Technology, Innovation, Education

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Posts Tagged ‘innovation

A Personal Transfer: From Shell International to Bits of Freedom

Bits of Freedom

Bits of Freedom

About 4.5 years ago I wrote about me going to work for Shell. Now I am changing employer again. Starting today I will be the director of Bits of Freedom, a Dutch organization focusing on privacy and freedom of communication in the digital age.

I’ve had a wonderful time at Shell: a steep learning curve, many opportunities for doing interesting projects in the learning technology and disruptive innovation fields, smart colleagues and enough scale and budget to try out big things. I wasn’t looking to leave, but couldn’t let this chance pass by.

If you know me even a little, then you will understand that going to work for Bits of Freedom is very much a passionate choice. As somebody who understands and appreciates the positive potential of technology, I am deeply worried about the technology-mediated future we are currently creating for ourselves. I want to make an impact and change that for the better. I can’t imagine a place in the Netherlands that is more at the forefront on issues like surveillance, the EU privacy directive or net neutrality than Bits of Freedom. I am honoured that I get to work there for the next few years.

This will likely also mean a change in course for this blog. Future digital rights related posts will go up in Dutch on the Bits of Freedom blog (Creative Commons-licensed naturally). I will have less time to focus on the world of learning, but will put some thinking into privacy of learners, data ownership and learning analytics in the next few months. Let’s see what gets posted here going forward…

Written by Hans de Zwart

01-10-2013 at 08:30

An Innovation Manifesto

Over the last few weeks I collaborated with a few people to write an innovation manifesto for an IT function. I think the following statements are a pretty good starting point to becoming more innovative:


We prefer outside-in over inside-out
You can start by looking what issues we have internally and then find solutions for those issues. You can also look at what issues are worked on externally and try to bring solutions to those issues inside. Organization will continue to be good at doing the former, that is why we prefer to focus on the latter.

We share the responsibility
We are all responsible for innovation. Each of us tries to work on their own discovery skills (associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking) and the discovery skills of others in the team.

There is always business involvement
For each experiment (proof of concept) that we do, we will have somebody in the business working with us. We don’t innovate by ourselves and realize that innovation requires multiple businesses and functions to collaborate.

We shape expectations
We build informal coalitions of people who work on an opportunity. Together we explore where the value lies. We encourage ambition without creating expectations that can’t be met.

We are user-centered, not technology-focused
The user does not care about the intricacies of IT, they just want things to work well. We take a user-centered perspective when looking at problems and solutions and regularly sit next to our end-users. We recognize that technology is not always the innovative solution in all cases.

We have a bias to “yes”
Saying “no” to ideas and plans is easy. We aim to say “yes, let’s investigate” and then work on trying to make it happen in a way that is cost-efficient and addresses any risks.

We focus on the achievable
Everything we do should have a do-able plan and sit within our sphere of influence. Organizations are good at big strategic initiatives already. Our efforts are nimble and have a shorter timeline, while keeping the bigger plan in mind.

We leverage what is already there
We reuse what has been done elsewhere in the business. We allow our suppliers and vendors to help us use their products better. We are good citizens in their customer communities.

We are experts in our domain
Our knowledge in our domain is deep and extends from internal processes and technology to the external market in all its dimensions. We invest heavily in our own expertise.

We accept and embrace change
Innovation starts with a willingness to accept change.


I am sure many innovation gurus wouldn’t agree with all the points above. Some people would argue for example that expertise can be a hindrance to innovation or that you should aim for what isn’t currently achievable. I am very curious to hear your thoughts.

Written by Hans de Zwart

06-06-2013 at 09:30

Posted in Innovation

Tagged with ,

The Books I Read in 2012

Inspired by Tony Haile I have decided to write a yearly post in which I list the books that I have read for the year. This year I managed to read 57 books (still 18 books short on my seemingly unattainable goal of reading 75 books a year. Please note that the categories are quite arbitrary, but mean something for me. Having a Goodreads account really helped me with this exercise.

Some people ask me how I manage to read this much. I’ll give away my secret recipe: don’t have children, do not watch any TV (or use Facebook) and make sure you commute by train (45+ minutes in each direction) every day. That is all there is to it.

