Social BPM and Social Learning

It’s interesting to note that there is a similar discussion to social BPM amongst proponents of social learning. They’ve noted a similar oxymoron in management’s plea for formalized social learning. They’re right when they say it can’t be done; it’s not social if it's formal i.e. management sets the curriculum. More to the point, the genius of social learning is that it’s just-in-time, so the motivation to learn is much stronger than in traditional corporate education. Plus all-important tacit knowledge is more likely to emerge in social learning than in a formal context.

The real question of social in both learning and BPM is one of exclusivity. Do we share everything with everyone or just this or that with a few key people. Indeed, perhaps we’re talking about collaboration rather than social. Regardless, we are not talking about anything carved in stone. We are talking nimble and adaptive. That means rapid, shared learning amongst stakeholders for a deep understanding of systemic challenges and potential solutions.  

Of course, it can’t simply end there. For continuous innovation, we need iterations of those processes. And we need scaling of the learning/design processes to include a more social sharing amongst wider communities of shareholders - for the sake of transparency and for diversity testing (as you say, “an essential step to embracing complexity”).

Running from or declaring war on complexity is futile - our best hope is to make peace with it, especially since complexity is not inherently bad. Unfortunately, many people facing complex issues are hobbled by ‘common sense’ and traditional teaching that evoke within them dysfunctional coping strategies. Like someone ‘playing dead’ on confronting a bear in the woods, complexity brings out a similar psychological reaction. And that helpless ‘play dead’ psychology is so pervasive in our culture that aversion to complexity is widely and perversely considered ‘normal. From a systems thinking perspective, such ‘learned’ behaviour needs to be addressed early in life. Until then — until stakeholders learn to embrace complexity —  understanding complex systems will be left to experts, and selling complex solutions will be left to authorities. In this context, ‘social’ BPM can only ever have a very small and exclusive constituency. But the social element does offer a friendly (not so intimidating) entry point for organizational learning.

It’s not that the tools are beyond anyone’s ability to master, it’s that BPM, in itself, introduces a new discipline. BPM is a tool in the service of the much larger and more involved science of systemic business design. To engage, managers need deeper understanding of complex systems and they need frameworks for working in such mental domains before they can begin mapping anything. New heuristic tools such as Axiomatic Design and Integrative Thinking offer hope but, counter-intuitively, they initially seek increased complexity (drilling for hidden salience and functional requirements) before beginning an iterative and process-reflexive journey towards a solution.

At the end of the day you will have a great (perhaps disruptive) solution but few people, including those asked to use the system, will understand it with ease. So much of it will be counter-intuitive and fail traditional tests of common sense.

Such is the ecosystem disruption of Steve Jobs and Apple. Such is the success of tacit knowledge, fluid frameworks and nimble responses to emergence. Perhaps the greatest value of ‘social’ in this realm is that it can normalize such conversations and open the door to casual entrants who are curious to learn more. These are people motivated to learn and to contribute. Yes, methodology and discipline are important but it’s just as important, if not more so, to lift the understanding of all stakeholders.

At the moment, business transformation and education transformation are developing in parallel but I see a future where they ultimately entwine. A cornerstone of educational innovation is experiential learning i.e.real life, out-of-the-classroom learning. As with Peter Senge’s “learning organization”, the suggestion is to build learning into work. That’s what we’re proposing with our plan for a Smart Business Network for Mobile Process Services — project-based, collaborative learning supporting nimble teams of system developers.