Wednesday, October 31, 2007

'Between the Ears'; Three myths about communities of practice

We went to the studio of 'Tussen de Oren' ('Between the Ears') a television program that does all kind of psychological experiments to share scientific research about communication and psychology in a humoristic manner. One of the questions to the panel was to find out what was true of some widely known anecdotes or 'broodjes aap' in Dutch. This was hard to guess! Some of the anecdotes that were not true were:
  • eskimos have 100-s of words for snow
  • cat survives ride in washing-machine
  • you can breed 'bonsai' kittens by breeding them in a pot
While working with people on communities of practice I've encountered similar convictions about communities of practice that are not true, but are nevertheless quite persistent. OK, for the people who belief in them they are true, but not for me. Here they are:

1. A community of practice is an online platform

I think people who belief in this myth do know that there are people interacting through the online platform, yet they are blinded to this fact by focusing on the online space only. Their focus is too much on the online space that they don't see the human interaction through other media (or face-to-face). It is similar to the natural tendency of people to focus too much on the 'events', the public life of the community as opposed to the private spaces of the community, like one-on-one e-mail, informal encounters in the corridor, etc.

2. Communities of practice are self-emergent so after organising one event, they should self-emerge

The whole idea about self-emergence has blurred the view on the type of interventions and facilitations that can benefit the emergence and development of communities of practice in a organisational setting. Though communities can be self-emerging, there is a whole lot that can be facilitated, initiated etc to improve collective learning, knowledge sharing and innovation processes.

3. Meta-level conversations are not needed in communities of practice

I find the last one most intriguing as I think lots of people would disagree with me that it's a myth. I have the impression the idea of emergence in communities of practice stands in the way of using various techniques of guiding meta-level conversations about the health of the community. The idea that the community should grow 'organically' in my opinion does not counter the fact that meta-level conversations are healthy and can support growth.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Blogging and vlogging an event

For a question by Simone Staiger on the knowledge management for development list, Peter Ballantyne, Chris Addison and myself compiled our experiences so far.

1. For the euforic annual meeting this year we tried to capture a lot of the discussions with blogs and short videos. see the Euforic AGM blog where we published a whole bunch of stuff. we started drafting stories on different sessions, by the end several participants were doing their own stories. At the feed you can also see some stories published by off our site about the conference. Doing videos has transformed our approach.

2. At the brusselsbriefings blog you can see where we use a more structured approach and a blog as the primary advertizing and reporting mechanism for, in this case, a series of short meetings. The blogging really changes the way the meeting is reported. Instead of a heavy policy paper we ended up with a four page newsletter format closely based on the blog. Interestingly the organisers offerred no comments on the blog postings but the moment the same text was in word it was closely edited. The video played an important role in the last

brussels briefing in the dynamic of the meeting itself. We were able to incorporate over 20 blips, many from non-speakers. As a result many people felt their views were taken seriously by the organisers. It also gives the meeting a buzz, we often get people thanking us for the
opportunity to talk to video.

3. We think it is VERY worthwhile to blog an event. Even if it just adds an extra documenting element and gets people used to the idea that others maybe listening. There is a difference in whether you want to capture the live presentations, or rather the voices of others who are
listening/reacting. You may have an aim of changing the conversations if you reach out to capturing other voices than the plenary speakers.

4. the blog (or site) MUST have feeds, and have the feeds on the sites of others [and get people to subscribe to them]. i think you want people to blog your conference and its blog on other blogs or platforms. Before, during and after. establishing a conference tag to be used
across different platforms may also be good. we need to go where the 'audiences' are and not expect them to come to us. I think the blog needs to have quite 'instant' stories, giving atmosphere and opinion as well as text and presentations. so the feeds change and it's worth
coming back.

5. However, a blog has a normal 'pace' and blogging an event can be overwhelming for the readers. Personally I still have 105 unread blogposts on the web2fordev blog. Suddenly
you are overwhelmed with information. ...So there could be other alternative ways of displaying
things too. For inspiration, here's an example of a vlogged event from rocket boom using a site which is very attractive. Erwin Blom wrote a great blogpost in Dutch (important language for all to know :). He writes about an aggregator page for an event. They asked people who were

interested to use twitter, youtube etc. to help cover the event. And aggregated all the content on a site of the event: Picnic07. They discovered (as we did) that you need a UNIQUE tag, picnic will also be used by anybody picnicking in 2007. You can have a look at the site, it's in english.