Covers of the books I read

Covers of the books I read

Innovation

Doorley’s book showed me how simple changes in the physical space can change people’s behavior and Dyer showed how being innovative is just a set of behaviour. I will put those two together in the next year. Checklist have stopped me forgetting things after reading Gawande’s book.

  • Make Space: How To Set The Stage For Creative Collaboration – Scott Doorley (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators – Jeff Dyer (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Sustainism Is The New Modernism – Michiel Schwarz (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think – Peter H. Diamandis (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right – Atul Gawande (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley – Victor W. Hwang (Goodreads/Amazon)

Philosophy

French has showed me that corporations are the best positioned lifeforms to show sustained moral behaviour. Illich was truly enlightening, I expect to read more of him in 2013 (Deschooling Society!). I will continue to explore McLuhan’s thinking with a reading group on Understanding Media. Sandel’s book on the moral limits of market is chockfull of incredible examples of things that can be gotten with money nowadays (e.g. prison cell upgrades). The three weirdest books I’ve read this year are also in this category: Stone, Burrell and Goertzel, all thanks to Daniel Erasmus. The book which made me think the most per page must have been Eagleman’s.

  • Corporate Ethics – Peter A. French (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Tools For Conviviality – Ivan Illich (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? – Michael J. Sandel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael J. Sandel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Medium Is the Massage : An Inventory of Effects – Marshall McLuhan (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age – Sandy Stone (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Pandemonium: Towards a Retro-Organization Theory – Gibson Burrell (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A Cosmist Manifesto – Ben Goertzel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • In Praise Of Love – Alain Badiou (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives – David Eagleman (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • You Kant Make It Up!: Strange Ideas from History’s Great Philosophers – Gary Hayden (Goodreads/Amazon)

Technology

The anthology edited by Zerzan was probably my favourite book of the year and I was amazed to see how relevant the Cluetrain Manifesto is, 12 years after it has been written.

  • Questioning Technology: A Critical Anthology – John Zerzan (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual – Rick Levine (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency – Micah Sifry (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software – Scott Rosenberg (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything – C. Gordon Bell (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom – Rebecca MacKinnon (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other – Sherry Turkle (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age – Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Goodreads/Amazon)

Learning

Postman’s book was full of provocative thinking. It made me wonder why we don’t seem to have this kind of insight into education nowadays (and are being put up with Ken Robinson).

  • Teaching As a Subversive Activity – Neil Postman (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning – Sugata Mitra (Goodreads/Amazon)

Business/Management

I will use Osterwalder’s canvas in an upcoming workshop on business models for learning. Rodgers defies management orthodoxy by showing how we need (mostly informal) conversation to do sensemaking in this complex world.

  • Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers – Alexander Osterwalder (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public – Lynn Stout (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Informal Coalitions: Mastering the Hidden Dynamics of Organizational Change – Chris Rodgers (Goodreads/Amazon)

Lifehacking/Self-Improvement

Berkun’s book on speaking is probably the most useful on the topic that I’ve come across. Zinsser is a well deserved classic. The Pomodoro technique has increased my productivity tremendously and has given me an idea of being in control of the work that I do.

  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction – William Knowlton Zinsser (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: Can You Focus – Really Focus – for 25 Minutes? – Staffan Noteberg (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Pomodoro Technique – Francesco Cirillo (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Verslaafd aan liefde – Jan Geurtz (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker – Scott Berkun (Goodreads/Amazon)

B00kc7ub 4 N3rd5

Together with four other nerds I started a book club where we will read technology related books. Holiday’s book was irritating as hell but did lead to a great discusion. Expect ten books or so in this category next year.

  • Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator – Ryan Holiday (Goodreads/Amazon)

Fiction

I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. Thompson was long overdue (and didn’t disappoint). Stephenson was a bit disappointing (although also mindblowing at times). I thought Scott Card was morally despicable.

Other

Some great books don’t fit in the above categories. DeKoven wrote down how I intuitively taught physical education a few years back. I had a wonderful few days with MacGregor. The picture in MacArthur’s book are the opposite of Doorley’s book in the innovation category. Laties made me want to quit my job and start a book store.

