Sunday, February 27, 2011

On the Social Web, Everyone Knows If You're a Dog

I remember using a computer for the first time in 1990 - it was when I wrote my first computer program, in BASIC. Internet access in the nineties was an absolute luxury in India. In fact I had little activity on the internet until the mid nineties. I do remember reading some years back though, that in 1993, Peter Steiner had published a cartoon about the internet in the New Yorker. The cartoon featured two dogs at a computer, with one dog saying to another, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". The cartoon seemed to symbolise the anonymity with which users could participate on the internet. The internet in those days was definitely a lot about content. People and conversations were not part of internet currency yet. In the last two decades however, the internet has changed and how! Social media has made the internet more about context than content and the fact is that today, if you're dog, you'll soon get figured out on the social web.

The Only Social Media Rule You Need to Remember
Last year at DevLearn 2010, my friend and industry colleague Cammy Bean said that the only social media rule or guideline people need is, "Don't be an @$#hole". While that statement is amusing, it's also quite profound. Frankly, it's not so tough being on social media. Just don't be ill mannered and don't do stupid things. Why then do some people still behave like absolute boors on the web? In the past year or so, I've gotten kicked out of at least two different social groups for simply demanding better behaviour. Now I'm not talking about non-assertive behaviour, I'm just saying good behaviour. And frankly it isn't rocket science.

Real Authority and Respect Comes from Humble Facilitaton
I got that response from a community lead of a fairly active wildlife forum on Facebook. To give you some context, I was responding to a fairly open question creating a second home for Asiatic Lions. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject - I just wanted to share what I thought and knew. The community lead chose to tear me to pieces on the forum and almost told me to shut up because she was sure I knew nothing! Again, I'm not an expert on behavioural science, but I know that if you want to grow your community, you want to invite opinions and encourage debate. Could she have handled her disagreement differently?

Abusiveness only Portrays You in Bad Light
The message you see above is a real example of the kind of language I strongly object to. There's no doubt that the we all deserve the right to express ourselves freely. That said, language of this nature serves no one well. People who you're talking about will just read your language and reject you outright. People whose attention you wish to catch are likely to see your strong words, but understand nothing about why you're upset and why you feel in a certain way. Most importantly, a conversation that starts on this kind of a note is unlikely to be constructive. The only place it can go is south.

Don't Defend Poor Behaviour
If you're a community manager, then you have a responsibility to make your community a safe place to contribute. There are no two ways about it. You need to be cognizant of bad behaviour regardless of who it comes from. In the above case, I responded to the abusive comment and asked if we could avoid profanity on the forum. The community lead came out and vociferously defended the original poster stating his experience in conservation as a license for poor behaviour. Soon after, I found myself kicked off the group and the community manager had made the group secret so I couldn't even find it if I searched for it. Wow! Isn't being respectful at least a bit easier?

Don't Undermine the Feedback Loop
When I publicly challenged the rude commentary here, I got some amount of support from a well respected member of the group. It seemed natural for the community lead to apologise for her boorish conduct, but all I saw was a justification of why she was right to behave the way she eventually did. I remember at another community, when I raised my concerns about the poor organisation of presentations at the group's monthly meetings, the community lead was so furious, she said, "If you think attending **** sessions is a waste of time, please don't bother attending any sessions". I took the cue and left the group for good. You could fault me, depending on the way you look at it, but the fact is that in each case, I provided feedback. In each case, it was the community lead's responsibility to take that feedback graciously. Instead, all I got in each situation was retribution. Frankly, I don't really care about being part of communities that don't believe in respectful conduct. That said, each of these social media participants have tarnished their own reputation because I and others will carry these stories across the web. After a while, it's a really small place to hide poor behaviour.
While a lot of what I've written today comes from my own experience, I don't want this to appear as a sob story. I am really surprised at how people can say things they'd never say in person, just because they're on a social network. Social media attaches all of this misbehaviour to our public identities. Do we really want to build our identities this way? We deeply undermine our own credibility by being ill-mannered in our conduct online. It takes very little effort to be respectful. Just that little effort, and I hope the social web can be a much better place to participate. What's more, we can continue to retain the credibility we deserve. What do you think?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lose the Teaching, Work is Learning

