compiled and maintained, by the people who use them. By the way, I also contend that you can’t manage talent and that LMS do not manage learning.

You have probably stopped using the word training, but just in case, let’s review why it’s inappropriate. Training is something you do to someone. Learning is something people do for themselves. You hope that people learn from training, for that’s the objective. Talking about training can blind you to alternative means of learning.

Despite growning evidence that eLearning can produce results superior to those from the classroom, early failures sullied its reputation. eLearning circa 1999 was for the most part deadly dull and uninspiring. People stayed away in droves. Completing an eLearning course was the exception rather than the rule. Avoiding eLearning because of a bad early experience is like going to a movie and saying you’ll never go to another one of those because movies suck.

It’s better to talk about cost/benefit analysis or meeting specific goals than to speak of ROI. Many managers use the strict accounting definition of returns: changes in the assets and liabilities on the balance sheet. Accounting is increasingly the wrong yardstick. The majority of value generated by businesses is intangible. It’s social capital, know-how, patents, and relationships. Traditional ROI fails to measure the most valuable returns.

People who banter about Web 3.0 betray their lack of understanding of what’s going on. 3.0 would be the linear progression of 1, 2, 3, 4… that characterizes software releases.

The “2.0” of Web 2.0 Tim O’Reilly described wasn’t a version number. Rather, it signaled that the web did not die in the dot-com bust. The bubble took down many overly enthusiastic investors but the internet kept right on improving. Now we are entering an era where the benefits of the web will grow exponentially. Tim calls what’s coming web2.


Editorial. A few of you have asked how my blog posts differ from the columns published in CLO. For one thing, CLO doesn’t print pictures and diagrams in its columns. And sometimes they have to cut a few words to fit the column on the page.

Related post: Webinar to kick-start collaboration and informal learning in your organization.

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