Posts Tagged ‘narrating your work’
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.
Written by Hans de Zwart
27-05-2012 at 00:41
Tagged with apple, applied minds, austin, automattic, brain-computer interfaces, coindensity, coursera, craigslist, education, engineering, epss, facebook, flickr, foursquare, free radical, geotag, google maps, hyperspecialization, ibm, innovation, interface, jam, learning, makeshift magazine, mitx, mobile, mooc, narrating your work, openstreetmap, p2pu, parallax, saas, storytelling, sxsw, topcoder, udacity, valve, venture capitalism, wikipedia, wordpress.com, yammer
A few months back I posted a design for an experiment on my blog. The goal of the experiment was to find out whether it would be possible to use a microblogging tool to narrate our work with the intention of making better performing virtual teams.
Over the last two months, the direct team that I work in (consisting of 18 people) basically participated in the experiment in the way that it was designed: They posted constant, daily or weekly updates on our Yammer network. Each update would describe things like what they had done, who they had spoken to or what issues they had encountered. Occasionally the updates were peppered with personal notes about things had happened or were going to happen after work.
Methodology of the experiment
There was no formal (or academic) research methodology for this working experiment. I decided to use a well-considered survey to get people’s thoughts at the end of it. Out of the 18 team members 17 decided to fill it in (in the rest of the post you can assume that n=17). The one person that didn’t, has taken up another role. This means there is zero bias in who answered and didn’t answer the survey.
I find it more interesting to zoom out and look at the methodology of this experiment as a whole. To me doing things like this is a very good approach to change in the workplace: a grassroots shared experiment with commitment from everybody working towards solutions for complex situations. This is something that I will definitely replicate in the future.
Didn’t this take a lot of time?
One concern that people had about the experiment was whether it would take a lot of time to write these updates and read what others have written. I’ve asked everybody how much time on average they spent writing status updates and reading the updates of others. This turned out to be a little bit less than 5 minutes a day for writing the posts and slightly over 5 minutes a day for reading them. The standard deviations where around 4.5 for both of these things, so there was quite a big spread. All in all it seems that narrating their work is something that most people can comfortably do in the margins of their day.
Barriers to narrating your work
Designing the experiment I imagined three barriers to narrating your work that people might stumble over and I tried to mitigate these barriers:
- Lack of time and/or priority. I made sure people could choose their own frequency of updates. Even though it didn’t take people long to write the updates, just over 50% of the participants said that lack of time/priority was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
- Not feeling comfortable about sharing in a (semi-)public space. I made sure that people could either post to the whole company, or just to a private group which only included the 18 participants. Out of the 18, there were two people who said that this was a limiting factor in narrating your work (and three people were neutral). This is less than I had expected, but it is still something to take into account going forward as 12 of the participants decided to mostly post in the private group.
- Lack of understanding of the tool (in this case Yammer). I made sure to have an open session with the team in which they could ask any question they had about how to use the tool. In the end only three people said that this was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
The qualitative answers did not identify any other limiting factors.
Connectedness and ambient team awareness as the key values
Looking at all the answers in the questionnaire you can clearly see that the experiment has helped in giving people an understanding of what other people in their team are doing and has widened people’s perspectives:
I enjoyed it! I learned so much more about what my colleagues are doing than I would have during a webcast or team meeting. It helped me understand the day-to-day challenges and accomplishments within our team.
The experiment was very valuable as it has proven that [narrating your work] contributes to a better understanding of how we work and what we are doing as a team.
People definitely feel more connected to the rest of their team:
There was practical and social value in the posts:
A lot of people would recommend “Narrating your work” as a methodology to other virtual teams:
What kind of status updates work best?
I asked what “Narrating your work” type of update was their favourite to read (thinking about content, length and timeliness). There was a clear preference for short messages (i.e. one paragraph). People also prefered messages to be as close as possible to when it happened (i.e. no message on Friday afternoon about what you did on the Monday). One final thing that was much appreciated was wittiness and a bit fun. We shouldn’t be afraid to put things in our messages that reveal a bit of our personality. Sharing excitement or disappointment humanizes us and that can be important in virtual teams (especially in large corporations).
Personally I liked this well-thought out response to the question:
The best posts were more than simply summing up what one did or accomplished; good narrations also showed some of the lines of thinking of the narrator, or issues that he/she encountered. This often drew helpful responses from others on Yammer, and this is where some some additional value (besides connectedness) lies.
It made me realize that another value of the narrations is that they can lead to good discussions or to unexpected connections to other people in the company. This brings us to the next question:
Public or private posts?
The posts in the private group were only visible to the 18 participants in the experiment. Sometimes these posts could be very valuable to people outside of the team. One of the key things that makes microblogging interesting is the asymmetry (I can follow you, but you don’t have to follow me). This means that posts can be read by people you don’t know, who get value out of it beyond what you could have imagined when posting. What to you might sound like a boring depiction of your morning, might give some stakeholders good insight in what you are doing.
So on the one hand it would be very beneficial to widen the audience of the posts, however it might inhibit people from writing slightly more sociable posts. We need to find a way to resolve this seeming paradox.
