NEW & EXPANDED – Corporate Earthquakes and hacking for change

Hacking often has negative connotations, the anonymous tech wizard stealing your online identity or the scurrilous journalist hacking your voicemail. In light of this it was a bit of a surprise to find myself involved in hacking in 2013. In April last year I signed up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon ‘Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage’. CIPD invited anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues to join this process to generate creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of our organisations. Almost 2,000 people signed up from across the globe. We were asked to consider ways in which HR could be the catalyst for increased adaptability and how, as HR practitioners, we could play a role in spearheading change in our organisations. The aim of the hackathon was to create a practical set of bold actions that could then be applied to our own and other organizations. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect. I’d heard of hacks but must confess I thought they were to do with technology, coding and software. In fact, if you look up ‘hackathon’ on Wikipedia (as I did) this is how it describes the process:

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software.

But as I found out hackathons have moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. Nowadays, hacks are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in all types of areas from health services to political activism. Whilst some hacks retain a technological focus, and focus on finding digital solutions, others take a broader approach and are looking for any type of solution technological or otherwise. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in public services. NHS Hack Days, which retain the traditional focus on technological solutions, are a great example of the use of the hackathon model for developing public services. What are we really meaning when we talk about hacking an organisation or a process? Well it’s more than simply applying a structured approach to problem solving. It’s also about adopting a certain creative mentality and mindset. It’s what Tanya Snook (aka @spydergrrl) describes as ‘playful cleverness’. I really like this depiction of hacking, she says:

When you seek, in your everyday lives, to deliberately find opportunities to be clever, ethical, to enjoy what you are doing, to seek excellence, you are hacking. Now the key here is that this behaviour is deliberate. Not a happy accident. If you aren’t acting this way deliberately, then we need to change your thinking and behaviour a little bit in order to make this your default MO.

A similar point was made by Catherine Bracey in her TEDCity talk on ‘Why good hackers make good citizens’. For me, hacking is about thinking differently as well as doing things differently. You have to tackle problems and challenges in new and alternative ways to have any hope of solving persistent problems or barriers.

What did my CIPD hackathon look like? Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints. This was managed on a digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange and participants were supported by hackathon guides who wrote blogs, took part in hangouts and recorded videos to encourage further our thinking. Interestingly, the concept of Hackathon guides was the most controversial element of the whole process with some participants feeling it created a hierarchical structure of experts which was counter to the spirit of hacking. The hackathon process took place over a twelve week period, for NHS Hack Days it is completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same and you can design the hack duration to meet your needs. I’ll run through the process to give you a sense of what participation involved:

  • First, we were asked to help refine the problem, this was referred to as ‘swarming’ the problem (a lack of organisational adaptability). The 120 barriers to adaptability we came up with were then synthesized in to twelve main ‘enemies of adaptability’.
  • We were then invited to share our ‘moonshots’, descriptions of projects we thought could help to overcome the enemies we had identified.
  • Following this, we completed short mini-sprints commenting on each others ‘moonshots’ and signed up to join hack teams to work up the specific moonshots we were interested in.
  • Then we entered the main sprint. Once in teams we specced out the detail of our hacks working collaboratively in whichever way suited us. As our team was global in membership we made use of Google Drive, mural.ly and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack.
  • The lead author had responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it was designed to be a collaborative process from end to end.

I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The title of this post refers to one of those hacks, ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘ led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt Frost, Stephen Remedios, Conor Moss and Guido Rubio. Our hack focused on using immersive learning techniques to empower organisations to face up to seismic change, in doing so participants gain skills and ways of working for the future which will increase organisational agility to predict, survive and build positively on unexpected change.

The CIPD hackathon created a wide-ranging set of bold, practical hacks that were shared with participants, CIPD members and published for other organizations to try. The final report is here and as you read it you can see how the ideas ranged from the creatively complex to those brilliant in their simplicity (see for example ‘Chuck Out Your Chintz’ led by Gemma Reucroft aka @HRGem). Personally, I found it a great chance to get more familiar with new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability.