  • The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness – Bernie DeKoven (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Soccer War – Ryszard Kapuściński (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Richard Ross: Architecture of Authority – John F. MacArthur (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A General Theory of Love – Thomas Lewis (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry – Jon Ronson (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want To Fight For From Free Speech To Buying Local To Building Communities – Andrew Laties (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A Life with Books – Julian Barnes (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Bezeten: Ton Boot, de winnaar & het laatste seizoen – Igor Wijnker (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • the Science of Love and Betrayal – Robin Dunbar (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • How to Be Black – Baratunde R. Thurston (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? – Paolo Soleri (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Radical Evolution – Joel Garreau (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media – Mizuko Ito (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Don’t Tell Mum I Work On The Rigs: (She Thinks I’m A Piano Player In A Whorehouse) – Paul Carter (Goodreads/Amazon)

Written by Hans de Zwart

22-01-2013 at 22:42

Hackathons: Innovations in Learning and Collaboration

Not just about the food

Not just about the food

Melodi Albert and Nancy McClary from Dominian Enterprises, a company with about 3400 employees, talked at Learning 2012 about how they used hackathons as a learning tool.

All of their hackathons are two-day long events. They have now organized four different ones for their developers, each focusing on a different API. One of their hackathons was focused on a product I hadn’t heard of before: the Learning Registry. The Learning Registry is:

creating a set of technical protocols as a platform for innovation by content authors and aggregators. Applications built to harness the power of harvesting and analyzing the Learning Registry data will allow educators to quickly find content specific to their unique needs. The Learning Registry will store more than traditional descriptive data (metadata)–it will also allow sharing of ratings, comments, downloads, standards alignment, etc.

Initially the hackathons were organized as a recruitment effort, but they found out that they are great learning events too: people can break out of their normal walls, they can learn from eachother and they can actually do something. It was a challenge to sell to management that developers could take two days out of their schedule to work on this, so the first one was on a (rainy) weekend. After the success it became easier to get the time. Outside of the opportunity costs these events are very cheap to run (about $75 per person for the two days).

The first hackathon was just for their own employees. Later on they opened up to the rest of the world with the code hosted on Github. They fill them up on a first- come-first-serve basis with developers, business leaders, designers and marketeers. Each of these types get their own colour, so that they are recognizable and can come together as mixed teams. The teams build something of their own choice and they present it at the end of the two days. During the two days the people are well cared for with nice food and usually some swag (e.g. a T-shirt with a logo).

There is a lot of return on investment for these events. Melodi literally said: “There isn’t any amount of money we could have paid to get the same level of learning as these events delivered”.

I think this is an interesting model to play with. Can this work in domains that aren’t about programming? Could we do a “hackathon” for developing a learning experience? I want to find out (and will start by reading this Wired article on the topic)!

Written by Hans de Zwart

22-10-2012 at 17:54

Notes On a Full Day of Innovation

I was at a full day about innovation at Mediaplaza in Utrecht today. We used a room that had a stage in the center and chairs on four sides around it. This is a bit weird as the speaker has to look in four directions to be able to connect with the audience. The funny thing is that it actualy works (also because there are four screens on each wall): each of the speakers could do nothing else than be dynamic on the stage.

Below my public notes on a few of the presentations:

Gijs van der Hulst, Business Development Manager at Google

Gijs kicked off his presentation by showing this Project Glass demo:

The Wall Street Journal has done some research and found out that there has been an increase of 65% in how often top 500 companies mention the word “innovation” in their public documents in the last five years. Unfortunately the business practices of these companies have not really changed. How can you really effect change?

Google has nine “rules for innovation”:

  1. Innovation, not instant perfection. Another way of saying this is “launch and iterate”: first push it to the market and then see if it is working.
  2. Ideas come from everywhere. They can come from employees, but also from acquisitions or from outsiders.
  3. A licence to pursue your dreams. An example of a 20% project that was very succesful is Gmail. This was started by somebody who didn’t like how email was working at the time.
  4. Morph projects – don’t kill them. Google’s failed social efforts (Buzz, Wave) has taught it valuable lessons for its current effort: Google+
  5. Share as much information as you can. This is very different from most companies. The default for documents within the company is to share with everyone.
  6. Users, users, users. At Google they innovate on the basis what users want, not on profit.
  7. Data is apolitical. Opinions are less important than the data that supports them. They always seek evidence in the data to support their ideas. Personal note from me: Really? Really?? You cannot be serious!
  8. Creativity love constraints. Their obsession with speed (with hard criteria for how quickly the interface has to react to user input) is an example of an enabler for many of their innovations.
  9. You’re brilliant? We’re hiring. In the end it is about people and Google puts a lot of effort into making sure they have the right people on board.

