Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Start your online community or network the Tiësto way

Thanks to a column by Dutch management writer Ben Tiggelaar I learned about the working style of DJ Tiësto. He explains: "I start the evening with some different kind of music and various styles to see what is right for the audience. The styles that get the best response, is the way I continue."

I was struck by the similarities in the practices we've developed over the years in starting learning networks, especially online. Typically I propose to start a shorter experimental cycle (maybe 4 weeks, maybe 3 months in the most recent forest landscape restoration trajectory) and at the end discuss whether and how to continue. This is much easier than asking people upfront what activities they would like, since what they state in an interview or survey may work out differently in practice.

We start with a wide range of online activities, like open questions, expert inputs, watching videos, teleconferences, virtual field visits, etc. From the interactions, you can see what kind of topics and what kind of activities are attractive for people. You can observe what triggers the most interest (though you may need statistics too). In every trajectory you see that the balance of interest towards discussing own practices or outside research/expert opinions is different. In some groups, people like to be personal and have a need to discuss their own work. In other groups, they relate more to experts bringing in new perspectives. Long stories may work in one case, but do not resonate in another.

So the key is: experiment and don't be scared to abandon a certain approach!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Online tools for internal communication

Too Many HammersImage by Velo Steve via Flickr

Netsquared's question this month is: Tactics for using online tools for internal communication. Though the deadline has passed, I am now typing hard to make sure I can make a contribution.

My take is that there are so many tools, for lists of tools see for instance the web2.0 awards. The tools are like the hammer. It is not so hard to buy a hammer. What matters though is the way we use the hammer: to build a house or to nail a painting on the wall. Ofcourse the tool choice is important too, after all you may need a screwdriver instead of a hammer when your wall is so hard you need to drill a hole. But what is more important is the art of using the tools; the art of the carpenter. Here come's the difficulty in organisations: more and more we will work in organisations where preferences differ. There will be a huge diversity in communication habits. Some may enjoy twittering (and their pitfall may be to forget to have real face-to-face dialogues), others prefer to use the phone and may not like an email overload. Some will be perfect carpenters, while others haven't even heard about hammers and fear their impact. This makes using online tools for internal communication so complex.

How to avoid mis-communication and tools that make collaboration worse? Together with Sibrenne Wagenaar I wrote a Dutch article called "So you wanna be a virtual team?" In the article we give our tips to pay sufficient attention to the choice of tools and the effect of the tools on the communication within the team (that may be an organisation too):
  • Start with an exchange of experiences with tools for collaboration; start with familiarity Every tool has a learning curve (though the curve may be lower for people who have worked with many different tools). If you start with familiar tools you can leap forward.
  • Choose a starting toolset together with the team and discuss the particular way it is going to be used. Discuss whether the toolset is simply email, or includes a yammer group, skype, chat etc. How often are we going to mail? Discussing this allows the team to understand the preferences of its members.
  • Stimulate an experimental culture within the team. Though it is good to start with a familiar toolset, there may be other ways to support communication. If nobody twitters, nobody may think of creating a yammer group. It therefore helps to identify the people who know quite some tools or to simply experiment.
  • You can introduce new tools but don't overdo it. If the experimental culture is there already within a team, the pitfall may be to try and test a lot of tools or to devote a lot of attention to the tools. Be aware of this too. After all, it's the communication that matters. If a team is happy to mail to and fro, and doesn't need a discussion forum, this is fine.
  • Monitor individual feelings of ease and unease. Various tools may put people at an advantageous or disadvantageous position. Monitor this and use it to support so that everybody contribute his/her ideas and talents to the best of the task at hand.
In the end, it is all about putting the use of online tools on the overall agenda for monitoring the team effectiveness...
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Monday, June 14, 2010

7 lessons how to use social media in an event with social media beginners

Last year we've experimented with various social media to improve a sharing event for about 100 participants (for more details see my older blogpost). This is not too difficult when all your participants are social media adepts, you announce your hashtags and off they go. However, in this case the majority wasn't actively using social media. So how can you still use social media?

Our main goal of using social media was to improve networking and aim for real collaboration between participants to take off. We found out the goal was set too high. People don't start new projects after meeting each other for the first time, ideas need greenhousing. But we had some impact: 86% of the participants said they got new ideas in their session that they had used or were planning to apply. We managed to let people connect beforehand through a platform (ning) and afterwards link participants to other networks or initiatives (like the outcome mapping community). The evaluation was quite positive about the effect of using social media. People were especially happy to connect and read before the event. (the exception was the twitter wall- people not on twitter didn't really get it and I can't help sympathizing with them)

