What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange: update

Here is the full slide deck from my session at #LT15Uk today and you can see Storify of the Twitter stream here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and experiences of building communities of practice for learning. Thanks to: Niall Gavin, Con Sotodis, Martin Couzins and Helen Blunden for their input into my thinking:

What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange

I’m a big advocate of the potential for peer led networks and communities to help improve performance, build shared understanding and develop professional practice. I’ve written about this before and I’m looking forward to talking about my experiences of building networks and communities in and beyond the workplace at the Learning Technologies conference at the end of this month. I’ll maybe see some of you there, and if you’re coming along you can also pick my brains at an LT eXchanges session on the 28th Jan.

As Julian Stodd has expressed beautifully in his work on the Social Age, agile learning and community building are key to how we can continue to make sense of our rapidly changing world. We have moved on from (or at least we should have) assuming that the classroom or instruction are always the best route for helping our teams make sense of their work, learn new approaches and develop their practice. Communities, and conversations, whether face to face or online, formal or informal, are critical.

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Image by Julian Stodd

But where do you start and how can we support communities so that they flourish and grow?

I’ve found networks & communities can be invaluable for empowering staff and appreciating & recognising the expertise already in your organisation. They can also help to expose great work which sometimes get buried within team or departmental silos. I’ve had some really positive experiences watching communities grow and visibly fizz with energy but equally have seen well-intentioned networks and communities start loudly and then fade away.

A sense of shared purpose is important, as is having the right organisational foundations and support, but it’s not always easy especially when everyone is busy and hard pressed for time. Even with the best intentions sometimes communities of practice don’t take off or have the hoped for effect.

I’ll be (attempting!) to tweet the key messages from my slot on the day but I’m really keen to gather other perspectives and experiences for sharing with the audience, I know many of you out there have your own insights and experiences to share so I’m asking for your help, I’d love to know your thoughts on these questions:

  • what makes for a great community of practice?
  • what experiences have you had, good and bad?
  • what advice would you give to someone just starting out with a new community?

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Image from jarche.com

Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’ll share them on the day (with attribution) and here…

My year of blogging tentatively…

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The WordPress.com stats monkeys kindly prepared an automated 2014 annual report for my blog. Hopefully this review tool won’t cause WordPress the same headache Facebook’s year in review triggered. I’m in two minds about these auto generated reviews of the year generally. But it was good to see this one because it prompted me to reflect on blogging and what it’s meant to me this year. Last Christmas I took the plunge and decided to give blogging a serious go and whilst I haven’t blogged prolifically I am pleased with how it’s gone so far, it’s a work in progress like most things in my life! I’ve really enjoyed having the space to work out my thoughts and importantly to engage with those who’ve been kind enough to read and comment on a range of topics including learning & development, ethics and social research.

It’s been fascinating to reflect on how my relationship with blogging has evolved during the year. I definitely suffered from stage fright at the beginning, over thinking how people might react to posts, there were lots of drafts left hanging as I prevaricated! Slowly I found my feet and part of that was realising that when I wrote it should be about things that are important to me, I can’t blog to order it seems to cause the metaphorical ink in my pen dry up when I try. I think my better posts this year have been inspired by things I feel passionate about or am genuinely intrigued by and that’s how it should be, like in life. There were points towards the end of the year when I couldn’t post because life got in the way and I was surprised to find I missed the thinking process, the musing, and crafting words to express germs of ideas. So I’m looking forward to writing more again in the New Year, but I’m also conscious that I don’t want blogging to become another item on my To Do list, whenever it started to feel like a chore it lost it’s sheen for me and I found myself unable to write. I admire bloggers who post weekly (some daily) but it doesn’t work for me (perhaps that should be yet!?). For me blogging is another way to engage, take part in conversations and play with ideas with a wider range of folks than I see on a daily basis, it’s about learning & experimenting & some deeper thinking…

I’ve really learnt about the power of blogging this year for forging ideas, relationships and connections. It’s a form that can be incredibly powerful for giving a wide range of people a voice and a platform. Blogging & reading others blogs has opened my mind to new ideas and novel ways of approaching old issues. For me it’s become an important way to make sense of my professional practice and to expose myself to different ways of thinking. No one was more surprised or delighted than me to find that this initial post led to a deluge of people wanting to be part of a book of blogs on social media research.