A year back, when I decided to go with the idea of ThoughtWorks University V2, I was seriously influenced by Jay Cross's idea of a workscape. We already had a very successful graduate induction program in the form of ThoughtWorks University, and to change it meant flouting rules like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But then, I think a bit like my friend Aaron Silvers - "We should be fixing things all the time". I wanted to move from a purely academic approach towards learning to an approach that we drove through real work. I wanted to rethink the reason we ran the program and if instructional soundness really translated into workplace effectiveness. Our team took a gamble towards workscaping the program. I can say safely today that we've seen results that make me proud to be part of the program and I believe we're making a dent in the universe like never before. Last Thursday, the team of graduates at ThoughtWorks University enabled a local charity Sukrupa by launching their website complete with a donations system. This apart, they've made significant progress with a student records system and an ecommerce project for the same client. In today's blogpost, I want to reflect on our experience of the last six weeks and share with you how real work has made ThoughtWorks University a better program for the company and the world at large.

You Can't Train People on Values
"Profit, smarts, and growth is essential, but the meaning of work-life must extend beyond the bottom line." - Jonathan Wolter
At ThoughtWorks, our values and mission are at the heart of how we work. My colleague Jonathan Wolter, has written eloquently about our mission to advocate social justice. While our mission and values are at the core of our DNA, I don't believe we can train anyone on this. We can do great presentations and elearning courses and convince ourselves that we did a great job, but frankly you believe in a mission by pursuing it. You cherish values by living them. Teaching of any kind lacks the realism to drive home a passion for missions and values. At ThoughtWorks Univeristy, we set our graduates the task of enabling Sukrupa - a local school that's on a mission to educate children from Bangalore's slums. It's amazing how a challenge with a real world impact can galvanise people. In solving this problem our grads not only pursued software excellence and helped change the world in their own little way, but they also lived ThoughtWorks' values as a means to the end. If you read about our values you'll soon realise how a small, real world problem can easily help them live each of our cultural traits.

Experience is the Biggest Teacher
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you wanted" - Randy Pausch
Often it takes seeing what doesn't work, to realise what could actually work. We took a risk by starting the project with little upfront analysis. In the initial weeks of the project we were literally playing it by ear, taking our clients' requirements as they came. While we took this chance knowing the potential benefit for Sukrupa and for the graduates' experience, the uncertainty and the lack of coordination on the team was disconcerting. There was even an occasion when our otherwise affable client was put off by our amateurish approach. When you put a group of talented, passionate people together though, problems are only an opportunity for greater responsibility. A quick shuffle of team roles and our analysts had nominated a testing lead, a UX analyst, a project manager and backlog cop. From that point on we never looked back. The graduates have forged such a strong relationship with our client, that it'll drive most experienced account managers to shame. Technically, and process wise - our graduates struggled; but their passion kept them resilient through ups and downs of the six weeks. The role of the trainers was just to be coaches - guides on the side, who would chip in with their experience and help the project along in the right direction. At the end of the day, the trainers have learned heaps about leadership and the students have learned heaps about client management and software delivery. We didn't teach them anything - they learned through experience.

Nothing Succeeds like Success

"You know that you've done well, if your customer breaks out in tears during a showcase." - Patric Fornasier
You can teach people all you know, but they'll never know what it's really like until they achieve real success. In the past six weeks our graduates wrote real tests and real code, configured one-click deployment for the project, elicited and delivered real user stories, worked in a true Agile environment, and managed a real client relationship. As I sat through graduation on Friday, I looked at each of our 20 new consultants -- their confidence and energy was evident. As I later wrote to these consultants they aren't rookies anymore - they know what it takes to release software. They can now stand alongside their more experienced team mates and still be confident given their success on our project with Sukrupa. I hope it's heaps easier for them to pull their weight on a project, knowing that they've seen real success.
This ThoughtWorks University brought for me, my happiest moments as a ThoughtWorker. It's been an absolute privilege working alongside each of these 20 young people - and it's an experience that'll take some beating. It's also provided evidence to my hypothesis that challenges and failure can be great catalysts to learning. I've seen that smart, passionate people, given a worthy task, will learn and rise to challenge. I hope our story can inspire you to make real work an integral part of your learning programs. Do chime in with your thoughts in the comments section - I'm very keen to hear what you think. And by the way, please donate unabashedly to Sukrupa - a small donation from your side could go a really long way for this really special school.