Larger companies are more bureaucratic than smaller companies. Google is now more bureaucratic than it used to be. One of the ways this can be battled is by reorganizing which is exactly what Google has done recently.

Sean Gourley, Co-founder and CTO of Quid

Sean talked about our eye as an incredible machine with an incredible range. We enhanced our sight through microscopy and telescopy which opened up views towards the very small and the very big. We have yet to develop something that helps us see the very complex. He calls that “macroscopy”. For macroscopy you need:

  • big data
  • algorithms
  • visualization

He used this framing for his PhD work on understanding war. His team used publicly available information to analyze the war. When wikileaks leaked the US sig event database they could validate their data set and found that they had 81% coverage. His work was published in Science and in Nature. He decided to take it further though as he really wanted to understand complex systems. They needed to go from 300K in funding and 6 people towards an ambition level of about $100M and a 1000 people. He sought venture capital and had Peter Thiel as his first funder for Quid.

Sean then demoed the Quid software analyzing the term “big data”. Quid allows you to interactively play with the information. They extract entities from the information. So for example there are about 1500 companies involved in the big data space which can be put into different themes allowing you to see the connections between them while also sizing them for influence. Next was a fractal zoom into American Express where they looked at their patents portfolio and explored their IP creating a cognitive map of what it is that American Express does.

In 1997 Deep Blue changed the way we discussed artificial intelligence. We were beaten in chess by brute horsepower. As a reaction Kasparov started a new way of playing chess where you are allowed to bring anything you want to the chess table. The combination of human and machine turned out to be the best one. Gourley sees that as a metaphor for what he is trying to do with Quid: enhancing human cognitive capacity with machines, augmenting our ability to perceive this complex world.

Sean also talked about the adjacent possible: the way that the world could be if we used the pieces that are on the table right in front of you (e.g. the Apollo 13 Air Filter and duct tape).

His research on insurgents has taught him that some of them are successful and when they are, it is because of the following reasons:

  1. Many groups
  2. Internal Competition
  3. Long Distance Connections
  4. Reinforce Success
  5. Fail
  6. Shatter
  7. Redistribute

Polly Summer, Chief Adoption Officer at Salesforce

Salesforce was recently recognized by Forbes as the most innovative company in the world. According to Polly the tech industry has significant innovations every 10 years. For each of these ten-year cycles the industry has 10 times more users.

The ingredients for continueous innovation at Salesforce are: Alignment & Collaboration, “A Beginners Mind”, Agility, Listen to customers and Think big.

Polly talked about how she used their social platform called Chatter to collaborate in a completely “flat” way. They now even use Chatter as a means to make the worldwide management offsite meeting radically transparent. The next step in the Chatter platform is to “gamify” it and let the individual contributors rise and recognize their contributions (they’ve acquired Rypple for example).

Agile is about maintaining innovation velocity and delivering at speed. The “prioritize, create, deliver, get feedback, iterate”-cycle needs to be sped up. One way of doing this is by listening to your customers as they are all a natural source for ideas. She showed a couple of examples from Starbucks and KLM:

Polly then shared an example of where Salesforce made a mistake: they announced a premium service that they wanted to charge extra for. Customers complained loudly on social media and within 24 hours they reversed their decision.

In 2000 they asked themselves the questions: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Amazon.com? Right now in 2011 they asked themselves a different question: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Facebook? She would consider 2011 the year of Social Revolution. Salesforce’s vision is that of a social enterprise: allowing the employee social network and the customer social network to connect (preferably in a single social profile).

Bjarte Bogsnes, VP Performance Management Development for Statoil, chairman of Beyond Budgeting Roundtable Europe

On Fortune 500 Statoil rates first on social responsibility and seventh on Innovation.

Bjarte discussed the problems with traditional management. He used my favourite metaphor, traffic, comparing traffic lights to roundabouts. Roundabouts are more efficient, but also more difficult to navigate. A roundabout is values-based and a traffic light is rules-based. Roundabouts are self-regulating and this is what we need in management models too. He then touched on Theory X and Theory Y.

