Showing posts with label social learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label social learning. Show all posts

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.

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 for example - I have nothing against the platform; it's great. I just need a scapegoat. 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!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Three antipatterns to protect your learning community from

I'm back from China and it feels great to be back home finally. China's a great place that I recommend everyone tries to visit at least once in their lifetime. That said, if you are hooked to the internet then you've got to be prepared to sacrifice some of that during your visit. So with about 30 days of no access to my blog, several of Google's apps and Twitter or Facebook, socialising on the web was a bit of nightmare.

Anyways, I got back last week and went on an amazing birding trip to Ganeshgudi. In birdwatching parlance, a bird you see for the first time in your life is a called a 'lifer'. My friends Raji, Kannan, Sandeep and I lost count of the number of times we saw a bird and shouted the word 'lifer' to each other. An amazing biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, Ganeshgudi afforded sightings of about a 110 different species of birds. If you're interested, you should look up my photographs. I wasn't looking at photography as a goal on this trip. I wanted to use my camera as a bit of a documentation tool for this trip. I'll be back there soon and then I'll perhaps move around with a monopod and try to get better shots.

Three pillars of successful communities

Speaking of the birding trip, all three of my friends that came with me were folks I know from a naturalists' community that I participate in. It's been an enriching experience being a part of that group. I believe that successful learning communities are founded on three important pillars:
  • Sharing and Altruism: The most successful communities are where people participate because they believe that sharing what they know helps others and they believe that they'll be better off if others share what they know as well.
  • Feedback: In his Last Lecture, Randy Pausch said, "Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." Communities that have a healthy culture of sharing feedback are likely to learn and grow better.
  • Respect: As a fundamental value in most meaningful human relationships, respect has to be out there as one of the fundamental building blocks of successful communities. Communities that respect experience and the lack of it alike and can create safety for people to participate are likely to see a lot of meaningful traffic.
As I was thinking about these three pillars, I've been thinking of three very common antipatterns I've observed on online communities that I'd like to share with you. If I'm running a community, I'll probably avoid these like the plague and I really hope that you do too.

Hero worship

Every community has it's heroes and top contributors, but to elevate these individuals to god-like status is an absolute no-no. I remember that a few days back on a birding community on Facebook an experienced wildlife photographer posted a beautiful photograph of a bird. He'd also posted a write up on the bird. Everyone had great stuff to say about the image and the write up. That being said, there was  problem. The photographer had copy pasted the write up from Thomas Jerdon and had done nothing to attribute to the great naturalist. I was surprised that no one had called him out on this. I have very little tolerance for plagiarism and un-deserved praise gathering, so I had to call him out. This however led me to notice how several of the established photographers and naturalists on the group received nothing but fulsome praise. There was hardly any useful feedback for these folks. Now this is a problem. How does someone with expertise grow and learn if they receive no feedback?

At ThoughtWorks, we have our heroes in people like Ola Bini, Martin Fowler and Jim Highsmith. That doesn't stop us however from sharing our views openly with them, even if we're at odds with how they think. That's what makes the ThoughtWorks community so awesome. Think about where your community suffers from hero worship. If so, you need to fix that soon.

Boorish behaviour

Some months back, I wrote an article about behaviour on social media. A respectful community handles disagreement and feedback respectfully. Often people will say or do things that may or may not be correct in our opinion. It's crucial though that we convey our opinions in a manner that doesn't undermine someone's intelligence and doesn't humiliate them on a public forum. Let me explain.

A few days back one of the members on a naturalists' forum mentioned how he'd attracted a crested bunting by throwing food grains and then lying in wait to snag a photograph. One of the more experienced members of the forum was furious with this. Baiting is generally a frowned upon practice amongst naturalists and for good reason too. The experienced member laid into the photographer and gave him a public dressing down on the forum.

I felt a bit odd about that angry response. I wrote back to this person explaining that while the actions were wrong, the photographer perhaps didn't mean any harm. I explained that by berating someone in public he'd not only insulted that individual, but made the community environment unsafe for genuine, well intentioned mistakes. After all, mistakes are a great way to learn!

Thankfully the experienced member understood my point and immediately wrote back on the group apologising for his outburst and explaining why he felt strongly about the concept of baiting for photography. I'm pretty sure this made the original poster feel a lot better. This was a story that had a happy ending, but a lot of such stories end with just bad behaviour that goes unnoticed. If you're running a community, this is something to be aware of. Remember - good, respectful behaviour creates a safe environment for people to contribute and learn from their mistakes. It also creates a healthy environment to share feedback.

Hoarding over sharing

If you're a member on any wildlife forums, you'll see a lot of people sharing photographs with copyright notices that look like this:

"Copyrighted by _____________ and may not be used in any form,website or print media without written permission of the Photographer.For any enquiry for the photographs please contact _______________."

You know my views about this. Communites are about sharing and restrictive copyrights are about hoarding in the hope of maximising value for an individual. They have no place in learning communities. I'm amazed why people even bother posting restrictively copyrighted work on online forums. Is it just to tease people with a 'see, don't touch' approach from museum culture? Are these contributors so full of their own work that they believe they're better than all of the awesome, successful people who make money despite sharing freely?

