Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The dark side of online interaction

Articles about social media often emphasize the benefits: we can now start our own movement around something that concerns us (in seven easy steps!), without costs talking with people all over the world (via skype), or become famous via youtube (like Esmee Denters). I am excited about the new possibilities too and would not like to return to the days before social media.

However, you must not be blind to the drawbacks and the dark side of social media. Think of cyberbullying, and hate groups. Or privacy issues. Burglars read along on twitter if you're on vacation. The speed with which information is circulated on the Internet through blogs and twitter leads to hyping and creates room for manipulation. Journalist Nicole Carlier described in the dutch article "Knetter van twitter" how hard it can be to come loose from a relationship when you meet your ex constantly online.

When we talk about online facilitation of collaborative processes and online sharing of experiences, there are definitely dark sides. Here are some of the dark side that I have observed in online programs:

* Technology stress. Youth (the netgeneration) are generally quick and find it easy to pick up how to work with new online tools. For others, this can still pose a considerable stress and make them feel uncertain. You know how you come across in meetings and how to lead a meeting, then a part of the exchange is done online and you're the person who does not know how to do this ...
* Chaos and lack of overview. Online communication has been compared by a colleague with a "cauliflower". Face-to-face communication can be chaotic too but communication is time-bound and often lead by a chairman or facilitator who summarizes and guides the flow. Online; space is unlimited and discussions can go in any possible way. For people who like to have structure this must surely be a crime ... This is obviously even worse when several online tools are used. Decision-making and divergence is therefore often difficult.
* Continuous flow of information leading to the it-never-ends feeling. Book a meeting in your calendar and it is clear and time-limited. Online exchange goes on continually, and with a great intensity. It does not stop while you do want to know everything going on .. This can be a very unsatisfactory feeling. Have you read it all? Shouldn't you read more blogs as others do? This ofcourse leads to stress. The boundaries between private and work time are blurring (which is an advantage to me personally but is not universally perceived as an advantage...).

Occasionally you might also just choose not to encourage online interaction ... when to avoid online interaction? when to embrace?

(Photo by http://youngmarketing.web-log.nl/youngmarketing/2010/04/het-internet-he.html)
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Do collective lessons learned exist?

I'm currently working in a team where we consult eachother and divide work. The team works quite well in my opinion. What we don't do is make short minutes or action notes and so it happens that we rediscuss what was already decided earlier on (everyone forgot). Or someone doesn't do what was agreed (forgot). It's interesting: isn't ending a meeting with action points and write them down and follow them up a lesson we all know? So why don't we do it in this case?

I've also worked in Kenya together with CARE-International on a credit program for female enterpreneurs in a rice area. This was in 1989 or 1990, south of Kisumu. An important principle was that NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are not good in managing credit programs because not thinking in business models and NGO workers are seen by farmers as 'friends' and 'supporters'. A different role than credit officer. So the program was sub-contracted to a credit institute. In 2007 (17 years later!) I visited an NGO in Ghana. They had learnt a lesson from their credit program: that they are not good in recollecting the loans because they are seen by the farmers as an NGO. So they thought of sub-contracting to a credit institute. But the damage was already done.

These kind of observations (I could make a much longer list!) get me thinking about collective learning processes and how difficult they are. The first example shows that there is more to the practice of working together than 'knowing' how it should be done. Probably the group is forming and trying to find a way of working together effectively with as little energy input as necessary?

The second example I think shows how difficult it is to learn collectively within a sector. And maybe that reading about something is not enough- you have to make your own mistakes first. It's like everybody is entitled to his/her own learning process. And if you've read this blog for longer you know I believe in the power of communities and networks to support collective learning. But what is then a collective lesson learned?

