Sarah in front of a huge bookshelf

Content Playfulness and the Book of Kells

I was asked a little while ago what was the why of me? (for those of you who know the work of Simon Sinek – what was at the heart of my ‘golden circle’?). However disparate our careers, if we’re lucky there’s a common thread – an essential purpose or meaning to the work that we do.

What’s the why of me?

So what’s the why of me? After a while of reviewing my career, identifying that common thread, what I’m both good at and enjoy, I realised that this is the why of me: I’m passionate about improving the communication of valuable ideas.

When I’m not at work, busy improving the communication of valuable ideas I’m either writing, reading, painting, drawing or taking photos. Basically I love stories – telling stories in images and in words: the communication of ideas.

A visit to the Book of Kells

I’ve been asked to speak at LavaCon content strategy conference next week. For the first time it’s being held in Europe, at Trinity College Dublin. Something I’ve always wanted to do is see the Book of Kells, and whilst I’m at Trinity I’m determined to take a couple of hours out and visit the library there to take a look.

The Book of Kells was written 1200 years ago, it’s now thought a collective effort (early globalisation?) of monks in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England. With such an ancient and fragile object few people get to turn the pages and enjoy the full 340 folios. Fortunately the book is available to view in its entirety online in Trinity College’s digital archive.

Content playfulness at work

The Book of Kells includes an unprecedented number of illustrations: stories, words, pictures. Fantastical beasts and cheeky human-like figures pop up unexpectedly, winding themselves around the latin text.

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As I meandered through the book I could imagine those monks enlivening the dull hours conjuring these mischievous and mythical creatures.

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There’s a content playfulness at work here. The monks used celtic symbols and patterns exotic colours and decoration to augment the text and literally illuminate the main messages.

In writing out the gospels, in turning the word of God into a tangible and beautiful object those monks were improving the communication of valuable ideas – what in the medieval Christian world was the ultimate valuable idea – God’s love and eternal salvation. What was the why, the purpose of the Book of Kells? To create a tribute to God’s glory.

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But also content inefficiency

But of course it was a hugely inefficient process, medieval illuminated manuscripts took years and years of back breaking labour. Occasionally bored comments and complaints found their way into the margins of medieval texts!


Not only is the Book of Kells available to view online, it is also of course on public display. Thousands of physical visitors and who knows how many thousands more digital visitors. Which is ironic, because the book originally had a sacramental rather than an educational purpose. It wasn’t designed to be read and certainly not by more than a select group of priests. There was no audience for this work.

Meanings and connections

It struck me, whilst I’ve been researching the history of the Book of Kells, that there’s a lot of parallels between that ancient text and my work at CIPD.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

EM Forster, Howard’s End

For me, work has to have meaning, and it certainly helps if the organisation I’m working for has a positive impact on society. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has this incredible purpose: to Champion Better Work and Working Lives. So like the Book of Kells there’s a valuable message and ideas worth communicating. But – and perhaps not quite as extreme as those monks in Ireland 1200 years ago – CIPD also suffers from a hugely inefficient content production process and it’s message doesn’t really have much of an audience.

Since I started at CIPD back in summer 2013 I’ve been working to improve the communication of our valuable ideas, primarily through improving content efficiency and more recently (and additionally) through the introduction of a content playfulness: finding 21st century techniques to illuminate our message and spread the good word (rather than the Good Word!)

Over the next few blog posts I’ll be exploring just how we’ve done that and reflecting on the successes, outcomes and observations from that work.


What does a successful project look like?

Like many organisations CIPD has a number of project managers around the business, both in IT, focussed primarily on managing technology projects, as well as embedded within various teams, with a focus more on delivering operational initiatives. And like many organisations we have a project management community – bringing both groups together to swap war stories, celebrate successes and share good PM practice.

A few weeks ago the PM Community ran a session on the topic of Project Success. In preparation for that session I was approached for my perspective on the matter. What did I think a successful project looked like? Was it the delivery of a project within budget, time, and scope, or was it more subtle than that?