6. On tools: One thing that blogger allows (but not wordpress) is to be able to post directly to draft by email. This would make my job easier as I write posts in the meeting on my phone and email them for editing. It is also much more difficult to have relaxed blips if you use a tripod for the camera. We use small digital cameras rather than video cameras and talk to the person over the top of the camera. A little camera shake can add to the immediacy of the blip. (See Mabel

7. The experience of following meetings remotely. Although I don't have the stats for
web2fordev, the anecdotal evidence was that very few followed the event live, and I only had direct feedback at the meeting from one person, watching the videos has been higher than I expected (over 100views for individual items) but the impact is far higher as videos
are shown at other meetings and we show at individual training sessions.

Ethan Zuckerman and Bruno Giussani have compiled a tips for conference bloggers guide

Question for you: how do you as an online viewer experience an event from far? What makes it easier to connect? And how do you use the online documentation of events you have attended?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rothko's room

We visited Rothko's room at the Tate Modern Museum in London. The museum has lots of kids activities and since my children don't speak English, they gave them the most 'pictural' assignment. They had to use stickers depicting emotions and put them on a picture of their head. They put up lightning, bricks and other depressed images. They drew snakes and spiders. They were also asked what their feet, eyes were doing and their feet felt like 'running away'. Personally I didn't really know what to think of Rothko's paintings, but when I read the explanations, I was struck by the way they had felt like Rothko's intentioned effect.

In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals
for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York. He set to work, having constructed a scaffold in his studio to match the exact dimensions of the restaurant. However, the murals were darker in mood than his previous work. The bright and intense colours of his earlier paintings shifted to maroon, dark red and black. Rothko was influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, with its blind windows and deliberately oppressive atmosphere. Rothko commented that Michelangelo ‘achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after - he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked
up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the

An illustration of the power of images and colour, working even unconsciously (on children). Also nice to see how different questions (stickers versus the verbal question: what do your feet want to do?) can bring out the same emotions but add some intensity/relief. I think that's what photos/videos/audio can do to online text interaction too.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Experimenting with Twitter

We conducted a week-long experiment with Twitter, for 12 people who were not yet familiar with the tool. In this blogpost, we'll describe the experiment, and we'll summarize the reflections and new ideas for applicability of the tool. I'll also share my own ideas about Twitter in more detail.

Twitter is: A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Basically you update your information continuously with short messages (max. 140 characters) and you can follow/be followed by others who read those messages.

Our experiment was introduced with the following instructions (here summarized):

  1. Sign up for a twitter account at (in the right upper corner) and add a photo of yourself by clicking on Your Profile and share you twitter account (eg. in the wiki and Add the other participants to your twitter to follow them.
  2. Twitter away during the week…. You can twitter by logging in to Twitter.
  3. Experiment with messages for the whole group by using @ecollaboration
  4. Type of content: Share what tools you are working with, what tasks you are busy with in your organization, and ask the (stupid) questions you never dared to bother others with.
  5. Write down your experiences in the wiki.

The experiences summarized:

Though the interface looks clear, people needed quite some time to find their way. How to find the message? Where to reply to a direct message? etc. Someone felt like she might have missed some opportunities in the tool. It doesn't take a lot of attention, but needs frequent attention, hence people felt that it is time-consuming. People differed in their opinion of seeing added value: "it's fun to know how the others spend their time, but not really helpful" someone said.

Possible applications of Twitter:

It's interesting to see that people have very different opinions ranging from "The additional value of use isn't big", via "I would focus to use it for information exchange such as questions or recommendation and not to exchange moods or any kind of actions" to "I can see the potential for project teams that need continuous communication, or organisations or people that want to communicate to their "followers" about a conference, a campaign, or general news and progress. Also for theme focused groups (like e-collaboration)".

For me it has shown again that a new tool can be very uncomfortable in the beginning, especially if you don't know how it's going to help you to do your work. It may actually take longer than a week before you get at a certain level of comfort. Personally I started to enjoy Twitter after some days, because I really got to know some people better by what they are doing. I also got some interesting links to blogposts etc. but to follow that up takes time. So it easily diverts your attention from what you were doing. A colleague in Ghana added me to twitter too, and that experience made me realize that you can be very close with a group of people anywhere through twitter, much closer than through mailing lists, online forums, or an occasional chat session. Knowing his concerns, and frustrations (eg. with uploading) reminded me of the different context in Ghana.

But as someone said: it needs discipline to exchange and have added value. And it seems that this is not for everyone. That brings me to the observation that tools like twitter can bring new linkages and communication (I learned quite a lot more about the 3-5 people who were very active!) but you have to be carefull not to create too many divisions if people who don't find a tool intuitive are left out. On the positive side, almost half of the people who twittered, were not at the face-to-face meeting, so it is a way to engage a different group of people than with a face-to-face meeting.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to explain blogging in Ghana

(picture:openingsceremony training web2.0 for journalists, source penplusbytes)

I'm still catching up with my bloglines.. after my summer holidays I could not keep up and have these kind of number (183) behind the blognames, which is extremely discouraging and even stopping me from reading. So I'm trying to reduce the number of blogs on my bloglines too. But going through them, I do like the wide variety of blogs, giving such different views to the world...

