Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

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Alice’s intro (temporary post)


And the prize goes to…

If you read my last post, you saw that we held a “twitter un-chat” as part of our efforts to include our offsite friends, colleagues and extended networks in our f2f #OCE2o12 event. It would be a bit strange to have a gathering of online community enthusiasts (OCE) without some online experimentation. The idea of the UN in the un-chat was that we were not setting questions up in advance. They would emerge through the onsite open space process and/or through conversation on twitter, and people off- and onsite would participate.

You probably saw that Nancy White brought a copy of Digital Habitats as a prize for online participation. Nancy White and John D. Smith were also facilitators at this event, and co-authors of the book along with Etienne Wenger, who could not attend.  I love this book, and you can see from the reviews that many of us have written that it has been appreciated and used in many ways.

Let me first say that people onsite enjoyed everyone’s input and questions from a distance. We didn’t project the tweets; I just interjected to relay comments in either direction. The topic conveners looked forward to these contributions and shared in the emotions (a round of belly laughs instigated by @PhDAda comes to mind) brought into the room.

As I said in the earlier posts, decisions were subjective, but @sparkandco (Holly MacDonald) stood out. She stayed with us through the topics, despite missing the buzz of our room. In one of our topics we got talking about the power of the whole person on line, and Holly did that beautifully and naturally. Her parting tweet read

Thanks for letting me hashtag crash #OCE2012, enjoyed participating, but heading out to a volunteer meeting. Following some new tweeps!

She listened, reposted questions for others and RT’d others. Several of her posts brought uncommon perspectives to conversations. As one example, Paul Stacey had convened a conversation about creating a great home/office workspace. We shifted from physical space and technologies (she contributed to both) to a conversation about home vs. work responsibilities. Everything was about separation until Holly came in with:

As freelancer, mostly I love that there’s no artificial divide btwn work/home.

It was wonderful to have Holly and so many other thoughtful people join us for the hour (and throughout the day). Thanks! A copy of Digital Habitats will be heading from one island to another shortly, Holly.

Paul Stacey and I had a brief conversation during the break about how much better we could become connecting people across that onsite/offsite boundary. Some people have invested considerable effort in this with some great results (Beverly Trayner and Etienne Wenger’s current work with BEtreats comes to mind). But Paul and I agreed it is a rich space for much more work and innovation. I wonder what the boundary will look like for #OCE2013?

June 14 twitter Un-chat: Facilitating Scheduled Online Activities

On June 14, we will have the 4th BC Campus-hosted Online Community Enthusiasts’ Gathering. This is primarily a f2f event, but we will do more than tweet with the hashtag (this year it is #OCE2012) to hear from, and share with online community enthusiasts around the world.

This year’s theme is facilitating scheduled activities. Here is a link to more information.

This year we are organizing an Un-chat. Between 2 and 3 pm Pacific we will use this hashtag to pose approximately four questions. So far, it sounds like a regular twitter chat, right? But the questions will emerge through the event. The first question will have come up through an open space process in f2f event. Subsequent questions may come from the chat or backchannel online communication, or people in the room, or some synthesis of these sources.

There will be a prize going to the person who stirs up thinking most effectively from a distance (yes, it will be a subjective onsite decision!)

Please spread the word in your networks to people who play in these spaces and would like to learn with us.

Epistemological Integrity

Yes, it is a weighty title, but I have searched for a term for years, and this is the best I’ve come up with.

Most of us design learning opportunities. They might span an hour in a boardroom, months in a university environment, or years with children. Almost all workplace training I have seen for such design is rigid.  There are frameworks, models and steps one follows to be effective. We see this same rigidity in efforts to define information, knowledge and learning. We superimpose value judgements. Wisdom is better than knowledge. Knowledge is better than information. It is better to think critically than to memorize, and so on.

These conclusions are devoid of context. Personally, if I ever need CPR, I hope the first aid attendant has memorized the steps. If I ask advice about a complex challenge, I hope to hear questions rooted in wisdom.