In a previous life (at John Wiley – my previous employer) I was a Project Manager for a number of years. And I was trained to see project success very much in terms of delivering working software within scope, on time and to budget.

Learning as we go along


But I’ve learned at my time at CIPD a more nuanced, more practical and perhaps also more forgiving definition of project success. Yes those other things are important, but more important still is that we learn as we go along. That we continuously ask ourselves what are we discovering and how do we embed those lessons (that come out of both positive and negative feedback) into the project going forward? And – where appropriate – how do we extend those lessons to the wider organisation?

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

(Agile Manifesto principle no. 12)

If what we’ve learned by the end of the project doesn’t necessarily tie back all that precisely to what we believed we’d learn at the beginning of the project then that’s not a failure, but rather the very definition of success.

Most projects aim to introduce some element of organisational or operational change. And effecting change is never easy. Even the most skilful of PMs can’t always help toes being stepped on and noses being put out of joint. But a powerful technique to help manage the negative politics that swirl around any change initiative is to ask stakeholders for their feedback as the work progresses, and to be seen to include that feedback into the following iteration.

Obviously this isn’t rocket science, it’s good project management practice, but I think placing the emphasis more on the learnings gathered along the way rather than the outcomes leads to a more flexible, a more agile approach. Because desired outcomes may change as the project progresses, but the learnings – if they are acted upon – are always gold.

‘Purposeful’ working

The PACE values at CIPD

You probably haven’t heard of PACE, but everyone who works for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development certainly has. They are the values underpin everything we aim to do and to be at CIPD, they run through our corporate culture like the words ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock.

The PACE values are on display throughout the CIPD HQ in Wimbledon, on posters and stencilled onto the wall in our ‘OpenSpace’ coffee shop. This jaunty acronym stands for

  • Purposeful
  • Agile
  • Collaborative
  • Expert

Ever since I joined CIPD two and a half years ago I’ve been mulling over the PACE values, what they really mean, how we put them into practice, specifically in relation to the projects that define the work of the digital production team.

And over the next four posts I’m going to explore those musings and conclusions I’ve come to.

We are Purposeful

So let’s start with our first value, purposeful.

purposeful: we have clear goals and finish what we start

The PACE values: Purposeful, as it appears on the wall in CIPD’s OpenSpace coffeeshop

I have a bit of a problem with ‘purposeful’. Let’s face it, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Purposeful means ‘determined and resolved’. But synonyms often hint at the darker side of any word’s meaning, and for purposeful we get single minded, inflexible, strong willed, hell-bent. Oh dear.

We have clear goals and finish what we start. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Until you think about it a bit more.

Let’s not Carry On Regardless

carry on team in carry on regardless

There is a very human tendency to carry on regardless, to finish something even if it’s not working or no longer needed. For anyone working on projects – whether digital or otherwise – this is something to be mindful of.

The project management methodology PRINCE2 can sometimes be seen as inflexible and bureaucratic compared to Agile, but it encourages the continual re-evaluation of the business case (the purpose of your project), and insists that projects should stop if they’re no longer valid.

Agile development methodology – in many ways the counterpoint to PRINCE2 – takes a slightly different approach. Rather than assessment against a definitive business case, it embraces changing requirements throughout a project. Changes that emerge from customer interactions with working software and the business’s changing priorities. It is the capacity to re-adjust and re-calibrate projects that delivers better, customer-centred solutions.

The other human tendency that bedevils project work is perfectionism. In seeking perfection we often expend more and more energy at the end of a process to achieve smaller and smaller gains. So I like this, the 10th Principle from the Agile Manifesto:

Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.

But if you’re working with evolving requirements, if you’re seeking simplicity over complexity, how do you ever know when good is good enough? All projects need a set of clear outcomes that you can measure your output against – well defined success criteria.

So I like the first half of the PACE definition of Purposeful: We have clear goals.