This is a simple problem to solve, and yet something that's not easy. It takes talking to people individually, and high standards for sharing in the community. It's quite easy to ignore, but in my opinion this is a stink to watch out for in just about any community.

Over the next few weeks I want to try a few different articles on this blog. In particular I want to focus on photography for elearning media. I've been experimenting with photography over the last few years or so and I wouldn't mind helping elearning professionals select gear, understand the technology behind phototgraphy and play around with the composition and post processing. While I've almost made up my mind to do a series on this, I'd like to know if you think this could be a valuable thing to cover on this blog. I look forward to hearing from you - either on this post or on any other channels you're connected to me on. Until next week, happy learning!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Setting up a learning community? Consider this.

You've perhaps noticed that I haven't posted in a while and frankly I have no excuse. I'm just slacking off - it's a bad thing to do as a blogger, but I must confess that my participation in the real world is affecting my contribution to the virtual world. For those interested in news about me - I'm back China now and I'm unsure how that'll again affect my Internet usage. In the mean time though there's really no reason for me to not share what I've learnt about learning over the last month or so. In today's blogpost I want to share some epiphanies I've had as a consequence of my experiences over the last month or so. These are only theories and I'd love to know what you think about the validity of these thoughts.

There's no pace better than your own pace

I'm the kind of guy that tour guides hate. I meet them with a "No" almost each time. There's a part of me that likes exploring places at my own pace. I must say though, that I've developed this tendency through my prior experience with tour guides. Tour guides have the tendency to give their standard spiel regardless of who they're with. Often this is a mouthful about the history of the place full of facts, dates and information that I struggle to remember. In the end I remember only the highlights, which are usually signposted by tourism authorities near the monuments themselves. When in China, I just got myself several pages of information on each of the sites I was planning to visit and carried them along with me on my iPad. When I thought I needed more information, I pulled out my iPad and found what I needed. From the perspective of learning and recollection, I found this to be a more effective, tailored approach than following a tour guide's pace and narration. I wonder if there's something in their about learning in general. Do we really need teachers and trainers for most learning? If most knowledge is in the public domain and people have the motivation to learn, do we really need the trainers as middlemen? I don't think the role of a trainer or teacher is dead but I do think these roles need some redefinition.

Empathy is a big connector in group work

There was a point in China, where I was really depressed. Despite all the great sights and colourful culture, I think the language barrier had just gotten to me. Plus my iPad had gotten stolen, so my easiest way of communicating with the rest of the world was lost too. I think I'd hit a brick wall with how much I was willing to do all by myself. By my last weekend in China I think I was well and truly at that brick wall. When I look back at the few really memorable days in China, it was perhaps the nights that my Chinese colleagues took me out for dinners; hanging out with Dave Worthington, Anita and Adam who were foreign ThoughtWorkers like me in China and hiking the Great Wall with Emily Ghan, a fellow tourist who I befriended. I think in several of the situations the feeling of empathy was the glue that made the activity hold together. My Chinese colleagues displayed a sense of empathy towards my situation as a first time China traveler and took me put for some of the most fantastic meals of my life. Emily and I had a sense of empathy towards each other as we chatted away about China, India and our hike on the Great Wall. Even when I cramped up and fell, Emily was nice enough to give me a helping hand. And I had the best times with Adam, Anita and Dave because well, we had so much in common as foreigners working in China. Going through bucket loads of chicken wings with them was such a great experience! Now that I'm back in the country with a team of my own, I can't tell you how enjoyable the experience is. We have two Mandarin speakers in the team and four of us are of non-Chinese origin. That's a great mix to connect to the culture and learn about it while having a group that can be empathetic to each other's situations. As we look at technology to connect people, I wonder how we bring together the empathy glue that truly helps people engage with each other. There is a point where just being self driven isn't enough, is it?

Strong ties are crucial for the success of a social network

I'm running a few little communities on Facebook. Two of these communities are quite interesting. One of them is a photographers group and another a group of naturalists. If you go to the Naturalist's group, it's buzzing with activity. On the other hand, the photographers group is a bit quiet. I don't believe that the photographers are any less inclined to sharing than the naturalists, but here's the deal. The core of the naturalists' group is a set of us that share a great friendship and have extremely strong ties. While there's part of the article I disagree with,  Malcolm Gladwell wrote sometime back as to how at the centre of revolutions and high risk activism you need people with strong ties. I suspect there's something similar with online communities too. It's tough, though not unprecedented to build communities on the basis of weak ties and acquaintances alone. On the other hand, communities with a core of people with strong ties is a lot more likely to attract and support weak acquaintances. Something for us to investigate further and think about as we spawn newer communities.

There's still nothing that beats the real world

One of the reasons the naturalists group has a lot to talk about, is because we a lot of us meet very regularly for nature trails and birdwatching expeditions. Every trip has a trip report that follows and requests for identifying birds, butterflies, insects, plants and fungi that we couldn't recognise. This heartbeat ritual ensures a regular channel for communication in addition to the adhoc collaboration on the group.  Had it not been for the real world activity, we would have had nothing to discuss in that forum. This is where the photography group suffers - we have little in common in terms of shared experience and while photo critique is an interesting activity every now and then, the lack of common context makes a big difference. There's something to be said about the value of real world meetings and activities, don't you think?

