I think that Peeragogy has flavors — learning for learning sake for personal ends in a progression toward learning about the world to take action as a group. The latter gets heavily into Action Research (Stringer, 2007), which I love and work heavily in. It is research in cycles, or loops with feedback to try something, measure it, see how it worked with the real world, then plan the next question and set of actions. In each cycle, the group is Learning.
I look with that lens at company start-ups as a perpectual action research cycle. I heard Eric Reis at SXSW talk about the Lean Startup in this mode, including this direction in how he even wrote the book. Hypothesis, experiment, feedback, learn, pivot, next hypothesis… Is the group in this peeragogy learning set knowledge or creating new knowledge? Or through new knowledge making a change in the world? A great spectrum of alternatives!
Here, my scenario about a company I was on the board on early on:
- Cycle 1: Nick, an MBA student, plus a Computer Science PhD, John, at a major university. John had created a unique technology for identifying video clips and had no idea what to do with it. Nick was an ex-engineer learning about how to launch new businesses.
- Cycle 2: Additional “learners” and co-teachers as board members, each adding new learning elements and expertise.
- Cycle 3+: New learners as investors and clients.
Main success scenario
- Nick and John used a new business plan competition as the catalyst and structure to experiment with what ideas might be possible to grow this idea. They named it Findable (not the real name; the company did launch with some interesting success, but we’ll come to that later). They brought three other MBAs into the initial group, and within the confines of a business plan structure, researched the stereotypical elements of a business plan — addressable market, competition, expense and revenue projections, etc. They knew nothing of the area, and each person did independent research work to provide some primary (interview-based) and secondary (existing text) information about their hypothesis of what the technology could do for what audience in what environment. They worked hard up until the competition deadline, and won the business plan competition, gaining $15,000 in the process plus the attention of some VCs on the judging panel. Each person had learned a lot about the technology, the creative process of writing the business plan, the rituals involved of asking for money, and the flaws in their own plan that they found on its creation. They used fairly traditional technology tools: email, shared Word and Excel files, telephone, search, and a shared file system to store everything that they worked on.
- Nick and Fred wanted to move forward with this project. Their next hypothesis was that they could launch this in a specific market. They first came to the idea, from the learning from the business plan and lots of feedback from the VCs, that they could start with the advertising market, as they could now identify and “tag” any ad that they could find on cable or the internet. They got seed capital from three interested parties, who become part of their Action Research learning team. They realized to launch that they needed more voices on their learning team, so they added their first 3 employees to design and sell the product. They also added an advisory board, including yours truly, assuming they would be working in the advertising market. Technologies? Traditional, though they now included all sorts of tech development resources. New information into the mix? They had not put together great resources to optimize their time learning, and spent a lot of energy keeping up with things, information, and opportunities. Learning? Some initial users loved their product, but the market size was smaller than they thought…plus was very entrenched. The companies did not see a real pain point that was being solved.
- Cycle 3 — what the heck do Nick and Fred do with this? This became the true learning phase. Different companies and advisors saw different needs for their intriguing product set. They spent 4 years (!!!) getting pulled this way and that, using the VC money and needing more. (This is VERY much the learning path I see in many small tech companies.) Technologies? Same stuff. Learning team? Ebbed and flowed with new opportunities and people’s patience. My expertise was in the “old” model, so peaceably left the team (but got options!).
- Cycle 4+ — a major public company “found” them through their learning cycles, and found that they solved a pain point. They invested a sizeable sum into a chunk of the company, and launched their product into that solution. This opened a whole other set of learning doors.
- Final cycle — Happily, I cashed out my options. Two major media technology companies ended up buying two areas of key technologies in 2011, much to my own pocketbook’s happiness. Nick and Fred had moved on earlier, turning the company learning over to specialized managers. I need to see what Nick is up to next….
- Many great patterns were tucked into many cycles of this use case, often unspoken assumptions in a new business start-up, including environment scanning, codifying specialist knowledge, themes, modeling, etc. Consensus building — an interesting element.
- For me, the additional elements are (a) the scaffolding of the “norms” of cycles (e.g., business plan creation, a competition, a launch of a product) help provide “norming” frameworks that can help groups achieve as well as limit their looking at the structural norms as anything but “required” and (b) the lens of Action Research Cycles from my own POV. Are we setting a hard limit of providing a hypothesis in our co-creation, so we know when we are “done” and what we have to study? Then once that chunk is done (and CELEBRATED) that another hypothesis can be investigated, explored, proven, and co-created? I believe that having pre-structured points of learning achievement, reflection, and celebration can really help in moving forward.
- My own brain is rethinking these issues around content creation after hearing Eric Reis speak on how he tested his content creation for his New York Times best-selling book.
- How are we testing this Handbook, other than living through it?