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It was a roller coaster ride but that community of bloggers, some established, some novices, created something very special, published in October a mere four months later the book stands as an example of how blogging can push the boundaries.

Here’s an excerpt from that report on my year of blogging tentatively:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report  I hope to share a cable car with you sometime soon!

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read or comment and encourage me in my baby blogging steps, it’s meant the world to me. And a huge thank you to all the bloggers who’ve kept me intrigued, puzzled and curious this year with your posts. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations here, on Twitter and in person.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year, see you in 2015. 🎉🎊

In the margins

  

Image from http://airshipdaily.com/blog/marginalia 

Some people write in their books; others view this as desecration. The practice of adding handwritten notes, or marginalia, to books has been going on for centuries. (The Evolution of Marginalia: Kiri L. Wagstaff)

Our love affair with the e-book is showing no signs of abating but like many people I’m still attached to real books and have shelves (and boxes) full of books I can’t bear to part with. Books have been a huge part of my life, I’ve always been an avid reader and novels have often been a refuge for me, a place to lose myself for an hour or two or three.

When e-books came along I swore I’d never convert but one Kindle app and three years down the road almost every novel I read now is read on Kindle, and for me it’s joy to walk around with an endless library on tap. But I still find it difficult to read anything other than novels, newspapers and magazines online. If I have to work with a text, rather than just read it for pleasure, wherever possible I work with a real book.  In a similar way, I still find it difficult to adapt to digital note taking, I have tried and failed to ‘get’ Evernote. I still carry around a leather notebook that jostles for space with my iPad in my bag. For me there’s something about the physical act of writing, turning pages, and taking notes that helps my concentration and ability to absorb ideas and concepts. It is how I learnt to learn and so far has been quite impervious to change. And one other thing hasn’t changed, I still wouldn’t dream of writing notes in the book itself.

I listened to R3 programme on marginalia earlier in the year, the practice has been going on for centuries and is a well established focus for historical research. Most e-readers now allow you to mark up and make comments digitally, and whilst some people are worried about how these digital marginalia can be preserved for future generations, software developers are busy adding functionality to our e-readers to enable us to share our mark ups, comments and reflections.

I find this whole topic fascinating and challenging. As someone who’s always been fanatical about not marking books (I used to have a whole selection of bookmarks to prevent page folding) the concept that another reader’s written annotations could add value rather than detract from a text was a bit of an anathema to me. I admit I find other people’s scribbling distracting, it leads my eye and without great attention I’m pulled into the previous reader’s slipstream taking their ideas, questions and interpretations rather than forming my own. 

But the programme challenged me to think again. As have various posts and articles I’ve read about the topic. One researcher, Cathy Marshall explored the value students drew from using second-hand annotated text books. Unlike me these students were drawn to  marked up copies in libraries for the handed down wisdom of former readers. When I’ve discussed this with other people, they’ve often felt the same, for them annotations add something new to the reading exprience.

This got me thinking, aren’t annotations on texts similar to shared wikis and collaborative blogging?  They’re really not that different to digital curation and the collective sense making we co-create in digital spaces which I’m all for.  So I’m intrigued by why I’m so uncomfortable with making or seeing annotations in the margins of my books?

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect.  I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up. If you’re interested, these posts all discuss the value of historical and digital marginalia. 

Despite all of this I still find myself loathe to pick up that pen and highlighter! 

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you feel about people writing on books? Does it make your blood boil or fill you with curiosity to see what marks have been left for you the future reader?

The ethics of social learning and working out loud

vulnerable

A Social Learning Practitioner is a learning professional who encourages, enables and supports knowledge sharing and collaboration across their organisation – not just in training. He/she is a role model, leading the way by showing the business what it is to be social, and modelling the new knowledge sharing and collaboration practices that are required for the modern business to operate effectively in the modern world. Jane Hart

I’m a huge fan of social learning, working out loud, connecting with people on Twitter and other public social media platforms to share ideas and insights. But something has been niggling away at me since I happened across a post by Martin Weller on Friday. Martin is a professor in educational technology at the Open University and author of the Digital Scholar  (one of the first texts to look at how digital technology might transform the practice of academics) in this post he discusses the ethics of digital scholarship (you can see the slideshare here). He focuses on practice in higher education but what he discusses has relevance for anyone working in learning and development who sees social learning having a greater role in the future of learning at work.

