Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Learning

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?

What are we doing on twitter?

You have undoubtedly noticed the exponential growth of tips—on twitter, for example—about how to achieve things through social media. Often the desired result is simply more followers.  Some people want huge numbers of followers (see @jeffbullas for tips) where others such as John Tropea @johnt reduce the numbers of people they follow to avoid overload.

In the deluge of input we get through social media, I wonder how many people think about the implications of routes they choose. I’ve pulled two people out of my twittersphere simply because they come to mind as very different, despite their overlapping expertise.

Pete Cashmore (I usually think of him as @mashable) with over 2 million unique twitter followers, shares content about social media. He recommends people never talk about themselves in their tweets, usually walks the talk. Jean Russell (@nurturegirl) comes to mind as one of several active twitter users who rarely tweets in a totally impersonal way. I haven’t heard her advocate a whole-person approach to tweeting, but she models that practice. By the way, I’ve not met either Pete or Jean face-to-face.

I can’t help but reflect on these two common styles and how they fit into societal trends. We crave good information, sound bites and references to make us sound more credible (especially in win-lose environments). @mashable provides a gold mine of factoids and links, often based on analytical work. When I go to @mashable, it’s a bit like going to a lecture or encyclopedia. It feels mechanical and entity-oriented. I suspect he has a strong network for complicated problem-solving. I get no sense of Pete as a person. I get no feeling of relationship; in fact I envision a message to him slipping towards the bottom of a very large pile. I don’t feel that my critical thinking is challenged. I feel pulled into the illusion that everything has a “right answer.” I do feel better armed for conversations over coffee and reassured that I can catch up efficiently on important content by visiting his sites.

Sometimes Jean’s tweets have “no value” for me, yet they might lead me to picture her wrestling with ideas at her computer or walking on a sunny SF street. Difficult to pin an ROI on that, but she attends to relationship: the essence of complex systems. I suspect she has a strong network for complex problem-solving. Intentionally or not, she is working with very different ways of knowing, and different ways of using twitter as a tool or medium.

We often focus on what we want or need individually as a person with a social media account, reading the work from others’ accounts. How do we think about ways in which we are shaping societies through the choices we make?

Musings on Client Panelists in Problem-Based Learning

For over 12 years, I’ve been involved with problem-based learning processes in which mid-career professionals present their ideas to executive panels. The settings and my roles have varied, but there are common threads: intense learning environments; current, complex or wicked challenges (problems); and client panel members who drop into the situation without the lived experience of the days or weeks leading up to the team presentations.

As part of the learning process, I expose participants to a range of leadership constructs and models. In this post, I will use the term “complex” leadership as an umbrella term for a range of theories and models associated with complex, knowledge-intensive, unpredictable environments. And I will generalize the term “complicated” leadership as an umbrella for more familiar theories and models associated with more linear cause-and-effect relationships.

There is anecdotal evidence that participants know they are working with complexity, yet struggle with how to distil their work into “presentations” coherent with complexity thinking. Some present linear, sequential, recommendations in traditional formats. Others present in ways rarely if ever seen in boardrooms, with or without conscious thought about complexity.

Almost since my first engagement with this approach, I’ve felt that work with the panel may be the weak link. In this post, I muse about one layer of these concerns. This may be a very early pre-publication draft about this sort of learning design.

When participants use non-traditional media such as storytelling or theatre depicting a different future, panel members often speak to the emotional impact such “presentations” have had. They rarely offer critique on presentation methods; their comments are about impact and content.

When participants use more traditional media, panel members often critique style, usually with comments about being more specific, detailed, emphatic, structured, and so on. As one example, when a team presented rationale and ideas for an unusual, multi-sector research and education centre (which would require considerable dialogue with potential partners and publics), a panellist asked about construction costs and phasing. As another example, a resource person (who worked with a panel member) stated there hadn’t been anything concrete in the presentations (whereas presenters believed they had included many concrete details).

So, what is at play here? Let me preface this hypothesis by saying that many executives with whom I have worked are skilled complexity thinkers. The nature of their positions requires them to work across boundaries with incomplete data. Yet many work in rigid structures with tools and measures rooted in the Industrial Era.

When panel members come into a seemingly familiar situation (which they might frame as being briefed) perhaps some default to a set of expectations not well suited to a complex problem. They may not have examined their biases. They may not have thought about how leadership and management differ, or how leadership can take dramatically different forms in different domains (as articulated by Snowden and Boone). They may come in thinking as supervisors more than clients or as mentors more than as peers-for-the-moment struggling with an intractable challenge. They may not have time to reflect beyond the emotional impact of non-traditional, and use media such as storytelling as springboards for new ideas.