A way forward
Based on the experiments results I would like to recommend the following way forward (for my team, but likely for any team):
- Don’t formalize narrating your work and don’t make it mandatory. Many people commented that this is one aspect that they didn’t like about the experiment.
- Focus on helping each other to turn narrating your work into a habit. I think it is important to set behavioural expectations about the amount of narrating that somebody does. I imagine a future in which it is considered out of the norm if you don’t share what you are up to. The formal documentation and stream of private emails that is the current output of most knowledge workers in virtual teams is not going to cut it going forward. We need to think about how we can move towards that culture.
- We should have both a private group for the intimate team (in which we can be ourselves as much as possible) as well as have a set of open topic based groups that we can share our work in. So if I want to post about an interesting meeting I had with some learning technology provider with a new product I should post that in a group about “Learning Innovation”. If have worked on a further rationalization of our learning portfolio I should post this in a group about the “Learning Application Portfolio” and so on.
I liked what one of the participants wrote:
I would like our team to continue as we have, but the important steps to take now are 1) ensuring that we stay in the habit of narrating regularly, 2) showing the value of what we achieved to other teams and team leads, and 3) ensure that there is enough support (best practises etc) for teams that decide to implement [narrating your work].
I have now taken this as far as I have the energy and the interest to take it to. I would really love for somebody to come along and make this into a replicable method for improving virtual teams. Any interns or students interested?
I have just finished writing a small proposal to the rest of my team. I thought it would be interesting to share here:
We work in a virtual team. Even though there aren’t many of us, we often have few ideas about what the other people in our team are working on, which people they have met recently and what they are struggling with. The time difference between our main offices make our occasional feelings of being disconnected worse.
This “Narrating Your Work” experiment is an attempt to help overcome these problems.
If you are interested in some background reading, you should probably start with Luis Suarez’ blog post about narrating your work (”it’s all about the easiest way of keeping up with, and nurturing, your working relationships by constantly improving your social capital skills”) and then follow his links to Dave Winer, ambient intimacy and declarative living.
“Narrating Your Work” should really be approached as an experiment. When it was first suggested, some people showed some hesitation or worries. We just don’t know whether and how it will work yet. The best way to find out is by trying. In Dutch: “niet geschoten, altijd mis”.
The experiment will have a clear-cut start and will last for two months. After running the experiment we will do a small survey to see what people thought of it: Did it deliver any benefits? If any to whom? Was it a lot of work to write updates? Did it create too much reading to do? Do we want to continue with narrating our work? Etc.
Three ways of participating
It needs to be clear who is participating in the experiment. If you decide to join, you commit to doing one of the following three things (you are allowed to switch between them and you will be “policed”):
- Constant flow of updates: Every time you meet somebody who is not in the team, every time you create a new document or every time you do something that is different from just answering your emails, you will write a very short status update to say what you are doing or what you have done. This will create a true “activity stream” around the things you do at work.
- Daily updates: At the end of your day you give a one paragraph recap of what you have done, again focusing on the people you have met, the places you have visited or the things you have created.
- Weekly updates: On Friday afternoon or on Monday morning you write an update about the week that has just passed. To give this update some structure, it is suggested that you write about two things that went very well, two things that went less well and two things that are worrying to you (or at least will require attention in the next week).
The first option requires the most guts, whereas the last option requires the most diligence: it is not easy to take the time every week to look back at what happened over the last five working days. Are you the type of person who likes to clean the dishes as the day progresses, or are you the type who likes to leave them till there is nothing clean left? Choosing one of the first two options (rather than the third) will give the experiment the greatest chance of success.
Participation only requires the commitment for writing the updates. You are not expected to read all updates of the others, although you might very well be tempted!
How to do it: making it work
To make the work updates easily accessible we will use Yammer. You can do this in two ways:
- You can post the work update with the tag #nywlob to your followers. People will see this message when they are following you, when they are watching the company feed or when they follow the nywlob topic.
- If you don’t feel comfortable posting publicly to the whole company (or want to say something that needs to stay in the team) then you can post in an unlisted and private group. People will only see this message if they are members of the group and we will only let people in who work in the HRIT LoB and have agreed to join the experiment. Posting in this group will limit your chances of serendipity, so the first method is preferred.
When you are posting an update, please think about the people who might be reading it, so:
- When you refer to a person that is already on Yammer, use the @mention technique to turn their name into a link (and notify them of you mentioning them)
- If you refer to a person outside of Shell, link to their public LinkedIn profile.
- If you mention any document or web page, make sure to add the link to the document so that people can take a look at it.
I am very interested in any comments you might have. Does anybody have any experience with this?
Last week I wrote a small teaser on learning for the team that I work in (mostly consisting of IT professionals, rather than learning professionals). I realized that some of the things I wrote could be interesting for this blog’s readers too. So here goes…
The collective set of organizational values, conventions, processes and practices that influence and encourage both individuals and the collective organization to continuously increase knowledge, competence and performance.