Monday, February 07, 2011

4 Reasons Why YOU Don't want to Touch Social Learning with a Barge Pole

So, you recently read Jane Bozarth's Social Learning for Trainers and followed it up with a read of Enterprise 2.0 by McAfee and The New Social Learning by Conner and Bingham. You're excited by the promise of social software for learning. You're already a Facebook and Twitter junkie and life couldn't be better with vendors announcing "Facebook for the enterprise". Wow! You're going to be a hot-shot social learning pro, aren't you? Errrm... think again. Life as a social learning consultant isn't a bed of roses and while the glamour of the Scobels, Hinchliffes, Ghoshes, Schrecks and others is inviting, you're likely to have a rough road ahead. Behind the glitz and glamour is a tough, painstaking albeit eventually fulfilling job, which you absolutely need to know about. So, before you get charmed into this shiny new world read my little disclaimer - it ain't easy!

It's Not Really Facebook for the Enterprise
Ok, ok I know you love Facebook and I know Jane says you could potentially use established tools like Facebook and Twitter for learning. Jane is right, I must say and I personally believe that the most mature social business implementations need to have porous walls. With that said, I have to also note that we're just not there yet! And frankly, there's perhaps a middle ground we need which'll just take some time. In the mean time, while you revel in the glory of Facebook, your employers need single sign on, integration with other systems, security, governance, uptime guarantees, content ownership assurances, and what not. Ah! That doesn't seem as cool anymore, does it? If you're heading the social learning route, remember that showing off the success of #lrnchat or the Learning and Skills Group is just the first step.

You'll be a Consultant with No Direct Control Ever heard of organisational politics? It's the bad phrase to describe the tension between innovation, internal systems and organisational structure. Once you've gone ahead and wowed YOUR boss with that demo of #lrnchat or or that matter your own PKM approach powered by social media, you should really have a free rein. Or should you? Well if you're championing the cause of collaborative learning in the enterprise, you can't do it alone. You need to get IT to buy into supporting you. You'll need to get leadership to champion your proposal, and to do that, you'll need to champion some of their goals. As it turns out, none of them are your puppets - so getting the organisational machinery to start working in the same direction can mean several emails, presentations, meetings, arguments and consultative discussions. Forget about your role as an instructional designer - you're now only a consultant. You have no direct control. Hell, you can't even control behaviours for your 'learners'. At least in the classroom you could set a few rules for participation. Now you need to model their exisiting collaborative behaviours onto your system. You'll often feel that "Click Next to Continue" in elearning or "Let's move to the next exercise." in the classroom gave you more power. Are you happy to live with that for some time?

It's Not the Kool-Aid You've been Drinking
So, you're happy to rough it out - after all there's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! I guarantee you, there is one, but it's far, far away. Before you can get to the wonderful effects that you've only read about it blogs, you'll need to do heaps of hard work. As a start, you may need to create dozens of proofs of concepts for the scores of teams in your organisation. It's not just about getting the executives involved, people are at the center of social business. Be prepared to sit at your desk for hours uploading files, setting up wikis, creating discussion areas and helping people wrap their heads around emergent collaboration. Be prepared to get laughed at and to take the feedback, go back, work and come back more resilient. Even when your community starts to thrive, things won't just happen by magic. There's a lot of unglamourous work involved in community management, I'm afraid. Take a look at what Donald Taylor does for the Learning and Skills Group and what Tom, Dave and Jeanette do for the Articulate community. In fact, with all the content curation, one-on-one support, online facilitation and constant manual gardening that Dave Anderson does, I wonder when he sleeps. It's effective, it's useful and it comes from a genuine desire to help people. It may end up being glitzy and glamourous, but don't count on it.