So, I've tried to give you my view on these theories of mine. Now it's your turn. What do you think about these theories? If you agree how do you think they influence the way you design communities and learning experiences? If you disagree, what's your view?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I'm sorry, education is a scam

My friend's daughter got accused of being ADHD a few weeks back. My colleague Dinesh is keen to take his son Aravind out of school. My friend Sandeep is trying to build software that recognises every child to be a unique individual with their own little achievements. I see a growing sentiment in my friends circle about the current state of education and it's impact on young minds. I don't have a kid, but I can only dread being a kid in this climate. It's a hostile environment that teaches kids to master a curriculum but not to learn. It makes kids competitive but teaches them very little about collaborating, about being better citizens, better people. I have a few thoughts about education and I want to share them with you - it's a real scam.

What is this model based on?

"If Isaac Newton had done YouTube videos on calculus, I wouldn't have to. " - Salman Khan

We've predicated our model of education on a system that presupposes that kids need to go to school to gain knowledge. It is based on the assumption that knowledge is scarce and you need an expert to dole it out. Except the person who your kid learns from is not really an expert. That person is a middleman. Knowledge is not scarce anymore. You could learn the guitar from a really successful, best selling artist. Using your computer. Not in school. Actually, you couldn't learn from the best selling artist in school. School is really a bit of a deterrent when it comes to learning from an expert. Yet, school is still all about that old model which isn't true anymore. Kids can learn sitting at home, using a service like Khan Academy. School doesn't teach people what our ancestors learnt - applying knowledge to the real world. School instead is preparing people only to clear the next exam.

Life skills? Not a chance?

Success is in the doing. And failures are celebrated and analyzed. Problems become puzzles and obstacles disappear. - Gever Tulley

My nephew is 12 years old. He ranks first in class each year. Awesome eh? More information - he is overweight, he plays no sports, he can't have a real world conversation beyond his textbooks and couldn't survive if his parents were away for even a couple of days. Is that what education is supposed to mean? What about experiencing life and learning real life skills? Where are the tinkering schools of the world? Why isn't every school helping children learn like Diana Laufenberg does?

We learn to succeed despite education

Children quickly learn to navigate and go in and find things which interest them. And when you've got interest, then you have education. - Arthur C. Clarke

I work in a job that I never received any formal education for. I'm quite happy about that frankly. Let me give you an example so you understand why. In school I was deeply interested in plants, animals and birds. But to tell you the truth, the biological names and academic knowledge behind them was of little interest to me. I could spend hours at Alipore zoo admiring the animals in my backyard but to remember a tiger as Panthera Tigris was beyond me. Unfortunately to have an education in nature, I needed to cut up frogs, fish and cockroaches in the lab which I avoided like the plague. I quit biology studies in 11th grade because I just couldn't take it anymore. Why couldn't I just learn about natural history as I do today? I've learnt more about birds and animals as an adult than I did with formal education in school. To me, my self-supervised hours in the field mean a lot more than the supervised hours I had in school. I got educated out of my interests in school and it's no wonder that I'm my current job is miles from what I actually studied to be. Children are wonderful - they have the natural ability to learn if left to their own interests, the internet and the resources they'll need to support their passion. Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall project proves it.
Current schools depress me. There's great thinking in various circles about the future of education, but we're not there yet. And it troubles me that my nephews and nieces, my friends' children and kids I care for may have to go through a generation of poor education. I wonder how this'll change - I'm very cynical about this whole scam we call education. I wonder what you think. Especially if you're in India, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Spatial Serendipity - The Key to A Social Workplace

Image credit Christopher Schoenbohm

First things first, I'm sorry I couldn't post anything on the blog in the last few days. I've been in China and the great firewall is simply impregnable. I've somehow broken into Blogger and can now post. Thanks for your patience. So, let's come to what I want to write about today. Serendipity - it's a beautiful thing. Imagine walking down a street and seeing an interesting restaurant that you'd never heard of. You walk in, and order a great meal and have a great story to tell at the end of it all. I'm guessing I'm not the only person this has happened to. It's a wonderful way to learn about things around you and I argue that the human race would have learnt very little had it not been for the serendipity we've been privilege to, ever since our existence. Serendipity, or accidental discovery is also at the center of most social business strategy. Technology aside though, I believe this phenomenon has a big place in the physical design of workplaces. After all we didn't invent serendipity after social media. In today's blogpost, I want to share some thoughts about the design of workplaces and how they may affect the social fabric of your organisation.

Being Social begins in the Real World

For social media to make an impact to your workplace, the physical orientation of the workplace should ideally mirror all the behaviours you're trying to mirror online. Think of these of the top of your head, you'll perhaps come up with sharing, openness, visibility, connectedness, storytelling and the like. Why then, are workplaces designed for the exact opposite? Corner offices, cubicles, closed doors - all of these are counterintuitive to the idea of serendipity. Now, I'm not saying that we don't need closed doors conversations. Businesses are sensitive and certain conversations need a closed environment. That being said, designing your workplace around that as the default is perhaps a bad idea. This leads to the concept that I'm calling spatial serendipity. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

How connected is your team?

