I'm Not the Only One Digging Ning

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My interest in Ning continues unabated, especially after seeing that over 100,000 networks have been developed so far. Marc Andreesen's post on the accomplishment indicates that one of the reasons for their incredible growth is that Ning developers are focusing on making it ridiculously easy to set up your own network. I'm here to tell you that they're succeeding with that plan. You can definitely set up a network in about 5 minutes, although getting it going with participants offers its own challenges.

This afternoon I took a break to browse the Ning blog. There I found a couple of nonprofits making incredible use of the service--Sarcoidosis and Tu Diabetes.com. Both are organizations providing support to individuals and their families who are suffering from a chronic condition. These are the kinds of people who often crave connections with others, so using Ning to create space to nurture these necessary connections is an incredible service to offer. And it's FREE!

A few things I noticed about their sites:

  • Both have very active communities. Tu Diabetes is at almost 1,000 members and both networks have a lot of activity going on, with people posting Q&As in forums, writing blog posts, commenting on member pages, etc. There's a sense of energy, purpose and connection that I can only assume is incredibly positive for the members. Which I would assume transfers to the organizations.
  • Within the communities, members have taken advantage of the "Groups" feature to create more focused support groups. This means that there can be groups for children and adults, groups for people who are looking at particular treatment options, groups for families, etc.
  • Like all Ning sites, members have their own personal pages which includes a blog (with privacy options for individual posts), space to upload and share photos, and a comment wall. All of these features add to the sense of community and belonging for members. It also provides space for people to reflect upon and process some difficult challenges and experiences.
  • Tu Diabetes is using their site to advertise events--like a chat session with a doctor--to share links to other resources and to recommend books to members. This turns their site into a very full-featured support and information resource for members. If they wanted to, they could also add RSS feeds to diabetes-related news stories and other information.

After taking a look around these two sites, I'm struck even more by the huge potential of Ning for nonprofits. In one way or another, most nonprofits are about forging and utilizing connections. In some cases, the connections are for advocacy. In other cases, community may need to be formed to provide support. Ning is a FREE way to provide these services using a very robust and professional looking platform.For my money, this is an incredibly powerful resource whose potential we may only be beginning to tap into. Expect to see more here on using Ning because it definitely has my head buzzing with ideas.


Our "Take Back Your 9-5" Career Empowerment Retreat is Taking Off!

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Last week Rosetta Thurman and I invited interested women to join us for a career retreat in the D.C. area. Since then, we've been thrilled to hear from a number of women who are excited about the idea of working together to create their career plans and move their professional development forward. Now it's time for next steps.

The Beyond the Glass Ceiling Community
We're starting with a new community on Ning called "Beyond the Glass Ceiling." This is something I've been thinking about for a while now and with the plans for our retreat moving ahead, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to launch it.

While we'll be using the site to collaboratively plan for the upcoming retreat, I envision it as something much bigger than that. This is a community that I see being open to all women, not just women in nonprofits.

From what I know from my own friends and other women I talk to, I think that there are a lot of us who would welcome the opportunity to have an ongoing support network where we could get career advice, online mentoring, share tips and tricks for career success, etc. I see this site as being a way for women to make those connections and provide support to one another on an ongoing basis, rather than just once in a while when we attend a retreat.

So while the site is launching in part as a way for us to plan the D.C. retreat, I'm hoping that word will spread and that other women will join the network to begin connecting, sharing and receiving career support. As Rosetta says, it's always good to have some cheerleaders in your corner.

The Beyond the Glass Ceiling Blog
Along with the launch of the Beyond the Glass Ceiling network, I've also decided to launch a new blog to support the community. What I've realized in the past few months is that I want to write much more about women's career issues and professional development than I can really do here. Although I've been able to dabble in general career and development posts, my primary focus has been on technology, learning and nonprofits and making a shift here just doesn't work. 

I still plan to write here at Bamboo, but by setting up a online new home, I can be more targeted on career and professional development issues specific to women without confusing or frustrating my readers here. It will also be less confusing for me. I've come to realize in my 31 Days to a Better Blog that there's something to be said for knowing and staying in your niche.

Next Steps
So where to go from here?

  • If you are a woman who wants to start investing in herself on a regular basis, rather than only once in a while, I hope you'll join us at the Beyond the Glass Ceiling community. At a minimum, please check out the Beyond the Glass Ceiling blog  and let me know what you think. I want it to be useful tool, so all feedback is welcome. 
  • If you're interested in attending the retreat that we're planning for D.C., definitely join the community because this is how we'll be putting together the event and sharing future plans with everyone who's interested in attending. It's the only way we can manage everything effectively!
  • If you know other women who might be interested in reading the blog, joining the community and/or attending the retreat, please send this post along to them to let them know what we're planning. Anyone is welcome to join us, so feel free to share.
  • No matter who you are, man OR woman, check out Rosetta's latest post on how to Kickstart Your Nonprofit Career in 7 Days. As usual, awesome career advice that would benefit anyone, even if you aren't working for a nonprofit. (I'm still finding it hard to believe that she's only 24!)

I'm really excited about this new direction and the potential it has for women. I'd love to have you join us or hear what you think about the idea.

View my profile on Beyond the Glass Ceiling


Some Tools for Making Group Blogging (and any Group Writing Project) Easier

A few months ago I wrote that the best blogging strategy for nonprofits may be a group blog, where a number of writers are all contributing to creating posts, rather than relying on a single writer. Now I want to share a few tools that can make a group blog--or any group writing project--even easier.

Writing Posts with Google Docs
Google Docs lets you create and share documents online, which means no more emailing different versions of a document around to several different collaborators. Probably the best way to understand how it works is to watch this latest video from Common Craft--Google Docs in Plain English.