Martin writes of digital scholarship:

Like much of educational technology or open education, the tendency is often to promote it as an unqualified good, but, inevitably, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

He points out that well-rehearsed benefits of digital scholarship (greater collaboration, stronger and wider networks, equipping students with much-needed digital skills… ) have tended to overshadow some real ethical questions about expecting learners (in his scenario university students, in workplace learning our colleagues) to work out loud, to push themselves increasingly into the public sphere when learning.

Learning can be an intensely vulnerable process, where individuals confront their own abilities and learn new or different ways of doing things, sometimes failing or falling along the way. Forcing this process into the open enhances the vulnerability of our learners, is that ethical? What responsiblity do we have as ethical practitioners to ensure that social learning does not heighten vulnerability, leaving participants exposed and at risk? When we plan online communities, working out loud weeks or start using social media in development initiatives how many of us stop and think about the ethics of doing so? Or do we get so caught up in the process and our own love for that way of learning that we forget that not all of our audience might have the heart or resilience for it?

If we start building more and more open and public learning into workplace development activities (and to the workflow itself) how much leeway do we really leave people who don’t want to have a presence on social media, who might for a range of reasons be placing themselves at risk of harm from working out loud? Martin points to this post by George Siemens where Siemens describes that vulnerability beautifully:

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user…While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners.

I think the reason this post struck such a chord with me, and (honestly) left me slapping myself on the forehead, was that I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about the ethics of social media in the context of research. Here we have been bemoaning the lack of strong ethical frameworks to protect research participants and researchers from the potential harm of their social media activity and engagement being used for research purpose or in the research process. We are developing frameworks which ask critical questions about informed consent, risk and rights to confidentiality and anonymity.

Where are those discussions in social learning or working out loud? That is an honest question because I can Google with the best of them and I haven’t found much yet. I have found discussions of the importance of trust in building communities of practice and of creating supportive organisational contexts for working out loud but I haven’t seen anything about the impact on the individual learner and our ethical responsibilities to each of them.  I’m really hoping you’re going to prove me wrong, by commenting on this post and providing lots of links to where the L&D professsion is discussing this issue.

We have well-developed ethical frameworks for establishing coaching relationships, contracting is a common feature of action & peer learning sets as are community rules around behaviour and confidentiality for online communities of practice. But when we build a Yammer activity into a programme of development at work or ask people to blog about their learning where is the contracting and consent? Do we do assess the risk of the vulnerabilities this might cause? And whilst we say to people (or at least I hope we do) this aspect is voluntary (especially where it involves being active in public social media networks) how voluntary is it really?

Playing devil’s advocate, when we talk about selling the benefits of social learning, or creating a cultural shift, a critical mass, are we really just creating a huge amount of peer pressure on people to learn in a certain way, in an open space? If we’re making it part of our workplace learning activities what are the risks to colleagues of being seen not to participate? Whilst we work hard to be more social are we taking time to discuss the implications of being present in different digital domains? Trolling is rarely out of the news these days, do we support our learners to understand safe digital practices? These are issues highlighted in a recent report by Helen Beetham & David White about student expectations and experience of the digital environment in universities:

A related concern students have is being pushed too fast towards the public spaces of the open web, in the name of borderless classrooms or third space learning. They understand that this is somewhere they need to develop a presence, but they also see university as safe space where they can play and fail, try out new ways of expressing themselves and new identities.

I don’t have all the answers by any means but one thing I do know is that as a practitioner I have professional responsibility to start thinking more about this. And just like in social media research there will be things we can do, frameworks we can develop, practices we can support which will minimise risks to participants and create safe digitial spaces and behaviours. In fact, as I’ve found with our network of researchers using social media, there is probably already loads of excellent ethical practice out there. But I think much of it is implicit in the way we work with others and design programmes or initiatives and I think we need to start having that discussion explicitly.

Having an ethical conscience shouldn’t mean we stop being social or using social learning approaches but it should mean we are able to have that conversation out loud. So I’m starting one here, tell me how you’ve managed the ethics of social learning and working out loud, when you wanted to equip your colleagues with digital skills how did you negotiate the ethical risks of learning in the open, let’s see what we come up with…

 

 

 

 

 

The future of learning: Are we equipped for it?

imageI attended a round table discussion co-hosted by the CIPD and Towards Maturity today.

