Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

dan-pontefract's picture

Hack Your Organizational Learning Budgets

By Dan Pontefract on June 19, 2022

To become a Flat Army leader is to morph yourself (and your organization) into a Venn diagram that consists of connected & participative leadership, collaborative technologies and what I refer to as ‘pervasive learning’.

To become a Flat Army leader is to morph yourself (and your organization) into a Venn diagram that consists of connected & participative leadership, collaborative technologies and what I refer to as ‘pervasive learning’.

At the beginning of Chapter 9 – Learning at the Speed of Need – I draw upon a quote from author and essayist Samuel Johnson (in 1775 no less) to begin the definition of ‘pervasive learning’:

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”

One of the problems inside our organizations today is the organizational learning budget. Whether the budget is operated by a Chief Learning Officer or a Head of Human Resources – or if the budget is cascaded to every leader’s team budget – there remains one fundamental flaw:

The budget is set to one kind of knowledge not two; it is set for formal learning only.

If, as Johnson describes, learning is of two kinds why do we continually budget for learning as if it only happens in classroom events or eLearning courses? If we want to empower an organization, if we want to rewire how we operate as citizens of the organization itself, perhaps we need to take a deep look at the learning budget and ask ourselves why we continue to earmark the annual learning budget for formal offerings only.

Do we really only learn in a classroom? Should we only be spending budget dollars on the development of eLearning only?

The CIPD/MIX hackathon currently underway is a “hands-on, collaborative effort focused on finding, developing, and eventually implementing real-world solutions that can be experimented within our companies—not someday, but today.”

Samuel Johnson would be so proud if we actually hacked the way we treat our organizational learning budgets such that we allocated the investment to properly allow people to both consume and contribute, to give and to take, to actually teach and to learn.

What we have done for decades and continue to do today is prop up a learning budget that feeds off of formal classroom events and eLearning offers. That’s anachronistic.

Yes, it keeps many ‘training vendors’ happy, but does it help to create an engaged and productive workforce inside the firewall?

I define ‘pervasive learning’ as “the switch from a ‘training is an event’ fixed mindset to ‘learning is a collaborative, continuous, connected and community-based’ growth mindset.” That means the learning budget must take into consideration three key concepts:

  • Formal Learning
  • Informal Learning
  • Social Learning

Formal learning can be thought of as classroom training, alongside other important offerings such as eLearning, conferences, virtual training, etc. Informal learning consists of online books, webcasts, webinars, coaching and mentoring. Social learning is made up of collaborative technologies including videos, micro-blogging, wikis, virtual worlds and photos. When put together, this is ‘pervasive learning’.

If HR and Chief Learning Officers believe in ‘pervasive learning’ and they recognize a combination of formal, informal and social learning actually compliments their quest for an engaged and productive workforce, they must shift how they spend budget on these important facets going forward.

I recommend the following budget allocation over a three-year period:

Year One

  • Formal Learning – 80% of budget
  • Informal Learning – 10% of budget
  • Social Learning – 10% of budget

Year Two

  • Formal Learning – 70% of budget
  • Informal Learning – 15% of budget
  • Social Learning – 15% of budget

Year Three

  • Formal Learning – 60% of budget
  • Informal Learning – 20% of budget
  • Social Learning – 20% of budget

What have we done? We’ve reduced the overall costs of ‘training’ by decreasing formal learning spend down to 60% and we’ve shifted the learning model from one that was entirely focused on formal learning to one that embodies the spirit, passion and vision of a formal, informal and social learning paradigm.

We have not cut out formal learning but we’ve decided the old model had way too much of it, for low return. It ensures learning can be pervasive and that it can come from external experts as well as internal employees. It provides HR and Chief Learning Officers an opportunity to reinvent employee engagement as well as putting a stake in the ground of social collaboration tool leadership. (ie. not leaving it to IT or Marketing to roll out to employees)

If he were still alive, Samuel Johnson would cringe at the way learning budgets are utilized today. If HR and CLO executives, however, were to employ this hack to the learning budget, I’m sure they would do him proud.

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heidi-de-wolf's picture

Great contribution.

I do have a challenge however - if we are allocating a budget to informal and social learning aren't we in danger of 'managing' this type of learning? I am not suggesting that informal and social learning are free, however much of this type of learning is happening already and what can be encouraged further, i.e. collaboration etc like on the MIX is open to all at no monetary cost.