From the experience and various sources I've collected I can distill seven important lessons:
  1. Use social media to find and connect your event to existing (online) communities. An one-off event is not going to create communities, but can give a space to communities to connect with new people. Through your event people may also get to know new communities that they may join. Because of social media - it is much easier to join, lurk and decide whether you want to leave or stay in communities and networks (and become active). Use tools like or through know spaces to search for relevant groups and communities. Or you may know offline networks working on related themes. Connect to those groups. Beginners may be familiar with forums, or may get to know online community life through your event.
  2. Co-create your event and program with a wider group of participants Traditionally a small group of people/volunteers design the event and make decisions about the program, themes and speakers. The exciting thing about social media is makes it easy to call for wider participation in program design. You can ask participants to come up with ideas and may use tools like uservoice or crowdcampaign. See for instance how KM2010 is using social media to get proposals from potential speakers and they've asked the audience to decide on the most interesting ones. However, we experienced that participants may be quite consumptive. In our case suggestions were few (but useful!) and the organizers still had a large part in designing the program. This brings me to the next point of building new habits of co-creation.
  3. Build new habits in using social media event after event It pays to invest in the persistent use of social media. Last year we experimented with a ning platform, a twitter account and a few videos. There were 90 people at the event, but the platform has currently 117 members, the twitter account 91 followers and the videos have been watched by 200-300 people. This year, we can start with an platform that has already assembled 117 members interested in the event. It will be easier to engage them then last year when everything was new. The first tweet to ask for input has already been sent.
  4. Enhance networking between participants and the quality of connections by using social network media. The members profile feature was one of the best used features of our social network platform. Offering a space where people can view the other participants before the event and connect on themes can help to make sure the right people connect and connections are meaningful. The profile questions (or other ways to allow people to present themselves) are hence important. Personally I've experienced this by connecting with two members who working on intercultural communication. Since I'd known them online, I wanted to meet them and had nice conversations. Without the social network platform, I could have missed them. Be creative in how you do this. In ning, there is a new application which is called member-mix. It allows member to connect randomly with a buddy before an event. This can also be a great way of connecting people (though not on interests). Another possibility is to create network walls or offer LinkedIn Live corners where people can connect directly on LinkedIn (without having to exchange business card which you loose anyhow). Or use advanced search to find people with common interests. Make sure there is enough time for networking live during the event.
  5. Connect to the participants' reality by using polls. Polls are very powerful (and popular) to tap into the ideas and reality of the audience. It's a method to get everybody's ideas and opinions out and make people think about their situation. It may be a good step up to interaction. The kind of question matter a lot. Doing a short poll at the beginning of a session or before the event can help to know what level the participants are at, or can trigger interesting discussions. Polls can be done in many different ways. I always like the line ups- or how do you call them? (people who don't use social media line up at this side of the room, people who are active users line up there, others in between). Twitterpolls are popular, but the downside may be that you exclude the people who are not on twitter. So you may use a web-based poll before the event, an SMS wall or polleverywhere which can use both. Or simply raise hands or coloured papers. That brings me to the next point
  6. Make sure you are not sidelining people through your choice of social media Don't use media because they are cool to use. Last week I was part of a polling exercise which used small devices and a laser reader. Everyone had a polling device, I thought it was brilliant. Someone wondered, however, why they didn't use Twitter. I thought using twitter would have sidelined half of the audience, unfamiliar with twitter. A twitterwall is fun and looks nice, but may not add value. Hence, you may choose not to project a backchannel. Simply because the presentors are not comfortable with it or the majority of the audience may feel excluded. Making use of an existing, spontaneous backchannel by having someone scan and read it is fine ofcourse.
  7. Make information from sessions available in attractive, short formats for people who can't make it. People may be interested in your event but can't make it on that day or have to choose between two interesting parallel session. We tried to stimulate session organisers to report and upload information to the platform. This was hard en not very energizing. On the other hand, the videos had a good number of views. This time, I think it is best to try and use short videos to gain some insight into a session and make sure the presentation are available (eg. on slideshare). Stimulate live blogging and live tweeting to get additional coverage of what's happening and attract wider attention. Last year we did not have wireless internet connections. But audiences are mixed, so this year we will have wireless and stimulate blogging and tweeting for the people who might enjoy this.
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Do you fear technical things?

Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...Image via Wikipedia

One time I got a call whether I know what to look for when you buy a laptop. Or people ask if I know how you can make Outlook address list. Or what a great mobile provider is in the Netherlands. Things I do not know but apparently I have given them the impression that I might know. People are surprised to discover that I do not know how turn up the volume of my phone too (secretly they are glad too:). Somehow my ICT knowledge is overrated because I work a lot with social media and facilitate online.

On my blog I recently wrote about various responsibilities of an online facilitator. You can organize tasks in different ways, of course, but I have used the following main categories:

* Managing / promoting social networking and connections
* Guiding the process of online learning and communication
* Technical tasks
* Monitor progress (this may sound like a logical task, but online is important because you have less visual feedback loops..).

