Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Photoshop Tutorials to help you post process like a boss!

A few weeks back I published a set of tutorials to help you get started on Lightroom. I hope that those of you who do use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw found those tutorials useful. I've now created a set of Photoshop tutorials for you to learn how to use the most popular post-processing tool for photographers. Along with the Lightroom tutorials, these videos form two hours of instruction with real photographs from the field and should be a comprehensive starter pack for you to post process like a champ! Hopefully I can save you some money that you may have ended up spending on a post-processing course. You can use that cash to buy yourself some equipment or maybe fund a short trip!

The Tutorials

Like the previous tutorials, these videos are also part of a YouTube playlist and I've licensed them under a Creative Commons Attribution license. You'll find these videos most useful if you play them in high definition. That way you'll see the detail a lot better. Have fun!
  1. Introduction to the Photoshop interface
  2. Integrate Photoshop with RAW processing software
  3. Basic Adjustments in Photoshop
  4. Non Destructive Editing in Photoshop
  5. Use Soft Light to Enhance your Landscapes in Photoshop
  6. Straighten your horizon and Darken your Sky in Photoshop
  7. Reduce Noise on your Images using Photoshop Plugins
  8. Black and White Conversion in Photoshop
  9. Non Destructive Dodging and Burning in Photoshop
  10. Non Destructive Healing and Cloning in Photoshop
  11. Masking in Photoshop
  12. Sharpening Tools in Photoshop
  13. Create Frames and Copyright Marks in Photoshop
  14. Create Custom Actions to Automate your work in Photoshop

If you find these tutorials useful, then do share them with your friends and popularise the tutorials. While I don't intend for these videos to be a comprehensive dive into Photoshop, I hope they serve as a good introduction for people to feel familiar with the application and to get started. If no one ever had to attend a basic post-processing course, it'd make these tutorials immensely successful.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Adobe Lightroom made simple - post processing tutorials for beginners

When you're making pictures instead of taking pictures, the one thing that helps your execute great images is confidence in post processing. There's no substitute for getting the shot right in camera, but unfortunately the device isn't always the best at representing reality. Cameras lack the eye's dynamic range and also the ability to translate colours accurately. And every now and then we all make mistakes that we'd like the opportunity to correct after the fact. So, first things first, shoot in RAW - the amount of flexibility this gives you is quite awesome. Enough said about that.

Now you have the choice of using Lightroom/Aperture or Photoshop. The difference is a good $400 - at $123 retail, Lightroom 4 is a real steal given the amazing non-destructive editing it allows you to do. Can it do all that Photoshop does? Of course not. That said, there's a lot Lightroom can do which Photoshop can't. Managing your photos, tagging, organisation, printing workflows, tagging, branding are just some of those advantages of Lightroom. I guess it's a toss up between Lightroom and Aperture for the Mac. Given it's availability on multiple platforms and my current familiarity with it, I prefer the former. In today's blogpost, I'll introduce you to the basics of post processing in Lightroom 4 and save you a boatload of cash. This is not an exhaustive set of tutorials, but just enough to get you started. If there are more tutorials you want me to add, please let me know. One word of caution. I assume that you know how to use your camera and to read your histogram. I also hope you know the basics of picture controls such as saturation vs vibrance. If you have some of that covered, these tutorials will help you take your images to the next level.

The Tutorials

I've gone ahead and added all the videos to a playlist on YouTube - you can either play them on the site or off this post. I don't have much more to say - I hope the videos are useful!

  1. Introduction to Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw
  2. Import Pictures into Lightroom
  3. Basic Editing in Lightroom
  4. Removing Blemishes in Lightroom
  5. Work with brushes in Lightroom (and reduce wrinkles)
  6. Noise Reduction in Lightroom
  7. Hue, Saturation and Luminance Adjustments in Lightroom
  8. Black and White Processing in Lightroom
  9. Process Landscapes in Lightroom
  10. Sharpen Images in Lightroom
  11. Add a vignette to your image through Lightroom
  12. Split Toning in Lightroom
  13. Export your images from Lightroom

I look forward to hearing from you about the utility of these tutorials. My next aim is to create a series of tutorials on Photoshop and focus it on editing photographs. If there are specific topics you'd like me to cover there, just let me know. Thanks for being patient with my erratic posting.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why your community needs a license to share

Last weekend, I participated on a thread that caused me much angst. As someone who's participated in online communities for about 12 years now, I feel strongly about a sense of sharing. And yet I found my sensibilities challenged in this debate about sharing bird photographs under the creative commons license. Let me give you context. Indian Birds is a Facebook group with about 10,000 members. As the name indicates, most of the members are birders, quite a few being bird photographers. A few days back, the owner of the group made a suggestion - to make all postings to the group subject to the Creative Commons license. His intent was that all material and pictures posted on the group will be free:
  • to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • and to Remix — to adapt the work
The range of objections I heard to this seemingly well intentioned proposal made me think quite hard about the spirit of sharing on online communities. In effect, as a community manager it made me think about one more thing I'd like to consider - ownership and licensing. Before I get into the details of what this may mean for your new community, let me explain my stance first.

Full Disclosure

I have to be honest. I'm biased towards the Creative Commons licenses. If this changes your views about the value of this article, you may want to stop reading. I also must say that I'm not a supporter of Creative Commons because of some deep desire to be awesome. While I think it's about being nice, I think it's also very practical. It's very difficult for creative people to write proper licenses for their content. Now the moment you publish a piece of work, you automatically own the copyright to it. And yes in cases of photography and similar art work, you can also put up a notice that says:
"Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer."
This however is an untruth. Under the terms of fair use or fair dealing anyone can use your work in part for the purpose of education, criticism, commentary, reference and review. So, in that a statement like the one you see above isn't very useful and it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. You don't quite indicate the rights you're willing to give to your viewers and the rights you'd like to reserve for yourself. Now you can hire a lawyer to write all of this up for you, but that'll cost a heap of money. Instead, you can choose the Creative Commons licenses and select the rights you wish to reserve for your benefit. There are some great lawyers behind the Creative Commons system and your reserved rights are pretty air tight. But the bigger benefit is that you make your reservations quite explicit by making the rights you give away very clear. Of course there'll always be jerks who violate copyright, and the way to deal with them is no different from the "all rights reserved" world. So, that's my personal stance about Creative Commons - hopefully that sets the record straight.

Licensing community content

One of the things you want in a community that you set up for sharing, is people shouldn't sue each other for the simple act of using content from the community. Now communities are all about sharing. If you don't intend to share and to give other members the ability to benefit from your work, you shouldn't post to the community. If you participate on Indian Birds, you'll see that the majority content is photographs. It's perhaps 95% of the activity. The big question is - if you're unwilling to share, then why would you post a picture? For free publicity and marketing? I guess there are other opportunities for that. This is where some amount of legal protection is necessary. 

Now again you have two options. You can write your own license. This is what we've done for our internal community at ThoughtWorks. All content created by ThoughtWorkers on the community is the property of ThoughtWorks and for the benefit of ThoughtWorkers. So the question of suing each other doesn't arise. In our situation as a consulting firm, this approach makes sense. It may not make sense however for an externally facing community, especially one that's like Indian Birds. This is where an approach like Creative Commons comes in handy and saves you the trouble of writing a license for yourself.

FAQs and misgivings about the Creative Commons licenses

A few days back I watched a great episode of Chase Jarvis live. It was amazing how a well known commerical photographer like Chase promised to put his non-contractual work under the commons to make his commitment to sharing and his rights clear. The episode is very educational for photographers in particular to understand what it means to share their work online and the licensing that makes sense. That said, I realise that Creative Commons still isn't common vocabulary for a lot of people. In view of some of the objections that people raised to these licenses, I thought it might be worthwhile to dispel some of those myths and answer some questions.