So why am I still excited about hackathons, what makes them different to any other form of staff or customer engagement?

I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think this spirit of ‘playful creativity’ can be used in all shapes and sizes of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational growth and development. Simply I believe hack days and hackathons are one potential antidote to clogged up systems and, more importantly, clogged up thinking (see this excellent blog from @whatsthepont for more on this) .

What I’ve found most exciting about these events is that they move beyond traditional models of public consultation and engagement to inspire people and solutions. You don’t come along to a hack just to comment, complain or have your voice heard, you come to contribute to a solution. At their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create progress. What’s so exciting about this model is that it thrives on collaboration and connection, bringing people together from a range of backgrounds, experiences and disciplines and it values everyone’s voice. It’s heady stuff for public engagement.

How often have you been pleasantly surprised or inspired by a colleague’s ideas? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions, grow new projects, develop new approaches. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more inclusive, connected way to solve problems and create momentum than traditional project teams or committees.

If you can make use of simple digital platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. Not everyone in an organisation will necessarily be up for using digital tech to manage the hack so you can either go back to basics and do it without digital tools or, even better in my book, use the process to help a wider group of staff get familiar with sharing their ideas and thoughts digitally. Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned…

I’ll leave you with Spydergrrl’s useful list of ways you can start hacking for an agile organisation, and you can hear to her talk about these issues in this video

  • Hack yourself: Redefine barriers as a source of motivation in their own right: instead of being frustrated by “the way things are always done,” challenge yourself to do it differently this time. Use yourself as a guinea pig: Work in a way that is outside your own norm. Challenge yourself to think outside your own box. Do something that scares you. Take a risk.
  • Hack your workspace: make it suit your workstyle (art supplies, toys, blank spaces, whiteboards, room to move, a library, whatever you need). Or better yet, leave it. Grab the equipment from your desk and spontaneously hijack boardrooms for weeks at a time in order to collaborate with your team. Work from home. Work from anywhere, any time.
  • Hack communications: Stop attaching documents to emails. Find creative ways to share knowledge in your team: Do daily stand-up meetings (time them!), use chat. Use visuals to share data. In the office where I currently work, you’ll find whiteboards in common areas, win boards to celebrate team wins, libraries to share resources, outlines/ slides/ diagrams taped up in common team spaces with comment sheets so people can give feedback. We still rely too much on email, but we’re trying.
  • Hack your department: We’re not Google but we can still innovate. We can be strategically agile: we can identify trends, we can see challenges with the way things are done and change them. If the required changes seem too big and too bold, we can start small: take the opportunity to make a minor tweak to a process and see if you make an improvement: Find creative ways to use existing systems, to produce better outcomes. Take a risk. Propose your ideas: go ahead an include your bold idea in your deliverable. Even if it gets removed in the next draft, at least you planted a seed. And if it doesn’t, you may incite change.
  • Hack silos: Begin and end all projects in collaborative spaces: check them for drafts, lessons learned and other information sources to expedite your progress, ask the Twitters, Google solutions from other [organisations] in other countries. Share your learnings organization-wide at project close-out. Crowdsource plans and strategies with internal stakeholders and then test your ideas with counterparts in other organizations. Make internal collaborative tools and sites your default tabs in your web browser and use them every day.
  • Hack your training: If you need to learn a new skill and can’t get the training at work, look for free training resources, meetups or other learning opportunities. Better yet, just do it. Take on projects that stretch your skills and knowledge. Can’t get approval? Do it anyway! Help a colleague with their project in their department. Or form a working group and do it for the whole of the organization.
  • Hack your career: Figure out how to work horizontally in a vertical environment: take a job in another stream or classification to expand the depth of your knowledge. Find a project you just need to be a part of and go be a part of it.
  • Hack your perspective: Empathize with your user. Find opportunities to be the client, not just the implementer. Go sit with a program team for weeks or months to better understand the challenges they face using systems in their day-to-day work. Take an assignment and see how the other half works and lives: If you work in a program, go try out enterprise-level projects. If you work on enterprise projects, go work in a client branch to really understand how enterprise-level decisions impact internal users.
  • Hack your network. Become a reverse mentor; teach an executive to use new tools or just chat with them about the realities of working differently. Join groups that work in another discipline or area of interest. Talk to our counterparts outside the organization to find out how they are solving the same problems.
  • Hack your work. Work differently. Every day.