The funny thing is that the technical tasks are hence only one aspect of online facilitation, while it receives a lot more attention. At times solutions to difficulties are sometimes sought in the technology, while the problem lies in the social process; for example when the right people are not hooked up. In our online course facilitation, we asked participants what they dread to see, and most of the responses was about failing technology! A skype connection fails, a bad sound etc.

I think this fear of technology deters some face-to-face process facilitators to move online towards 'boundaryless facilitation' as coined by Lisa Kimball. Too bad, because I think these people would be great online facilitators! Do you recognize this fear of technology? How do you deal with it?
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Thursday, June 03, 2010

The dynamics of managing/nurturing networks of practice

Map of Online CommunitiesImage by D'Arcy Norman via Flickr

I received a beautiful article (thanks to Julie Ferguson!). Just got a tip through the comments that it's also online. This is the full reference to the article:

Agterberg, M., Van den Hooff, B., Huysman, M., & Soekijad, M. (2010). Keeping the Wheels Turning: The Dynamics of Managing Networks of Practice. Journal of Management Studies, 47(1), 85-108

The authors make a distinction between NoPs and CoPs; networks of practice and communities of practice. In their definition CoPs are co-located and NoPs are dispersed. I would not make that distinction, because the closeness between members does not depend on distance, people can really feel part of and identify with a community of practitioners who are based in different location all over the globe.

CoP or NoP doesn't matter, there are important insights into the management interventions to support NoPs (or CoPs I'd say...). The research question was: how can intra-organizational NoPs be managed without being 'killed'? Research has been done in a development organization founded in 1965 and headquartered in the Netherlands (Dutch people can easily guess :). Twenty-two NoPs were formalized with the goal of integrating existing, dispersed knowledge. Management created the formal position of a manager or functional line manager responsible for the NoP. This brings a central dilemma: how to balance emergent self-organization and autonomy on the one hand and some degree of formal management influence on the other hand?

I've never held the belief that communities are fully self-emergent and that you can not intervene/facilitate in communities of practice. Wenger has also written a lot about this management paradox and prefers to call it nurturing rather than managing. Managers should support and energize communities, not neglect and ignore them. (see also my previous post which includes an interview with Wenger).

What are the findings from the study of 22 NoPs in one organisation? Data reveal four sets of dynamics that influence the way NoPs function to integrate dispersed knowledge:

1. Organizational embeddedness
- the extent to which the knowledge shared is relevant for the organisation. It includes institutionalization, the extent to which outcomes of the network can be applied in the formal organization as rules, routines, strategies, trainings etc and relevance for the organisation- the extent to which knowledge in the network is considered valuable for the organization.

2. Embeddedness in practice-
the extent to which the knowledge being shared and created s relevant to and integrated in members local practices. It includes relevance to practice, as connection to daily local practices and common practices, extent to which the network members use the same practices.

3. Relational embeddedness-
the presence of strong social ties. It includes the group feeling, trust, reciprocity as willingness to help each other and face-to-face contact.

4. Structural embeddedness- The structure of connections among people. It includes connectedness and Know who is where and knows what (and how to reach them).

Personally I feel relational and structural embeddedness are very connected to each other and both relate to the level of social capital.

But what did the study find out about management interventions in all these types of embeddedness? Management can enforce the dynamics or degrade the dynamics (which Wenger call 'energize' or 'de-energize'). A few examples of enforcing/energizing interventions:
  • Translating experiences into formal publications and training
  • Informing members about relevant developments in the domain
  • Kick off meetings (to support relational embeddedness)
  • Formalizing networks
  • Providing tools like the E-group (online tool) and travel money to meet face-to-face
A few example of degrading interventions (de-energizing):
  • Asking the networks fo formulate strategies (lowers embeddedness in practice)
  • Setting the agenda (topics introduced by management were not the topics advisors perceived as relevant)
  • Requiring specific outputs from the network (lowers embeddedness in practice)
  • Making top-down decisions which counter the principles of commitment and organisational learning (lowers trust)
  • Giving assignments without focusing on social issues
  • Instruct people to attend a network meeting without the interest of advisors to be connected
  • Install a network without encouraging advisors to participate
In the end, management interventions can have both a reinforcing and degrading effect and it sometimes depends on the context what the effect is. A strong focus on organizational embeddedness denies the practice based and socially embedded nature of learning and turns NoPs into teams.

Another conclusion is that managers "who play the role of primus inter pares seem better able to intervene successfully, but it is no easy task to identify such people." This relates directly to CoP literature indicating that the role of coordinator should be taken up by a practitioner in order to be effective. CoP literature makes a better distinction between the role of the practitioner- coordinator as member of the CoP versus management who are outsiders/sponsors. Nevertheless, I find the list of management interventions very useful, concrete (and even recognisable from experience!).
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