Isn't that an amazing opportunity? I think it's amazing to think that I could potentially build my own 'degree' on Google and other social media platforms. I can pull the right knowledge towards me at any time.

In my work role I take on the challenge of making learning accessible to all and ensure sustainability by seeking out cost-free solutions that offer a higher ROI (if you were to measure it that is, but let's not waste our valuable time and money - if it is valuable to the learner that is all that counts. ROI will show in the organisation's rise in productivity).

I'd welcome other perspectives on this.

dan-pontefract's picture

Well hi ya Heidi, thanks for dropping by.

I'm not entirely sure we're in danger of 'managing' this type of learning, to be honest, if it's budget that is allocated towards the intent and/or support of the learning and not the learning itself.


For example, if none of the budget is allocated towards a mentoring program or a coaching program (without mandating mentoring or mandating coaching) there might be people in the organization who would never think about a mentor or a coach. Another example would be if budget isn't allocated towards a video sharing system or a micro-blogging platform, employees wouldn't be able to share content effortlessly without this type of infrastructure spending.

Sure, we could all use Google and other free apps out there ... but if you want something that is private and secure with retention and other privacy and/or SOX or Patriot Act points, your best bet is to invest part of the budget into these types of examples.

I certainly don't think it should be controlling the learning itself ... rather, simply providing access for others to learn from and share with each other.


heidi-de-wolf's picture

Dan, I completely agree. It is interesting that you mention mandating. In my experience it takes a certain mindset and culture to not want to 'mandate' everything. In an environment where there are high levels of 'them and us' and 'command and control' leadership, people cover their backs by risk managing things to death.

The concepts of privacy and security apply in a very small set of data that organisations hold on to. An enemy of adaptability that wasn't captured was 'lack of commitment to transparancy'. By exploring openness first by using free social media platform is the equivalent of starting with a 'blank sheet of paper'. People have to justify through a business case why we could not use the free tools, instead of 'fighting against the tide' of control and blame culture.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” - Albert Einstein

Too many people are unwilling to let go of the status quo and using manditing to keep control. Here's an interesting blog I came across which has expressed it beautifully - http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/07/hidden_danger_of_being_risk_averse.html

jon-ingham's picture

However, I didn’t mean to hijack the comments on this blog/hack. So here’s a comment / challenge on the core focus of ths post which will hopefully redirect the commentary back to Dan’s central ideas, which I do largely agree with, rather than my own interjection.

So, I completely agree with the focus and energy of learning functions being on informal and social rather than formal learning, but to me, this doesn’t necessarily mean that budgets have to go this way.

Firstly, I don’t think approach should be an objective on it’s own, but should always be a consequence of what we want to achieve. Otherwise, we’ll end up repeating the same sort of mistakes we made when we tried to put everything on e-learning.

Secondly, formal learning is expensive. Informal and social often isn’t (at least in non-monetary terms). Doing more informal and social doesn’t necessary need to involve more budget. And although it should generally mean doing a lower proportion of formal training, that doesn’t need to be the case.

In particular, increasing adaptability is generally going to mean increasing the amount of learning, and a highish proportion of this is probably going to be formal. Eg the CIPD’s 2013 L&D survey suggests that ‘bringing the outside in’ through external events is a critical enabler for innovation. And many of these events are going to require some formal training budget.

Again, thoughts?

frederic-jleconte's picture

I join Sean's league : keep debating, this is food for thoughts.No need to align everyone in a matter of couple of replies.
I buy in the progressive budged re-allocation.Data are giving the idea a very practical guideline.

To enlarge the scope I would add up 2 currencies :
1. (Show me..)The Green, you name it and color it, $/€/£ whatever your P&L is set up upon,
2.The Red shift, that is to say the time share.

So even if we are too shy to divert the books bucks, giving time for individuals to allocate time to social learning and other new transmission media will get painless and surprising results.
Soft change management lead.

jon-ingham's picture

Thanks all,

Dan and Perry - this comment wasn't about you but the MIX.

Dan, I just thought it was interesting that you're talking about needing a flat army in a site / community that clearly should be a flat army, but I absolutely don't think is.

