Design a responsive and learning team

Hyper Island’s Individual Research Project


What is it about this imminent change that forces us to re-think the way we organize and work into the 21st century? A digital age fuelled by the exponential growth of technological innovations that shifts us into an increasingly unpredictable landscape. The environment demands us to explore new ways of doing business or stand the chance of being disrupted by new competitors, beyond your current industries, that will provide better value and solutions to our clients.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” — Peter Drucker

This learning journal aims to understand the digital transformation that we are looking to embark as we look to learn, innovate and compete in the digital age. This statement can be viewed sequentially from learning then, innovating and ultimately, competing in the new business landscape. We need to start the journey by having a better understanding of what it means for organizations to learn. Fortunately, the digital age also brings to us a wealth of information, free and accessible, with the transition to the knowledge economy. However, information does not usually translate into knowledge. Therefore, the key problem here lies in the vague definition of knowledge. So, how can we determine what knowledge to be focused on in order to help us learn faster?

Inspired from key literature and best practices from the topic area, we begin to look at this transformation through the lens of team learning. What does team learning have to do with this transformation, you might ask? How we use to design strategies for our organizations, from a command and control model, will soon lose its relevance as the shift transforms the way we work into networks where passion and purpose will fuel most businesses. To invigorate this passion and purpose, we need to speak directly to the engines that drive our organizations through our teams.

The impact in which teams can contribute to an organization’s learning process; bring much more meaningful way than an individual or an organization can. However, this tension between the different level of learning within the organization must be managed. We need to start looking at our organization as social communities while managing the different social engagements within itself in order to improve the learning process.

As I begin to mirror my research with our participating client, I set out to determine how can we engage teams within their ‘social community’ by understanding what knowledge they need to focus on? Using Amy C. Edmonson Teaming models, I begin to diagnose the situation further through qualitative and quantitative research from the Learning Assessment Map and interviews with the management and team members respectively.

Based on key leverage points from the observations, I defined the problem statement to scope my set of recommendations, specifically to the participating client’s team. Meanwhile, several planned experiments were set as team hacks that allow agility in learning faster to what worked and didn’t in the team setting. Later, the set of recommendations was shared with the management and team members to receive feedback while reviewing further iterations as we begin to take gradual steps towards building a case for change.

The entire research project is presented as an iterative document to set a vision for the team to review and reflect, rather than being directly implemented into the system. Ultimately, the purpose of this research is to allow the team to lead the discussions and drive the digital transformation with more passion and purpose. By asking the right questions, we can aspire change to how we work and organize for the digital age, overcoming digital by design.

Defining digital

For the purpose of this research, I’ll be looking to study the essence of this transformation through the lens of learning and how teams can learn, innovate and compete in the 21st century.

As we learn more of the dynamic landscape in which we are shifting into today, what does this transformation truly mean for organizations? Change management is nothing new for most organizations as they continue to adapt and meet the demands of an ever-changing business landscape. However, ignoring the need to transform their business now, would set any organization for failure. What is different about this transformation specifically?

Despite being driven by technological innovations over the past decade, the need to transform the way we work for the 21st century is not entirely reliant on technology. Although technology can be a great enabler to achieve every organization’s mission, this new era demands a greater understanding on what it means to be truly human.

Humanity is shifting to a new state of consciousness that demands a deeper purpose on how we run our business. From the accessibility of information to the connectivity in networks, technology has enabled us to take charge in many different aspects of our lives. Organizations are looking to stay relevant with more user- centred approaches as people are more empowered to make the decisions.

Digital can no longer be viewed as a terminology tied with technology but also a mentality in which organizations need to adopt. Before we expand our competencies to harness digital technology, it is crucial we establish the need to embrace this mentality that will drive the transformation.

Most organizations already recognize that our knowledge-based 21st century depends on cross-disciplinary collaboration, flattened hierarchies and continuous innovation. But where do we start?

Who is this for?

The client for this research is a marketing agency based in Singapore. Celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, the agency has established itself as a strategic events and experiential marketing agency that has grown from a one-man operation to over 100 employees across 6 different offices around the region.

