Els Oosthoek

Guest blogger Els Oosthoek

Els Oosthoek is (interim) HRD manager and researcher. In her work she facilitates companies and professionals who want to make change and innovation really work. Her work is often situated on the tripoint of learning, organizational change and technology.

Spring is bursting its way into Huize Voordaan, an 18th century villa near Utrecht that houses four L&D organizations. In the sunny conservatory I meet Brian Finley, who like me has arrived early for an upcoming meeting. We grab a cappuccino. Brian introduces himself as the EMEA sales director forPalo Alto Networks, an American security technology firm. Within minutes, we exchange goals of our upcoming meetings, the working culture at American technology firms and our favorite hotspots in Amsterdam. Brian Finley originates from Oklahoma (US), and has been living in the Netherlands for twelve years. He can master the right pronunciation of ‘Geesje’ and ‘Gijs’ (his first Dutch friends) but it ends there. In a lovely southern accent Brian tells me that his meeting is part of the selection process for the Multiplier of the Year. Two Dutch L&D consultancy firms sponsor this nomination: VDS Consultants and Gooiconsult. The decision is due in a month.


Multiplier? In a few sentences Brian explains the concept that has been branded by leadership coach Liz Wiseman. Wiseman wrote a book on Multipliers that resonated quite successfully. You could say that in the past five years Wiseman has ‘multiplied’ her concept into a profitable consulting practice. In short: a multiplier is defined as a leader who uses his/her intelligence and capability to bring out the smarts and intelligence in the people around him/her. The opposite of a multiplier is a diminisher. Diminishers are leaders who often need to be the smartest person in the room, and they end up shutting down and stifling the intelligence in the room. Often, by the way, without noticing this themselves.

Knowmad vs Multiplier

The knowmad

A week after meeting Brian, I join 700 fellow L&D specialists in a MOOC on Knowmadic learning. The MOOC is hosted by Sibrenne Wagenaar and Joitske Hulsebosch. Like good learning can do, the MOOC raises more questions than answers. For example around multipliers and knowmads: what distinguishes the two? At first sight, the knowmad and multiplier concepts look related. Knowmads are nomadic knowledge workers – creative, imaginative, and innovative people who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Publicist, researcher and writer John Moravec came up with the knowmad terminology. His first writing around the subject – at that time labeled as Invisible Learning – was together with fellow-PhD researcher Cristóbal Cobo. The multiplier definition talks about leaders and managers; Moravec does not typecast knowmadic learning to a specific role. Knowmads can be either managers or professionals, teachers or students. Based on an earlier definition by Cobo, Moravec sums up ten characteristics of a knowmadic learner.

A living example

Brian Finley is multiplier of the year 2016

The information on knowmadic learning resonates in the back of my head during the Multiplier event, one month later. One thing already gets proved: Brian is a multiplier. He wins the title Multiplier of the year. The jury report says: “Brian is a leader who is very highly regarded by the people with whom he works. His team sees him as an inspiring leader for whom they are willing to go that extra mile, which, in turn, means they surpass themselves.” On stage Brian is asked to reflect on this, which instantly makes him a bit shy. No need for that; his team members cheer him on. They share his success: Brian and his whole team have won a year-long learning program, sponsored by VDS Consulting, Gooiconsult and the Wiseman group. At the Multiplier event, we toast on the good news. Later, I interview Brian to learn a bit more on his work and life. I’m curious if next to being a multiplier, Brian’s way of working also resembles a knowmadic learning style?

On Brian’s career

First, let’s hear some more on Brian. After finishing his Bachelor degree in Psychology, Brian worked for more than 15 years at Dell Computers, in Austin (Texas). At Dell, Brian grew from being a Project Leader to Benelux Sales Director: “IT was a rapidly-growing business, and I was fortunate enough to work for leaders who spotted my talent and could boost me into new challenges. Looking back on it now, they were Multipliers themselves”. Still working for Dell, he moved from Austin to Amsterdam in 2005. The joy of working at Dell wearied of re in 2015. Brian felt the urge to learn again. He decided to quit his job and to follow an Executive Leadership Program at THNK, a School for Creative Leadership. The six months turned into a two year sabbatical. Brian created his own learning journey through volunteer work and a series of interviews with inspirational leaders. After this he joined cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks in 2015; a buzzing and fast growing technology company with EMEA Headquarters in Amsterdam.

Multiplier and a knowmad?

So far we kind of follow Brian’s LinkedIn profile. Now I’d like to take Brian’s career storyline a bit further and check whether he could be called both a Multipier and knowmad? At first sight, we can already tick some boxes. Brian is:

  • Not restricted by age: working with many Millennial colleagues doesn’t seem to affect him
  • A collaborator: obviously, as a Multiplier J
  • A continuous learner: see THNK and other learnings
  • Able to learn and unlearning: moving from Psychology to tech security proves this point
  • Not afraid of failure: trying new things that haven’t been done before

Naturally, working at a technology firm, of course Brian excels at:

  • Purposeful use of new technologies: from conference tools to Box
  • Thriving in a flat hierarchy organizational structure: he connects daily with the senior management of Palo Alto Networks
  • Sharing: I see Brian connect easily with people in and around the office

Less apparent are the characteristics as a ‘tacit and explicit learner’ and a ‘contextualizer of knowledge’. Brian is an eager reader; he shows me his categorized digital collection of relevant articles (in an app called Box). He shares this with colleagues, but doesn’t publish or digest his material into blogs or articles, LinkedIn or Twitter. Being a bit strict on this (here comes the prim teacher), I’d say no grades for these two knowmad-characteristics. But all’s well that ends well. With an overall score of 8 out of 10 knowmad items, we can recognize both the multiplier and knowmad concept in Brian.

Possibilities for working with multiplier and knowmad concepts

Agreed. Knowmads and multipliers weren’t intended to be compared, but this proved to be an interesting finger exercise. New methodologies always make me a bit light in the head – it needs a bit of reality to make it really hit in. Sadly, there is no such thing as a methodology wizard for all circumstances. But testing methodologies on a ‘living example’, gives a good inkling of the general applicability. For me the outcome is that the work of John Moravec is more appealing than Liz Wiseman’s. As a science-lover I like stuff to be evidence based. Moravecs work is based on his earlier PhD thesis; he collaborates intensely with bright minds all over the world. He is continuously adapting his thinking. For Wiseman the potential pitfall might be that she grows into a ‘one trick pony’, selling only one solution for every upcoming question. That might not be enough to facilitate the complex (digital) transformation many companies have to make.

But criticism put aside, both concepts do appeal to me – in a different way. To me the power of the multiplier concept lies in the common language it can offer (team)leaders and managers; the concept is easily transferable. The knowmadic learning concept to me is ideally suited to improve ‘learner agency’ within organizations. Professionals that are aware of their learning style – be it knowmadic or more classic ‘teacher-pupil’ oriented – can better drive their own professional development. And isn’t that what we are looking for in organizations? A toolkit to teach people how to fish?