From Emmanuel Bensah's blog I got a report by Mr. Abissath about a blogtraining Emmanuel gave in Accra. The write up is so elaborate and different from the other blogposts I was reading that it made me happy and I can just imagine the scene of the training and the atmosphere in the room there.

"As stated in the opening paragraph of this write-up, when Emma was taking
us through the Blogging lesson, he made the subject matter so interesting with
his famous analogy that the learning became fun for us all. Before he started,
he asked the class that all those who were married should show by hand.
Virtually everybody in the class raised up their hands. Initially, nobody knew
what he was driving at some of us even raised up both hands. Then he proclaimed
(and I am paraphrasing him here): As behind every married person there is a
partner - a wife or a husband, so, too, behind every Blog there is a Blogger!
Suddenly the entire computer lab burst into spontaneous and prolonged
laughter. He himself could not help it but to laugh infectiously. Then someone
asked him whether he himself was married and he said capital NO. So it turned
out that all the students in the class were married expect the lecturer rather.
When he was asked why he was not yet married, he responded: "I am studying you people and I want to learn from you first." His answer to the question made the class to laugh even the more. Emma could be in his 30s or so and he is a man of impeccable and fantastic sense of humour."

The name Emma is used for Emmanuel. The full post by Mr. Abissath can be found here. More information about the full training can be found here. The training is a follow-up from the web2.0fordev conference that took place in Rome. (help! another blog with (105) behind its name!)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Introducing a book

I had seen this on television, but through Anecdote I discovered it is also youtubed and hence blog-able. It's a great way of showing the discomfort that goes with a learning a new technology. A nice step up to a summary of our twitter experiment. Though 11 people participated (and voluntarily!) only few actively twittered, and a lot of people felt that it is time-consuming. But I need some time to analyze all reflections. So upcoming: the introduction of Twitter. For now, the introduction of a book!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How technology shapes behaviour

The International Journal of E-collaboration is an interesting journal. It offers one free copy. Unfortunately you all get the same free copy, of Jan-March 2005, otherwise you could set up a group effort to get a all the issues for free :).

They use the following definition of e-collaboration: Electronic collaboration (e-collaboration) is operationally defined here as collaboration using electronic technologies among different individuals to accomplish a common task (Kock & D’Arcy, 2002, 2001). In the first article 6 key elements of e-collaboration are defined:

  1. The collaborative task

  2. The e-collaboration technology

  3. Individuals involved in the collaborative task

  4. Mental schemas possessed by the individuals

  5. The physical environment surrounding the individuals

  6. The social environment surrounding the individuals

In the article called: Technology-Shaping Effects of E-Collaboration Technologies: Bugs and Features by M. Lynne Markus, Bentley College, USA there is a great example that I would like to share with you.

In a case study of e-mail use in the late 80s the author found out that managers had to overcome the problems associated with a primitive e-mail system. For instance, the system lacked a 'cc' feature, requiring all recipients of the mail to be listed on the 'to' line, making it difficult to know who was expected to respond or take action. This was solved by the managers by using redundant salutations to name the particular recipients when there were multiple users on the 'to' line. The salutations made it clearer who was expected to take action, and for whom the message was a 'for your information'.

The second example was that use of the 'reply' feature would only reach the sender of the original message, no matter how many recipients had been listed on the 'to' line in the original message. This was solved by using the 'forward' function in stead of the 'reply' function. Even though this meant that the ID of the original sender had to be re-entered, all recipients of the original message would be included.

I think these are two wonderful examples of how technology set up (the system) did not determine the use, but did influence it in a certain way. The managers created their own ways of using the system in a way that supported their collaborative practices. Features are not binding constraints, if people want to communicate and collaborate they invent their own habits which suit them! If people are motivated enough, they may work with a suboptimal technology, and will invent their own ways of coping. Still technology shapes behaviour and hence it's important to think carefully through technology features while designing an online space.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

What is the return on investment of the social web for nonprofits?

Britt Bravo from Netsquared invited me to contribute a blogpost with my ideas about the return on investment of the social web for nonprofits.

Since I think inviting bloggers to write a blogpost about a certain topic is a great method of generating ideas, I'm respond with this blogpost. Let me answer it from the perspective of nonprofits working for international development.