The Agile Manifesto also emphasises building in incremental improvements to the development process (Principle #12). Teams should ask themselves: what went well and what didn’t go so well in the last sprint and re-calibrate and readjust working methods and the project accordingly.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

We Are Purposeful v0.2

So it might be a bit wordy to stencil onto the wall, but perhaps we should add some qualifying statements. We have clear goals and finish what we start…

  • but we know that sometimes it’s better to stop.
  • we re-adjust and re-calibrate along the way.
  • we know when good is good enough.


Open Badges at CIPD

As CIPD increasingly experiments with free and low cost digital learning (see the forthcoming Future of Learning course – developed with Home Learning College, and our first MOOC: Working Digitally: Social Media and HR),  we’ve been thinking about how we incentivise and accredit those courses. Hence this week’s musings on Open Badges.

Analogue badges

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I loved badges. In fact one of the (few!) things I liked about being a brownie was all those badges sewn on to my uniform. (Although I never did get the Needleworker or the Hostess badges!) We children of the late 70s/early 80s were spoiled for badges: my Adidas tracksuit fairly bristled with various BAGA gymnastics badges and International STA swimming badges.

brownie badges

Digital badges

That analogue yearning to earn, collect and display badges for participation and achievement is no less acute in our digital lives. Particularly in the spheres of learning (for example Kahn Academy) and collaboration, and especially in order to ‘gamify’ online activities: the pre-eminent example being Microsoft Xbox’s 360 Gamescorer system. But digital badges appear all over the internet, two great examples are TripAdvisor (contributions) and FourSquare (check ins).

Khan Academy's digital badges

What’s wrong with digital badges?

Kahn Academy, Xbox’s Gamescorer, FourSquare and TripAdvisor are all examples of closed badging systems, meaning you can’t display badges you’ve earned within a particular platform elsewhere on the web. Digital badges just aren’t interoperable, they’re not transferable between systems.

Another issue with digital badges is their validity and credibility: how can an pixel-generated icon represent a ‘trusted credential’?

Open badges to the rescue

Open badges are similar to, but not to be confused with digital badges. In 2011 Mozilla (the chaps behind the FireFox internet browser) started work on an open source framework that supports web-based badges to solve the issues of validity and interoperability.


Valid and credible badges

Open badges aren’t just icons. Embedded within each badge image is a set of metadata that describes (amongst other things) how, where and when it was earned, who earned it, and who issued it.

What’s metadata you might ask?

Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information. (Niso)

This wonderful illustration by Kyle Bowen neatly strips back the metadata that sits behind an open badge.

Image illustrating the metadata baked in to an open badge

The metadata can then be viewed by anyone wishing to check up on a person’s credentials, or just to find out more about the badge.

badge metadata displayed

Image courtesy of Open Badges 101 course

Interoperable badges

Mozilla’s open badge infrastructure is an open standard. Essentially this means open badges are:

  • Free and open: Mozilla Open Badges is not proprietary. It’s free software and an open technical standard any organization can use to create, issue and verify digital badges.
  • Transferable: Collect badges from multiple sources, online and off, into a single backpack. Then display your skills and achievements on social networking profiles, job sites, websites and more.
  • Stackable: Whether they’re issued by one organization or many, badges can build upon each other and be stacked to tell the full story of your skills and achievements.
    From Mozilla’s Open Badge Wiki.

On the issuer side of things Mozilla’s BadgeKit includes all the tools an organisation or an individual needs to create, design, assess and issue badges.

For the earners, their badges are can be stored anywhere, even your own computer, but it’s most practical to collect them up in a ‘backpack’. (Why not an adidas tracksuit I couldn’t say.)

Mozilla’s backpack is a repository for the collection, management and display of your badges. (And because it’s a federated, open ecosystem, Mozilla have made the source code for both BadgeKit and Backpack publicly available, so other providers can develop their own versions.)