My team at work is starting to get bigger. Dinesh heads our knowledge strategy and enterprise 2.0 offering, Nikhil owns our social business platform, Sahana community manages, Kavita is our instructional designer, Siddharth handles industry research and Rajiv takes care of branding and events. Add to this the several people at ThoughtWorks University and we've got a fairly diverse team. It may seem like a good idea for each person to have their cubicle and work by themselves. In fact the commute in Bangalore is so bad that I sometimes feel like working in my silo at home. All this said, some of the most productive days for me are when I can work onsite with my entire team in one place. Merely listening in to my team-mates' work life creates a huge difference and each day I learn something new. If you notice from the picture above from our Xian office - teams in my company sit across one big table with no barriers. This is really cool because people can listen into conversations happening across the table and problems get instant solutions from the chatter around the team. Cubicles may be the way to go for predictable transactional work, but for knowledge work, a barrier free team environment is the way to go.

How visible is your work?

Agile promotes the notion of big visible charts to depict your work. This is how you'll see creative companies like IDEO or Duarte work as well. There's something magical about making mental models explicit on a big, visible chart and to depict the state of work on a visible information radiator. Now my company also sells Mingle which is quite an awesome collaborative project tracking and collaboration platform. That being said, visualising your work only on a software system such as Mingle turns it into what my colleague Mark Needham calls an information refrigerator. There's a lot of value in having a representation of your work status that not just your team members but everyone in the office can see. Often, people walking by will notice something unusual and give you an interesting tip. Often people will learn from your representations. For example, I learnt an interesting way to represent a customer journey by looking at the above design wall for one of our teams in China.

How connected is your workplace?

It's not just the team that needs connection and serendipity, but potentially your entire office. We talk of silo-busting in the virtual world, but what about the physical silos? Why do different teams need to have different rooms and work areas? Why can't we have large contiguous spaces where each team is visible to the other? Take a look at the design of our Xian office above. The entire office is one single space and the head of the office sits in the same place as the rest, as do people in HR, recruiting, admin, finance and the like. Everyone knows everyone - most people are aware of each other's work and that level of connectedness leads to solutions to common problems from the collective. It's not that tough, we just need to get over the default mindsets behind office design.
In my view workplace design needs to be an integral part of any social business consulting that you seek out. Serendipity just happens, but the fact is that you can prepare yourself for serendipity by creating an environment that encourages it. Workplace design can't just be the realm of architects and interior designers - it's a social engineering activity. By now there's a lot of examples out there, including Google, ThoughtWorks itself, Stanford. Inspiration's out there - it's time for us to learn from it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to be an awesome Pecha Kucha host

A lot of my friends in the learning community have been intrigued by the fact that we run Pecha Kucha nights every week at ThoughtWorks University. I often get asked how I run these and what value I see. In my experience Pecha Kucha nights are a great way to achieve a few things:
  • the speakers find a platform to share their thoughts around something they're passionate about;
  • the team gets an opportunity learn something new in a serendipitous fashion;
  • everyone gets to know a different side of their team members;
  • and even if the presentation has nothing to do with work, it often is a good laugh
In addition, Pecha Kucha is a great format to practice presentations. The constraint of 20 slides for 20 seconds each is a great way to force some positive presenter behaviours. Firstly the 20 second limit forces you to prepare well. If you don't prepare well, your slides are likely to overtake you. 20 seconds also forces you to be minimalist with your slide design. If you add too much clutter, you're likely to have no time to go through everything. The 20 slide limit forces you to prepare a crisp, yet impactful story. After all, when your time's over, you need to leave the stage. There's quite a bit more you learn - but I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

One of the main roles on a Pecha Kucha night is that of a Pecha Kucha host. The host runs the presentations that each speaker submits and also ensures that the talks keep moving on smoothly. Think of the host as an emcee for the night. I've been a Pecha Kucha host on several occasions and over the months there are a few things I've learned. In today's blog post I want to share a few tips for hosting these events. Take a quick look.

Before the event

Remember the presentation is not all about the slides. We don't want speakers to feel obliged to do a presentation. They should look at it as a platform to share their thoughts about something they really care about. Here are a few things I like to do a few days before the Pecha Kucha night:
  • Contact the speakers individually and ask them if about their topics - if they have selected a throw away topic, urge them to find something they have a passion for.
  • Ask the speakers if they need any help to create effective slides. Often you'll notice the very anti-patterns that we try to avoid and it's quite easy to fix these by giving them some Presentation Zen tips.
Remember, we want the speakers to look good during the presentation and potentially set them up for success. They shouldn't dread presenting by the end of the exercise. I like them to get addicted to the applause and mature as effective presenters.

On the day of the event

The day of the event is crucial. It's not easy to produce a Pecha Kucha event, even if it is only for your little team. Make sure that you've invited more people than just your immediate team though - the larger the audience, the bigger the challenge and potentially the bigger the applause!
  • Try to get the presentations by 10AM on the morning of the event. This helps you ensure that all the slides play properly and that the speakers are happy with how they look on your computer.
  • Get the speakers together and give them a bit of pep talk. Try to soothe their nerves - a lot of them are presenting for the first time.
  • Call out some instructions and tips for the speakers:
  • Don't look back at the slides - show them the presenter view on your laptop and mention they can use this as a confidence monitor.
  • Ask them to make eye contact with the audience and to stand closer to the audience. Interacting with the group is likely to make their presentation effective.
  • Most importantly, let them know that they've done what they could have to prepare. From now on, they need to go out there and enjoy their experience.
  • Let the speakers know in advance the order they'll speak in. It helps to calm their nerves and doesn't surprise them when they're called on stage.
  • Remind the speakers to stay back on stage for questions and let them know that they should encourage questions - it's a sign that they engaged people in their talk.
  • Often neglected - order food if you can. Most people feel hungry if they have to be in the office until 7PM. We order pizzas, pastas, Indian food, burgers, salads and the like - there's no rule for this one.