This is one of a series of recent activities which indicate a fresh commitment & willingness on the part of the institute to reach out to its L&D members and, more importantly, to become part of wider discussions about shaping L&D practice for the future.

I really welcome this. L&D felt like the Cinderella of the CIPD when I first joined four years ago and I often found more progressive and challenging mind sets outside rather than within CIPD. I can see this changing, that CIPD is working alongside the LPI, and other formal and informal groupings of folks who have a connection to and interest in developing L&D, is a really great step forward. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like what your professional body is doing you should get involved to shake things up so I was very happy to give up my holiday deckchair for a morning and come along and contribute to what was a lively and inspiring discussion.

Our themes for the day were:

  • What do today’s leaders expect from L&D and what should they expect?
  • How can we improve L&D alignment to strategic organisational goals?
  • Are we equipped in L&D to respond to changes in the future of work?

There are various outputs which will come from the session as a whole but suffice to say each session was ably kicked off by two speakers drawing on their own experiences to provoke debate. I was asked to tackle the final question and I got to speak after Don Taylor of the LPI which is always a pleasure, I knew we’d be talking the same language. Don’s challenge to business leaders was “If you think learning belongs in the classroom, enjoy the view as your competitors overtake you.” I couldn’t agree more.

In the spirit of working out loud these are my background notes for my part of the session, my main theme was that learning and learners will not wait for L&D to catch up, apply a model, or craft  a theory around their new ways of working and learning. We need to accelerate and expand our capacity quickly before we get bypassed.  Our workforce has changed, we have more part-time workers, more diverse, more transient workers, we work at different times of the day and week and from different places. We use a range of devices and routes to find out about things we need to know for our jobs, we go to the source, we talk to people outside of the business. It isn’t a question of when technology changes the workplace; that’s already happened and will continue to happen. Now it’s a question of how we respond to these changes.

We’ve always been quick to adopt new shiny buzzwords – e and m-learning, MOOCs spring to mind… but less quick to recognise that all the shiny tools will make not one iota of a difference if we don’t understand that how people work and learn has changed, and then we change how we work as professionals accordingly.

The findings from this years CIPD L&D survey and the Towards Maturity Benchmark show a greater desire from our profession to be business aligned and focused on outcomes and impact. But look again at the surveys, especially the LPI capability map and the TM Learner’s Voice, and you’ll also see that L&D in our workplaces remains strongly classroom based, a lot of e-learning is still ‘click next’ and blended learning is not as much of a reality as we’d like to think. This despite the fact that learners are telling us they have changed how they like to learn. In my own organisation we’ve been on a real journey over the last three years and it’s not over yet. Just changing what we offer (from predominantly classroom based L&D to something more fluid and responsive) has been challenging for us and for our colleagues but immensely rewarding. When a community of practice takes hold it it becomes an agent for change, vastly strengthened by the multiple voices within it drawing on their own experience of the work, the practice, the business.

People now have access to a vast range of knowledge, information and learning at their fingertips, at the touch of a keyboard or a screen we can find huge swathes of information, how to videos, toolkits etc. We can personalise our learning and draw it down when we need it. That learning comes in many shapes and sizes from professional qualifications through to amateur You Tube videos, L&D can’t control that flow any more, if we ever could. But we can help business make the most of that flow, find what they need easily and be equipped to critically appraise it. That’s what I want my team to be doing.

Much of how people learn now is informal, social and collaborative. It’s not that expertise is dead, it’s simply that people have ways to access expertise which no longer needs to be mediated and funnelled through formal learning events. In an environment where people can access expertise from across the globe directly with a tweet or a post, why would they wait for the next scheduled course from their L&D team?

I am painting a deliberately bleak picture but our profession needs to change and change rapidly before it gets passed over.

I really believe we have an important role going forward as curators and facilitators of  learning, helping others to share their knowledge, skills and experience. We can be  agents of change but not if we continue to see ourselves as the sole custodians of that knowledge armed to the teeth holding out against attempts to wrest control from us. I wrote in my blog recently that:

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.

