Duolingo – an example of a “platform revolution” in Education.

     The disruptive power of collaboration through orchestration


Two months ago I started refreshing my German using an app called Duolingo. Since then I’ve become a big supporter and clearly I’m not the only one :  after only 4 years, 120 million people across the world use the free Duolingo app to learn a new language doing about 6.5 billion exercises every month.


Why has Duolingo become the largest language education platform in the world ?

At the first level I could talk to you about the obvious drivers for it’s success which made me totally hooked :

  • it’s ease of use anytime/anywhere/any device (cloud and smartphone centric),
  • it’s intelligence to detect the things I really struggled with using big data, and of course
  • it’s engagement ability through gamification that kept me using Duolingo every single day since two months (talking about creating adoption of a product) !

And yet this does not explain the real disruptive nature of Duolingo. Some  App’s I use  are successful for the same reasons but are not so disruptive. Why ?

Duolingo – an example of a platform revolution in Education.


A word we tend to see a lot when we read about digital disruption is the “the power of a platform strategy.” The authors that first coined that word even wrote a book about it.  “The platform revolution” is  a comprehensive recap of what makes a platform so disruptive often referring to the same examples Uber and Airbnb.



Summarized, a platform strategy creates and orchestrates an ecosystem of individuals that are both contributor, producer and user of the content of the platform.

Two notions are key :

  • While users enjoy the value of consuming content  they enrich the content and thus create value at the same time for other users.
  • We speak of a network effect as the more people are in the ecosystem the more value is created for the ecosystem.


The now famous paper napkin drawing by the Uber founder simply illustrated that vicious circle dynamic (linking more taxi drivers with more demand).

But rather than illustrating the platform again with Uber, let’s focus on Duoligo


Duolingo, unseen scaleability enabled by users co-creating the language platform

That vicious circle dynamic is what makes Duoligo so amazing as it’s proper user community is actually using the platform but at the same time building the content to make a full language course, TOGETHER. This way in just a couple of years it has been able to create 66 different language courses across 23 languages; with 22 additional courses in development. This way it is very likely that Duologo will one day come out with a West Flemish (my personal dialect) language course !

Duologo insipired by CAPTCHA

you have to see that  TED VIDEO


Before launching Duolingo, it’s founder Luis von Ahn had already demonstrated the power of massive-scale online collaboration : he invented reCAPTCHA, which is the text you type in to show the website you are human. You may not have realized it  but you were actually helping to decipher / read the letters of a scanned ancient book. At a ratio of 100million words a day this is the equivalent of 2.5 million books a year !

In the same video, van Ahn explains how Duolingo uses the same platform capabilities to create massive scale online collaboration.


As a digital optimist I hope this post will not only make you understand the dynamics of  disruptive digital collaboration but will also demonstrate that there is still a bright future for solving unsolvable problems marrying a digital platform with the scale of human collaboration.

Crowdsourcing exam questions …. not such a stupid idea after all !

crowd sourcingA couple of months ago I made a small speech at the Brussels European Crowdsourcing event. My focus was the increasing importance of  Mobile Broadband Connectivity in general and the Internet of things (IOT) in particular will have as accelerator for crowdsourcing.

Little did I know that I would be talking crowdsourcing all  evening in be it a totally different context…

….my 16 years old daughter Tatiana was up in arms with a Fysics test she had to … not prepare for… but actually help design the questions of the test herself.

Specifically,  recapping the task : the class was devided in eight groups of 3 students. Each group had to deliver five test questions out of a Fysics 5 chapters. The teacher will then pick at randum 10 questions from the total of 40 questions.

Making test questions it turned out is much harder than learning answers.
Moreover, as to be expected, these digital kids shared ahead of time all the questions AND answers they each had developed … so defeating the purpose of a test right ? Well not so much as now everybody was studying 40 questions !
So croudsourcing the questions provided a dedactical collaboration rarely achieved before – the dedactical power was in the journey, the engagement between students more than in the finality of the test.

To conclude, schools often focus on the “infrastructure” part of digitalization.  I don’t enough hear schools reinvent their primary mission which is to educate as best as they can. The Kan accademy with their ‘flipping the class room” is one of the good examples, the MOOC as well. The crowdsourcing of testing is now way up there for me as another example 😉


Napoleon Bonaparte : in retrospect, quite a “cool boss”


Engraving of Napoleon BonaparteI live at about 2km of Quatre Bras and 30km of Waterloo, both epicentres of  Napoleon’s last battle and one of Europe’s most epic battles of history  it was ! I have always enjoyed  reading about Napoleon and this summer took out some time to read  “Waterloo – the last 100 days” from Flemish writer Johan Op De Beek. 