During the event

This is what everyone's been waiting for and you are the master of ceremonies. Remember, one of your key roles is to keep the event true to its spirit. If you notice anyone going over time - cut them off. You need to be consistent with this; otherwise, what's the point?
  • Make sure you have a whiteboard with a list of the speakers and the speaking order.
  • Don't forget to get a volunteer to record the talks - these are often great artifacts to share within the company. Who knows what people may learn?
  • Think of this as a mini-conference. How would you open the night? How would you welcome the audience? Where's your radio announcer voice?
  • Call out the rules of engagement. For example 6min 40s presentation, 2 mins for questions.
  • Remind the audience that several of the presenters may be speaking in public for the first time. As you call out each speaker, encourage the audience to applaud the speaker and ensure that they give a loud round of applause even when the speaker finishes.
  • Hold the speaker back for questions and encourage the audience to ask questions.
  • Close the event with a flourish. Food is a great ending, but don't forget to thank the speakers for putting in the effort. Be sure to announce when the next event is and perhaps tell the non-team members of the audience why they should return!

After the event

Just like the buzz behind a conference doesn't end the day it's over, the buzz behind your Pecha Kucha night should stay alive too. Here are a few things to try doing.
  • Get a hold of the videos and upload them on YouTube or a platform that you want to share them on. Tag them appropriately so you can easily find them later.
  • If you can, upload the slides to slideshare and tag them appropriately too.
  • Share these links with the speakers so they can look at their videos and look for areas of improvement and so they can also look back at presentations they liked for inspiration.

In general, think of the night as a show. There are performers who are in it for the first time. How can you still make this a grand success and a memorable evening? I hope you find this blogpost useful and I hope you can use this to host several awesome Pecha Kucha nights. Cheers!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Social Media in Learning and Social Learning are just not the same thing

It concerns me how a lot of the social learning conversation seems to veer around the tools in the space. Tools are arriving thick and fast and yeah, it's easy to get caught up with all the bling. And this is not to say that I'm never excited by tools - nothing could be far from the truth. This said, social learning is less about the technology and more about the human interaction. I often seem to get the sense that a large part of the learning community believes that the use of social media in learning is social learning. So sharing your courseware on a Facebook group then becomes social learning as does organising a lrchat-esque chat with pre-defined questions on a microblogging platform. To me this is perhaps Elearning 2.0 where you incorporate a higher degree of user interaction into your courseware, but it's still not social learning.

I want to explain my views in a little more detail on this blogpost and I hope you can humour me. And feel free to tell me I'm wrong.

We can't set a low bar for 'social'

If the mere use of a social media platform makes a learning experience social then we've been social all along. I do a lot of classroom training as well. My classroom training is never about being a sage on stage. It's full of real world activities, interpersonal interaction and experience sharing. I do a lot of socratic facilitation in the classroom - I use my questions to draw out experiences, perspectives and lessons for the group. This said, I decide on what questions I want to ask, the agenda and the topic for discussion. If you think of lrnchat, it's quite the same thing. There are a set of pre-defined questions and a pre-defined topic for discussion. The only thing that's different from doing this with a facilitator in a classroom is that now we've distributed the discussion and there are several more participants than there could possibly be in the old world. So yeah, it's a far more scalable approach, I don't believe it's any more social. Now this isn't a criticism of lrnchat - I love being part of the discussion. All I'm saying that this is no different from formal interactions we've practiced earlier.

My bar for 'social' is quite high

Image credit: Jon Husband

I believe that true social learning has a few important characteristics. And this is where the 'new' social learning is different from the old. Here's what I think are non-negotiable criteria to dub any learning as social:
  1. Democratic: To me the classic example of social interaction is gossip at a watercooler. Gossip emerges from the ground up. It doesn't need someone to lead, though a regular gossip fellow can facilitate the conversation and lubricate it. The key ingredient with social interactions at work or otherwise however, is that the crowd decides the agenda, the crowd decides the conversation. When a minority decides the agenda for a large group, then the interaction can still be social, but not enough to be any different from older models. Learning is truly social when individuals can decide what they want to learn and how they wish to collaborate on it.
  2. Autonomous: The key factor with social interaction in real life is that it moves by itself and is not controlled by a facilitator. I look at my social network on Facebook and on Twitter and even my enterprise social network to behave this way. We aren't talking about a specific platform, it's about a pattern of interaction. Now a facilitator can help make the flow of the interaction smoother, but in no way does the facilitator become responsible for the direction of these interactions. We can term something as social learning when it gathers a pace of its own without intervention from a trainer, facilitator, manager or leader of any kind.
  3. Embedded: One of the key aspects of social interaction in real life is that it's about life in general. It's not a separate exercise. I share stuff that I'm passionate about, I talk about things happening in my life. I blog about issues on my mind at a given point in time. Learning is truly social when it's embedded into the context of work. Think about this - I face a problem at work I know nothing about. I post a question about it to a company social network. Soon I receive a response from another colleague in a different team. That's the kind of interaction I'm speaking of - 'just in time' learning.
  4. Emergent: Social interactions have no predefined structure. The structure emerges from the natural interactions of a participating group. A big problem with enterprise social learning is the desire to structure before you start. Predefined structure has its uses - I don't doubt that. The uses however are limited to finite amounts of information - such a sitemap for a website. The nature of social communication is that it's frequent and high volume. You can try second guessing the structure for this endless stream of communication and you can also guarantee failure for every such attempt. As I've mentioned earlier, everyone's structure is different. Andrew Mcafee has written quite eloquently about the concept of emergent structure. "These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is. Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful –  less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows." You should read the complete article here.
This is my view and I'm happy for you to tell me I'm wrong - only when learning exhibits all of these characteristics can you call it truly social. This may or may not involve the use of social software, though I suspect it'll be quite tough to foster these characteristics without social media. What I'm saying though is that social media is a crucial tool for the success of a social learning initiative, but the use of social media doesn't necessarily mean that a learning experience is any more social than that in a classroom.