We are uniquely placed, with our cross-organisational remit to act as agents for change and to help people to develop curious and enquiring mindsets and skills which enable them to adapt and respond to changes in the workplace and wider society. I want learning in our organisation to be personally owned but organisationally supported (thanks to @andrewljacobs for that phrase if not the acronym it produces!)

We need to ask what we need to do (as individuals and as a professional body)? What do we need to change? What are the sacred cows that we need to let go of? And we need to keep asking these questions. Here are my starters for ten, more great ideas came out in the discussion and will be collated in a white paper:

  • We need to be alert, observe what is happening (or not happening) in our workplaces and outside our workplaces and able to think strategically about what that means for our practice and activities
  • We need to walk the talk, if we think social, informal and collaborative learning is the way of the future we need to be seen to do it ourselves and be able to influence leaders in our businesses to embrace it too.
  • We have to get better at consulting and diagnosis, and where it isn’t appropriate we need to be prepared to challenge requests for ‘training’. We can have an important voice in shaping how work is done at our organisations and influencing change. Providing ‘solutions’ we are comfortable and confident with might be comforting but probably won’t be helping as much as we could.
  • On that note we need to learn to innovate, try new things, be prepared to fail small but think big. And we need to be thinking carefully about how we work alongside senior leadership, managers and staff to ensure that learning and development are woven into everyday work rather than something which is bolted on, has to have time made for it. Curiosity is a mindset and trying new things is a way of demonstrating that curiosity, we have to persuade and influence our colleagues that new approaches are valid.
  • Let’s not adopt technology mindlessly simply because it’s a new and shiny thing that everyone is talking about, but not be afraid to adopt new tools that will support changing cultures of work and learning.
  • And I’d really like it if we stopped guarding everything so zealously between organisations and within organisations. We really need to learn to collaborate and help our colleagues to collaborate to hear different voices, expertise and perspectives.
  • I think we have to get used to the permeability of disciplines and embrace it. Where does OD start and L&D stop? Does it matter? Let’s learn from marketing about how to sell L&D and talk to our comms colleagues about engaging an audience. Let’s get less hung up on whether we’ve got a seat at the table, or what our job titles are, or which department we sit in and concentrate more on what impact we can have.

And if that all seems a bit overwhelming then bite off a little bit of it and get started. You have insights which are valuable to your organisation, demonstrate that.  Be confident but reflective, if you don’t know something learn it, if you’re not sure where to start ask for advice. After all a little role modelling never goes amiss!

Oops I almost forgot, what’s the answer to the question? We agreed it was a work in progress, the report card says we can do better. Here’s just some of the future capability we thought we need to build up as a profession:

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Why I 💜 social…

imageAnyone who looks at my Twitter account can see I’m a prolific tweeter, 16.8k tweets in five years is *frantically does maths* about 9.6 tweets per day. How did this happen? I’m not naturally inclined to be a great networker or in the public gaze, if you believe the psychometrics I’m quite an extreme introvert. But one of the interesting things I’ve noticed is that quite a lot of L&D professionals and qualitative researchers are introverts, despite the fact that going out, talking to people, giving presentations and being generally social are a large part of our working lives. But that’s an aside and something for another post… So why did social get me? Or how? Well one day I stopped lurking, stepped out from behind my egg and started connecting, sharing and dipping my toe in the stream. And I realised that it:

  • ignites my passions and inspires me to try new things
  • satisfies my curiosity about the world and people around me
  • connects me to others, those with shared interests & those with very different experiences and viewpoints (hence the passion & the curiosity)
  • can be unexpected and surprising, challenging my mindset & opinions
  • supports my learning – my Twitter #pln are peerless, fearless & fabulous
  • connects and shares my work and ideas with a wide range of people
  • helps me collaborate with fellow professionals, in networks that cross time zone, geographical and disciplinary borders
  • it lifts my spirits and makes me think about the serious and the silly

I often get comments about how much time I must spend on social media but in fact it’s very little. I have pretty demanding job, most days I tweet on the way into the office and on the way home, a little during the day if something crops up I want to share. To me it’s just a conversation, I have them throughout the day some are in person, some on the phone, some are virtual – all are valid. I don’t stare at my timeline all day long, but the moments when I do dip my toe in are so very valuable, as @HR_Gem has also shared this week sometimes the most unexpected things come out of 140 characters. I want to share what happened for me in the course of seven days on Twitter last week, just to demonstrate that it is more than sharing inspirational quotes and pictures of fluffy kittens (although let’s face it I am partial to them too!):