From your backpack badges can be embedded and displayed across numerous platforms (including Moodle, Mahara and WordPress) and social media sites. (A little like videos can be embedded across different sites, but are hosted on YouTube.)

Badge thinking at CIPD

We’ve a way to go yet before we work out our (open) badge strategy at CIPD. Although we’ll be starting out by issuing badges for various activities on the Future of Learning course, for example for curating great content and writing insightful blogs and posts.

But some of the things we might issue badges for are:

  • Participation in CIPD’s community platform
  • Completion of a MOOC
  • Participation in a webinar
  • Speaking at a CIPD conference or event
  • Completion of CPD

We’re going to need to think carefully about our badge taxonomy and learning pathways, and things like how we might reward and integrate offline activities such as participation in programmes such as Steps Ahead Mentoring or volunteering at Branch events.

So this is all work in progress, and I’ll be blogging more about the Open Badges initiative at CIPD in the coming months.

And finally, a confession

I’m part way through the Think Out Loud club‘s excellent Open Badges 101 course. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to find out more about open badges.

With this blog, I’m hoping to earn my first digital badge with the 101 Course, to put it in my backpack, and display it on my LinkedIn page. Whaddyathink: should I get my badge?

Designing learning for the way we live our digital lives

I’ve spent the previous week in Manchester, on Clive Shepherd’s Digital Learning Design course. Some of the course covered topics I was already familiar with, like how to write for the web (skim and scan, etc.). When the learner has prior knowledge of the topic the learning experience is of course relatively easy. It’s more about reminding you about the things you already know. But when the learner is coming to something completely new, well, that’s another matter.

Learning is hard work

We all instinctively know that learning is hard work. I distinctly remember that memorizing German verbs and multiplication tables made my brain positively hurt. But I hadn’t really appreciated before the difference between designing content for a general online audience and designing content for online learners.

In an online learning context you are dealing with an audience under pressure, feeling the strain of processing new information. Learning expends considerable intellectual effort. Neuroscience backs this up; the hippocampus (our short term memory) can only hold 20 minutes of focused learning. After that we’re bust.

Design learning to be a little less effortful

So we need to build learning content that precisely targets the intended learning outcomes, with a laser-like focus on the essentials (courses), leaving everything else for the learner to discover on their own (resources). We must deliver courses that cater to the different ways people learn. To make learning ‘sticky’ we need to mix together the right compounds from our learning design chemistry set. And choose the right approach – exposition, instruction, guided discovery, or exploration – that works best for what your learners need to know.

When learning is a far from normal experience

But we also need to be mindful of designing learning for the way that we live our digital lives. As digital technology evolves and embeds itself in people’s lives, our perception of ‘normal’ quickly changes.

It can be hard to keep up with the dizzying pace of change – even for the big boys in software development. But it’s crucial that we keep moving and adapting our learning design strategies. Otherwise the gap between people’s experiences of digital learning and their non-learning, day-to-day digital lives will create additional cognitive load. When learning is already ‘effortful’, we need to make it easier by designing content and platforms that emulate familiar, positive digital experiences.

Today’s digital normal is responsive and seamless

It’s five years now since Ethan Marcotte’s seminal article ( on responsive web design. Five years on and smartphones are ubiquitous. And the screens we interact with on a daily basis vary from tiny through to ginormous: smart watches and smart phones, tablets, laptops and supersize smart TVs. We increasingly expect to interact with the same platform and content across all devices, moving seamlessly between them.

At CIPD we’re about to embark on a project to redesign our website and make it responsive (amongst a list of other improvements). But it’s not just humble organizations like CIPD that are grappling with the challenges and opportunities that responsive design brings, so too are the giants of web and eLearning software.

A couple of weeks ago a colleague introduced me to a whizzy new tool: Adobe Muse. Muse creates cool-looking dynamic one-page scrollable infographics and microsites. (Check out site of the day at But Muse doesn’t (at least not yet) create responsive sites. And the two most popular eLearning design programs – Adobe Captivate and Articulate – are still not capable of building responsive courses.