That’s the key for me, the best thing of all, you don’t need permission for hacking, you can start in small ways with yourself, your mindset or your workspace, your approaches – as Doug Shaw would say:

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Let us know how it goes…

With special thanks to Andrew Jacobs and others for comments on previous drafts and the rest of my Corporate Earthquakes team.   Photo by sobczak.paul under Creative Commons Attribution licence

One small step for L&D, one giant leap for workplace learning…

Have you ever watched a small child learn to stand up and walk? It’s a long process with their first steps preceded by many months of pulling themselves up by the sofa, a random toy, your leg, the cat…the environment may be familiar but the longing to stand and the views from a different height are new and full of potential. Even when they achieve the standing position it takes many more months for them to become consistently stable, hence lots of tumbles, trips and falls. And yes sometimes there are tears but also there are giggles and laughs, and often wide-eyed wonder at how the work looks from their new vantage point. And they will still look for their Mum or Dad, for a stabilising hand, someone to turn to when the path gets rocky or the knee gets scraped. But it’s a journey full of exploration, learning, excitement and practical experience. image Now think about the worst type of learning you’ve experienced at work. All too often we ask people to join us in the classroom for a single one-off ‘hit’ of training, we take them from crawling to walking in one foul swoop and sometimes we don’t even bother to ask if or why they want to learn to walk. For some people that’s a bruising, scary experience and it’s no wonder they fall over when they’re back in their jobs, the learning experience is so ephemeral or awful that the skills, knowledge and behaviours mentioned are half-remembered but rarely acted upon. L&D needs to step up to its role in supporting holistic development rather than just providing training. We should be helping people to identify their goals and needs and responding with a more comprehensive but varied approach. If we want people to learn to walk tall we need to start with small steps (through discussion, listening, bite sized learning, stretch assignments, shadowing), offering a blend of different experiences and resources to support them as they develop their skills and capability. There might be some formal training in there, I’m not evangelical about informal and social learning (just very enthusiastic!). I do think there is a place for workshops and formal training but context & integration have to be key – how will people apply their new skills, how will they pick themselves up and start over again when they tumble? And how can we support them with that (for example by coaching, mentoring, action learning, building networks of peer support) so they’re encouraged to persist, practice and share new skills without reverting to old behaviours or getting stuck where they land.

The biggest small step we can take with our colleagues is to help them see that they can stand on their own two feet when it comes to their ongoing development and that they are able to choose an approach that suits them and the particular issue they are facing. We need to be curating resources people can draw upon at they point they’re needed, building connections and networks, helping people to build their competence at sharing their expertise with others and giving them the confidence to take control of their own development and learning. To use a bit of a hackneyed phrase we need to move from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. I’m comfortable with that it feels right to me.