I cannot sell any of my work if I apply Creative Commons licensing. If a community uses these licenses, I cannot participate for this reason.
This is incorrect. You can use any of the Creative Commons non commercial license to reserve rights to your work. If your community is also using one of these non commercial licenses, you can quite easily sell the work you share there and also other versions of the same work.

Once I use Creative Commons, I cannot revoke the license at a later stage
This is true, but do remember that this applies only to the version of the work you share under the license. So let's say, you share a low resolution image online and apply a Creative Commons license to it, it's only that picture that is permanently in the commons. The high resolution version and it's other derivatives stay unaffected.

Commercially viable and high quality artwork is never in the commons
Far from the truth. You've got to see the portfolios of Jonathan Worth, Kalyan Varma, Trey Ratcliff, John Harvey and others to know that. In addition, just do a search for Creative Commons photography on Flickr. The number of great photographs you'll see out there is just tremendous! 

If a community adopts Creative Commons licensing then violations become the responsibility of the community too
This depends on who owns the content. If the community is set up so the community itself owns the content, then yes it becomes the responsibility of the organisation running the community to take action against violations of copyright. However, if the community only requires members to post under a Creative Commons license while retaining their copyright, then the community has no liability to get into legal battles. As in any other situation, enforcing copyright is still the responsibility of the artist.

Why should anyone decide the licensing for my work?
You're right. No one should decide the licensing for your work. However if you post to a community you should be willing to share your work. In return for publicity, appreciation and social currency, you give some benefits to the members of the community. If the community adopts a Creative Commons license, this is to balance the rights of community members and copyright holders. In case you're unwilling to share your work, you can still decide to reserve all rights by not posting to the community!

If people want to use my work, why can't they just ask me?
This is usually unnecessary friction. Empirical evidence shows that most people don't ask, they just use your work, either under the terms of fair use or not. Instead, a clear statement that allows people to use your work with attribution under the terms you specify is far lower friction and gets you publicity that you may have not even imagined!

If I use a Creative Commons license, people can modify my work without permission.
You can very easily reserve this right by applying a no derivatives license. This stops people from remixing your work in case you're uncomfortable with it. If your community uses a Creative Commons license, you can speak to your community manager about this.

Why pre-empt the beautiful prospect of a friendship between user and an author/artist that could stem from a request to use a particular piece of work? Why make Creative Commons a middleman?
Sure, you could always argue against the commons this way. Let me tell you of a different perspective though. By virtue of the fact that all my work and this blog fall under the Creative Commons, I've received innumerable words of thanks from people who have just used my work in a presentation or as part of their day to day life. I was quite glad some months back, when a reader of my blog found some articles so useful that he fashioned them into a little ebook. He shared it with me under the Creative Commons license too! It was quite beautiful. Kalyan has a similar story which actually took his photography career to prime-time. So while you may lose one way of striking a relationship, you create several more ways to create this bond.

I'm not trying to make a watertight case for Creative Commons here. I'm sure there'll be more questions. The point I'm trying to make however, is more about the purpose of most online communities than about licensing itself. Licenses only serve to protect the rights of both community members and community authors. We need to ensure that authors still retain the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual property, while community members still benefit by using knowledge shared in that context. With this tension, Creative Commons feels like the simplest solution available to us community managers at this point. If things change anytime soon, I'll have something else to say!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tiger and other wildlife conservation in an anthropocentric world

A few months back, I'd written about a similar topic. The case I mentioned in that post is dragging its feet in the apex court. In the meanwhile, the court has placed a ban on tiger tourism in the core zones of all 41 of India's tiger reserves. Since the ban first came about in the month of July, the conservation community in India has stood divided between those pro-tourism and those against. While listening to the views and counter views, I've participated in a few debates and then pulled out. I needed time to gather my own thoughts on the subject. As a wildlife photographer or a naturalist or a conservationist, I'm an absolute novice compared to some of the big guns out there. So I guess, I'm entitled to take my time to think through an issue as grave as this. The question before the supreme court is one of whether they should allow tourism in its current form or not. The answer to that is pretty clear - not. With all due respect to the honourable court, the eventual answer isn't 'no tourism' either. I'll try to explain my thoughts later in the post. The question before the conservation community is a slightly bigger one. It's a question of identity and realism. I'd like to touch upon some of these issues in today's blogpost.

Divisiveness never helped a purpose

"...all roads can lead to conservation if the intentions and actions are right, and that people from all walks of life can contribute equally." - Shekhar Dattari
This month, Shekhar Dattari wrote a pretty interesting article about conservation. He argued quite rightly that no role in conservation is bigger or smaller than another. I'm not sure if it's me but I notice a huge amount of animosity in some sections of the conservation community towards others who maybe wholly or peripherally a part. For example, conservationists and naturalists seem to look down on photographers. Photographers look down on the general public. The general public looks down upon the forest department and forest dwellers. I like to believe that conservation is an orchestra - everyone plays their part. Sustainable conservation needs people from all walks of life - conservationists, activists, politicians, policy makers, the department, photographers and the common man. Why you may ask? In a country like India, the tiger is the smallest problem for politicians and policy makers to look at - let's be frank about this. Human beings are too short sighted to reconcile how the extinction of the tiger will lead to the crash of our ecosystem and eventually hit our water security. It's a fine scientific argument to pose to people and perhaps an item for long term education, but with 900 million Indians living at less than $2 a day, saving the tiger will never be a politician's priority. And the last I checked, tigers don't get to cast their own votes and even if they did, there's just 1700 of them! So for conservation to succeed, the tiger needs people to rally behind it. So the self-righteous attitude of 'certain people are bad for the tiger', needs to disappear in a hurry, or we'll see our tigers disappear before we can spell c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n.
"The tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated; as exterminated he will be, unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

Lets get off the moral high horse

I participate on a forum of naturalists - quite obvious given my love for natural history. Recently we discussed the discovery of a flock of vultures in a remote village bordering Karnataka's Raichur and Bellary districts. It was happy news except when one of us jumped on a line from the report and said "...kudos for keeping the location a secret (I think you have already given too much information for picture hunters to swoop in)". To this, Santosh Martin(the naturalist who originally discovered the vultures) responded, "Picture hunters for personal glorification will never be entertained as before. Moreover, picture hunters these days are more focussed on tiger areas... Bellary is too far for them."  To say the least I was hurt by the commentary. I'm an amateur wildlife photographer - and for the record, I detest trophy hunting. Somewhere the term 'picture hunter' made me feel that the two naturalists who used the term equated photographers with trophy hunters. Somewhere it felt that they looked down on photography as a way to appreciate and observe wildlife.

In his defence, Santosh responded to me and said, "Picture hunters are certainly different from responsible wildlife photographers.Wildlife photographers are those who employ their skill to interpret nature for the benefit of those millions who never get the chance to visit see the animals and birds in their natural habitat. They also try and document new species which have never been documented before." While I have immense respect for Santosh Martin as a naturalist, I believe this is the kind of thinking that's detrimental to conservation. A photographer need not document new species. A photographer need not reach millions. If a photographer can, through the observation of wildlife become an advocate for its conservation, that in itself is a big win! If a photographer can show his/ her friends fabulous photographs of a much photographed tigress and get those friends excited about nature, that's fabulous too. As nature lovers we seem to live in our own little bubble - believing that there's already tremendous support for the wilderness, given we already see so much media related to it! The truth is far from it. Bump into someone on the street and ask them if they know about vultures going extinct or what the Great Indian Bustard is. Look for the gaze of bewilderment and you'll know what I mean. We need to convert that guy - and unfortunately we can't do this from atop a moral high horse. I don't have a photography website or even a Facebook page for my photos. I make photographs for my own pleasure and to share with my friends and family. Over the last couple of years, I've got several of my friends thoughtful about nature - I can say this about everyone in my immediate team at work. I haven't reached millions and I have no desire to do so and yet I believe I've achieved a conservation victory of my own.