The next release of Adobe Captivate will export responsive courses (due end 2015). And Articulate is building a responsive player. But open source got there first. (Don’t you just love open source!) Adapt Framework is the new kid on the block and builds responsive courses in a scroll-based template that’s ideal for presenting content on a smartphone. Another open source development xAPI is gradually replacing SCORM, allowing sophisticated learner interactions to be captured and recorded on a LMS (via a Learning Record Store), without the need for a continuous internet connection (which is one of the drawbacks of SCORM). Again, technology is evolving in ways that emulate the way people increasingly interact with their devices.

Today’s digital normal doesn’t look like a ‘traditional’ corporate VLE

But not only do we need to build learning content that works on multiple devices, we also need to host it in familiar-looking environments. for example, doesn’t look like a Virtual Learning Environment: it looks like an App store. CIPD’s VLE doesn’t look like anything else our students will be used to using online. Using it (as I had to a lot last week) feels like you’ve fallen through a space-time wormhole back to 2001. (Although it has to be said, it is responsive!)

The future is now

So the future is now… well, almost. We need to keep on our toes. We need to continually evolve as the digital world around us evolves; designing and building learning that resonates with the digital concepts, conventions and environments our learners familiar with.

Clive Shepherd’s Digital Learning Design course is available via CIPD. Clive blogs about all things elearning at Clive on Learning.

Designing eLearning: take aways from the world of graphic design

This week I’m in Manchester, on Clive Shepherd’s excellent Digital Learning Design Course (CIPD). For our second practical assignment I’m working with Ben Ingils-Grant to write a blog post about using graphic design principles in eLearning.

First let’s talk fonts

Fonts fall into two categories – serif and sans serif. How do you tell the difference? Well, a serif font has a little, decorative flourish at the end of the strokes. Sans are (you guessed it) sans or without the fussy little flourish.

serif and sans

So, as I’m sure you’re asking yourself at this point: when do I use serif and when do I go without? Serif fonts are easier to read on the printed page, and are usually used for blocks of text in newspapers and magazines. Sans serifs work well in contrast: for headlines and pull quotes.

Sans serif fonts are most commonly used online, because screen resolution (even Apple’s retina display) is much lower than print, making serif characters harder to read than sans serif onscreen.

A golden rule of typography, and by extension when using fonts in graphic design, is to stick to just one or two fonts. Simplicity is (as ever) key: too many fonts looks confusing and unprofessional. Avoid!

fighting fonts

Another one to avoid is the dreaded comic sans: childish, frivolous and shallow. Perhaps once, back in the early 90s, it was ok, even fun, to use comic sans – on a 5 year olds birthday party invitation, or a Christmas card greeting. But overuse has soured that once childlike and innocent relationship.


Some people still think comic sans is a friendly, approachable typeface, but inappropriate use can have a jarring, unintended hilarious effect.

comic bad 1


For more bad font nostalgia, remember blinking text? The days of blink are finally over; few browsers these days will even support it (the tag has been depreciated), but oh how we miss you. Your inappropriate blinking purple (or yellow, or blue) text was always certain to grab our attention, like a screaming toddler.

What many people don’t know is that many fonts are proprietary and require a license. To avoid costly litigation (it’s no joke, it did happen to a publisher I used to work for) avoid proprietary fonts. Instead check out the free font database at:

But beware using custom web fonts that can slow the rate at which your web page loads. Particularly irksome if you’re viewing content on a smartphone. (Check out this great article at Always make sure you include a default fallback font in your CSS so browsers don’t grind to a halt, waiting to find and load your fancy font.

Finally, Amazon and Google have recently announced that they’ve designed and are rolling out new fonts specifically for reading ebooks.

Now over to Ben.

Colour schemes in learning content

Colours have inherent meanings, and the use of colours can focus attention and direct the viewer’s eye to the areas you want them to see. In learning materials, the use and deployment of colour can enhance materials or break them. There are a few general guidelines that can be used by content designers to ensure that their work is beneficial for learners.