When you combine Theory X with a perception of a stable business environment you get traditional management (rigid, detailed and annual, rules-based micromanagement, centralised command and control, secrecy, sticks and carrots). If you perceive the business environment as stable and you have Theory Y your management is based on values, autonomy, transparency (can be an alternative control mechanism) and internal motivation. If you combine Theory X with a dynamic business environment you get relative and directional goals, dynamic planning, forecasting and resource allocation and holistic performance evaluation.

Finally, if you combine Theory Y with a dynamic business environment you get Beyond Budgeting.

Beyond Budgeting has a set of twelve principles (it isn’t a recipe, but more of an idea or a philosophy):

Governance and transparency

  • Values: Bind people to a common cause; not a central plan
  • Governance: Govern through shared values and sound judgement; not detailed rules and regulations
  • Transparency Make information open and transparent; don’t restrict and control it

Accountable teams

  • Teams: Organize around a seamless network of accountable teams; not centralized functions
  • Trust: Trust teams to regulate their performance; don’t micro-manage them
  • Accountability: Base accountability on holistic criteria and peer reviews; not on hierarchical relationships

Goals and rewards

  • Goals: Set ambitious medium-term goals; not short-term fixed targets
  • Rewards: Base rewards on relative performance; not on meeting fixed targets

Planning and controls

  • Planning: Make planning a continuous and inclusive process; not a top-down annual event
  • Coordination: Coordinate interactions dynamically; not through annual budgets
  • Resources: Make resources available just-in-time; not just-in-case
  • Controls: Base controls on fast, frequent feedback; not budget variances

Most companies use budgeting for three different things:

  • Setting targets
  • Forecasting
  • Resource allocation

When we combine these three things in a single number then we might run into its conflicting purposes. So the first step towards Beyond Budgeting is separating these three things. So for example the target is what you want to happen and the forecast is what you think will happen. The next step is to become more event driven rather than calendar driven.

Statoil has a programme called “Ambition to Action”:

  • Performance is ultimately about performing better than those we compare ourselves with.
  • Do the right thing in the actual situation, guided by the Statoil book, your Ambition to action, decision criteria & authorities and sound business judgement.
  • Within this framework, resources are made available or allocated case-by-case.
  • Business follow up is forward looking* and action oriented.
  • Performance evaluation is a holistic assessment of delivery and behaviour.

From strategic ambitions to KPIs (“Nothing happens just because you measure: you don’t lose weight by weighing yourself.”) and then into actions/forecasts and finally into individual or team goals.

Written by Hans de Zwart

04-07-2012 at 00:29

#4T2 at the Dutch Kennisnet

In the Netherlands we have an organization called Kennisnet (literally translated as “Knowledgenet”) that was created by the Dutch government to be a center of expertise, facilitation and innovation around the topic of Information Technology and learning.

Recently they have started a project titled #4T2 where they bring together 42 people to shape their innovation agenda. The group of 42 consists of 21 learners, young people who have shown that they are special in some way and 21 professionals, people with an interest in learning and technology (I am part of this second group):

The 42 of #4T2

The 42 of #4T2

We had our first session on May 21st. The presence of 21 young and extremely bright people made me feel old (and inconsequential) to be frank. I realized that there is a new generation and that I have lost touch with them since I left my teaching job more than 5 years ago.

I had interesting conversations with Robert van Hoesel who is helping kickstart a new mobile provider for young people *bliep and with Niels Gouman who runs the website and consultancy business Strategisch Lui (“strategically lazy”) where he teaches freelancers how to be more effective with their time.

The young people had to introduce the professionals and vice versa. Dzifa Kusenuh had the task to introduce me. Her printer wasn’t working so she decided to draw two pictures and talk to them.

Who is Hans? (Click to enlarge)

Who is Hans? (Click to enlarge)

What does Hans do? (Click to enlarge)

What does Hans do? (Click to enlarge)

I loved seeing what she picked up on from the 30 minute phone conversation we had (check her interpretation of the org-chart for example). I guess this is the “essential Hans”, thank you Dzifa!

I’ll try and make sure to blog about the next meeting where we will discuss some of Kennisnet’s innovation themes.

Written by Hans de Zwart

13-06-2012 at 10:15

Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

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