Running an inclusive conservation and tourism orchestra 

The fact that the Supreme Court now has this case pending before it, gives the conservation community an opportunity to appreciate the roles we all play to protect our wildlife. We can't be looking for ecocentric solutions to the problems of an anthropocentric world. For conservation to succeed, we need people to support it fully. So the solution that emerges needs to be win-win and this means a few trade-offs. I'm no expert, but if I had any authority, here's what I'd recommend:
  1. Let's ditch the pseudo-science: There's no correlation between tourism and tiger numbers. Simlipal has no tourism and yet has a healthy tiger population and while Sariska and Panna had great tourism, they lost all their tigers in 2005 due to lack of protection and improper monitoring and administration. On the other hand tigers have grown in numbers in Ranthambhore, Tadoba, Corbett, Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and other parks despite the heavy pressures of tourism. If anything, the only thing we can say with confidence is that tourism has no adverse or favourable impact on tiger numbers.
  2. Locals play a key role: Local people pay the heaviest cost for conservation. They usually lose ancestral land (albeit with decent compensation) and often get second class treatment to tigers and tourists. And when tigers kill their livestock, they have to go through a painful compensation process. If wild cattle ravages their crops, they hardly ever get compensated. In such circumstances, wildlife is like vermin to them - better dead than alive. To make conservation successful, locals need to have a stake. What incentives can they get for a healthy tiger population? What part of tourism profits can they share? Is there room for a community centric ecotourism model like Il Ngwesi in Kenya?
  3. Let's not impose human emotions on tigers: If we really care about tigers we need to stop humanising them. We should be concerned more about maintaining the sanctity of the forest than about how a tiger feels when there are people on an elephant beside it. We have no reason to believe that the tiger near the tourist elephant is a 'poor animal'. Let's remember that these are animals that could become invisible whenever they desire and the fact that we do see them indicates their possible tolerance towards us.
  4. Let's appreciate every stakeholder's context: Yes, we all need to operate with compassion and respect for the wilderness, but to be begrudging of others smacks of a holier-than-thou attitude. First time casual tourists need education. Yes, their noisy behaviour is often irritating and admittedly disturbs the sanctity of the forest - yet, the potential that one among them could possibly bat for the tiger in months to come, is a fair trade-off to live with. Wildlife photographers will want the best shot and go lengths for it. Yes, this may be irritating for naturalists and conservationists - but please understand the value of visual storytelling. That photo could be their way to get their family and friends inspired. There's nothing wrong in judging people, as long as you're willing to be judged yourself. The attitude amongst some naturalists and photographers seems to be that everyone; everyone but them, is a disturbance to wildlife. Nothing's further from the truth.
  5. Let's be ready to live with restrictions: This may seem odd coming from someone who is admittedly pro-tourism. I embrace the educational value of tourism but at the same time tourism can't be anti conservation. We need to have proper emission norms for safari vehicles that enter our parks. We need to decide by some form of established science the optimal number of safari vehicles that can ply at any given time without adversely affecting the ecosystem. We need guidelines for resorts that operate in and around national parks. We can't have another Kosi fiasco. We need tourism to be zero impact to the ecosystem - in that it gives back more than it takes from it. The ministry of environment and forests needs to create a scheme of equitable tourism that allows local communities to benefit and participate in tourism. This is the only way they're likely to help increase the forest cover is if the wilderness is worth more alive than dead.
  6. Let's not have double standards: Given our colonial history, we seem to have a sense of disdain for all things brown. So it irks us to see several brown people line up in jeeps to see a tiger cross the road. And yet, the same naturalists and photographers happily go to the Mara and see 60 vehicles line up for a cheetah and 40 vehicles surround a mating pair of lions and have nothing but great stuff to say about the place. The tiger is the proudest piece of our natural heritage and there's a certain beauty in the fact that 80% of the visitors to our national parks are Indians - as against what you may see in Africa. The fact that everyone from the prime minister to an ordinary country bumpkin can see the tiger for a nominal fee is something we should be proud of and strive to preserve. If we believe we appreciate and love nature, then let's play a role in helping others develop the same passion - instead of trying to judge those who may be less informed.

My intent here is not to take a dig at anyone. All I care about is that every person in this country has an opportunity to experience its rich natural heritage. I believe there's a nature lover in every one of us - our culture is one that inherently respects wildlife. You just need to take a good look at our mythology to believe me. I don't want to pre-judge anyone's intent, our wildlife could use every bit of support it gets in a country with huge population pressures and international poaching threats. I cannot bring myself to support a system where in a foreseeable future others will not have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges I've enjoyed in my life. Most importantly, I'd hope for the conservation community to stay together in its purpose.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Here's why consistency is terribly overrated in corporate education

One of the things that we talk quite a bit in corporate education is consistency. I've spoken about it quite a bit earlier as well. It seems this is something that every training manager out there is thinking about. After all, if you want to train hundreds of people, then you need a consistent process and a consistent output. There's a small problem though, people aren't consistent. And the last I checked, if you place an inconsistent set of inputs into an extremely consistent process, you still get very inconsistent results. One size fits all, fits no one. In today's blogpost, I want to outline the problems with consistency and the alternatives that corporate education and education at large needs.

Is the obsession with scale and consitency a monoculture of the mind?

A few days back, my colleagues Rohit and Sriram spoke about monocultures of the mind. In particular they attacked the monocultured notion that "If it can't scale it's no good." For my benefit and for my argument I want to repeat what I understood of Rohit's argument. First - what is scale?
Scale is any undertaking where more than a few people come together and organise themselves for a purpose determined by a small set of people at the top.
The benefits of scale are things we've talked about several times, but there's one big problem with scale. While a majority complies and bears the brunt of scaling, only a minority reaps its benefit. And of course, as you increase scale and there are more people involved, you create so many levels of abstraction in your process, that you also increase the level of dysfunction.

The problems with scale

Rohit and Sriram talked about the further problems with scale. Let me list them out:

  1. When you separate planning and execution to scale, you effectively lose local solutions that individuals earlier had, albeit over a period of time. Take the example of the green revolution in India. It introduced fertilisers and pesticides to increase agricultural yield, but 40 years hence, we've lost the local solutions that farmers then had, so they could deal with the problem.
  2. The separation of planning and execution create way too many levels of abstraction. This leads to hidden incompetence and learned helplessness because people working at the service end of the process have lost connection with the reason why they do things in a certain way. You lose autonomy and ownership at the individual level, because at the end, everyone is just 'doing a job'.
  3. Scale leads to standardisation. For example, everyone in corporate India speaks English. In fact that's what I've spoken as a first language for all my life. This means though, that we're losing our diversity - I can't speak Bengali or Hindi or Marathi fluently though these are family languages!
  4. The most disturbing effect however is the apathy that the division of responsibilities causes. When I went to Bharatpur, I shared a lunch with my guide Mr Bhim Singh Rana. Rana farms for a living, but he doesn't eat the grains he farms. Instead he has a smaller plot of land where he grows his own food, devoid of pesticides and fertilisers. He's aware that this reduces his yield, but he'd rather have the non-toxic food. Isn't this a problem? The buyers of his grain are separated by so many layers of anonymity that he doesn't really care about poisoning them. His concern for me and the quality of food I had with him was a stark contrast to this apathy.
Try to relate these same problems to top down, large scale, consistent educational programs and you'll know why I have little faith in our education system.