Colour schemes are often the forgotten piece in the content puzzle for designers. Just Googling bad use of colour in design can pull up several million examples of truly horrific displays of design efforts, which can leave the viewer feeling nauseous. Colour schemes can open up subconsciously, the viewers mind for materials and information to stick in the viewer’s memory.

The first general rule is for the designer to use between 2-4 colours only in a set of materials. If there are more colours used then the reader can be left feeling dazed, lost and unable to focus on the content of the material.

This effort from (2010) is a perfect example of content being lost behind a wall of colour.


For more fun bad web designs check out this post on website fail.

The internet is littered with examples like this website; to avoid confusion content that is being designed from scratch should start out with this in mind. Colours can help direct, but too much colour can confuse.

The number of colours can be limiting, even in some cases to one colour, and a designer can alter a colour to display various shades of the same colour to provide flexibility in creating materials whether images of text.

The use of colour is, stating the obvious, an art form. Picking the right colour for the right material is a skill, and choosing the right shade for the right moment or emphasis can also prove tricky. Jerry Cao, explains about colour theory for The Next Web ( and you can identify emotions that are subconsciously associated with colours. The shading of the colours in your materials is an important factor to consider when choosing your colour scheme.

Another stumbling block for colour in content design is clashing colours. Clashing colours are most commonly used to draw attention or give warning to the viewer about something. When developing learning material you want your viewer to be at ease and engaging with materials and not put on edge and worried about their eyesight as they read through your content.

External factors may impact on the use of colour in content that you produce; the most prominent may be branding guidelines which restrict the designer to one set of prescribed colours. When working in this context it is best for the designer to be aware of these restrictions and to not create content that relies on additional colours that are outside the brand guidelines.

If there is discussion about colour schemes, then there are many resources available for designers to provide inspiration. Websites and apps are becoming more readily available for designers to engage with and create new materials. The example below is of a website that runs through the basics of colour scheming, but the range of options to aid designer is limitless thanks to the internet.


Adobe have joined the market and launched an app to accompany their other creative software, Adobe Colour, and if a designer finds a specific colour or colour scheme from any source, then the app can scan an image or view through a camera in the device and set up an appropriate colour scheme. These apps will help those not confident in their own ability to create colour schemes but the take away message is to try your schemes and test them out to check they are appropriate and feasible for your content.

For further reading check out Google’s advice on colour and design.

And if you’re wondering about the pink elephant (literally in the room), Clive was illustrating the relationship between the emotional part of the human psyche (the elephant) and the logical, rational brain (the poor rider atop of the elephant). Read more in Clive’s blog where he talks about the book (he read on holiday) Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard – from Chip and Dan Heath.

Building a business case for COPE (part one): organisational agility

In my last post (Create Once, Publish Everywhere: what does it all mean?) we looked at the key principles of COPE and how we are planning to implement them (at least in broad terms) at CIPD.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be following up on that post by rehearsing some of the arguments for COPE at CIPD: what benefits exactly will it bring? Although specific to one particular business – the CIPD – our case for COPE will undoubtedly strike a chord with other content rich organisations looking to persuade their leadership teams to invest in a modern content management capability.

Why it’s difficult to build a business case for content

Building a business case for content isn’t straightforwardWe’re currently putting together a business case for Project Athena: a significant investment for CIPD in terms of money, time, resource and organisational change. But building a business case for content isn’t straightforward. The difficulty we face is that content is notoriously hard to cost. There are some measurable production savings, for example DTP (page layout) and print. But – in common with most organisations – time spent creating, managing, reviewing, searching for, updating, (and so on) content is not tracked at CIPD. Therefore establishing precise cost savings and return on investment is tricky.

To build a more nuanced argument for COPE we must look beyond the balance sheetWe still need to demonstrate the tangible cost savings and potential revenue opportunities, but to build a more nuanced argument for COPE we must look beyond the balance sheet. Substitute ‘COPE’ for ‘content strategy’ in Kristina Halvorsen’s famous quote, and you get the picture.