Yes, all of us can 'contribute' here, but the fact that some contributions are seen as more valued than other contributions (eg, and it is just an eg, I can comment but not post) does, I believe, put people off. It's not that we're thinking this Pontefract character is trying to convince us of something, it's that if the MIX values this Pontefract character's ideas more than others, it makes people less likely to contribute these other ideas, as they're pretty much by definition less valued.

Perry, this is the reason that ConnectingHR unconferences work so well, isn't it? It's that all ideas are equal. That's what we need here too.

So, no, Gary & co aren't knocking any hacks out of the ballpark, but they're not commenting or building on them much either (although it is great that Peter has been, a bit.)

We're still doing the virtual equivalent of speakers coming in, talking us through their powerpoints, and then OK, there's a bit of Q&A. I'm arguing we need to get together in a virtual circle, and exchange our ideas, on a much more flat basis than this.

And Sean, I do think that involves some holding back (or at least holding differently). That's a key skill of community management as I see it. It's letting the community do what it can, and chipping in when for whatever reason it doesn't or can't. For me, this is an absolutely key part of the new, flat, adaptable behaviour we're trying to encourage here.

And I think the point is important partly because we can learn about flat armies by sharing ideas about it, but the best way to learn about it is to do it - to be a flat army (that's pervasive learning too isn't it?) but also, more importantly, because I think we'd develop better, more innovative hacks if we were.

This probably isn't necessary, but I'll add it anyway.

As another person out in the ether of the MIX, I love reading as many hacks as possible, and I don't care who they come from.

I would also add, that I hope the guides, or the co-founders don't feel restrained as they struggle with wanting to inspire but not wanting to dominate; ideas, conversation, tone, etc. I would encourage ALL of us to feel unconstrained.

One last bit, then I'm done.

When I was in graduate school, one of the things I wanted more of, was the chance to pull up a chair (or some floor), and simply listen. Question (or debate or explore) too, but fundamentally, listen - especially to the professors. Not as "experts", but as insight coaches.

Whether it's Perry or Dan, or Gary, or Michele, or others, I really enjoy the same opportunity here too. So please, don't hold back - anyone :)

jon-ingham's picture

Hi Dan,

Great to see you here. I love your book too, and thanks for including me as one of your 'Interlocutors'.

However... isn't there something incongruent about the author of 'Flat Army' joining in a hierarchical role of something that clearly isn't flat... ie the MIX.

Why do you we need this hierarchy of mavericks, experts and coaches, and why do the MIX and CIPD feel that people like you and Perry have somehow more to offer than anyone else in this community?

OK, it's not a real heirarchical structure, but it's certainly heirarchical, non-flat, thinking, and it has exactly the same, or actually probably more impact than heirarchical structure.

As soon as you may some people experts you implicity define everyone else as non-expert and make it less likely that they will contribute. It's non-flat and non-adaptable. We need better.


(Also see this post: http://strategic-hcm.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/cipd-hackmanagement-hierarch... ).

perry-timms_1's picture

Hi Jon,

Interesting views you have here. I don't share them and since I'm mentioned here feel I have the right to comment on why I don't share them.

I am a part of this Hackathon and in the (personally) appreciated position as a Guide. I take that role seriously and I certainly don't take it as giving me any increased level of significance as you, Keith, Gemma, Stephen, Heidi, Deb, Harrison or any of the other hackers on here. My role as a guide is to observe, help, add to, challenge if need be and generally keep energy and momentum behind the Hackathon.

Were I NOT a guide I would still be on here as it's a great opportunity, an exciting format and a stimulating exchange.

I don't see the hierarchy you describe here.

Sure there are coaches, and guides and hackers and Peter and Gary. BUT let's face it, we HAVE hierarchies at the moment and it takes people (like F W De Klerk, Gorbachev etc) at the top of that hierarchy to make a decision that brings about a new way. Be it destroying the hierarchy, tweaking it etc.

I see Peter, Gary, Dan, Dave, Julian, Lynda, etc as stimulators; provocateurs,ideas-seeders; catalysts; commentators etc. I don't see them knocking any hacks out of the ballpark. I don't see them over indulging and waxing lyrical over their pet favourites. I don't see them saying I know best. I think the coaches are in it because they sense there are others who can help make a change. Bring their philosophies to life or to be challenged and adapted.

I see people liking Keith Gulliver's hack; and Gemma Reucroft's barrier to adapaibility and Bruce Lewin's comments. It feels as hacker-fuelled as I'd hoped.