People are different, so why does learning have to be consistent?

"It's I believe we have a system of education which is modelled on the interest of industrialism...Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines...We still educate (children) by batches...If you are interested in the model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality...It's about standardisation...I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction...That's what I mean about changing the paradigm." - Ken Robinson
If Sir Ken Robinson says something like this you've got to sit up and take notice. Learning is a very personal exercise. People learn differently. They prefer a different combination of modalities given the context, they have different talents, motivations. You cannot make curriculum the confinement of human experience.

So what does education need instead?

"We deal right now in the educational landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test. I am here to share with you, it is not learning." - Diana Laufenberg
In my view what educators (corporate or not) need is a way to empower themselves. The old model of education where we needed scale, was based on an assumption. An assumption that knowledge is scarce. And since that assumption was true, you could make sense of the 'sage-on-a-stage', 'butts-in-seats', 'everyone-does-the-same-thing' model. As it turns out, knowledge is not scarce today, so educators need to let go of that part of their roles give way to democratised means of gathering knowledge. Share the context, and set them free. We have examples of great knowledge sources all around us. Starting from Wikipedia, all the way to Khan Academy, going right upto iTunesU. Corporates have a unique opportunity to use modern web media to create similar, yet contextualised knowledge sources for their organisations. I believe that we need to drive these knowledge sources using social, collaborative technology with new media at the center. Democracy is at the centre of content creation on the consumer web. Why can't it be in the enterprise?

So what is the educator's role then, if it isn't to disseminate theory? I believe the educator's role in today's world focusses on skills instead of knowledge. Face to face interaction is a wonderful thing - this is an opportunity to solve complex challenges in a collaborative setting. Educators have a wonderful chance today, to participate as coaches, as facilitators of this collaborative experience. In that, you have a repeatable process, but one that is daringly inconsistent and individualised. Those learning have the choice to pick their own learning path to the challenge. Once in the challenge, they have the opportunity to decide how much they wish to stretch themselves. As they stretch their own selves, they challenge educators to support them through this journey. We now have the opportunity to create educational contexts where mistakes are the norm, we view failure as a stepping stone to learning and eventual success and there's no one-right-answer.

The obsession with consistency and scale isn't new. It's something I've seen since the last decade and perhaps even earlier. In a way, the recession was a good thing for the industry. Several companies took some time to focus on learning without having to bother about massive scale given their reduced hiring targets. I'd be concerned though, if the attitude changes when the market does. I'd hope that Ken Robinson, Salman Khan, Diana Laufenberg, Sugata Roy and others have taught us enough about autonomy and individualisation for us to bury the notion of consistency once and for all.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The world's big cats need saving - learn, help, spread the word

I recently spoke at ThoughtWorks XConf - an internal conference that we run in several parts of the world now. I stayed clear of topics related to work and spoke about my six week big cat trail instead and the conservation challenges that these wonderful animals face. Here's a video of the talk.

On a personal note, if Tequila was alive today, she'd be 3 years and 6 months old. You may think I'd be over that tragedy, but I've never been. I miss her every day of my life and for some reason, I miss her a lot today. People who have dogs will empathise with the pain and the regret I have behind that loss. I might go to her resting place tomorrow and say hi. Enough of the personal bit, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Next big innovation for Enterprise Social Software - Simplicity

One of the things I remember reading about, early on in my enterprise 2.0/ social business journey was Andrew Mcafee's definition of what makes social software tick. He spoke of three characteristics - emergent, freeform and frictionless. Those definitions still ring true in my head. As I look at how enterprise social software matures it seems to be moving away from those characteristics quite a bit. To the extent, that enterprise social software loses the edge it promised to provide.

Do one thing and keep it simple

One of the features of consumer social software which in turn encourages enterprise use cases is the fact that most of these tools do one thing and they do it well. Take for example Twitter - 140 character status updates. Or Pinterest - create a digital pinboard. Or for that matter delicious - create a list of online, shareable bookmarks. Let's look at Path - share updates with your close friends. Each of these platforms keep things quite simple. One metaphor, really simple usage - so much so, that despite the fact that Twitter keeps its help hidden under an obscure menu, you don't miss the lack of instruction.

Enterprise social bloatware?

Compare this to a lot of the enterprise social software you see. Let's take cyn.in for example - I have nothing against the platform; it's great. I just need a scapegoat. Cyn.in is a wiki, a blogging platform, a file repository, a discussion forum, a social bookmarking platform - all at the same time. And more! So, do I create a document or a discussion or a blogpost? If Sheena Iyengar taught me anything - more choice is not always a good thing. People like to stick with the status quo and not choose anything. Is that really what we want as a consequence of enterprise social software?

Let's be real

For a lot of us social media enthusiasts, life's a nice happy bubble. We hang out with other social media geeks, we network with them online, they sing its praises as we do and it seems the world has changed. Yes the world has changed, but only so much. For a large number of people and granted they may not be a majority, social media still isn't their bread and butter for communication. Complex social platforms that combine several features and numerous bells and whistles only scare them away. Think about it - if you're not social media savvy and you have to make a choice between a wiki, a status update, a blogpost and a discussion - what would you do? And what if you had to break through the most complex security system to access this platform when you can easily get to email on your Blackberry? (note I say Blackberry, not iPhone) Let's appreciate that there's a non-trivial audience size that fits this description and the only way social software wins is by being undisputedly easier and better.

Back to the basics

We need to rethink our strategy with social business platforms. We need simplicity - one metaphor, simple usage patterns. The more sophisticated we make the platforms, the more difficult the change, the more resistance the poorer the uptake. This is when people question change - if something isn't 10x better than the status quo, we naturally choose the status quo. Cisco seems to have thought this through with Cisco Webex Social by taking away superficial choices from content creation. Yammer's always been very good at this - they're a Twitter clone for the enterprise. I say that with great respect. Socialcast seems to be doing this right too. I can't say this however for the majority of the social business landscape. Let's remember the frictionless bit of McAfee's definition. I believe the future is bright, but not blingy. I fear that the focus for some social software giants is turning out to be bling, though. Please, for the sake of all we stand for - get back to the basics!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kaziranga National Park - Second Step into Paradise

10:30 AM, 21st February, 2012. Time to get off a rickety rickshaw, and get going for a bumpy and dusty ride to Kaziranga National Park. This was leg 2 of our 9 days in paradise (remember Nameri?). When I say bumpy and dusty, you've got to take me seriously. Now, how bad can a 65 km drive be? Well, the answer is, "It depends...". Depends on what - you may ask. Well, it depends on how good your driver is and whether or not you can pull up your windows, turn on the AC and be immune to the dust around. We didn't expect it to be too hot in February, so we'd gone for a non-AC vehicle. I'll leave the rest to your imagination. Let it suffice to say that when eventually we washed our faces at Wild Grass Resort in Kaziranga - the basin was full of brown water!

That incidentally was the story of our entire stay at Kaziranga. February is right at the end of the dry season in Kaziranga and the forest is a proverbial dust bowl. The fine dust is pretty similar to what we'd seen on the banks of the Jia Bhorali back at Nameri, so this wasn't a new experience. That being said, it wasn't exactly how we'd pictured it. Speaking of pictures though, Kaziranga has to be amongst the best places in the country to photograph big mammals. A savannah more African than Indian, Kaziranga's landscape is dominated by tall elephant grass. And through their blades emerge some of the largest mammals you'll see in India. The Asiatic wild buffalo, swamp deer, the Asiatic elephant, the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Asiatic leopard and the mascot of the park  - the one horned rhinoceros, all take turns to throw visitors into a photo frenzy as they suddenly materialise.