Content strategy defines how you’re going to use content to meet your business goals and satisfy your users’ needs.

Kristina Halvorsen, Content Strategy for the Web

So what we’ll be looking to do is build a business case that demonstrates how COPE (Project Athena) aligns to (and helps to deliver) CIPD’s strategic imperatives and satisfies our customers’ needs. But beyond that even, how COPE will help CIPD to not only cope with, but thrive in, these challenging economic times. And that’s what we’ll be looking at in this first post on building a business case for COPE.

Agility: building a business case that aligns with our corporate values

Agility is one of CIPD’s core organisational values. As an Institute and as employees, we try to be Purposeful, Agile, Collaborative and Expert in everything we do. So by couching COPE in terms of ‘agility’ I’m hoping to align our content strategy with our corporate values. But it’s not for nothing that agility is one of our core values. To remain viable and relevant in the 21st century, businesses must become agile. It’s not for nothing that agility is one of our core values

First we’ll look at the economic factors at play that are driving this need for organisational agility. We’ll go on to look at what I believe are the three crucial ingredients needed to develop organisational agility with a particular focus on the need for technical agility. And in the next post we’ll look specifically at how COPE builds business agility. Because let’s face it – it really is crazy out there!

Why do organisations need to be agile? Or: ‘Hey it’s crazy out there!’

Volatility is the new reality

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2009 report, the seismic events of 2008 introduced a new phase of globalisation ‘one in which volatility is likely to remain a constant’. The recession may be lifting in some markets, but

… underlying fluctuations in energy, commodity and currency rates, the emergence of new and non-traditional competitors, and rising customer demands will continue to roil traditional business and operating models for some time to come.

Economist Intelligence Unit, Organisational agility: how business can survive and thrive in turbulent times (2009)

The end of competitive advantage

In her book The End of Competitive Advantage, Professor Rita Gunther McGrath argues that the very concept of competitive advantage is no longer relevant. In this VUCA world of ours, business behemoths that once appeared invincible to the vagaries of the market, adapt too slowly to changes in technology, in consumer taste, and disappear. Kodak is the example most often cited, crashing from market leader to yesterday’s news, due to its inability to adapt to the digital revolution.

The rise of freeconomics

If you’re not using free, you will be competing with free

A business model most closely associated with Internet start up companies, it is best exemplified by services such as Skype, Dropbox, Flicr, Evernote, etc. Originally coined by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, freemium is the combination of the words ‘free’ and ‘premium’. The core product is given away for free to a large user base; a small group (often under 10%) of users pay for the premium service.

With the majority of content and services given away for free, freemium inevitably poses a significant threat to ‘traditional’ businesses. And it’s not going away any time soon: Pew Research Center’s Digital Life in 2025 predicts the continued ‘disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting … publishers of all sorts and education).’

Organisational agility: strategies for volatile times

This storm is only going to get stormierIncreasingly top executives understand that it is not simply by battening down the hatches, by tightening control of operating costs, that they will weather the economic storms. This storm is only going to get stormier; some additional strategies are required.

According to that report by the EIU, ‘organisational agility is a core differentiator in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Nearly 90% of executives surveyed … believe that organisational agility is critical for business success.’

In fact agile businesses can grow revenues up to 37% faster and than their non-agile competitors (Peter Weill, MIT).

So what makes an organisation agile?

Businesses must be constantly vigilant to threats and opportunities, and prepared, agile if you will, to respond as they emerge.

It seems to me that the three crucial ingredients of organisational agility are an agile mindset, agile working practices and technical agility.

The agile mindset

This agile mindset is defined very nicely in CIPD’s Shaping the Future research (2011) as the ‘ability to stay open to new directions and be continually proactive, helping to assess the limits or indeed risks of existing approaches and ensuring that leaders and followers have an agile and change-ready mindset to enable them and ultimately the organisation to keep moving, changing, adapting’.

