Mozilla-wide Open Badge Systems and the Learning Organization

With an increasingly ambitious tech roadmap in motion, Mozilla has spent the past two years or so scaling up its organization with hundreds of new employees. As an organization that has traditionally been volunteer driven, this growth doesn’t come without growing pains. I’m not going to pick apart the theoretical nor specific challenges that come with this growth, but I will point out that for an organization as important as Mozilla, staying at the cutting edge of innovation requires perpetual change.

It is therefore imperative that Mozilla grow into an even greater ‘learning organization‘ than it has ever been.

In The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge identifies five characteristics of learning organizations that he describes as disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and system’s thinking.

If you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, the two Wikipedia links above provide pretty good overviews of the whole framework. I recommend reviewing them before continuing. (Protip: The second link is shorter!)

In a few mere days, the Mozilla Summit 2013 will be upon us. Many discussions will be had about Mozilla’s future, and I would like to share my thoughts on the central role Open Badges could play in it.

While the majority of the work thus far around badge system design has been geared toward personal learning, I believe the truly transformative potential of Open Badges will be unlocked when tools and best practices are established for organizational badge system design. In the future I’d like to discuss how this might play out in academia and civic society, but today I will focus specifically on Mozilla as ground zero (patient zero?) for the 21st century learning organization.

Here’s a breakdown of how I see Open Badge system design relating to each of Peter Senge’s five disciplines within the context of Mozilla. All quotes come from the Wikipedia article on the ‘learning organization’ linked above.

Personal mastery

“The commitment by an individual to the process of learning”

Right off the bat, Open Badges comes in strong as a system built around individual learners!

“Research shows that most learning in the workplace is incidental, rather than the product of formal training, therefore it is important to develop a culture where personal mastery is practiced in daily life. A learning organization has been described as the sum of individual learning, but there must be mechanisms for individual learning to be transferred into organizational learning.”

There are far too many organizations that don’t invest in the personal growth of their people. Organizations can use badges as a building block in building an internal culture of personal mastery by offering meaningful badges with pathways toward increasing personal agency. I think Mozilla is off to a great start here with fantastic teams prepared to deliver on this very promise!

Mental models

“The assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models. To become a learning organization, these models must be challenged.”

This is where things start to get meta. I believe the process of creating badge systems within the context of an organization can help reveal hidden assumptions. Doing so might also help to entrench them, which would make the application of badges a double edged sword that amplifies both good and bad organizational habits. To mitigate such effects, internal badge systems should always be under review. New analytics tools can be built to facilitate these processes.. but even more important is keeping the community discussion going.

At this point, you might begin to suspect that organizational badge system design is not just a facilitated process, but a process of facilitation. Powerful stuff.

Shared vision

As a mission driven organization, this is where Mozilla shines. As an organization driving change within a rapid industry that actively drives some of the most unprecedentedly rapid change in the history of our civilization.. it’s easy to see how our shared vision might become misaligned from time to time. That’s ok! This provides opportunity for Mozilla to lead by example!

Shared vision (or lack thereof) informs mental models, and should therefore inform badge system design. Whereas there has (and continues to be) tons of awesome conversation around new processes for aligning badge systems to new or existing learning standards, alignment of badge systems to shared vision is a whole ‘nother level!

If there is one question for Open Badging Mozillians to take away from this post, it’s this: What are the processes we need to put in place to ensure our internal badge systems align with our shared vision?

That is of course assuming we do have shared vision. If we do not, this project could get a bit messy. And that’s a good thing! If our organization is misaligned, badges may serve as an indicator. A validation test of sorts for non-software processes within the organization.

Keep in mind that many of our internal badges can (and should!) also align with external learning standards. As badge ecosystems pick up in number and sophistication, we want to adopt badges internally that our community can meaningfully use in contexts outside of Mozilla.

I propose a rule of thumb: When possible, individual badges should always align as closely as possible with external learning standards, while badge pathways should be optimized for alignment with shared vision.

Team learning

“The accumulation of individual learning constitutes Team learning. The benefit of team or shared learning is that staff grow more quickly and the problem solving capacity of the organization is improved through better access to knowledge and expertise. Learning organizations have structures that facilitate team learning with features such as boundary crossing and openness. Team learning requires individuals to engage in dialogue and discussion; therefore team members must develop open communication, shared meaning, and shared understanding. Learning organizations typically have excellent knowledge management structures, allowing creation, acquisition, dissemination, and implementation of this knowledge in the organization.”

Another of Mozilla’s historical strengths! Now that staff is growing by near an order of magnitude, Mozilla’s larger community of volunteer contributors should theoretically be able scale up in kind. Open Badges have a clear role to play here in onboarding new contributors as well as new leadership development.

I propose that badge system work shouldn’t be the responsibility of a single group, but of the whole organization. While Open Badges inherently facilitates mentor relationships, it can also facilitate documentation processes as a form of documentation itself. Over time, badge pathways accumulate data that represents institutional memory. In the same way it should be everyone’s responsibility to maintain the organization’s documentation (and therefore history), it should be everyone’s responsibility to maintain badge pathways relevant to their ever-changing roles so others can either follow in their paths or deliberately tread new paths of achievement. Learning at every level of the organization thus becomes a tapestry of interwoven stories of birth and renewal that can be tangibly referenced.

Most importantly, defining badge pathways within the context of a learning organization is a governance activity. As the discussion around Mozilla’s governance processes evolves, I predict badge pathways will become central. This reason, more than any other, is why everyone involved with Mozilla (and especially staff!) should be perpetually involved in the evolution of organizational badge systems.

System’s thinking

“This is a conceptual framework that allows people to study businesses as bounded objects. Learning organizations use this method of thinking when assessing their company and have information systems that measure the performance of the organization as a whole and of its various components.”

System thinking is Peter Senge’s proverbial ‘fifth discipline’. As a mission driven organization, Mozilla’s success is often defined by non-quantitative measures. By applying badge systems and building tools to manage and analyze badge pathways, Mozilla will gain an unprecedented toolkit for transparent understanding of the organization as a whole.


General takeaways to consider!

  • The act of designing badge systems can help bring humanity to organizations!
  • Internal badge system design is not just a facilitated process, but a potentially core process of facilitation.
  • Badge system design is an act of organizational alignment around interlinked activities. Everyone should be involved.
  • Alignment of badge systems should happen along two dimensions: alignment with learning standards that benefit the individual, and alignment with shared vision that benefits the whole.
  • Badges and badge pathways can be a form of process documentation that accumulates data which forms a transparent landscape from which institutional memory can be engaged.
  • Badge systems stewardship is an act of organizational governance. Everyone should be involved.

I think Open Badges can play a major role in building 21st century learning organizations and Mozilla is well situated to break ground making this possible.

More importantly, Mozilla is in a critical transitional period with many challenges that I believe Open Badges, as a tool applied within larger facilitation processes, can help navigate. The concept of badge pathways may provide a framework for systemic alignment of personal, organizational, and technical roadmaps.