But beyond megafauna, the grassland habitat, marshland, and moist tropical forests play home to over 500 species of birdlife. Add to that smaller mammals such as otters, mongoose, jackals, foxes, cats and pangolins - Kaziranga is an absolute jewel of India's wilderness.

Try not to get killed

Let's count our odds. Kaziranga is home to 80 odd tigers, some 140 leopards, about 2000 elephants, a similar number of rhinos and more than 1600 wild buffalos. Dangerous enough? To protect these animals, the guards have very strict rules - no one walks around the park on foot. If you do, there are no questions asked - you first get shot. If you stay in your vehicle, you're likely to stay alive. As a measure of the risk you've got to know that about seven guards lost their lives to wild animals last year, despite being armed.

I of course like to learn my lessons the hard way. As a lot of you will know, I love birds - and photographing them. Nameri hadn't given me much joy on the photography front, so I decided to exercise my shutter finger a bit extra in Kaziranga. So in search of birds we finally found a beautiful brown fish owl. Right on the side of the road. As it happens when you have four people with long lenses in a vehicle, we were indecisive about what the best angle for photographs would be. A little to the front and little to the back - the bird lost patience and flew to a less flattering perch. I was undeterred. That day we had a forest guard with us - I took his permission and decided to try and photograph the bird on foot.

Picture this. I get off the vehicle and walk about a 100 metres back to where the bird was. The forest feels unusually calm. As I get to the bird I pull up my camera and take a few record shots first. Then I decide to try a few different compositions. Even as I make up my mind on how to make the most of tricky lighting and a bad perch, my friends wave frantically to get my attention. "Is there something even more exciting to see?", I think to myself. And then, I see the guard leap down from the vehicle and pull out his gun. "Come back, come back.", he says as he runs towards me. "This can't be a photography subject...", I say to myself as I run back towards the vehicle, sensing some urgency. As I begin my leisurely jog, I see what everyone is worried about. Hardly 50m from where I am, a two-tonne male rhino is waiting to cross the road. Phew! That's a close one! I have to say, I didn't feel scared at the moment, but in hindsight I realise how close I was to dying - quite painfully. Rhinos of course have very poor eyesight and that's what worked quite well for me - it smelt me and so was tentative about whether to cross. At the end of the day, I've got to count the big guy as a really gentle being - one that preferred to wait and avoid conflict. That day taught me an important lesson - regardless of how calm things may seem, never take things for granted in a forest.

Rhinos like cows?

"We'll see so many rhinos, that you'll equate them with cows.", that's what Raji had said to me when we started out in Kaziranga. Ok to be fair, her friend said that to her and she repeated the statement back to me. I'm sure several others may have had exactly that experience, but I can't say I was tripping over rhinos. We saw our fair share and we definitely got some really good photographs. That being said, how many rhinos you get to see depends purely on your luck and the ranges you choose to visit. Kaziranga National Park has four ranges - Kohora (central range), Bagori (western range), Agoratoli(eastern), Burapahar and the Panbari reserve forest. The eastern range is a birder's paradise - not surprisingly we spotted more than a 150 bird species during our stay, most of them in that range. The western range is a great place to spend your evenings with large mammals. The central range is a best of both worlds. Tall trees make for great raptor perches and the proximity of grazing landscapes makes for great encounters with the bigger animals. No one wants to go to the Burapahar range and the Panbari forest which needs special permission was closed when we went to Kaziranga. Our decision to split our time across the remaining three ranges paid off - I think we got a good sampling of what Kaziranga has to offer; though I must say I'll have to go back and spend some more time there to get to know the forest better. And who knows what mysteries this forest hides that I haven't yet experienced?

How many tigers?

I usually have pretty good luck with big cats. I will say this though - don't go to Kaziranga if you want to spot a tiger or a leopard. The grass is so tall that sometimes you have to struggle to spot an elephant. Secretive, solitary hunters like tigers are difficult to photograph unless of course you're Steve Winter and can set up camera traps all over the place. Go to Kaziranga for the birds and the large herbivores. If a tiger's what's on your mind, pick another park. We came tantalisingly close to spotting a tiger - but it gave us the slip. All fair and well though, since we didn't miss the big cats at all!

Travel Tips

If you're planning your trip to Kaziranga here are a few tips that'll come in handy.
  • The best time to visit Kaziranga is between December and February. This is a relatively dry season, there's good light; the forest department also burns the grass during this time which makes for relatively unhindered wildlife viewing. Plus, it's absolutely brilliant weather for the most part.
  • Kaziranga is quite close to Jorhat airport. As compared to Guwahati which is about 230km away, Jorhat is just 80km from the park. If I had to go only to Kaziranga, I'd perhaps choose a flight into Jorhat.
  • We stayed at the Wild Grass Resort. Mr Manju Barua (+91-3776-262085), the owner is a very knowledgeable man and extremely hospitable towards wildlife lovers. The manager, Dilip Gogoi is a bit of dead-fish by appearance, but don't get fooled by that facade. He quietly makes sure that he caters to all your needs.
  • We got a pretty good deal from Wild Grass. All four of us stayed in one huge room at just ₹1300 per night with breakfast included. Our meals were an additional ₹750 per person per night.
  • There are several other accommodation options too. The Assam tourism lodges are perhaps the most inexpensive, though I'm not sure of the service. There's lodges like the Dhansari eco camp and luxury resorts like Iora that complete the picture. From the number of homestays and small hotels I saw on the road, I can't imagine that it'll be too difficult to backpack into Kaziranga either.
  • Wild Grass will arrange your safaris too. We got a rate of ₹3200 for two game drives a day from them which is about ₹400 less than that of the gypsy association at Kohora. That said, the side facing vehicles at Wild Grass didn't feel very photography friendly for a group of four. I can imagine they'll be fine for two people, but for four of us with telephoto lenses, we got front facing vehicles from Kohora.
  • Wild Grass has some amazing guides. Kunwar, Palash and Naqeeb are perhaps their most talked of guides on the blogosphere, but I'm pretty sure that their other two guides are also pretty good. I'd recommend Wild Grass most highly just for how knowledgeable their guides are.
  • If you'd like to go on an elephant safari, you should plan your morning drive at Kohora. The elephants set out for an hour at 0530 in the morning and the ride costs ₹325 per person. While you don't always have the best photography angles, the elephants give you a good chance of getting very close to the rhinos and swamp deer. Your best bet of seeing a tiger is also from atop an elephant. We of course, almost fell off the elephant in the excitement of seeing a Siberian Rubythroat.
  • Wild Grass arranged our pick up from Nameri for ₹2500 - I suggest asking for an AC vehicle if you're coming in from there so you can beat the dusty roads. The drop back to Guwahati was ₹4000 - this seemed like a reasonable rate.
  • The Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary is just a stone's throw from Kaziranga - home to the Hoolock Gibbon; India's only ape. I strongly recommend a visit - more about that in another post.
  • Most importantly - if you want to photograph, be mindful of the dust. My friend Chirdeep's 100-400mm lens stopped functioning mid-way through the trip. Of course, he'd been through similar hell in Kanha and Bandhavgarh in 2011, so it may not have been entirely because of Kaziranga.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Loving them to death or providing a third eye? My views on 'Tiger Tourism'

I'm not a tiger expert like Valmik Thapar. I'm not an activist on the field like Vidya Athreya or Dharmendra Khandal either. I am not pretentious enough to consider myself an armchair tiger crusader either - unlike Diya Banerjee. I'm just another Indian who loves the natural history of this country to bits, especially the tiger. I've said this earlier, I'll say this again - there's nothing quite like seeing a tiger in the wild. To photograph it with a stable hand is something else. I have seen the lazy elegance of the lion. I've seen the feline grace of the leopard. There's something about the tiger though that sets it apart from its peninsular cousins. Is it the swagger of the beast - a gait that's quite contrary to its acquired fear of humans? Is it the tiger's beauty? Is it about how elusive it can be in the wild? I can't tell, though I know that to see tigers the wild has been amongst the best experiences of my life till date. I've rarely done anything cooler.