Change, adaptation and re-calibration is a constantThe agile mindset acknowledges that change, adaptation and re-calibration is a constant, and that rather than a threat offers opportunities for learning, growth and new ventures both at an organisational as well as a individual level.

The agile workplace

According to CIPD’s Getting Smart about Agile Working report (2014) agile working is

A set of practices that allow businesses to establish an optimal workforce and provide the benefits of a greater match between the resources and the demand for services, increased productivity, and improved talent attraction and retention.

This means flexible working arrangements in terms of when people work, where they work and what they do.

Added to this is the percolation of some of the theories of agile methodology from software development teams through to the more general working environment.

Agile teams rely on self-organisation, iterations, customer centricity, knowledge sharing and collaboration, and mutual trust.

CIPD Getting Smart about Agile Working (2014)

This is something we’re seeing introduced at CIPD: for example we’re working out loud, across silos, with projects broken up into 90-day sprints.

Building technical agility

The third and final component of organisational agility is, inevitably I suppose, around the investment in and optimisation of a business’s information technology.

Businesses must look to invest in technologies that ‘improve decision making and convert information into insight’ (EIU, 2009); systems that support knowledge gathering and analysis (e.g. customer and market insights and business intelligence), as well as knowledge sharing and collaboration tools.

Of equal importance is the technology that supports an organisation’s core business, its ‘true engine of growth’ (EIU, 2009). And in this it plays two roles. Firstly the optimisation of production processes (the ‘whittling away at inefficiency’ and secondly, the ‘re-grouping around what is truly core to the business’ (EIU, 2009).

CIPD is a knowledge business; our content is a key strategic asset. We need to be re-grouping around content, investing in technology that supports the efficient production, management and dissemination of content.

The agility paradox

There is higher agility in firms with more digitized and standardized business process and platform.

Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, Ross, Weill & Robertson, Harvard Business School Press, June 2006

Ironically, it is through standardisation that a business builds agilityIronically, it is through standardisation that a business builds agility – Peter Weill’s ‘agility paradox’. Funnily enough this echoes loudly in my head Rachel Lovinger’s quote ‘ironically, it’s more structure that makes content nimble and sets it free.’ (Nimble Report.) We’ll be looking at this more when we explore content agility, another piece of the business case argument coming soon.

The four categories of agility (three out of four ain’t bad)

In the Agility Paradox, Peter Weill (quoting Jeanne Ross, MIT CISR Research Workshop May 2006) talks about the four categories of business agility. COPE satisfies three out of the four, which let’s face it, ain’t half bad!

four categories of business agility

1. Business Efficiency Agility

As we’ll see in future posts, COPE introduces a number of process efficiencies to the content workflow, in terms of the creation, management, translation, transformation, publication and distribution. It is also a scalable solution, at least in IT terms – the people side of the equation, resourcing and skills, will need more careful consideration.

2. Business Model Agility

With its excellent translation and localisation capabilities (which we’ll explore more in a future post looking at how COPE aligns to our strategic imperatives) the implementation of COPE at CIPD will support new business models, particularly the ability to enter new global markets. Additionally ‘intelligent’ content – atomised, free of system- and presentation- formatting, semantically rich and structurally logical – will enable us to deliver content to new platforms, channels and partners as they emerge.

3. New Product Agility

The necessity of process efficiency is the mother of invention As we shall see in the next post (COPE and Business Agility), COPE supports business innovation, with its seemingly infinite capacity to combine and re-combine atoms of content and transform them into new customer propositions. It would seem that the necessity of process efficiency is the mother of invention.

Open standards – the ultimate technical agility

And lastly, but by no means least-ly, that technical agility needs to be built upon open standards and open platforms. (There’ll be a post on this in a few weeks’ time.) It is only when the systems you invest in can connect to and easily communicate with one another that businesses can claim to be truly technically agile.