There is no denying that Napoleon remains an enigma –  to some he was a hero and to  others a tyrant.  Fact is that overall, history remains particularly kind to his achievements in contrast with so many autocratic leaders history has born.

Even Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo turned out to be one of Napoleon’s biggest admirers. He has been instrumental at stopping the Prussians of wanting to execute Napoleon upon his capture after Waterloo. Wellington is claimed to have said :” we cannot be associated with executing one of histories’ most extra ordinary leaders”.

Colossal Leader Continue reading

Get rid of the second TV’s in your organization !

How conflict avoidance creates complexity

Collaboration is becoming a rundown word. By now every manager read books about its importance and how to install it in it’s organisation. Yet, as organisations we have never been so unproductive and employees have never been so disengaged.

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 09.52.50

This is the starting point of his must see TED talk of Yves Morieux (BCG). While I’m not sure that he comes with an easy to implement set of solutions (he calls it  “six ways to get people to solve problems with you“) , I do know that I have never heard such a brilliant analysis of the problem.

Companies, he says, organize their businesses around two management pillars : i) a hard approach around  structure, process , systems , metrics and ii) a soft approach around feeling, interpersonal, relationship, people traits and competences. These pillars however  taken alone or together are falling short of addressing the new exploding complexity.

Traditional collaboration

Intuitively we know that improving collaboration (he calls “interplay”) remains the proven driver for use of less resources and increased agility. However, a hard approach wants to work on collaboration by creating new boxes in the organisational skeleton – i.e. new functions (e.g. a role of “Mr Simplicity). This creates explosion of interfaces and coordination problems.

On the other hand, Continue reading

Providing Meaning is key to get Share of Mind

Engagement = “Motiv”-ation = “Meaning”-ation

In my previous post on Enterprise Agility I talked about the challenge of employee engagement. I came across an old Ted from Dan Ariely (watch his TED on What makes us feel good about our work ?)  who  always as passionate, scientific but bang on, really captures the essence on key drivers of engaging people. Enjoy watching the TEd and reading my views/recap.

Industrial world versus knowledge world : Efficiency versus Share of mind
Dan puts it really well that in an industrial worldview, engagement really only used to be measured by physical output : how many bolts per minute do you bolt on. In other words it is all about efficiency. In a knowledge worldview it is really hard to measure “efficiency” : Continue reading

A causerie on Enterprise Agility, the new corporate discipline

I had the pleasure this week of being part of a panel organised by Executive Circle on the topic of Organisational Agility : the new corporate discipline.

Throughout the two hour debate we had a really rich discussion which I found worth recapping. Any reaction is welcome !

In summary we discussed that Organisational Agility needs to mimic Business model agility. Technology is becoming a key enabler for creating more and more agile organisations. However the soft framework of Trust and Value strongly influences the speed of agility and how well team members engage. Engagement is key for collaboration which is the ultimate goal of an agile organisation. Finally, in a changing environment, individuals need to engage in self started individual learning in order to constantly adapt.

For more details, please read further

  1. Organizational agility needs to mimic Business model agility : the group was Continue reading

Teaching of self-awareness to young future business leaders – simple yet visionary idea

philippe_naert_276x160Teaching of self-awareness to young future business leaders – simple yet visionairy idea from Professor Naert (Dean of AMS)

At a recent Procter & Gamble Alumni event Professor Naert shared his vision on how to develop young talent. Professor Naert has been called a serial Dean with amongst other, being the Dean of INSEAD for 4 year. He has developed a unique business driven vision on what future leadership should aspire to and more importantly how it can be installed in young promising talent.

Professor Naert is now Dean of the Antwerp Management School (AMS). He shared the Mission (here below) of the full time executive management program that has been developed three years ago . Continue reading

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni

FiveDysfunctionsPatrick Lencioni’s  approach based on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team  has been instrumental for me in creating structurally different team dynamics.

Lencioni developed a very simple concept of how to build very effective teams based on his five layer pyramid. Initially I found Lencioni’s pyramid model quite simplistic, as is his story telling style used in the book.

I started  experimenting with his concepts a couple of years ago,  discovering that the power of the method is exactly it’s simplicity and easy comprehension.

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