"A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated - as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

As I write this post, the Supreme Court of India is hearing a petition by Prayatna - a Bhopal based NGO led by prominent activist Ajay Dubey. The petition, amongst other things seeks to ban tiger tourism in the country as it exists today. The alternative they suggest is for tourism (read safaris) to happen in the fringes of the park, making the core zones of our tiger reserves 'inviolate'. The rationale behind this is that if traditional forest dwellers have left their ancestral land to give the tigers solitude and peace, how can tourists still have access to these woods? There are theories which state that the tiger cannot breed in the constant presence of humans and therefore tourists should stay out. After all the Sariska tigers have not bred successfully since their reintroduction in 2005 - a reason for this (probably) being the presence of villages in the forest. Tourism doesn't also bring too many benefits to local communities. Krithi Karanth's 2011 study titled 'Conservation Letters' revealed some startling statistics - local residents get less than 0.5% of the revenues from wildlife tourism. Even more startling is the revelation is that the park itself gets less than 5% of the revenues and close to 95% goes into private hands.

There's anecdotal evidence to say that the presence of tourists does disturb the tiger's life. I shot this tigress at Jim Corbett National Park - named after the legendary hunter turned conservationist. She's a beautiful female just separated from her mother, learning to live the solitary life of a tiger. Look at the picture carefully. Do you see how her tummy's gone well inside? Well, we were responsible for that. Let me explain. A day before I shot this picture, we'd gotten news of her presence in the Dhikala grasslands. We turned our vehicle around from where we were and headed there for a view. The news was right - she was there, stalking wild boar for a morning meal. We waited patiently for her to move across the grassland and grab her quarry, but alas that was not to be. Within minutes, tourist elephants ferrying tourists who wanted a 'closer view' invaded the grassland. The hunt was all over - the tigress stood no chance of making a kill in that commotion. When I saw her the next day (at the time of this photograph), she looked frail and hungry and a part of me regretted what had happened the previous day, though I wasn't directly responsible.

 So then, shouldn't we ban tourism? It seems to bring no benefits to the local community and it disturbs the tiger. If anything it seems to encroach on the tiger's last strongholds. As it turns out, my view is quite the opposite. The tiger is India's national animal. As Steve Winter would put it, the tiger is 'our bald eagle'. The beauty of tiger tourism in this country is in the fact that anyone with ₹500 ($9.17) can share a vehicle with other people and stand a chance to see the charismatic beast. People can't feel the desire to protect what they can't see or experience. If seeing a tiger in the wild becomes the privilege of just a handful of experts, it will probably mean an end to the love and passion several Indians feel for the beast and its protection. Last I checked, spreading the word was amongst the top few things one could do to save the tiger. When no one can see the tiger anymore, what word do you spread? That there's a mythical beast in the woods which incidentally we don't have access to anymore?

"Nobody will be interested in protecting something that they are not allowed to see or experience. Banning tourism in National Parks and sanctuaries will be disastrous for the tiger in particular, and an open invitation to poachers and the timber mafia." Belinda Wright

A few days back watchful tourists reported the presence of two suspicious youths in the core area of Tadoba Tiger Reserve. My friend Chirdeep wrote this rather sorrowful story of Maasti - the tiger with an amputated leg. The truth is that Maasti perhaps wouldn't even be alive today had it not been for a watchful wildlife enthusiast on safari. Tourism gives tiger conservation the third eye it woefully needs. In the current situation where patrolling is so ineffective that tigers get killed despite a red alert in the state, tourists end up being free watchdogs for the forest department. This is a service that we can't snub.

We can't wish away the issue of disturbance to tigers from tourists. That being said, we have to look at Tadoba and Ranthambhore - two of our most visited tiger reserves. Over the last year the tiger population at Tadoba has gone from 53 to 69. Ranthambhore has a baby boom despite the drones of tourists that visit the park. There's circumstantial evidence in Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and almost every other park that tigers are multiplying in the core zones despite tourism. Yes tourism needs regulation. Illegal constructions on the banks of the Kosi river need to stop. We need unhindered tiger corridors and if there are resorts that block this area, we need to bring them down. We need a strict clampdown on boorish behaviour in parks. Guides, mahouts and drivers need education to keep the interests of the animals first. We need to pay them well, so their livelihood isn't just dependent on the tips they collect in the seven months that the parks are open. As tourists we need to draw our own line of ethics. Do we want to do all it takes for that tiger sighting or are we willing to let go every now and then?

There's no point in slamming the elephant assisted tiger sightings of Central India - they are perhaps the most organised and well behaved viewing opportunities for tourists. Under the supervision of park rangers, the elephants ferry tourists four at a time for a five minute, regulated view of the tiger. The tiger is free to move into the woods and if it moves in too deep, the elephants don't pursue. The mahouts keep the tourists in check. The tourist safaris are a different kettle of fish though. The guides and drivers are too scared of losing their tip to admonish ill-mannered guests. While that is the reality of today's situation, every tourist in the wild has a responsibility to self regulate.

Last but certainly not the least the forest department needs to relieve the pressure of tourism by creating alternate opportunities for visitors. The buffer zone safari at Tadoba, the promotion of Magadhi and Khitauli in Bandhavgarh, responsible fringe tourism by resorts like Camp Forktail Creek are all steps in the right direction. The tourism industry also needs a fair bit of transparency. The opaque, fax based booking system at Dhikala and Corbett's forest rest houses needs to go. The nexus of the Kosi lodges and the forest booking clerks (read this report) needs to break and make way for responsible tourism. The agent dominated safari booking system at Ranthambhore needs to go - it needs transparency in booking zones and vehicles. The whimsical allotment of prime routes to the tourism mafia needs to stop. The more we can weed out corruption from the wildlife tourism infrastructure in this country, the more accessible we make it to the common man. And after all, we can't save the tiger if the common man doesn't care about it.
"Wildlife tourists carry cameras, not axes. They do not poach, do not submerge forests with dams... They are being unjustifiably blamed for killing tigers." Vishal Singh - TOFT

I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court acts wisely in its decision on the Prayatna case. Tourism when well regulated can be a great tool for conservation. I can't express in words how it has opened my mind and enriched my life. I hope this doesn't remain a privilege I speak of in the past tense. The next generation of Indians deserves to still enjoy our wilderness just as I have in the past few years.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Art of Choosing with @Sheena_Iyengar

This afternoon in the closing session we have the very accomplished Sheena Iyengar - author of The Art of Choosing. I haven't read her book but I hear she's pretty awesome. I'll believe it - I'm all ears.  

Sheena has been studying choice for several years and her book explores several questions. Why do we choose? What affects our choices? How can we improve our choosing experience and outcomes? Sheena asks the audience if they're having a good time - loud resounding clap!

Sheena takes us into a story about the Draeger's Grocery Store. They had 75 different kinds of olive oils from all sorts of places. Awesome eh? Sheena went there several times but bought nothing! She asked the manager if the choice was actually working for them as a business. They didn't know. So they set up 24 Jams in one place and then another place with 6 Jams. Which place would people buy more jam? While 60% stopped at the 24 Jam store, 40% stopped at the 6 Jam store. However, 30% bought from the latter while 3% from the former. This - if you do the math is a 6 time increase in sales. The paradox of choice documents this phenomenon. Turns out that more choice usually ends up confusing people enough to postpone the decision.