In a very practical sense, what does this mean for use of a problem-based learning process for actual, current challenges? In some settings, its use has been pulled back (perhaps because questions of panel readiness weren’t studied and addressed). In others, panel members are now better briefed than they once were about the participant experience and what to expect. But I do not know of examples of client panellists being briefed on content from the learning experience (such as complexity theory or complex leadership or different forms of knowledge and limitations of scientific knowledge). Would such advance briefing be helpful? If so, how might it best be presented in ways that ease executives into seeing non-traditional work in enriched ways? What if some panellists are locked into industrial model thinking and tools? Could such preparation be counter-productive?

In “The Death of the Expert,” Richardson and Tait describe the role of the neo-expert in a way that rings true for me in this form of problem-based learning. “Modernist experts do our thinking for us, whereas neo-experts help us think for ourselves… Whereas modernist experts attempt to replicate successful patterns, neo-experts attempt to create new successful patterns (or behaviors) for each intervention” (2010 p.36)

I welcome insights with others who ponder similar challenges or can share related learning experiences.

More views on the BP-KM link

(or lack thereof)

I received from Nick Milton and Roan Yong on my post “BP’s spill and KM excellence: A paradox?” Both–in somewhat different ways–challenged the idea that there was a paradox: Nick (speaking independently but with deep internal BP expertise) argued primarily from the Black Swan perspective: no one could see this coming. Roan argued that BP is great with peer assists but they are designed for simple problems using Snowden’s Cynefin framework, whereas the blowout was complex. (I’d say peer-assists are primarily for complicated work and may have merit in the complex domain).

Now Tom Davenport has weighed in in an HBR post entitled “If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then.” He also contrasted the CEO’s approaches. Davenport states that BP’s “prized ‘peer assist’ program — the jewel of its knowledge program — was barely functioning.” Although he does not mention boundaries or environmental programs specifically, he hints at boundaries in statements such as “The cultural byword had become full steam ahead” (note mechanical metaphor).

A range of interesting comments is trickling in to the HBR site, and I hope they will continue to do so. Watch the HBR post space and comment/trackback here or there if you have insights to share.

BP’s spill & KM excellence: A paradox?

Photographer Brian Skerry tells us that 90% of the big fish in the ocean have disappeared in the last 50-60 years. And most of us didn’t even have that context as we turned our eyes to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s early June and there has already been a MEDEVAC of a worker with chemical poisoning. The leak may not be fully stopped until August. The effects of chemical poisoning in a human—according to CNN news—can last for more than a decade. We have no idea about the massive number of non-human lives lost. Oil and dispersal chemicals will be caught up in currents and spread well beyond the Gulf. And meteorologists are predicting a bad hurricane season.

Those of us who work with Knowledge Management (KM) know that BP has—or had—an exceptionally good reputation for work with knowledge as an asset. BP won the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise award many times, and many KM publications draw from the years when Lord Browne was CEO. How can a company that developed such a high skill level be at the helm of such a disaster, apparently uncertain about everything from technical solutions to communication?

I can think of many hypotheses related to knowledge management and they are just that; I have no evidence. One has to do with the nature of the KM processes and tools BP developed and used, and those they didn’t.

I heard one of BP’s well-known KM experts present in 2003. He cited Lord Browne’s catalyzing quote: “Anyone in the organisation who is not directly accountable for making a profit should be involved in creating and distributing knowledge that the company can use to make a profit.” (In this post, I set aside the for-profit element). After the presentation I noted that almost all the focus had been on knowledge sharing and distribution through communities of practice, virtual teams, action reviews, and so on. I asked about the “creating” part of Browne’s knowledge equation. (At the time, we were very much aware of the limitations of knowledge sharing or transfer; it is part of the reason we have retained that awkward umbrella term of “knowledge management.”) Knowledge generation was not being ignored—he explained. It was an integral part of the peer assist process.

For those not involved with knowledge management, a peer assist is used to improve plans before they are put into action. Typically a team that has successfully completed a major project flies in to meet with a team about to undertake a similar project. By exploring the rich edge between experiential learning in another context and knowledge of the new context, valuable new knowledge can be created.

Yes, this is a great example of knowledge generation. But it is tightly bounded by the project mindset. Drilling for oil is a standard part of BP’s suite of activities. Capping a leak that could never happen from a rig that could never sink is not. Might the epistemic culture of engineering (would I be accurate in saying this kind of engineering is best with how, what and when questions?) restrict the possibilities for exploring different kinds of questions requiring knowledge generation?