I really like the work of Nancy Dixon around these issues. She wrote a blogpost about the value of lessons learned not too long ago. She defines lessons learned at the individual level: "something I learned through an experience I’ve had that will cause me to act differently in the future" She explains the power of reflection in, for instance, after action review processes to stimulate learning and ends with the phrase: "The greatest value of lessons learned is for those who took the action". So should we simply lower our ambitions and talk about collective lessons learned? How easily we say, let's collect the lessons learned with the idea that it will contribute to collective learning. But for a collective learning process much more may be needed like sustained exchange of practices over a longer period of time.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The hardest phase: the coalescing phase in communities

A segment of a social networkImage via Wikipedia

In a lot of my consultancy work I use a social learning theory- about the functioning and growth of communities of practice. Even when people don't use the term community, but online network, platform, alliance, whatever. As long as learning is one of the goals. Every consultancy is different though- I find it hard to work with blue print materials because every situation is so distinct.

I can discern a red line in my work nevertheless. It is that people tend to underestimate the social capital side of online communities or online platforms. When you look at vibrant online exchanges, it may look as simple as inviting a lot of people by email to sign up, or announcing a new initiative in other online spaces. But this frequently leads to disappointments and leaves people wondering why it works for other online communities but not for their network.

So what are the challenges in the coalescing phase (the phase which follows the first phase when initiators have come together, defined the purpose, a platform has been built and sometimes an official launch has been organised)? I like the chapter in the book Cultivating communities of practice which outlines the following challenges:
  • To balance the need to develop relationships between members and trust against the need to demonstrate (practical) value
  • To keep the energy level up after a big launch event when everyone goes back to 'normal business'
  • To get members to share 'thorny' issues when there is not yet a high level of trust..
  • To stimulate private conversations (nothing wrong with those!) yet at the same time bringing private topics into the public community space
It is not an easy phase for coordinators /facilitators but it may help if they are aware of these issues and do not underestimate the art that goes into stewarding connections and knowledge in this phase (where they may feel not enough is happening).... And if the basics are not right- you might be working against the tide.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Social media in organizations: a reality check

telephone dialImage by Leo Reynolds via Flickr "I prefer to call people"

Last week I facilited together with Sibrenne Wagenaar, a workshop for the training department of a bank. This type of workshop is for us always a reality check. You see level of exposure to social media slowly growing in these groups. There were already a number of people on Twitter and there was a fanatical gamer in the group, but the majority did not know what social media are. They associated it mainly as something that their children use. I had to explain what the word 'blogging' means. After an overview presentation and providing examples as inspiration, everyone started to explore two or three tools on their computer. They had to choose from an RSS reader, wiki, social networking, social bookmarking or twitter. After this, people were asked about their experiences and whether they see any practical application in their work. Here's a list of things that were remarkable in this session and what lessons there are for the use of social media in organizations:

* For the less educated professionals in the Netherlands, English communication is still a barrier. It pays off to look for tools with a Dutch interface (like Ning, you can adjust the interface in many different languages).

* Some people get discouraged upfront by "technical hurdles" and a new way of working, change. If the login does not succeed right away, they see their view that online communication seems hard and difficult confirmed. Many web2.0 services have changing interfaces because they are in development...Hence, there is also some perseverance and experimental interest required from the participants. What can be helpful is to support the first steps from a distance so that people do not immediately frustrated. At the same time promoting an attitude of selfreliance and help them experience that they can figure it out without being disappointed and frustrated.

* Perhaps the way of working online, 'wikily' with a lot of information overload is not for everyone. As a participant at the end said: "It is not something for me, I prefer to call people. I only do it if I'm forced". It is therefore important to allow an array of ways of working and encourage people; not to force the use of a certain technology.

* I was already quite used to the fact that social networking and wikis are more popular in general than social bookmarking. But in this case several people got excited about social bookmarking (to my surprise!). It was exactly the application they needed to pass information between colleagues to about the topic of 'expertise'. This shows once again that it depends on personal preferences and work situation what tools strike a cord.

* In this case there was a chat module introduced at company level - organization-wide. People showed quite some resistance: 'we are not going to use it'. This shows how difficult it is at company level to purchase a package, install it and roll it out throughout the organisation. By offering a wider range of tools and linking the use of tools to practical issues some got eager to get started and explore pro-actively. People prefer to experiment and make a decision rather then be forced to use something introduced in a top-down manner.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]