Book a Coffee Call

The Glass Wall: Action Learning and Leadership

How can we encourage organisations to engage more wholeheartedly with social media, both inside and beyond their boundaries? How could we combine this inquiry with helping leaders obtain the capacities required in complex businesses? We embraced these linked questions in what became the ‘Glass Wall’ experiment, a joint venture between Training Journal and Mayvin. Many […]
Share this:

Sign up to our mailing list

Want to get updated on regular insights and ideas from the experts in the Mayvin team? Sign up to our newsletter and never miss out again!

How can we encourage organisations to engage more wholeheartedly with social media, both inside and beyond their boundaries? How could we combine this inquiry with helping leaders obtain the capacities required in complex businesses?

We embraced these linked questions in what became the ‘Glass Wall’ experiment, a joint venture between Training Journal and Mayvin.

Many people are very enthusiastic about social media and embrace it wholeheartedly. Some, especially those a little bit older, are more ambivalent, dabbling in a bit of facebook, the odd tweet, or even just lurking on various online networks but not speaking up much themselves. When it comes to business, the spectrum is skewed in favour of the latter. According to social media specialists Brandfog, their 2012 survey concluded that the top leaders of Fortune 500 companies were behind the curve when it comes to using social media to engage with both customers and employees.

“While many of the top global brands have embraced social media as a customer relationship and talent recruitment tool, executive leadership adoption of social media has been slow to pick up its pace.”

(See their survey:

How could the L&D fraternity can use social media to engage leaders, and nurture their skills for the 21st Century environment (C21L)? We defined these skills in five key areas:

  1. Collective Intelligence - the ability to maximise the knowledge inherent in networks
  2. The Networked Leaders – the leader’s ability to conduct and curate these networks
  3. The Enabling Truth – the practice of speaking truth to power made more arch by the current times
  4. The search for meaning – how very public corporate, government and media failures provoke new generations to expect greater social responsibility from those in charge
  5. Wisdom - the failure of intellect alone to promote progress, and therefore the need for emotional (and other) intelligences

We were driven by a central question:

“How do we develop a programme of learning in a C21L context that is both sensitive to relationships and could work well online/in a virtual & socially networked environment?”

As developers of leaders in quality learning environments, we were conscious of the importance of intimacy and trust in developing these relational skills. Could they be promoted in an environment that had ‘one wall transparent’ to the outside world, via SoMe channels? How could you vary the transparency of the training room wall, to make it safe enough to learn these skills?

This became the ‘Glass Wall’ experiment. As well as a model for the way in which leadership development could work, we also saw this as a model for how leadership teams could engage employees and even customers. We imagined a time when executive teams discussed strategy with one glass wall open, engaging with the direct feedback of their stakeholders.

A group of five leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds came together in an action research-based learning set, to engage in leadership development conversations, except that in this set, one wall was ‘open to the world’ to varying degrees via blogs and other SoMe channels. We experimented with real time reporting and feedback into the twittersphere. See the blog The Glass Wall – The Story So far for our initial foray into this territory:

The second stage of this experiment was slightly bolder: to widen the conversation and involve two people in the room with the learning set, observing our conversation and tweeting to their followers. We had invited them to promote the conversation beforehand, encouraging people to ‘tune in’ at a particular time, using the hashtag #C21L, and follow the twitterstream between 11am and 12pm, on Tuseday 2nd October 2012. We would then follow their responses, via a monitor in the room, which would stream the ‘twitterfall’. The idea was to see if we could inject some collective intelligence into our conversation, and see how it would be to engage with this network. The question we would be considering was ‘What had had most impact on us in our learning as 21st Century leaders?’

This might not sound that bold, but for some, talking about their own learning as leaders, knowing that this is being ‘watched’ and commented on by a wider constituency is a real challenge. We had spent some time in the learning set, building up trust with each other and negotiating boundaries, in order for people to be ready to face the SoMe world.

So what did we find out? Here are some of the issues we think we explored during our ‘Glass Wall’ experiment.

Blurred Boundaries

It was a captivating experience: As one of our participants Debbie put it:
“ I was fascinated by the number of people who were in the conversation but weren’t in the room.”

Although we ‘scheduled’ the experiment to run for one hour from 11am, the conversation began well beforehand (and continued afterwards) via various micro-blogged threads. This nurtures a more volatile, multi channel dialogue. As facilitators in an L&D setting, this can be a real boon, but it leads to discomfort, in that you can’t be on top of things at all times. It also means that the conversation needs shaping before, during and after the meeting. The CEO or training facilitator can’t stop the dialogue when they want to get off, nor do they necessarily own the conversation. It can be a disorientating, ambiguous, discomforting space, but we found it less so as you let go of the need for control.

As one tweet recorded:

comfort with ambiguity. willingness to speak out even when it may not fit with the real conversation #c21l

Boundaries can’t be negotiated once and done. They are always being negotiated. This leads to another of our conclusions.

It’s a bit like life, only more so

As we’ve been considering our development as C21L leaders, we have realised that the SoMe world doesn’t fundamentally change many of the required qualities of leaders. You might call the gossip by the water cooler, ‘Twitter v1.0’. It has always benefited leaders to know what that buzz was about, and be prepared to engage with it. However now there is no excuse. But it requires a heightened discipline and attention, to develop these networked skills. This was echoed beautifully by one tweet:

The role of #C21L required leaders to be quite different - highly facilitative, deep listeners, truth tellers, system aware.