Some of my work several years ago as a program director at Royal Roads University may be an example of epistemological integrity. As part of an MA degree, we offered back-to-back distance courses. One (which a lawyer taught) was about intellectual property (IP) and intellectual capital. The other (which I taught) was about communities of practice.

The designs–within this single degree program–were intentionally different because much of the thinking in those fields is very different. There were common threads, such as group conversations, assessment by learning outcome, and application of learning to workplace challenges. However, the IP course had a lot of relatively black and white factual material about things such as copyright law and trademarks. Assignments were tied to specific topics. The instructor—Dawn Wattie—often communicated correct answers to things based on legal precedents. Learning in this course involved building one’s knowledge base in specific fields.  The communities of practice had more of a constructivist bias. There was specific learning theory content in the first two weeks, but then it opened up dramatically. Learners chose their own learning outcomes, designed their own projects, chose individuals or groups with whom to work (or not) and worked in different platforms and venues. They spent a large part of the course experiencing a community of practice-like environment and making sense of the sorts of learning opportunities they could find or create there.

Formal learning institutions are under pressure to be efficient, accountable and to recruit and retain students for tuition revenue. And students are sometimes anxious about a lack of firm structure, especially if they came through highly structured educational processes in the past, or if they pay tuition by the term or year for however long it takes to graduate. Yes, the CPR course should be efficient. But don’t we need more people who can think in different ways and respect the value of different ways of knowing to tackle the complex challenges of our world?

Resisting pressure to fragment

Are you a systems thinker? Do you regularly encounter pressure to fragment? Do you get questions like “But what is your area of specialization?” Or comments like “But that project was never intended to include THAT.”  I do.

So–even though I rarely write blog posts–I started a new blog: http://www.IslandHealth.Info It’s explicitly about things like healthy food consumption; not about leadership and knowledge work. So I was amused today when I came across a blog post by one of my favourite social media connections: Luis Suarez (@elsua). In this post, he writes: “One of those folks I have been truly admiring for a long while is  JP Rangaswami a.k.a. @jobsworth”

Luis embeds a March 2012 TED salon presentation by JP Rangaswami in this post. It is well worth 8 minutes of your time if you care about work in a knowledge era and appreciate the power of metaphor. This TED talk explores the idea: “what would happen differently in your life if you saw information the way you saw food.” It left me both inspired, and feeling sheepish about my decision to publicly fragment spheres of thinking, which this authentic thinker has integrated so beautifully and provocatively.

What do you watch for?

In organizations, we strive for specificity and certainty. Set a goal, carve into objectives, document metrics, and watch for progress. We know what we find, but what do we miss?
Since moving to the country, I have adopted a different approach in my personal life (or perhaps I’m simply more aware of it now). For example, my economical three-cylinder Daihatsu flatbed stalled the other day and refused to restart. This happened at the end of a driveway with an ocean view. At first I was totally focused on the problem. Then I decided to ignore the truck (which I later realized was flooded), and watch the ocean. I thought “something interesting is bound to happen.” And within minutes, an otter climbed out of the water onto a protruding rock, groomed its fur, and slipped back into the ocean.
This morning, I set up chairs on the new boardwalk that surrounds our pond. I sat in each of them to see if I liked their orientation. Then I settled into one, thinking “I bet I will see something interesting.” This time, within seconds, a hummingbird came to the pond. In the winter “clean-up” we had missed a couple of cattails, and the hummingbird went straight to these raggedy tops. She probed them just as hummingbirds probe flowers, but she was gathering a huge beak-full of fluff for her nest.

So I thought back to work in organizations…what lessons are there? In all my years of work in the public sector, two people stood out as leaders who inspired me and supported me in doing my best. As I think back on it, they both had this “watch for interesting things” approach. Of course they had to work with business plans and the like, but they were extraordinary observers, listeners, and synthesists. They were not afraid to try the unexpected. They understood use of complexity theory in leadership without ever using those terms.
In your work as an organizational leader (formal or informal; internal or external), what do you watch for?