My aim is not to stir a hornet's nest with my statements in this post. In fact I've been wanting to write this post for a while but was wary that I'll upset some of my friends by terming what they do as 'not' social learning. Frankly if you don't agree with what I've said, feel free to post in the comments section and shout at me. I'm no theorist, but from experience I've built a bit of an opinion. If it resonates with you, I guess I'm thinking right. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn from you. Look forward to hearing what you have to share. Until next week, bye!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

4 Lessons Photography has taught me about Learning

If you follow me on the web, then you perhaps know that I'm big on photography. I absolutely love taking pictures - my Flickr stream with about 13000+ pictures will tell you just that. I'm no pro, but something makes me feel I've gotten better with time. As I reflect on the last 10 years of having owned cameras, I think I've some interesting insights on how adults learn. In today's post I want to share some of those thoughts with you and I'd love to hear how you feel about what I'm writing.

Learning is effective when it's autonomous and purposeful

When I got my first digital camera I wasn't fussed about technique. I was just keen to take pictures. I think I had a 256 MB card for my camera and it was an absolute luxury for me. All I wanted to do was capture every moment of my life. You need to know something about me. I didn't grow up with many of the gadgets that kids my age in the west were exposed to. So I didn't have a computer or video games. I have some photographs of my life prior to getting a camera, but the frank truth is that we were always constrained by the 36 pictures on the film roll. The ability to take pictures and see them instantly was gratification enough for me. Gradually, I got interested in photography as an art and only over the last few years have I gotten over the desire to 'snapshot' my life. Instead, I want to capture vivid moments that tell stories of their own. I haven't yet been to a photography course. I haven't let anyone dictate how I should shoot. As my purpose and subjects have changed, I have learned and my approach has evolved. I think this tells me something. It has taken me 10 years to learn what I know about photography, which frankly is precious little. On the other hand, someone else with a completely different purpose may have learned much quicker. I don't feel that I'm stupid because I took 10 years - I didn't need to. I enjoy the autonomy with which I learned. My learning has served my purpose and that's all that matters.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Our educational systems are built around the premise of promoting success and success alone. I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating success, but we can't forget that failure is a stepping stone to success. I love shooting wildlife. Unlike many other subjects, filming wildlife is a very unforgiving experience. I can safely say I've had more failures than success filming wildlife and especially fast moving birds. A few days back I went to the lake near my house to try and follow the resident pied kingfishers. This is a curious bird and to watch it fish can provide hours of entertainment. It was no easy task filming these little geniuses given how skittish they can be. I failed at least four times before getting some satisfactory pictures on the fifth attempt. Failure was heartbreaking I must say, but the safety of knowing I have another chance gave me confidence. Each time I failed, I learned a little more. When I finally got the shot I wanted I was able to repeat my technique several times over. As you design learning experiences, how are you building in the safety to learn from failure?

Constraints make for great learning

When I bought my first camera, a simple point and shoot Yashica film device, I'd complained heavily about the lack of zoom. That complaint carried on as I graduated to better, more expensive cameras and super-zoomers. What I failed to appreciate was that every camera has a built in zoom - our two feet! Ever since, I've moved onto better equipment and longer lenses, but I must say my favourite lens today is a the 50mm prime that I own. It's a simple piece of equipment. It can't zoom, it has no image stabilization. That makes for great learning on how to get close to my subjects and how to keep my hand steady. In a similar manner I have learnt from the constraint of having to shoot vivid images through a single frame of a prosumer camera. Cameras don't see what our eyes see - there's way too much contrast to capture. This has led me to explore techniques such as high-dynamic-range (HDR photography) - the picture above is an example. I love placing meaningful constraints in the learning programs I design. For example at ThoughtWorks University I like to place the constraint of learning while on the job of delivering software to a client. It helps the new consultants to learn how to learn and gain useful experience on the side.