Leaders need to be open to the uncomfortable, ‘enabling truth’

There was a critical moment in our ‘experiment’. About half way through, things were going swimmingly. We were having a great conversation about the deep skills we’d be considering and acquiring during the course of our programme. We thought we’d been responding to the tweets coming in pretty well.

But then Natasha, one of our in-room tweeters, broke in to say that there was a general feeling of frustration amongst the online followers - that they didn’t feel really engaged. We were surprised by the reaction of our ‘audience’, but as one tweet put it:

ah, that’s just the thing - we don’t want to be just an ‘audience’ any more! #c21l

Through C21L programme, we’ve been considering the ‘enabling truth’ - the possibility that SoMe might open leaders up to hear the discomforting, but ultimately useful, on-the-ground experience of customers and employees, an experience which is often filtered and sanitized as it goes up the layers of hierarchical management. Could SoMe short circuit that process and open up this truth to the bosses? We believed it could.

But now we were faced with our own uncomfortable truth, and at first, it wasn’t very enabling! It threw our group into confusion. Some people were energised by this and felt it was important to engage with the twittersphere more, and some were frustrated that the previously harmonious environment had been shattered. It was fascinating; at the very least a microcosm of the experience of discomfort that prevents leaders from engaging with SoMe space.

Natasha had ‘broken the rules’ by stepping out of her observer role and speaking directly into our circle. This again seems like great learning – the need to break the rules in order to shift the leadership culture. We’d been in a comfortable bubble. Now we were in a place of real learning. Whether we ever really managed to engage with the world beyond our bubble is debateable. But in the de-brief afterwards, we were more aware of the gap that exists between comfortable closed-door worlds (of the Boardroom or Training Room) and the stakeholders on the other side of the door. Leaders, and leadership training, are often criticised for working in a bubble. What is interesting in our experiment is that we thought we had shown we were listening. If we learned to find a more elegant way of showing this, businesses could be hugely galvanised. As someone tweeted:

I was really gratified to find my comments being picked up and used. That was very engaging.

So what mechanisms could we put in place to close this gap of disengagement?

Invite and manage participation - use a ‘system facilitator’

So we learned we needed to better show we heard. This may be a challenge in the interface between the real and the virtual system. But engaging with the relationships in the room is also important. People can’t sit in a learning set and tweet at the same time. We tried it and as soon as we did, people in the group also felt uncomfortable and disengaged.

We also tried having our conversation streamed online via skype and whilst that invoked the more familiar, ‘webinar’ environment, it lost some of the intimacy that enabled good learning. How could we get the transparency right for deep relational learning and engagement with the outside world?

It seems our followers also understood this dilemma, as one tweeted:

@kevwyke: how do you hear voices of the group directly? as well as via the observers without distracting the group?” #C21L

So we pondered the idea that both the learning set AND the wider system needed facilitation. The learning set had the facilitator in the room, watching the process and managing the set. Could the tweeters in the room start to play a role, as Natasha had done for us, actively managing the ‘whole system’, both the online conversation, as well as curating between the online and 3-D groups?

Such a role would have to be skilled enough to read the dynamics of the set, whilst actively engaging with and facilitating the online conversation; a challenging role - a very C21L role, in fact.

Learning to deal with Attention Dilution

One of the things we all noticed about the Glass Wall experiment was that it was tiring. Engaging with a deep conversation in the room and at the same time having some attention to the online constituency was an exhausting process. Perhaps the ‘system facilitator’ can help with this. Nevertheless, C21L leaders need to be resilient, disciplined in managing the ‘attention dilution’ as one of our in room tweeters David put it. As he tweeted:

Interesting the discomfort and distraction coming from tweeting this groups (& my) thoughts on #C21L

See David’s excellent blog for more on that:

Ultimately it’s about being a good person

Across the many weeks of our exploration of C21L, culminating in the two rounds of the Glass Wall experiment, we have pondered some deeper questions about leadership and resilience. It occurred to us that in the end, one thing the glass wall does is open up businesses to an uncomfortable light. It isn’t easy to hide anymore, as leaders in Government, Media and Business have been finding to their cost. This provokes, intentionally or not, a very pragmatic solution to the questions of probity: you just have to be a good person. Then you have nothing to hide.

As I put it in an earlier blog:

Social networking means that that our actions are going to more subject to scrutiny than ever before. Although we shouldn’t try to be a good person just because someone is watching, it makes the challenge and opportunity of goodness more acute and more present in the everyday moments of truth that we face.
(See How to be Good – Part Two)

Perhaps it suggests that a simple code is required – that you have to have honesty and integrity at your core. As we found out, if being misunderstood is so likely, then being good maybe required more than ever. Ultimately, we learned that the glass wall in a business needs management, in learning & development, leadership and beyond. Get the level of transparency glass right for you, so people can engage in the deeper relationships required and stay open to the world at the same time. It can be managed, through human and technological negotiation, a commitment to discomfort, and an impetus for good.

We’d like to thank all of the people who engaged with us during the Glass Wall experiment, and particularly David Goddin and Natasha Stallard, who did a fantastic job as our in room tweeters, and incipient ‘System facilitators’.

Fancy a chat? Book a virtual coffee call with our friendly team today!

Get started on your organisational development journey today with the help of our friendly experts. We’d love to meet you for a quick cuppa and see how we can help you. Just click the button to get going!
Book your call with us today
Be first to hear about our free events and resources!

We're based in the South East of the UK and work globally.

Quick Links
Connect with us on LinkedIn