Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Social Technologies

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?

KM as Hierarchical?

Yesterday I tweeted that authors of a blog post about knowledge management had managed to push my buttons. I assume that in writing their piece they researched through a number of sources. Perhaps they read the “knowledge management” literature driven by software vendors that many of us dismissed in the 90s.

If the relationships amongst social media and knowledge management interest you, read their post and the evolving list of comments. My comments follow.


I’m rarely at a loss for words, but am not even sure where to begin. I’ll keep it to 5 brief comments.

1) There is no mention of knowledge management as complex, comprehensive work that can be a touchstone for a range of activities and tools, some of which may have nothing to do with technologies and some of which may fit hand and glove with social media.

2) If knowledge management is top-down, why does so much good work happen under the radar (ideally later infused into organizations)? And–by definition–if participation in a group is prescribed it is not a community of practice.

3) Who came up with the idea that all or most “knowledge” is stored in KM efforts? Most good KM leaders and consultants perpetually steer clients away from misguided repository-heavy tactics. Solid research has taught us for decades that people go to people when they need to learn, problem-solve, and share and generate knowledge. Loved it when M. Rumizen called communities of practice the “Killer Apps” of KM.

4) What are the traditional KM techniques referenced in the post? When our advisory board designed an MA in KM over a decade ago, we put focus on leadership for engagement and shifts away from mechanistic thinking, communities of practice, narrative, story, peer assists, action reviews, social network analysis, used of social media such as wikis for collaborative work, and–yes–a small amount of emphasis on repositories for essential information, ideally with links to stories, videos, resource people etc.

5) If knowledge management were as hierarchical, mechanical and simple as implied in this post, we wouldn’t still be wrestling with the big change leadership issues (and related terminology) that comes with rethinking how organizations work. Social media use is a brilliant example of what these changes can look like. Part of the chaos comes from the as-yet-unresolved collision of past and future models of work. I think back to Karl Wiig (one of the “traditional” KM founders) and his description of KM as a social movement.

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?

Respected Leaders’ Work with Boundaries

I am about to respond to a request from some colleagues to post ideas from recent research. To set the stage, I am sharing the abstract from my dissertation here first. I have added a couple of notes to it in red font:


We work in organizational structures designed by industrial era architects, yet find ourselves in a knowledge era that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism and enabling organizational learning. This empirical research is driven by the need to better understand leadership in complex, unpredictable, horizontal, boundary-spanning environments.

This study explores how persons who are respected for their leadership in horizontal environments understand and work with boundaries. Each participant also brought current or recent experience as a leader in a vertical hierarchy, enabling them to compare and contrast these environments.

Data were gathered through interviews and–in many cases–direct observation of leaders at work. Phenomenography, ethnography and the integration of theoretical material were combined as an experiment in systemic phenomenography. This approach revealed detail and diversity of potential value for practitioners working in varied contexts. It also added to theoretical work about boundary critique and complex system leadership.

Participants generally described their vertical environments with factual statements about numbers of employees, structures, software, products and services. They generally described horizontal environments–such as communities of practice and shared leadership teams–with more emotion, revealing passion and frustrations. They had moved into horizontal work for several reasons including problems not being resolvable through traditional, vertical approaches. Frustrations sometimes related to the marginalization of horizontal environments, difficulties bringing learning and innovation from the horizontal into the vertical, and workload.

Participants understood boundaries and edges in different ways. One of the most common was to see edges of organizations and groups as places for the mixing of ideas to enable learning and innovation. (I have called these places Intellectual Estuaries )

Some participants thought consciously about boundaries in their work, and all worked implicitly with boundaries in several interconnected ways. Their behaviours included scanning the environment for potentially productive connections, making context-specific boundary decisions and maintaining adaptive tensions (the focus of my next blog post). Many worked consciously to integrate multiple identities associated with work in different cultures and disciplines.

KEYWORDS: Leadership, horizontal, boundaries, communities of practice, complexity, knowledge management, governance, counter-terrorism, narrative, systemic phenomenography.

Taken from: Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

Who’s In & Who’s Out?

A comment by John Lebkowsky in twitter about democracy standing in line piqued my interest and led me to his blog post about’s 125-member United States issues forum, which is described as “a civil, more deliberative discussion of national public policy issues and politics in the United States among people with diverse political perspectives.” After receiving an automated message from the forum (he had attempted to share thoughts more than once in a 12 hour period) he wrote: “The implication is interesting: democracy is not about enabling discussions, but restricting them. From their perspective, I suppose the idea is that an unrestricted list will be dominated by a few voices. Savvy online communitarians know that every forum will have a few vocal members, though, and many more observers who rarely if ever speak.” (As a post script, I have learned that the organizers are consciously experimenting and this situation may change.)

Later in my afternoon of intermittent lurking, I came across this blog post about biases against lurkers. It explains how a community tried to exclude anyone who was not visibly active and drew a humorous parallel: “How about if Wikipedia limited access to only those who had contributed on a definition?”

I recall years ago in a CPsquare Foundations Workshop helping a group that wanted to dispel some prejudice through a project they called: “Let’s get more positive about the term lurkers.” I guess that work still has some room for application.

I wonder about the leanings of the people crafting these rules (degree of introversion, degree of desire for control, affinity for rules or software “solutions”). I wonder if they do similar things in their living rooms: “Now remember, you have to leave if you don’t talk…and don’t forget you can only speak once in 5 minutes.”

Sometimes you just have to write

Yesterday, I read an article in the Economist that inspired this poem:

with apologies (and credit) to John Godfrey Saxe

There were six tweeps in Cyberspace
exploring a mistake.
“How could exec’s have gone so wrong
when so much was at stake?”
So in <140 characters
Each shared a different take.

The First (who wore a black belt)
said “defects had crept too high”
No doubt because of variants
allowed to go awry.
“So, tight controls could fix this up
(Through experts such as I).”

The Second, sketched connecting dots,
and said, “It’s very plain.
The data held the wisdom
but were siloed; such a shame.”
“A data warehouse architect
Could prevent this flaw again.”

The Third concurred but added that
“The data are one piece.”
“Economists have thought this out,
It’s story skills we need”
“We call them ‘Data Scientists’:
a sexy growing niche.”

“The IT’s just a symptom of
a mechanistic view.
They lost their innovative edge;
the workers were their glue.”
The Fourth concluded that execs
ignored what workers knew.

The Fifth (who had an OD blog)
proposed a four-pronged plan
“If we were there, we would have used
environmental scans.”
“Through PAR, effectiveness
continually expands.”

The Sixth, had followed all the tweets,
debating how to share
that complex wholes are more that parts,
where MBAs despair.
“You’re claiming truths in retrospect
for which you can’t prepare.”

And so these tweeps in Cyberspace
had shared their thoughts and fears,
from in their fields & disciplines
supported by their peers:
Their efforts to collaborate
constrained by their careers.

© Alice MacGillivray

Digital Habitats & Tech Stewardship

If you are interested in communities of practice and related technologies, there is an exciting new book in print. Recently, I wrote a review of the book through a complexity lens, which you can find here.

The authors’ blog about the book is here and a nifty little online interview about it (Ward Cunningham interviewing John D. Smith) is on YouTube.

As a PS; Nancy White called my attention to blog posts on a similar topic by Chris Rodgers.