There's no match to social media  and mobile platforms as learning tools

One of the things I've learned from photography is that it's extremely gratifying to get feedback from your friends, skilled or not. I often put up my photographs on Flickr and sometimes on Facebook. When people favourite my images or comment favourably on them I know that I must be doing something right. It motivates me to do more. Social media has been a big influence on my learning journey too. Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook and Flickr put together have become an integral part of my photography learning journey. The byte sized pieces of inspiration I get every day are just the right size to help me learn on a daily basis. Add to that inspiring mobile apps like Life and Guardian Eyewitness  help me analyse great professional photography. As Brent Schlenker writes on his blog, mobile apps and new media are removing the middlemen from the learning experience. I learn from the best today by following their blogs. Trey Ratcliffe's blog is far more up-to-date than his book. That's an example of how powerful the social media learning experience can be. The era of having to go to school is past. School comes to me - every day and at my own pace.
Learning is an iterative, experiential process. We however seemed to have based corporate learning around a dated model of education which lacked autonomy, had little social structure and discouraged failure. I can't say my experience with photography is representative of all kinds of learning. I do think that there is something for us to think about as we analyse experiences such as these. I'd love to hear how you feel about my musings today. I apologise my bad back has stopped me from being regular with my blog posts. As I grapple with this situation, I hope you continue to visit this blog as and when I post. I'll do my best to maintain a regular schedule as well. Hope you enjoyed today's post.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Preparing For Serendipity - A Crucial Knowledge Work Skill

Before I begin today's blogpost, I have to mention the biggest event in Indian cricketing history over the last three decades or so. India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup on Saturday and what a win it was! The eleven played like true champions against a tough opposition and at the end of it came out on top. For my non-Indian readers here's a moment for you to accidentally discover how big a deal this is in India. People actually took to the streets in celebration. If you bump into me over the next few days, you're likely to hear me talk about this win so bear with me please.

Speaking of accidental discovery brings me to what I want to write about today. We're uncomfortable with accidents and uncertainty. That being said, a lot of social media based learning solutions rely on serendipity and chance discovery. Serendipity is quite a counterintuitive phenomenon. How do you know that you'll know the important stuff? Most of us from the '70s and the '80s have grown up on a diet of structured media, whether through the web or through books, magazines and education. New media on the other hand accelerates content creation in such a big way that traditional structure is destined to fall behind. A week or so back I wrote an article about the shape of knowledge management in the age of social media. Today I want to talk about the personal mindset that each knowledge worker needs to really exploit this rich, diverse, yet often confusing information explosion.

We ask for structure, but do we really need it?

It's amazing that when on company intranets, people expect structure whereas when on the internet, people don't even imagine browsing. It's no surprise that several people actually use Google as their homepage or as a means to start navigating the web. Why then, is search a counter-intuitive beginning to people's intranet experience. Granted that most intranet searches are just bad, but let's assume you could be confident that the information you're looking for exists, and there's a good search that can find stuff. People still find it tough to start with search. I believe there's a reason for this. Traditionally, company intranets had finite amounts of information. It's easy to build a taxonomy around this finite information and organise it in a browseable sitemap. With modern social intranets content creation explodes in such a big way that it's a bit foolish to even attempt structures. The only structures that survive are the ones that emerge ground up through metadata. Social media does it's bit to help search on the internet as well. Whether we like it or not we constantly keep accidentally discovering stuff on the internet, through various social networks. The constant discoveries help us know in our subconscious mind that we can actually find something if we tried.

Don't drink from a firehose, just sit by a stream
"Its a river of information, dip your foot in whenever its convenient." - Leo Laporte
The fact is that with modern social networks, serendipity is a knowledge guarantee but it needs mental preparation. It may seem that if someone provides you packaged, neatly organised content then you'll be happy, but the reality is quite the contrary. Let's forget about social media for a while. Regardless of how avid a news reader you are, it's perhaps tough for you to keep up with all the news in the world. Depending on the kind of news you're interested in, you perhaps customise your news intake. Not many people read the entire newspaper. Think of a time when you missed an important piece of news. Not many people really sweat over this, because if the news is really important, someone will tell you about it. Social media is quite like news. As Laporte says, it's a river of information. When you sit by a river, you don't try to drink all the water that's flowing by. You dip in your toe when it makes sense for you. But then what if you miss something? This is where you handle your learning just the way you handle news. If it's important, your connections will tell you. This is where having personal learning network (PLN) that you can trust, makes sense.

It's not information overload, its filter failure
Clay Shirky said a few years back, "It's no information overload, it's filter failure." If the current information explosion was really a bad thing then the converse, an absolute lack of information, would make us happy, wouldn't it? Now that seems odd - I guess no one would be happy with that. Shirky's right then - the filters are crucial. As I explained in my last article, we're so individualistic these days that another person's organisation of content hardly ever makes sense to us. On the other hand if we have right filters, we can create a structure that makes sense to us and is tailored to our needs. And by the way, sometimes the best filter is another person on your PLN who you can trust. Just as we trust our friends to remind us of important news we've missed, we leverage our PLN to find the the learning that's important.