You've Got To Build Comfort with "Good Enough"
As an elearning pro and even as a trainer, you would have fussed hours, days, weeks and months to get things just right. After all, that slide needs to look polished. That activity needs to be instructionally sound. That elusive goal of perfection keeps you going everyday. Social learning has it's own levels of perfection, but that perfection doesn't come from the quality of content. A badly formatted, abrupt, but contextualised answer is good enough for a social QnA environment. It's not pretty, nor is it the most awesome content - it's just effective and works. It takes great patience to keep looking at gigabytes of user generated content that may not be as good as what you could have created but is so contextualised, that it's far more effective. In social business, perfection comes from being an integral part of the way we work. Perfection is when information flows seamlessly across the internet and the intranet, and people can consume byte-sized content when they want to, where they want to. It's perfection all right, but of a different kind.
If you've read this far, you probably see my point - being a social learning pro involves a lot of hard work. It's immensely fulfilling; after a while a lot more than just doing instructional design or training. Be prepared however, to take the long, hard road there. Put your heads down, think big, start small and keep iterating. And when you really start to deliver value, which could be sometime away, the accolades may come too. I guess it's just a question of being patient. That's just my two cents - what do you think?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Seven Deadly Sins of Social Business

Dinesh Tantri, Nikhil Nulkar and I are on a project together at ThoughtWorks and we share some incredible moments together talking through our social business approach at ThoughtWorks. The project is part of the reason I've been a little late to write my weekly post. I'm also fortunate to work alongside Sahana Chattopadhyay who's such an astute thinker in the field of workplace learning and collaboration. I learn heaps just being around them. Every now and then I run into situations where I see how social software can make work life so simple. That said, doing the simple things aren't often the easiest. The transition from the non-social way of working and learning isn't the easiest for organisations to deal with. Like every other system, organisations are a system with a state of equilibrium. This equilibrium brings in a state of inertia - an inertia of working a certain way. It takes a lot of effort to establish a new state of equilibrium and the discipline to do the right things. This includes avoiding the temptation to commit what I consider sins of social business. So, in today's blogpost I want to introduce to you what I call the seven deadly sins of social business - things you want to watch out for, if you really care for a social enterprise.

1. An Obsession with organisation

"Organizations lull themselves into a false sense of safety with their hierarchies rather than recognize the danger of discouraging information flow, keeping data out of the minds of people who need it."
- The New Social Learning (Marcia Conner, Tony Bingham)

A few days back I read a fun article by Gia Lyons of Jive Software. Gia had a guest blog post from a social business advocate who expressed her frustration with "highly structured document management processes” and heirarchical organisation. In my opinion upfront information architecture for social business platforms is a very bad idea. Let me explain. People often represent stuff heirarchically through bullet points, folder structures and what have you, but they end up finding things organically. If you're on a Mac, you're possibly organising your data in a really structured folder system, but perhaps end up finding your stuff using Spotlight or Quicksilver. On the web too, we try to find information through the shortest route possible - tags, bookmarks, search, mentions on Twitter. Heirarchies are not a representation of everyone's truth either. For example a piece of content that sits in Products->Consulting, could also sit in Products->Consulting.

A great risk of heirarchies and prescriptive information architecture is that in our attempt to imagine the path people will take to contribute to the platform, we create empty containers that never have any content in them. It's quite easy to accomodate legacy behaviour and give into stakeholders that want a folder like structure to your social platform. I do think however, that what customers want is often not what they really need. So, let's remember that information is multi-dimensional. People represent information differently and metadata helps create a crowdsourced representation of your organisation's knowledge. Instead of creating walled gardens for content, let's think of ways that we can actually create information flows - perhaps to the extent that we make our organisational walls porous and harness stuff from the public internet.

2. Throw the Kitchen Sink at Them

Let's face it, you can't force people to see every piece of information that you put on your intranet. People consume information by virtue of their interest and the people they trust. There can be a tendency to architect a system that sends everyone an email for every activity on the platform. That is a possibility as much as the reality where people have thousands of unread emails in their inbox. You could also clutter the landing page of your intranet to force people to see everything they 'should' see. There are several sites with that level of clutter that no one ever goes to. As in the Twitter world, people follow the people they trust and care about. They follow the hashtags that indicate a topic of interest. It's crucial that we allow people to manage their information stream. Personalisation is a key to making any social business initiative succeed - that's at the heart of PKM too. The huge complaint about information overload is really about filter failure, but you don't want to create a situation in your organisation where you don't give individuals the opportunity to place their own filters.

