Monday, April 16, 2012

Social media and reflection: marriage or divorce?

Social media in organisations has been a difficult topic and sometimes bothers me. When I am invited to do introductory sessions in organisations, I feel like I'm converting people to use MORE social media, whereas I don't believe it is a matter of using as many social media as possible. I do believe however in finding an optimal use of social media to support individual and collective learning and innovation. Reflection is needed in order to learn from the past. Most of the time a smarter use of media may help. A lot of times, social media don't solve the underlying learning disabilities. Hence work on social media AND the practices is needed.

Social media stimulate us to live and work in an ever increasing pace. Quick messages. Scanning. Multitasking. I had a skype this morning and we were both reading and answering our mails simultaneously. Hence it seems like social media is having opposite effect in organisation - that social media hinder reflection and deeper conversation. On the other hand, I am convinced social media can aid reflection for individiuals, teams and eventually organisations. However, what is needed are some conscious practices. Without those practices the effect of social media may indeed be the opposite: people get overwhelmed with messages and experience loss of control.

Here's a Tedtalk by Sherry Turkle called connected but alone. She basically points to the same danger of social media, though she does not talk about reflective practice in organisations, but in society at large.  She talks about "The goldilocks effect" - you get contact with others but in small bits through sms, tweets and other short messages. She claims human relationships are cleaned up by technology because connecting in sips doesn't lead to real conversations. And a flight from conversation can limit our capacity to reflect. "We can learn from solitude and listening to each other. It is in the stumbling in words that we reveal ourselves to each other." I partly agree with her that there is this danger of communicating faster, with less attention, communicating with more people but not getting to a certain depth of understanding. I also disagree because most people use social media to stay in touch with the same people over a long period of time and hence get flow of bits which also make up for revealing ourselves. For instance, there are people I get to know better through reading their blogs systematically over time. I agree for people who can't make sense of it all and do see people struggling with this. 

Let first go to the basics: what is reflection and why is it important? 
Reflection on one's own practice is an important aspect of learning. Reflection in a way to look back at what we know and what we experienced. Someone once explained it to a group by turning around and really looking backwards (with his hand above his eyes to look afar). In the process of reflection we analyse what happened to generate new knowledge and insights (this might be done individually or in group, a method for systematic reflection in group is After Action Review). A definition from a paper "Reflection is a form of mental processing that we use to fulfill a purpose or to achieve some anticipated outcome. It is applied to gain a better understanding of relatively complicated or unstructured ideas and is largely based on the reprocessing of knowledge, understanding and possibly emotions that we already possess." Reflection is important for learning because it provides us with insights in what works and what doesn't, it gives us new ideas and new ways to act. The focus of reflection may vary: from your way of working, your convinctions, processes used and other angles.

Angle 1: The reflective practitioner; reflection on action needs slowing down
Schon wrote a book on the reflective practitioner, pointing out the need to constantly reflect on the way we intervene as professionals. He distinguishes reflection in action and reflection on action. Interesting is also Argyris who talks about defensive routines in organisations that limit learning. Reflection on action demands slowing down because you need time to look back at experiences (alone or together, in structured session or unstructured when thinking under the shower). There is a difference in the way different media support this slowing down. Some media seem to get in the way of this slowing down, like email and twitter when it feels like you are getting behind and you scan and follow more and more people. On the other hand Twitter may be used in a more reflective was when you try to send a tweet about a presentation. What is the core of the presentation for you? Blogging is inherently more reflective because it forces you to formulate your ideas. Lilia Efimova wrote her Phd on 'blogging for knowledge workers'. You can read about her work here.

Angle 2: Reflection through social engagement
Another angle to reflection is reflection though social engagements. Contacts with others can stimulate self-reflection because socially agreed frameworks are called into question in interactions with others. In this article called Stimulating reflection through engagement in social relationships this is elaborated upon. However, "not all social interactions necessarily result in a reflective learning situation". There are some conditions like the dialogue partners need to be in each others 'zone of proximal development'. Where partners are too much alike there is less misunderstanding but also less opportunities to learn. When differences are too large, there is too little common ground. If you consider social media as new ways to engage, it creates a positive environment to learn. There is the question however of what conditions are necessary to learn from interactions through social media. A feedback on Yammer made stimulate thinking, but if it is too different you may simply think it is not valuable. I follow many marketing specialists which have given me new perspectives on marketing, but now I stop following them back. One of the requirements mentioned in the article above is that you need reflective skills" "I can see that the other is talking from a different point of view". Social media offer new opportunities to engage in this type of learning. From an optimistic point of view, you'd say that people who follow many others through social media will become more tolerant and capable of seeing various viewpoints. Any research to support this though?