I don’t want to be doling out pearls of wisdom from my carefully guarded stash, I want to see people talking to each other about new tools, ideas and ways of working in their teams, at staff meetings, during project work and over lunch. That’s a learning culture, one where a good idea spreads contagiously, where fresh takes on persistent problems are grabbed by the people affected and worked through collaboratively. But it’s challenging in workplaces where training is the norm, where time is pressured and resources are scarce. It means we need to get out there and talk to our colleagues, understand their work and their goals and then shape our support to meet those needs. We should have been doing this anyway, it’s not rocket science and our world is full of people thinking carefully about how we do this and providing heaps of inspiration about how to do it. To name but two see Jane Hart’s work on learning concierges or Andrew Jacobs on the transformation he’s led at Lambeth Council, he also gave us this list of 50 crazy ideas to change L&D, why not pick one…

image For me it’s been about learning new skills & approaches like digital curation, appreciative inquiry and action learning sets, exploring the role of social platforms like Curatr and Yammer but above all else it’s been about climbing out of the training box and thinking creatively. It’s involved going back to the basics, talking to people and managers about what they need and taking it from there. That means we, (yes that includes you), have to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our own ways of thinking and ways of working. Are you clinging onto something, an approach to ‘training’ or L&D because it’s appropriate or because it feels comfortable? Do you listen to your fellow L&D’ers on these changing practices and think ‘how exciting but it won’t work at my organisation’? If that felt familiar, do you ever stop and ask yourself whether you’ve tried something new in the last six months. If not, why? I’m still learning, still taking those baby steps, tentative and fragile though they may be but it feels good. Sometimes you’ve got to try something new, stumble and persist to be able to walk tall. Will you join me? What small step will you take to transform your practice?

New frontiers? An update to Future challenges, take-down notices and social media research

The 4th annual SRA conference on social media in social research took place on May 16th. As I mentioned in my previous post the theme of the event was future challenges and I was pleased that the six challenges I’d highlighted in my post resonated throughout the day. It was a packed event with some really interesting and thoughtful presentations. Dan Nunan (@DanNunan) from Henley Business School kicked off the day by challenging us to consider the legal issues of consent and data access in this time of increasing legal regulation. I was particularly taken by his consideration of the nature of informed consent in social media research. He reminded us that most social media users barely scan, if they read them at all, the terms & conditions of the platforms they use. With this in mind he suggested the position taken by some researchers that use of data taken from publicly available social media is ‘fair game’ might be suspect. At best he argued we have ‘uninformed consent’, it might be legal but is it ethical? image

Dan wanted us to think about whether we need to conceive a new form of informed consent, he talked about ‘participative’ consent where consent is sought frequently and explicitly from participants. And he cautioned that the voices of researchers in the social sciences have not been heard well enough in current legislative debates around the use of personal data. He drew our attention to the EU’s potential legislation requiring explicit consent (see picture bar above) which could have far-reaching implications for our access to data posted on social media. Challenging stuff so it was good to hear Samantha McGregor (@sammibmcg), Senior Policy Manager at the ESRC talk about how the research councils are engaging in this debate giving researchers a collective voice.

Next up was Professor Rob Procter (@robnprocter) from Warwick University describing how the Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (@cosmos_project) – which is a collaboration of a number of academic researchers – is developing an open access platform which will give researchers a range of tools for social media data analysis. See the photo below for the impressive range of analytical tools this will provide, it was exciting to hear that the first desktop release of the platform will be launched at the ESRC Research Methods Festival in July

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Then we heard from Joanna Disson & Jamie Baker at the Food Standards agency about how they have been making forays into using social media in government social research. A fascinating case study showing that the tide may be turning in government research towards accepting social media data as one of a number of sources of evidence to inform policy-making. They have been tackling a prevailing scepticism about the reliability, integrity and robustness of social media research by commissioning a think piece from Dr Farida Vis (@flygirltwo) and by using social media in a number of small-scale experiments as part of their ongoing research projects.

image The team have been instrumental in setting up a small group of government social scientists who are keen to explore how to use social media research. It was interesting to hear how the relationship between communications and research has been key to making this happen and heartening that social media research and engagement is becoming more important in the FSA’s social policy research. Joanna and Jamie described how using social media both as a platform and as a tool for gathering research intelligence helps the FSA to stay in touch with hard to reach audiences and collaborate better with interest communities like the food industry.