Being personally involved in the agency for the last 4 years, I have witness different challenges the organization faces in order to remain competitive in their industry. Within the agency itself, I’ve always sensed a growing disconnect between the employees and the work that they do with the high turnover rate in manpower yearly. Employees are beginning to see less value in the work they do with increasingly low morale in teams as phrases like “There’s no choice.” or “This is how it has always been done.” are often being used.

If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. — Jack Welch

However, the agency does value strongly on a healthy working culture with the introduction of an internal program, started in 2012 which aims to cultivate a healthy working environment which aligns with each employee’s life purpose and goals. A culture which values the employee first and is unique to the agency to live by.

At the core lies the organization’s purpose to excite, impress and inspire team mates, partners and clients at every opportunity. The internal program brings genuine initiatives like a closed Facebook group to share and connect with other employees from across the region: asking an anonymous question directly to the CEO which will be made public and a dream board where employees share their personal aspirations and goals with the CEO; committed to help them achieve it. Introduced by the founder personally, the program set out on the best of intention but left uncertain on what impact it made to the employees over the years.

While the agency prides itself as a strategic event and experiential marketing agency that looks to provide holistic 360 marketing services by 2018, it seems the projects that we are involved in are beginning to be more execution driven — which is typical of an event agency. In 2014, the agency formed a joint agency with the union of 4 partners that specialises in specific fields of marketing from event, advertising, retail and sports. However, since its announcement, the union only worked on a few projects and never really took flight of its vision of providing 360 marketing services to its clients.

There seems to be a challenge in gaining traction in aligning the employees with the agency’s vision to grow being their current environment. Nonetheless, this helps prove that the agency is aware of the imminent change that they have to make while finding new ways to engage with their employee and to provide more value to their clients. Set as a starting point, I intend to mirror my research to help them transform the business for the 21st century.

Scope of Research

Before any organization can transform, can we adopt new strategies where organizations can remain responsive to the exponential rate of change, not only now, but also in which the future will bring? For the purpose of this research, I will scope my research on learning, specifically from a group level perspective. Why?

“In the long run, the only sustainable source of competitive advantage is your organisation’s ability to learn faster than its competitors.” — Peter Senge

To succeed in a changing and competitive global economy, organizations must be able to learn. Learning new skills in uncertain environments where knowledge is constantly a moving target is crucial especially now when it has become a competitive imperative for most industries. How then do organizations, these complex social entities, learn fast enough to stay competitive?

The answer lies at the heart of every organization in teams. Teams are the engine that drives every organization’s purpose. Teams are large enough to make an impact yet small enough to remain agile, allowing them to learn faster — creating wholes better than the sum of its parts.

Learn faster is the new think better

Long gone were the days, where five-year plans are being forecasted to establish strategies in which organizations need to take. The rate of change is moving faster than we could understand it and setting long-term plans may not stay relevant. Today, organizations need to remain agile to be able to respond to opportunities. Instead of creating, organizations needs to be designed as learning organizations to remain competitive for any transformation. Get the design right, the theory says, and the performance will take care of itself.

Knowledge as currency

There is a lot of knowledge in an organization, some of it is easier to capture while most, difficult to do so. However, most organizations are still designed to inhibit knowledge sharing with hierarchal operating models selectively disseminating information to selected members within an organization. As these organizations mature, this model creates more waste in the work process and slows down the opportunity to learn. Nonetheless, the growing access to digital technologies has given us the opportunity to harness the potential of the knowledge economy. Although this vast information overload might not translate to valuable knowledge, how can we harness the potential that it brings to enable us to learn faster?

Team is everything

What does it mean for a complex entity like an organization to learn? Organizations cannot engage in a learning process in any meaningful sense like how an individual can but when individuals learn, they can’t create change in ways where an organization delivers products and services to customers. Within each organization, there lie the different social units of people we call teams that work together to pursue collective goals. These collaborations of minds inspire great teams to influence impressive successes for most organizations.

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