Today you have more choice than ever before. You are confronted by 3 trillion bits of information in the air! 15 million possibilities for a soulmate on match.com - brilliant eh? Not so much. This is choice overload. There are three main consequences of too much choices:

  1. People usually stick with the status quo - people choose not to choose. No one wants to commit to one choice. Let's look at 401k plans in the US - more fund choices seemed lead to less people participating and hence less savings. 
  2. It reduces decision quality. Medicare - it's the same story; people are unhappy with the choices they make and a lot of people want to buy directly from Medicare and would love fewer choices. I have the same problem with the new age of social media platforms. The market is so saturated with choices that it's making life worse and fragmented.
  3. We're less satisfied with our choices. Think of how much TV programming that's available. You watch a program and then you're unhappy with what you missed. 
So what's going on here? George Miller (psychologist) came up with the notion of a magic number 7 (+/-) 2. The paraphrasing of the law is that the average person can usually hold 7 (+/-) 2 objects in working memory. So more choice than that is usually a detriment to decision making and choosing. Think about it - when you start a game of chess, you have more choice available (as combinations) than stars in the galaxy. If you have expertise then you can chunk this information and break it down into specific lines of attack. So do you have enough information available to you to make a decision? For example the car you want to buy? SUV, cruise control, automatic transmission, etc - will narrow down your choices and make life easier. Unfortunately you're not an expert and the market is designed for experts.

So here are four choosing techniques that help:
  1. Cut: Remove the choices. When P&G reduced the number of their shampoo choices, they increased their profits and this is the case with several product lines. Think of Apple - the only choice you have is the iPhone! Don't boggle the mind with extraneous choices. Sheena tells us about leadership perceptions. When a manager gives no choice, the engineer group surveyed rates them badly. When the manager gives them two choices they rate them highly. When the same engineers get 6 choices they again rate the manager badly. You want to give people choices but you don't want to overwhelm them. If you only had one option what would it be? If you can't justify the options then don't put it in there. 
  2. Concretise: How can you make the consequences of your decision explicit? Why is my credit card always maxed out? Potentially because it doesn't feel as real as spending real money from the bank. To make decisions what you need is not only information but also a feeling of the consequences. It's like in Indecent Proposal when Robert Redford offers a million dollars in return for a night with Demi Moore and it's a hypothesis the reaction is different from when the money becomes actually real. Good example, eh? I came up with that all by myself.
  3. Categorisation: Experts are able to categorise information. That being said, a choice provider can be the expert and categorise for the consumer or decision maker. After all, it's perhaps in your interest to help people make a choice. Think of a magazine rack. If 400 magazines were laid out in front of you in 25 different categories you'd be more likely to make a choice. As it turns out our brains are also more equipped to handle categories than choices. So you're more likely to make choices from 25 categories than say five.

    For example look at the wine categorisation technique that specific cellars use to categorise the hundreds of wines that are available to us.
  4. Condition: If we can approach things in a methodical fashion, we're more likely to arrive at a choice than by just the accident of finding 'the right furniture' in Joe's used furniture store. Sheena gives us the example of a German car manufacturer that allow users to custom make their car by breaking down various choices available ranging from certain decisions that have low choice (4) to high (56). Now people that advance from high choice to low make less purchases than those that advance from low to high. Also satisfaction is higher for those that move from low to high choice. People's excitement for choice usually increases with each step and the fact that you build up the condition makes them more excited about the product itself. Start shallow and get deeper. Why does Apple do so well (something I wrote earlier)? Small choice vs heavy choice and people understand their choices much better.

Wow, this was a great session on design though not so apparent on the surface. I think there's a lot of meat in there for community managers, leaders, marketeers, sales-people, designers and anyone offering an experience to take a lot out of this session. This lady is brilliant. Sheena maybe blind, but she is helping us see. If you need to use the learnings from this session in practice then check out GLEAM - Global Leadership Matrix (coming soon). This will include several tools with video clips alongside - this'll help you learn about yourself and design solutions that actually make sense. Also, everyone who comes to the website, you'll be able to participate in Sheena's research. Be choosy about choosing. Follow Sheena on twitter and check out her website!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

All the amazing stuff that @JKUnrein shared in her talk today

This woman is a star and while not everything was new for me, she's an inspiration to see how much ground you can cover in 60 minutes.

Here's just a compilation of the tweets I put out just during here session. And just so we don't lose this in a year's time, here's a list of the tweets from the talk:

The Art of Vision with @ErikWahl

This morning at LSConf, the our speaker is Erik Wahl of Art of Vision fame. The conference site describes him thus, "By breaking apart traditional thinking, Erik challenges and inspires his audiences to redefine commonly held assumptions and misconceptions about “creativity," "goals," "success,” and "vision.” Discover how you can sharpen your creative skills and identify a personal style for inspiring yourself and others to rethink vision and purpose." Very exciting, let's see what he has to say.

I can't tell you how awesome this guy's start is. Check out this video to get an idea or maybe this video as a teaser. What a masterpiece this guy creates in just about 5-6 minutes! His hands are dirty, he is in the thick of work within a room of at least a 1000 people. I am in awe. Erik is saying that if we go to a school, and we ask "Who can draw?" everyone raises their hands and now when he asks that question in this room only a few hands go up. Every child is an artist - how do you remain an artist as you grow up?

Erik talks about the most important meetings and he wants you to take those meeting notes using Crayola crayons - one of the most recognisable smells amongst adults. Apparently it reduces blood pressure. Drawing is a learned skill like anything else - math, science, design, what have you. He's seeking out the courageous, colourful ideas that are hidden amongst all of us. He's talking about breaking out of our comfort zone - business as usual or technology as usual.

We move on to the show "Fear Factor". Erik picks a member of the audience by just throwing a ball and picking the guy who catches the ball. This guy is now going to lead or will delegate to someone else to lead with Erik. And of course, this guy puts his boss on the line! Erik is giving everyone an opportunity to pull out their iPhone because this will be great YouTube material. Surprise, surprise! The guy on stage wins the brilliant painting that Erik drew up live. Taking a risk got this guy a dividend he didn't expect. Fear kills performance - embracing risk creates unexpected results. FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real.

Do we have the ability to focus, to then commmit but most importantly to adapt? What is the ROI on creativity? What is the ROI to have a differentiation? What's a creative idea worth? In today's market the strongest currency isn't the Euro or the Dollar. The strongest currency is trust. The question to ask is that if we were to start from scratch today what would we paint on our blank canvas? How can we leverage the currency of trust and community to spread our ideas? Our greatest innovations in this world take place on the border of chaos and order. Our mind is a machine that never sleeps. We need to unlock the potential of that mind by combining left brain thinking and right brain thinking. We're getting conditioned to think in a one dimensional way that is about a single right answer. We were taught to be increasingly risk averse, increasingly operationally excellent. Too much focus on the left brain.

Time = Money? If we allow money to equal time, we cheapen the value of life. We turn great interactions into transactions. Instead of thinking of ways to ignite our passion or work smarter, we're looking at how many dollars and how many checkmarks we got. Where will the vision for the future come from if we go logically, linearly with the equation of Time=Money? Today we're bombarded with ideas and stimulus in ways than never before. We try to generalise and predict what might arrive by using only a part of our brains to deal with this stimuli. Is there a way we can unlock the potential of our minds when we can look at this stimuli and build emotional connections that'll drive future thoughts?