The word Return On Investment makes me feel I have nothing interesting to say on this subject, so don't expect any neat calculations from me.... .I do think it is possible to monetize the effect of using the social web for development organisations but that's not my specialisation. And when monetizing, it could be the challenge not only to measure the direct cost reduction (like the amount of money saved because employees use free skype calls to talk to partners instead of telephone!) but also the indirect benefits like improved relationships and changed power relations between partner organisations in the south/east and development organisations in the north. (mind you, the term partner organisation is now in common use, but that name may conceal the difference in power at work in the collaboration between the two).

That brings me straight to the heart of the matter: I believe that the social web can lead to changes in the way of working at various levels. For the northern development professionals it means the opportunity for faster connections between people with the right expertise, and hence improve quality of the work. You don't limit yourself to select the consultant you know, but you use linkln to select from a wider range of choice. I wouldn't have been part of this group if I had not started blogging. So the tools enable new connections.

Another level the social web can bring about changes is towards empowering southern organisations, think of southern NGOs who would use the social web to exchange information about their partner/donor organisation. That would make them more aware of where they stand and what's possible and would probably widen their scope for action. Common use of web2.0 tools can bring about more equal ways of collaborating, see the story of how milieukontakt's use of wikis makes collaboration with trainers in the east more egalitarian.

But there is an assumption here: that we are all working with the social web functionalities. I also believe that it's a whole new way of working and networking that is not yet a common habit yet. Maybe individuals are ahead of their organisations. Last week I listened to a webcast about enterprise 2.0 where the directors agreed that web2.0 started from the consumers side and that the enterprises are following. I think this is similar in the nonprofit sector where individuals may be ahead of the organisations. So welcome organisation2.0!

By the way, if you want to see more blogposts and ideas on this topic, watch the netsquared blog.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Online tools to say goodbye to a colleague

I was invited by WASTE to introduce some new web2.0 tools at the occasion of saying farewell to a colleague who had worked there more than 5 years. They had thought of learning to arrange a bouquet of flowers, but decided this might be more interesting. We decided to focus on 3 tools, weblogs, wikis and photo sharing. After a short introduction everyone got to experience how easy it is to become a blogger, wiki-er or photo sharer.

For each tool, I had prepared 3 exercises, the first one was to contribute to a virtual farewell present for the colleague who left the organisation, the second one to set up your own blog, wiki, or photogroup. The last one was to experiment with some additions like images, feeds, or cartoons.

What worked well is the fact that I set up a dummy account for all to use. By setting up one dummy account, you avoid the hassle of helping each one to set up an account. The boring part of the experience in my opinion, and if this would go wrong you get people discouraged by the 'IT stuff' . When I set up the dummy account I discovered that you are now forced to open a google account to use blogger. And to open a yahoo account to use Flickr. That's definitely much less user-friendly then it was in the past.

What also worked well is that in every group there were one or several people who were handy enough to insert images, and play around. I also learned that you might as well upload images directly from your camera, without uploading them first to your computer (as used to be my habit somehow).

One thing that I would do differently is that I had put up personal pages in the wiki to write anecdotes for the colleague who left. I noticed it would be more fun to do that as a group and to write a group story. So next time I would set up pages for groups rather than individual pages.

The brilliant thing about combining the introduction of new tools with a farewell party is that you get people in a mood to play around with tool and see that it can be easy and fun.

Monday, October 01, 2007

I'm setting up a twitter experiment

I'm preparing an experiment with Twitter for 10 people, most unfamiliar with Twitter. Twitter is: A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Basically you update your information continuously with short messages (max. 140 characters) and you can follow/be followed by others who read those messages.

For some, this seems an 'old tool' but for most of the people I work with it is unknown. On the one hand I encounter people who think that putting your information on internet is quite dangerous and feel that we should reduce the number of emails, on the other hand, there those who don't care whether you reply on facebook, twitter or their blog. How to find the middle ground when a group is a mix of those people?

A nice Twitter guide for beginners is written by Robin Good.

Nancy White is compiling stories how Twitter can foster collaboration. Some examples (but there are lots of other examples- check it out):

  • Using a twitter network - project twitter on screen in face-to-face event. Ask a question out to the network. See the (FAST) response.
  • Find job candidates through Twitter
  • During a power outage, use mobile Twitter to coordinate information about the nature of the outage and the availability of internet cafes in the area with power for the team to reassemble.
  • Using twitter as a virtual water cooler.I work from home, and my colleagues are my collaboration buddies, clients, colleagues. Twitter is a great way to keep up with what is happening, so face-to-face meetings get up to speed much quicker. Blogs work the same way, though they tend to contain a different set of content.

Andy Carvin sees a lot of potential in Twitter, because of the combination with mobile phone. Read his post how Twitter can save lives.

For the real fans: there is the twitterfan wiki.