Next up were a team from TNS BMRB Scotland presenting a case study of their social media work analysing Facebook data and the Scottish Independence debates. What was interesting here was how Preritt Souda (@preriit2131) and Alistair Graham have been comparing the findings from their analysis of Facebook posts to the main pages of the Better Together and Yes campaigns to the more conventional methods of polling.They have found some differences in public opinion looking at both sets of data comparatively and I’m sure there is scope for more work of this type comparing and contrasting the attitudes of the public in different spheres of political and other debate.

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After lunch Dhiraj Murthy (@dhirajmurthy), from Goldsmiths University, did a terrific job of re-energising us with his talk introducing social network analysis of social media, he provided lots of insight into how critical sociology can be enhanced by this type of analysis and gave useful pointers for researchers new to this area. We were particularly taken by his example of SNA for The Voice UK and it will surprise no one to learn that whilst Kylie is the super-connector it’s Tom Jones who leads the lack as the super-ego! Seriously though Dhiraj was able to convey the methodological challenges of these approaches but also their very valuable contribution to applied research topics from race and racism through to health promotion and extremism. He was a strong advocate of the application of a critical eye to all social media methodologies so that social scientists can make use of their contribution to exsiting debates without falling foul of accusations of bias or unrepresentativeness.

Samantha McGregor then gave the conference an update on the ESRC approach to social media research. It was good to hear a reiteration of the ESRC’s commitment to new forms of data as a priority area for investment but disappointing to have confirmation that budget constraints mean there will not be another major call for research in this area this year. The ESRC has also decided to look at other new forms of data such as CCTV alongside social media research. Samantha explained the many and varied ways in which the ESRC is already supporting developments in this area and confirmed that Professor David DeRoure (@dder) is now working alongside the ESRC team as a strategic advisor for social media research to ensure that future investments and initiatives are aligned to work being done by the other research councils in the UK and internationally. There was a strong emphasis on cross-disciplinary approaches to new forms of data. The session ended with a rallying call for social researchers to contribute to the current BIS consultation on spending priorities for the coming year, you can do that here.

The last paper of the day was from Suay Ozkula (@suayozkula) it was a fascinating introduction to her PhD research on digital activism at Amnesty International. Her project is a ‘multilayered ethnography’ and it was great to end the day with a real focus on more qualitative approaches to social media research. Suay has been working at Amnesty International during this process and as such has been able to capture a real insider account of how one third sector organisation is grappling with the new challenges posed by ‘digital activism’ including trying to establish a working defination of what it is and how it differs from the traditional forms of activism Amnesty International has been engaged in.

The day ended with a Question Time style panel chaired by Simon Haslam representing the SRA and involving myself, Rob, Dhiraj and Dan. It was rather better behaved than the BBC version and we were at times dangerously close to being in violent agreement with one another.

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We tackled questions from the floor including: how we can build adequate capability for these new methodological approaches; how are participants in research viewing our use of their data; how should we tackle the legal and ethical implications of social media research; and , how we can address the concerns of those worried about the representativeness of social media data.

  • On the first point our thoughts included making sure the method, tools and critical thinking around social media research are included on university curricula, and reinforced by DTCs; ensuring that opportunities for development are given to existing lecturers, ethics board members and research commissioners; looking to build opportunities for development in all sectors of social research so that the research agenda is driven by many different approaches and not dominated by one approach/set of approaches; incorporating peer led workshops and events to build cross-disciplinary collaborations and to enable us as a community to keep pace in this fast changing area; Rob made the case for supporting the development of citizen social science by encouraging us to share our knwoeldge with the public both on projects and in developing new ideas and solutions through events like Hackathons and data dives.
  • We discussed the engagement of participants and I reminded people about the research that we had done with participants at NatCen last year. You can find the report here: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/research-using-social-media-users-views/
  • In terms of making sure the concerns of social science are addressed in ongoing discussions about the legal and ethical frameworks for access to public data, we were all of one voice arguing that we as individuals and professional bodies need to start talking quickly and loudly about the benefits of social research using social media data for the public interest.
  • On the final point about assuaging concerns about the representativeness and robustness of methods the panel and audience discussed the need to be  confident about the methods we use,  be critical in our use of new data and new social media and be prepared to make the case for the benefits and insight research in this area can add to our existing understanding of social life.