Erik wasn't always an artist. He was told he didn't do things right. And then 9/11 happened and his business collapsed. And by luck or accident he went to a local art store at that point when he touched the canvas, his perception of himself as an artist changed. And that changed his life. He stopped selling his artwork seven years work to raise money for charity. Creativity is now the corporate capital. He will now hide his Monroe painting and he'll drop clues on twitter for people to find it. This is his way of engaging differently! Can we think of ways to engage differently? Do we really need to think like everyone does? We need different ways to experience the world. Most people will see a challenge - can we look at the same challenge as an opportunity?

As a finale, Erik does things differently. To the brilliant music in the background and to a standing ovation, Erik draws up Steve Jobs - upside down. Just take a look at the video above (hopefully it'll process by the time you see it). Great talk. It's tough to think of whether you have 10 things to take away from this talk. Was it inspirational to feel that everyone of us is creative at some level? Was it about questions than answers? Was it goose-bump-generating? Was it something that tells me that I can be different? Does it tell us all that we can break free? Hell yeah!

To call Erik Wahl “another speaker” is the equivalent of calling the Mona Lisa “another painting.” - from his website, but true. It's not often that I have to video sections of a talk to share the emotion it evoked for me - this is one of those talks. I had goose-bumps watching this guy draw to the music and his passion, for art and his brush strokes was palpable. There's an artist in all of us - we got educated, we grew up. We have the opportunity to paint a canvas for the future - free of constraints, free of inhibitions. We need to believe in the currency of trust, believe that the future will be what we'll make it to be regardless of who we are. And that future won't be wonderful and beautiful if we continue to think exactly the same way as we did yesterday. That future needs us to think in ways that we haven't thought before. Thank you Erik - I had to stay back and miss the next talk if only to shake your hand for this inspirational morning. The conference was worth it to just feel your energy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Designing Mobile Performance Support Apps - @elearningcoach

I'm sitting in a Mobile Learning session with one of my favourite people and authors - Connie Malamed, so forgive me for being extremely nice with my write up if that's what happens by the end of this talk. Connie's had a journey learning about apps on Mobile. She wanted to create a performance support app for instructional designers. It's called Instructional Design Guru. You should check it out. In today's talk she's going to tell us how you can walk through the design experience before you hand it over to a programmer. As instructional designers we have the skills to do this, it's just a question of thinking through each of the decisions that we're going to be party to.

When designing for mobile it's important to think of the context. Connie talks about the journey in a few steps:

1. Define the problem
2. Research and Ideate
3. Define the Solution
4. Develop the App

Everyone has ideas about apps! 5.9 billion mobile subscribers in the world. 1.2 billion of them are mobile web users. 63% more smartphone users in 2011 whereas laptop growth has been just 15%. So why mobile? First things first - it's convenient. People almost always have their phones with them. It's very relevant and contextual to the experience that someone's having at the time. People are always out there with their phones and helps with content generation. There are varied devices and mobiles do reduce friction by bringing down barriers. There are mobile collaboration tools and mobile is a far reaching phenomenon. In Africa for example mobile penetration is far ahead in comparision to computers. And lastly, mobile gives you the ability to design for either push or pull. Which is a great thing for learning design.

There are several approaches for learning on mobile:

* micro-learning: self paced mini lessons in varied media. eg podcasts
* synchronous: virtual classrooms using mobile webinar tools
* assessments: tests, surveys, polls
* social media learning: enabling networks for learning
* learning games: challenges and simulations
* performance support apps: references, job aids, collaboration, social, augmented reality

We'll focus on performance support. The key here is a few interesting things:

* it's just in time - the ability to quickly get information in the context of work
* it's part of the workflow and is seamless with the act of doing something
* it occurs when needed
* it uses a pull model
* the learners can apply the skills immediately - great for cognitive load since you don't need to remember heaps before you perform a task.

There's a fair range of things you can do with mobile learning and mobile performance support:

* queries to PLN - no need for an app here
* QR codes - used widely in marketing, but you can get people to get to information in context here
* Automatic text message reminders can be great as in context prompts
* Checklists, references, job aids are also interesting tool - that's the territory Connie's explored
* Augmented reality is a good in context training approach

Connie talks about a doctor receiving surgery advice on SMS. Quite amazing when you think that it saved someone's life. It's performance support too! Mobile performance support needs to fit within the overall learning and mobile strategy for your organisation.

In any case when you think of performance support, you've got to address the 5 moments of need:

1. When learning for the first time
2. When wanting to learn more
3. When trying to remember or apply
4. When things change
5. When something goes wrong

Mobile helps in particular with the last three situations! Think of tools like HVAC calculator. Or iBartender to make fun drinks when you don't know how. eMocha is another interesting data collection app for healthcare.

Design Considerations

Now how do people use phones? People mostly use them on the go. They're usually distracted - so remember they don't have your full attention. People use it in context - eg: Maps, Layar, Foursquare. 40% people use phones in the bathroom. People use phones when they're bored! People use them at their desks - it's a good way to impress them. People use them for micro-tasks - running an errand, paying a bill, watching a video. People use phones when they're relaxed and in a varying set of emptional states.

So the conclusion is:

* Short bursts of activity
* One handed
* Simple features first and complex next
* Text messages are hugely popular!

So what tools do you want to use? You want to figure out the use case scenarios. eg: You're at a museum you want to look up information about the artist and the painting. Or you're doing repairs - you have a complicated situation you need help with.

Second, you want to research similar apps. What other apps are out there that do similar things like your app? It can be fairly time consuming and by the way you need to spend money!

Third, what gestures will you need? This is not your grandma's mouse! The mouse is an intermediatary while playing with touch devices is quite intuitive. Even a kid can do it as Connie demonstrates. So think of taps, pinches, flicks, drags, presses and the stuff that actually happens in the mobile world. Luke W has a lot of stuff here about how to design for mobile. Take a look at his gesture reference cards.

Fourth, what hardware will you use? You'll have several different types of media that you may want to use but will your hardware support it? Does your hardware support geolocation if you're trying to use that in your design? The phone camera can be quite a useful tool. There's the accelerometer as well as is near field communications using RFID technology. So two phones close to each other can share information with each other. iPhones don't support this but you can work around using bluetooth. Be careful to focus to on the primary task.
So how do you communicate your design?
Three important things to consider:

* Write you specs
* Diagram the structure of your app
* and be absolutely sure to wireframe

When you're writing specs for your app, you have several ways of doing it. You could write detailed requirements specs or you could even do user stories. There are definitely other things that you want to specify, such as personas, programming language that you prefer, web or native, task diagrams, your overall vision of the apps functionality, etc. Be sure to diagram the structure too. There are three general structures:

* Flat, no heirarchy
* Tabs
* Tree structure which has a fairly complex heirarchy

There are several wireframing tools available on the internet for this kind of stuff and well, you can just do Powerpoint, Word and maybe just pen and paper.

The other thing to thing to think of is visual design. What icons will you use? What will your touch target sizes look like? What metaphor will you use? For example the Compass app has a real world compass metaphor. If you do pick one metaphor, be sure to follow it all the way through.

Technology Decisions
Native apps of course are faster give you access to the phone's hardware, etc but the cost of programming is high and you get very platform specific and you've got to conform to the marketplace rules. The web on the other hand is portable, cost of development is lower and works on various platforms. Also it's easier to prototype this. The disadvantages however is that you're internet dependent and then you don't get the speed and hardware functionality of your native apps. You can of course create hybrid apps using stuff like Titanium. Do also be mindful that you need to use native languages to program for mobile platforms - so your programmers need to know the specific languages. There's quite a few mobile authoring tools out there as well, but be sure to check on native compatibility and the publishing structure there.
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