If you still need structure, the tools are out there
Once you know what filters make sense for you, there are several tools and services that can create meaningful structure around that filter. My latest favourite is Flipboard on the iPad (see screenshot above) though apps like Zite are worthy competitors. The truth is that you don't need a fancy iPad to provide you the right kind of organisation. Web services like can help you create really nice, structure around important information. Google Reader can give you some really interesting visualisation around your RSS feeds. Heck, there are thousands of applications and services just around Twitter. The key is to pick the services you care for, decide on the filters that make sense to you and follow the people that really matter. From that point you just need to trust that the important information will come to you. Just believe!
Ever since Jay Cross wrote his book on Informal Learning, several people have spoken about the need to 'formalise informal learning'. I think that's just absolute rubbish. Informal learning benefits from the natural connections amongst people and the serendipity it fosters. "Formal informal learning" is the biggest oxymoron on the planet, I'm sorry! In my view the fact is that if you can't prepare for serendipity, you're not ready for the 21st century workplace. Structure makes sense when you're dealing with a finite amount of information. The only way through constantly growing information sources, is to be able to develop the skills of personal knowledge management and sense making. If I was hiring someone today, this would be a primary skill I'd look for.
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Knowledge Management in the age of Social Media

Last week Dinesh, Nikhil and I encountered the second stage of our social business journey at ThoughtWorks. Over the week, we had a few conversations with other ThoughtWorkers focussing on one common question, "Where do I put x?". While our platform itself places no restrictions on where users can post content and while we have a really powerful search engine, the mental model of folders to place your information is still prevalent. It's been about four years since I last created a very structured folder system on my computer. Today I just save files where I please and then let Spotlight or Quicksilver find the files for me when I need them. Coming back to our social business platform though, the primary driver for this initiative was to answer a long standing knowledge management challenge at ThoughtWorks. Our aim at least when we started off, was to map our organisational capabilities and make them explicit for the average ThoughtWorker. While social media seems to have lowered the barrier for content creation and sharing considerably, there's a separate question about structure that we need to answer. How does the traditional world view of knowledge management fit in the world of social business?

Prescriptive Structure Leads to Empty or Neglected Containers
Useful content doesn't come up by magic. Content also doesn't come up as a result of an imposed structure. Content arrives on platforms because some people feel a strong ownership for it and believe that there's value in sharing it. Over a period of time they use metadata such as tags, ratings and comments to provide a layer of information and commentary to the content. Given a reasonable amount of time, the structure for all the content on the platorm starts to emerge. Tag clouds help create a map for users so they can browse through the content. Search engines start throwing intelligent results for searches. User commentary, ratings and flags provide a layer of quality control over the content, helping all members of the community find the best content for the purpose. This is the phenonmenon of emergent structure that Andrew McAfee has spoken about in his book - Enterprise 2.0. The key however is in understanding that while content is valuable, context is significantly more precious. To know your colleague who wrote that phenomenal blogpost, to be able to see how people used her ideas, to be able to look at the other contributions by this user, etc are a generative side to the knowledge management puzzle. It's a side that opens up possibilities for serendipity which traditional content focussed approaches are unlikely to achieve.

No Structure is a 'One-Size-Fits-All'

The same presentation that I upload to a conferences space could be the one you look for in the technology space. While I like a Twitter style approach to finding interesting content, you may prefer a Digg style model. While one person may choose a communities of practice model to personal learning, another person may just look for a more structured sitemap/ folder approach. Regardless of which approach you choose, you're likely to marginalise a certain group of people. The modern internet has given us so many options that we're almost spoilt for choice and everyone looks at stuff differently. The key is to give people a way to personalise their knowledge intake in a way that suits them. Flexible consumption is the need of the hour.

Personal Knowledge Management and Sense Making is the Key

The modern workplace requires modern skills. While it's all too well to complain about chaos and information overload, a key skill in this age, is the ability to set up filters that help you make sense of everything. As Clay Shirky explains in the above talk, it's not really information overload - it's filter failure. People also need to be comfortable with missing stuff. If things are really important, they'll come to you. Others will repost it, there'll be heavy discussion and the content will rise in popularity. A huge part of the 'information overload complaint' also has to do with the gluttony and greed to be 'on top of everything'. Managing digital knowledge that matters to you, requires deliberate practice. Harold Jarche calls this the practice of personal knowledge management. Knowledge workers need to develop the skills to connect with others, exchange ideas and to contribute effectively to a knowledge collective. This requires inward facing categorising and sorting skills to deal with the flow of information. Organisations need to support knowledge workers through the journey of learning these skills, since it's crucial to their own success. The role of the knowledge management organisation then perhaps shifts to a higher touch, personal productivity consulting role. Over a period of time knowledge managers need to move into community facilitation roles because the traditional responsibilities of uploading documents to repositories will no longer exist. The only structure that's likely to make sense, is self selected structure.
I'm keen to learn how other social media/ business consultants are answering the structured KM question in their organisations. Do you have an experience to share? Please drop in a few lines in the comments section and tell us your story. If you're keen to tell me face to face, I'm at the Learning Solutions Conference all of this week and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is there a balance I'm missing? Let me know - I'm all ears!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

My Presentation Slides from XConf

Yesterday, I did an introductory talk on social learning at XConf - an internal ThoughtWorks conference. I got a largish audience which actually left me quite pleased and I thought the talk went quite well. I want to share my slides with you and if I get time, I'll record audio over these visuals so you can get the full message. Feel free to use these visuals the way you please. As with all content on this blog, it's under the Creative Commons license.

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.
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