Using a solid research methodology they identified key best practices that affect business outcomes. The most influential practices all center around empowering employees and demonstrating the value of learning. According to Bersin, it is management who has the biggest role to play as they have the most influence on these cultural practices. Their research showed
[..] that learning culture (represented by the 40 High-Impact Learning Culture practices) directly accounts for 46 percent of overall improved business performance as measured by the business outcomes examined [..]
Learning agility and innovation are the two business outcomes that benefit the most from a strong learning culture.
Many organizations have productive employees, but 98 percent of organizations with strong learning cultures have highly productive workforces.
That should be enough of a business case to try and strengthen the learning culture in any business.
Fast pace of change: activities and methodology over content
It is a cliché, but we really are working in an environment where the pace of change is ever increasing. Working with learning content that has taken months to produce will only be relevant for skills that do not change much. That content will not help in keeping knowledge workers up to date and will have little or no business impact.
An alternative is to focus on methodology and activities rather than on content. How can we change the things we do, our behavior, to create a culture of learning and more reflective way of collaborating? How can we truly embed learning? Trying to answer that question will require a very conscious design effort.
Leveraging the teaching paradox
There is a terrible paradox in teaching: by the very nature of the process it is the teacher who learns the most. Learning is most effective when creating something for others to experience (see the explanation of constructionism here or this great article about the death of the digital dropbox). That is the reason why I love to present and also why I write this blog. If we want our employees to learn we have to put them into the role of teachers too.
Turning consumers into producers
You can overcome the teaching paradox by making sure that instead of asking people to consume content (i.e. going to a course from the SkillSoft catalogue or listening to a webcast by a senior learner) you ask them to produce content. Unfortunately for you, I have learned way more by writing this blog post, than you will ever learn by reading it. In fact, if I was allowed to give a single piece of advice to people designing a learning intervention, I would tell them to turn their participants from consumers into producers. They should ask themselves the following question: What am I asking them to make?
So how do we do all this? Here are four ideas that align with the above and that could be done immediately in any global organization with virtual teams.
Planning and creating collaborative one-pagers and microteaching events
Each week of the year a team of two could be made responsible for creating a one-pager about a particular topic. These one-pagers could give very factual information about the work we are doing (e.g. How are our three main learning systems integrated? Which five learning innovations have gotten the most traction in the past year and why?) or they could be more meta: talking about how we do our work (e.g. What is the best way to do a virtual meeting? Which 10 things should we stop doing today?).
Maybe one-pager is not the best word for this. It could also be a diagram, a video or a virtual role play, as long as it can be presented and understood within five minutes. Each month you could schedule an hour with the team in which the four or five one-pagers of that month would be presented by its creators to the rest of the team. The content itself is not important (you can let people choose their own topic and provide a list of suitable topics on a wiki for the less creative), but the methodology is. I would propose the following “rules”:
- Each one-pager has a question as the title and is made collaboratively by two people. It is not allowed to do any work on it by yourself.
- The two people are matched semi-randomly with a skewed bias to virtual collaborations and pairs that haven’t worked together before.
- The presentation of the one-pagers is done virtually using a microteaching methodology with an active start (3 min.), an exercise (6 min.), a discussion (4 min.) and a look at how to continue (2 min.).
Narrating your work
In virtual teams it is hard to know what all the people in the team are doing. It is therefore also harder to learn from each other and find synergies in the work we do. A well-known way of battling this problem is through a concept called narrating your work. Each person in the team writes down what they have been doing in a couple of sentences. They should be asked to do in a regular interval (i.e. daily, three times a week, weekly) this three times a week. Microblogging technology is the ideal candidate to support this kind of process.
This will not only help the team in doing their work better and more efficiently, it should also help in making it a better team through the ambient intimacy that it creates.
Increasing the effectiveness of webcasts
Most teams in global organizations have a webcast with senior leaders every couple of weeks. These are usually not very interactive affairs: they are more about knowledge dissemination than about knowledge creation. Although there is sometimes space for questions at the end, it is often the case that the usual suspects speak up and discussion on topics barely scratch the surface.
One way to change this would be to have mini-jams (see here for IBM’s way of doing jams) before each webcast. It could work like this: 48 hours before the webcast the topics of the webcast are made available, any documents or presentations are shared and a couple of key questions are posed to the team. The team then spends the time until the start of the webcast discussing the questions. Each topic will have a moderator who is there to guide the discussion and tease out participation. It will be expected of each and every team member to participate and give their view. Microblogging tools, once again, would be good to facilitate this.
As a result it should be possible to make the webcasts shorter and spend the time in them addressing the issues that showed to be contentious or in need of clarification during the jam.
The power of video in interaction
The most powerful of our senses is vision. Technology has finally caught up with our innate ability and can now help us in using this sense in virtual teams. To facilitate working together as a virtual team, you should have the ambition to try and use video in all our your virtual meetings. This would mean the following:
- Everybody in the virtual organisation needs to have a laptop with a built-in webcam. If they don’t have one now, we make sure that this gets changed as soon as possible.
- The software to create video calls should be ubiquitous in the organization, it should be easy to use and be supported.
These are just examples…
There is a lot more that we can do: I would really like to have your input on how to really re-design the way we work and learn!
Written by Hans de Zwart
24-12-2010 at 15:00