Flattering though it is that you feel I have increased significance here, who says my comments, contributions and hacks carry any more weight than yours, Michele's or Kev Wykes? I don't see that or feel that which is why I simply can't share your views on this being another hierarchical, guru-led initiative. It's as open source as we could get right now. I'm with it all the way.

We need a bit of a frame to work within - sure. Even Dan's Flat Army has SOME shape - you don't replace a rigid hierarchy with a vapour trail (in my book anyway). You replace it with something more adaptable, alternative but some shape to it. Even flat.

So I appreciate you putting your views across and the chance to share my contrary views.

Fons Trompenaars called this one so it's hat-tip to another maverick guru but it works here and I mention it out of fairness to whom I heard it from first.

What I think we have here is a heterarchy.

Not a chain of command more a connection of opinions which will help us shape the future for a profession I refuse to see wither and die. People may agree with you and not me or vice versa. That doesn't bother me as it's not a popularity contest.

What bothers me is not putting others off of hacking, commenting and shaping this thing up. That would feel like an attempt at asserting some undue (hierarchical) influence or power.

Let's keep hacking and let the crowd decide. Be they a vertical, flat or cubed crowd.

dan-pontefract's picture

Hey mate, thanks for letting me know about the book. Sorry I couldn't make it to Chicago to see you in person.

I'm actually not sure I follow what you're saying.

I don't think of myself as an expert but as an open idea chap. When the MIX team asked if I wanted to participate ... I said, "sure, why not, sounds like fun."

I've done the same at other online events or sites ... even as recent as last week with the 70-20-10 Forum under Charles Jennings. (https://www.702010forum.com/posts/news/dan-pontefract-talks-learning-by-...)

I like to write and I like to share ideas ... so, I thought this would be a great format to do so as well. I treated it as an opportunity to share an idea ... that's all.

I do the same off my blog as well as Flat Army, so I don't really see a difference to be honest.

I don't think of myself as an 'expert' (and never position myself as one) ... just someone who isn't afraid to yap about things. I think that's the beginning of being flat ... being open to yap about ideas without retribution.

And if I understand the MIX and its intent, there are loads of opportunities for any/all of us to contribute ideas.

It's an interesting observation you make, however, as I really had not thought of it that way. I wonder if others are thinking the same? ie. there's that Pontefract character, trying to use the MIX to convince us of his 'expert' ways. Certainly not how I interpreted the opportunity or the end result mate.

perry-timms_1's picture

Hi Dan, thanks for the blog.

It is with a genuine pleasure that I find you here as I've been picking up your "Flat Army" thinking and your Revolution in Corporate Learning work with Marcia and Kerry recently. And I smiled gleefully as I read through it. I feel a sense of renewed hope for what I love doing for a living when I see it put across with passion; rigour and provocation like this.

So I absolutely agree on the entire learning budget aspect. I tracked my last few years in a corporate role in a similar way and found exactly this - I was dialling down investment in corporate formal learning and dialling up informal and then social learning. I feel a sense of immense vindication in my approach to this.

Hopefully gone are the bursary "per person" spend days; the obsession with "programme X costs whatever" and we have more of an oblique approach to a learning budget. Less formal wiring towards certain programmes and more adaptive, emergent allocation driven by learning needs and learners themselves.

We still appear to have learners who are receptive to new ways but conditioned to accept that formal is the only way to learn. I see a sense of hope in the use of social technologies widening peoples' fields of vision and connectivity to great insight so they become - like me - a voracious learner.

I love learning as an act; a pastime; a career; a concept and a purpose.

Not just for the sake of learning either but for the ultimate buzz in putting it to use; the feeling of enrichment to my soul and the joy in sharing to help others.

A corporate budget that enables several hundred or thousand people to learn like this will gain, to refer to the title of this Hackathon, an adaptability advantage.

Thanks for a really practical and uplifting view on something many of us (in learning in the world of work) struggle with.



dan-pontefract's picture

Hey ya Perry,

Thanks for taking the time to read 'my stuff' ... and equally important, reaching out to openly position your comments above.


My favourite line was "I love learning as an act; a pastime; a career; a concept and a purpose." Sounds as though we were cut from the same cloth.

Kudos to your story, to your perseverance and passion to 'change the game'.

You should be proud. Your organization and its team members certainly must be.