3. Impose Yourself Through Software

I've been speaking to my colleagues about the Articulate Community. It's a community of 57000+ practitioners, with three passionate community managers. Tom, Dave and Jeanette work untiringly to stitch together a community that is free of imposed structure, rules, and regulations. The Articulate Community is not snarky, doesn't have draconian rules, and allows people to contribute the way they feel appropriate. The community managers do what it takes to aggregate contributions from the big broad internet as well as through the community. As curators and connectors, they make sure that they balance informality and the lack of rules with constant communication. You should read about this community. There's a strong tendency to impose every 'business rule' through software. The frank truth is that this is not transactional business software. People will make contributions the way they please, and the key is to keep the platform frictionless, freeform and emergent.

4. A Limited pilot

Have you ever heard the suggestion of piloting your social business solution with one team, to see how it goes? Social business is all about serendipity and breaking down the walls. By opting for a limited pilot, there's no question of breaking down the wall, because innovation is within a closed group. There's also limited chance of serendipity because the chance of accidental discovery from our strong ties is less likely.

"Serendipity is possible when we’re collaborating with our close colleagues on a well-defined project, but that’s probably when it occurs least often. It’s much more likely during wide forays and broad searches, the kind that are so easy to do with current technologies." - Andrew McAfee.

As McAfee quite clearly articulates, there's great value in going "as broad as possible right away". Even if all parts of the business aren't social from day one, it's important to have something up there that touches everyone's lives. To try and put this simply, my view of a pilot is one where we try address breadth first instead of addressing only depth for a particular function. Breadth promotes everyone's access to the platform and allows users to start exploiting the emergent nature of social software to decide how they'll use it.

5. Nurturing Competing Systems

In his excellent article, "Why Good Companies do Bad Things", Michael Idinopulos talks about innovation marginalisation. Firstly statements like "This is a cool, crazy experiment. We're just going to put it out there and see what happens. In a few months we'll decide what to do with it." This, as Michael says appeals to early adopters but scares everyone else away. The other big mistake is to nurture competing systems, especially the systems we transition from. Andrew McAfee talks about the 9x endowment effect, where "We value items in our possession more than prospective items that could be in our possession, especially if the prospective item is a proposed substitute." People are unlikely to shift from the inertia of their existing way of working to a new way of working, especially if it pulls them out of comfort zones. More importantly, why would you want to have multiple systems serve the same purpose?

A flipside to competition is an unnecessary competition with email. Let's understand that email is the most ubiquitous tools in the workplace. Just like we haven't been able to weed out the telephone yet, we will continue to need to email to run business. So instead of competing with email, we'd rather use it as a way to engage late bloomers on the platform. Competing with a system that you can't kill is just a bad idea.

6. An Obsession with Risks

A lot of project management has to do with risk management. While this is a great project management competence, it can be a huge bane in the social business world. A huge part of social business is about understanding the risks, putting in place good community management and letting go. What can happen instead, is that project managers obsess about risks and block out features in the fear that users will misuse the system. Frankly, social media puts things out in the open - there are more eyeballs looking. The crowd can actually help surface abuse. In addition, I must say it's foolish to try and manage all risks through software restrictions. Community management plays a big part in not just educating users, but also in connecting people on the platform, and creating a meaningful structure. Andrew McAfee's article about Enterprise 2.0 insecurities is a great post about this very topic.

7. Modelling the CxO's view

Last, but not the least social business is not about constructing a heirarchical intranet that models your CxO's view of the world. Leadership does often drive the business with a certain strategy in mind. While all of this is nice and dandy, a lot of CxO level representations don't necessary model a regular knowledge worker's view of the enterprise. The way you design your social intranet provides an entry point to a myriad of learning and collaboration possibilities for your colleagues. Just the same way as we design applications with users at the center, it's crucial that we design social platforms with the average employee, not the CxO. Do they view the enterprise as a collection of communities? Then model it that way and not as a collection of practices as your CxO wants it to be. Do people want project collaboration to be democratic? Then model it that way, not through a top down view of how a CxO believes a project should collaborate. Remember, social business is a great leveler and it's for the people, by the people, of the people.
I tend to be a bit of a headstrong social media dude, and I guess my views can be too strong - though I try my best to balance them out the best I can. Having said that, I do have good reasons to stand by my views, so I'm looking at you to tell me what you think of what I've posted today. What do you think? Am I talking through my hat here? Or are you nodding your head in agreement? What do you want to add to this list? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.
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