  • I floated the idea to create a multi-author book of blogs on social media in social research (if you’re interested you can read more about the project here) in a tweet and a blog. Just a week later we have over 30 people lined up to contribute
  • A chance tweet to a fellow blogger led to us coming up, quite organically, with the idea of arranging a meet up of fellow social science bloggers who run multi- author blogs. We’ll be getting together in London in September to share our experiences and hopefully learn from one another about how to keep people engaged and coming back to our blogs.
  • I idly tweeted July was looking less busy for me, then got reminded by several people who I’d promised to meet them for lunch/dinner/coffee… July is less empty now 😀
  • I got invited to contribute to a round table discussion by someone I would never have met if it weren’t for social media
  • I received some words of support and wisdom at a moment when I needed them (no names you know who you are, thank you)
  • I had several laugh out loud moments (thanks especially to @AndrewLJacobs for sharing POOS with us)
  • I got to share the fantastic work that our British Social Attitudes researchers & interviewers do every year @NatCen, supporting the efforts of our Comms team with a series of links and posts highlighting key findings

How’s that for a set of amazing, and in some cases totally unexpected  outcomes from a handful of tweets and a blog? And that is why I 💜 social.

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?

The essence of leadership?

Leadership for me has very little to do with being ‘out in front’, ‘up on top’, ‘ahead of the game’ … and everything to do with this – image

… the person in front, and the person behind.

For me it’s about –

  • pausing to take time to listen to people, really listen
  • making space in the day to help someone develop their ideas, their skills, their voice
  • standing up for what’s right instead of settling for what’s easiest
  • stepping back, letting go and supporting others to stretch their wings
  • applauding success and valuing the learning that comes from failure, especially my own
  • being aware of my own strengths, and where they end!
  • getting stuck in
  • persistence
  • simple, honest conversations
  • being open-minded, not making assumptions
  • caring

I get there some days, other days I fail miserably. I’m a work in progress. How about you?

With special thanks to @simbeckhampson for tweeting that quote and getting me thinking.

Learning curves

Learning curves, we’ve all had them. Some are extremely enjoyable, exhilarating and satisfying, in other cases the ride is less pleasurable, the curve is just too steep or rocky.  Over the last two years I’ve been riding the learning curve of setting up a community of practice.

I’m glad to say this curve has been enjoyable but I’ve learnt a lot and this post reflects on that learning.

In 2011 I was part of a team from NatCen Social Research, Sage Publications and the Oxford Internet Institute who launched a peer-led network for researchers using social media in their research studies. You can read more about the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science?’ network on our blog. Social scientists have been exploring digital behaviour for over twenty years, so digital research methodology is a growing but pioneering field which needs to respond swiftly to a changing technological landscape. By 2011 tools like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were embedded into daily life and social researchers had realised that there were insights to be gleaned from the behaviours and opinions voiced on social media.

image We wanted to create a reflective space where researchers could come together to learn more about how turning a sociological gaze onto social media might change or challenge our practice. Our aim was to create an enduring network of researchers who could share ideas or approaches and challenge each other to push our practice forward. Two years in, we have over 500 members worldwide and have recently handed over the reins of our main @NSMNSS Twitter account and blog to members of the community. I’ll post more about the fascinating things we’ve learnt about doing social media research later but in this post I want to focus on building the learning community.

“Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger: 2007)

They utilise the power of social and experiential learning to develop shared skills, cultures and values; new practices, techniques and tools; alternative models of thinking and novel approaches to persistent challenges. Widely used for continuing professional development the model was well suited to the goals of our network around facilitating shared learning and knowledge exchange. Communities of practice use a range of learning and development strategies to share ideas and we aimed to create a similar blend of activities.

We were lucky enough to receive funding from NCRM in our first year which paid for a series of face-to-face events but most network activity needed to happen online. Luckily, social media have extended the field of play for communities of practice. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, Ning and blogging tools can be used now to support community activities and enable members to participate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions of their practice and we set out to make full use of these social tools.