Angle 3: The quantified self
Another angle to learning about yourself is the thought stream about 'the quantified self- developing self knowledge though numbers'. Social media (and digital media in general) provide many opportunities to collect data about yourself. What is it that you learn about yourself by analysing those data.  For instance, Chloe Fan kept all her movie tickets since 2001. In this blogpost you can read how she analyzed it and learned from this like her change in taste and movie visiting patterns like time of day, who she is visiting with etc. For Dutch people here's a blogpost by Hans de Zwart.

So is there a marriage between social media and reflection? 
From angle 1 to 3 there is an increasing positivism about the opportunities to reflect and learn through social media.  What seems clear is that with a changing practice of communication through social media there is a changing practice in the way we reflect, use and analyse information. But it is probably not automatic. The quantified self demands quite something to analyse data... There may be examples of reflective practices using social media. Like the practice of seek - sense- share described by Harold Jarche for professionals. Or the practice someone once shared that before writing a blogpost you read the previous blogposts you have written about a topic.

Any examples you would like to share? They will be welcomed by me!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Introducting social media in organisations to improve the learning function is more difficult than you may think..

For some time now, I have an evaluation report of an organization that has experience with the introduction of social media (like wikis and blog) in the organization since 2009. The report is very interesting, because it shows that the actual practice of changing habits in organisations is very hard!
They allowed me to blog about it and I think it has some valuable lessons like shape such a process as a real change trajectory (I'm personally convinced about this). 

The design of the project 
The initiative for the project came from the Research and Development department. The aim of the project was that increased use of social media within the organization would support the development of a global network: information would be better available in one central place (through wikis) and transparency about what is going on within the organisation would be enhanced. The chosen toolset fits into the broader strategy of becoming a learning organization, breaking through organisational silos. Top management supports this vision and has made it possible that sufficient time and money is allocated to this project. There is someone working on this project full time and receive the support of an external agency. The organization chose a toolset with thematic wikis as a basis, supplemented with other social media such as social bookmarking, blogs and discussion forums. "We chose to use existing social media services in the cloud instead of buying a company package, because this creates flexibility and is cheaper. You are not dependent on one company/vendor and can benefit from the further development of social media in the cloud." 

The start
The project started with training voluntary groups, people were invited but not forced to be trained. More and more groups and teams came to register for the training. Working with teams worked well because you create ownership to use the tools together with the whole team. An example: a team had to develop a new program and proposed to use a wiki, as the place for the exchange of all documents, presentations and photos. Another example is a wiki about the work in a country that has helped to get an overview of all activities in this country.  

New ways of working 
The project was framed as 'a new way of working' instead of 'learning new tools'. However, the new way of working is not still not very clear for the majority of people in the organization. It has even led to unproductive polarities in organizations: the fans versus the enemies of the new way of working. After 2 years there is no critical mass of employees formed who have embraced the new way. What was probably missing is a clear argument: a rationale of why this is a better way of working. Even though there was management support, the project became isolated from other developments in the organisation. There were too few exchanges and talks about why this way of working was needed and what exactly was understood as new. As a result, it has not yet become effective. One of the lessons may be that management support is not enough, there needs to be space  in the organisation to give priority to this way of working. If a restructuring or resizing is more important it may not be the right time. In this case, some champions were identified, but some of the champions lost their jobs, which was a set back for the project. 

Wiki as a core tool 
Although the project has introduced a broader toolset, wikis were seen as the central tool. It has proven difficult to get everyone 'into wikis' because it appeared to be a tool that works great for some, but not for others. It depends on individual preferences. Furthermore a set-back of using wikis as the central tool is that wikis are very suitable for information storage but ignores exchange and interpretation and meaning processes.  

Some lesson
I think at least three important lessons can be learned from this project (note: these are partly my lessons and interpretations based on my observations and reading the evaluation). 

  • Introducing a new way of working with social media is a change process, not an ICT project and should therefore be managed as such. It therefore requires sufficient knowledge and experiences within the team about managing change in organizations. In this case using lessons from change management would probably have led the team to pay more attention to 'sense-making and understanding of the new way of working.  
  • Ensure that the vision, the purpose of the new way of working is sufficiently clear. Provide a clear focus, otherwise it quickly becomes vague to people what they are required to do. They may interpret it as 'I have to use a wiki instead of a word document'.
  • Be flexible in the choice of tools. If very early in the process a uniform toolset is chosen there is the chance that you create advocates and opponents, in an unproductive battle. Allow flexibility in use of tools while keeping the vision and purpose of the new way of working as your focus. Evaluatie regularly whether the vision is still relevant.