The SRA will be publishing the event presentations on their website shortly and you can also see all the tweets from the event here.

Future challenges, take down notices & social media research

I’m taking part in a panel at the SRA’s annual social media in social research conference tomorrow and thought I’d take the opportunity to make some personal reflections on the challenges facing social media research in the future. These are top of head thoughts which I’ll come back to after the event tomorrow. You can follow tweets from the event at the hashtag #SRAconf.

 

You might be able to explain social media using doughnuts, but what about how we research that behaviour and the data it produces. Three years into our New Social Media, New Social Science? peer-led network we have over 600 researchers in our community and we’ve witnessed an explosion of interest in social media research in the social sciences.  Over the course of those three years researchers from around the world have come together in person and online to share their experiences, frustrations and achievements. We’ve identified a number of challenges.

There is no doubt that there are now more people talking about social media research, it has become part of mainstream methodological debate and researchers are developing new tools for exploring social media data and understanding the social media dimension of contemporary life. It’s hard to find any sector of life where the promise and potential of ‘big data’ haven’t been touted as the next big thing.

But we face a key methodological challenge. I’m struck by the fact that quite simply most social media data is ‘not quantitative data, rather qualitative data on a quantitative scale’ (Francesco D’Orazio) – we have yet to fully address the fact that a high proportion of social media traffic consists of pictures not text. The social science of images and visual data is not hugely well served by current approaches and tools which focus on text and numerical data. There are some researchers leading the charge in this area (see this from Dr Farida Vis, for example, on the challenges of analysing visual data from social media) but we have much to learn from colleagues working in the digital humanities sphere.

image  This brings us to the collaborative challenge. I’m confident that the most powerful insight from social media research will come from transdisciplinary efforts drawing on the varied insights and skills of for example statisticians, qualitative researchers, digital curators, information scientists, machine learning experts and human geographers. We have a window of opportunity to forge a new shape and rhythm for our research methods and epistemologies, I’m not convinced we’re yet fulfilling the potential transformative nature of this moment.

We also face profound ethical and legal challenges. In a week when internet search giants have been legally required by an EU court to respect individual’s rights ‘to be forgotten’ we are talking about using social media data for research. We might feel that our social research is a benign endeavour contrasted to commercial harvesting of customer insight data but we all face similar ethical and legal challenges: whose data? whose consent? whose ownership? All complex issues, as shown by our recent NatCen research on the views of social media users about researchers use of their data. We have only just begun to scrape the surface of this debate and meanwhile data is being mined, harvested, analysed and reported in increasing volume. The critical moments which will shape and define the ethical and legal frameworks for the use of social media data will probably not come from social research but from the use of social media data in the commercial world or media realm, these industries practices may shape our future access to research data. Are we engaging enough with these sectors and issues?

And in a world where technology moves fast we face a capability challenge. How many of us are really au fait with the worlds we are researching on social media platforms? Which brings us to the connective or contextual challenge how can we research what we don’t understand or use? We know from our members that many methods lecturers, research supervisors, research commissioners, and research ethics board members do not feel adequately equipped to make rounded, informed decisions about the quality, ethics or value of social media research projects and proposals.

Finally, there is a synthesis challenge, how if at all can new forms of research and findings map onto, elaborate or further inform conventional social research data?

Of course challenges are hard, knotty things to tackle but they also give us great opportunities to really push the boundaries of our practice as social scientists. Social media research needs social science as much as it does data science, it needs anthropology and ethnography as well as big data analytics, it needs to reflect, explore and understand the context and communities which anchor and shape social media data. I’m up for the challenge, are you?

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