Being active online was critical in building and maintaining our network it helped us keep network discussions moving, engage participants who could not attend the face-to-face events and build a network that drew in researchers from around the world. We started out with a Twitter account, You Tube channel, Blogger account and Methodspace group (Methodspace is a Ning community platform for social scientists run by Sage).

image

So what did our learning curve teach us?

  • Engagement 101: keep it simple.  Get creative, come up with a catchy, short name for your community! Our name spelt out what we were exploring but it was a mouthful and I can’t think of a single event when someone hasn’t tripped over it, even the acronym NSMNSS doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. 
  • Building a visually engaging, easy to use platform is critical for developing an online community. Find the right platform to act as the hub of your network, then create spindles from that to provide a richer source of resources and engagement points as needed. We started with too many platforms which diluted their impact and confused new members. As our community developed, activity crystallised around our Twitter account and blog, and our dialogue was tighter as a result.
  • It’s hard work and takes more time than you’ll anticipate. New networks need the active involvement of ‘community gardeners’ or ‘facilitators’ to ensure that engagement is sustained and the content, connections and community are nurtured.  People do come if you build it (and promote it) but they won’t stay unless you give them a reason to. You need to be there to keep conversations moving, help new members find their way around and encourage existing members to contribute.
  • This sounds obvious but it’s important to think about your community and who they are. Ask them regularly what they want. We used quick Survey Monkey polls and tweeted questions, as well as Doodle polls and other tools to find out about people’s interests and context. Our developing network was global, spread across several time zones, so we had to be mindful of when we ran online activities and take care to create asynchronous resources for learning outwith the live events and debates. We also had to consider cultural and legal differences which might affect the experiences of network members in different regions.
  • Actively involve your members, otherwise you’ll end up broadcasting at them. We found this frustrating initially until we learned how to entice members out of their watching mode.  Early on we invited member blogs from researchers but a critical breakthrough came when we introduced a regular Twitter chat. This created energy in the community, drew people in and provided volunteers for more structured learning sessions. We recruited members to present case studies of their research, share their experiences of the tools & methods they had used at ‘how to’ sessions and take part in Q&A sessions. This meant the agenda was built from the members up and that we sometimes needed to review our own assumptions and ideas about the direction of the community which was no bad thing.
  • You don’t have to be an island. Reach out to related communities, cast about for groups and networks with similar or related interests, see if you can support one another. We ran co-hosted events with related groups including the PhD forum #socphd which opened our network to new audiences and widened the voices heard in our discussions. Reciprocity is key in building online connections so we tried to remember to give back by RTing and promoting our fellow networks’ news and shares. You can also learn a lot from how other unrelated communities operate. NSMNSS owes a debt of gratitude to the #cht2lrn community who showed us the way around Twitter chats and set a great example of member led community learning.
  • Try to make the walls of your network porous. Think about who’s missing, be open and inclusive to avoid becoming an echo chamber (thanks to @sukhpabiel for reminding me of this) where members repeat the same points and discussions with one another without ever hearing dissenting voices or alternative perspectives. It’s been fantastic to have researchers from the arts & humanities, physical sciences & computing involved in the community, this has really helped us to understand how social media research is breaking through disciplinary boundaries. But we’ve been acutely aware that our community is low on members from the social media industry and we know this has limited our learning, we’re still trying to reach them so if you happen to know anyone at Google, Twitter or Facebook do let them know about us!
  • Establish a rhythm for the community, do things at regular intervals so that the community knows when things are happening. We found it helpful to run a Twitter chat before an event to rehearse the issues and set the themes for debate, we ran guest blogs & published transcripts of the chats to spark thoughts before the event. On the day we live tweeted events, streamed or videoed speakers, and then followed up by posting those resources and event blogs. Members liked the rhythm of familiar activities and having a rhythm means you can mix it up when things are flagging and need an injection of energy.
  • On that note, try new things and experiment, they won’t all work but that’s OK. we hadn’t planned to run Twitter chats but we decided to give it a whirl after people picked up the hashtag #NSMNSS to share resources and build connections. After the first few agonising moments when we thought we were tweeting into a black hole (if you’ve ever run one you’ll know that feeling!) the format took off and we ended up running regular, themed chats.

Above all, remember to enjoy it, a buzzing group of members sharing ideas and learning from one another whether in real time or online is a hugely satisfying moment to be involved in. How does this compare to your own experiences of building or participating in communities of practice, I’d love to hear your views?