The beauty of Google Docs for blog posting is that you can more easily edit and comment on posts prior to posting on your blog. I have to say that I've begun to use it more and more as I collaborate with other bloggers on various projects and I've found it to be a real God-send.

Organizing and Assigning Posts with Rusty Budget
Rusty Budget is an interesting little online service that allows you to better manage your day-to-day story topics. Basically you can create various story folders to manage story ideas, authors, etc. I suggest checking out their short overview demo to get the full picture. The service is free for one editor and author working together and $4/month to add additional authors. Still a pretty decent bargain if you're going to be coordinating with a lot of different people.

I've started playing around with it and found it reasonably intuitive to use. It's a good place to brainstorm story ideas and make assignments.

Organizing with a Blog Editorial Calendar
Another nice tool is this blogging editorial calendar from Andy Wibbel. It's a spreadsheet that, if you watched the Google Docs video above, you know you could also use online in Google. Could be good to use with your Rusty Budget account, or even in place of it.

So now that you have some tools to get you going, maybe it's time to start talking more seriously about setting up that group blog?


Cut Inbox Clutter with Social Bookmarking

Delicious A lot of email in my inbox is of the "Check out this link!" variety. This morning, Harold Jarche reminds us, in a post entitled "Free Your Bookmarks," how social bookmarking through sites like del.icio.us can cut email clutter.

Instead of emailing links to everyone you know (we're begging you to stop!), set up tags in del.icio.us or any other social bookmarking site. You can create categories for friends, family, co-workers, clients, particular projects, particular subject areas, types of media (i.e., video), etc.

As you surf the web, tag the interesting content you find with one or more of those categories. Your friends, coworkers, etc. can then monitor the tags through the site or by setting up an RSS feed to the tag that they can plug into their feed reader. Voila! No more "You have to see this video!" emails in the inbox! 

Of course, it's helpful if you can get everyone else to adopt this strategy to so that the email cleanup can go both ways. Maybe if you show them this video, they'll see how cool this is.

UPDATE--In comments on this post, Sue Waters makes the excellent point that group bookmarks are even more helpful when people add notes. Simply highlight a few lines that capture the gist of the article and then hit the Tag button. Or you can add your own notes in the tag box before hitting save.


Supporting Personal Learning Environments--A Definition of a PLE

 

As part of answering Reader Questions this week, I'm going back to something that Glenn Ross asked me awhile ago:

If I'm responsible for L&D in my organization, how can I help my employees identify their PLEs (personal learning environments) and what resources do I need to provide for them?

Apparently Glenn likes to ask the tough questions. But I'm feeling brave, so I'm going to try for an answer here.  It actually will take two posts to do this, so let's start with my definition of  a PLE.

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The Elements of a Personal Learning Environment
There is a lot of discussion about what exactly constitutes a personal learning environment. To write about how to support PLEs, I want to first make sure we're on the same page as far as what I mean by a PLE.

It's Personal
Personal means two things to me.

A personal learning environment is personal in the sense that WHAT is learned has to be based on what interests the learner. We're hoping, of course, that learning about work-related things is going to be part of what interests people, but we also have to accept that people are more than their cubes, so a personal learning environment has to start with embracing the personal aspect. People simply won't learn if they aren't interested in the topic. 

A PLE also has to be personal in terms of the tools. That is, the learner should have some ability to select the tools that work best for his/her learning style and needs. The learner should also have maximum flexibility in how he/she uses those tools. If the tools of a PLE are imposed on the learner, then in my book, you've lost one of the key benefits of personal learning. People will simply balk at using them.

It's About Self-Directed Learning
I'm sorry to report that most people don't really know how to learn. School and training programs have taught them that "learning" is simply the passive transfer of knowledge from an "expert" into their waiting brains. Unfortunately, this is not a particularly successful strategy for learning.

For a PLE to be successful, a person needs to know how to learn. This means that he/she needs to have some key skills, such as an ability to do research, process information, etc. I started to do some brainstorming on these skills based on a presentation by Stephen Downes. If an organization is going to seriously work to implement PLEs with their staff, I think that they need to consider ways to boost some of these key skills as part of that process.

It's About the Environment
Again, this means two things to me. First, there has to be an organizational culture of learning, not a culture of training. Without a learning culture, you might as well forget about implementing something as radical as a PLE. People have to feel supported and nurtured as they try out new tools and ways of doing things and this doesn't happen in organizations that don't think carefully about creating a culture of learning.

The second aspect of the environment is, of course, having access to the tools of PLEs. Typically we're talking here about online tools, such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc., although a PLE isn't strictly about online learning. It also includes face-to-face interaction, reading real-world books and magazines, going to conferences, engaging in activities, writing in journals, etc.

An important point here--I'm of the "small pieces, loosely joined" school of thought on tools, so when I'm talking about an environment that provides the tools, I'm talking about people having access to a wide range of options that they can pull together as they see fit.

One final note on my approach--I'm with Tom Haskins that PLEs should be regarded as power tools. I see PLEs as a strategy of empowerment that allows staff to become more self-directed in their learning. I personally believe that most organizations benefit from knowledge workers who roam far and wide in the learning landscape and that PLEs should be used as a way to support both personal and professional development, not as a sort of organizationally-driven way to control learners. That's what LMS systems are for.

So that's how I define a PLE. Next time, I'll write about how I think we can support staff in developing and using their own PLEs.


Social Bookmarking in Plain English--Another Common Craft Winner

Have you ever tried to explain social bookmarking to a non-techie? A little frustrating, to say the least.

Well, the crew at Common Craft once again brings technology to the rest of us with their latest 3.5 minute video on social bookmarking--more specifically, on del.icio.us. Lee LeFever and his wife Sashi continue to entertain and edify with their white-board style of clarifying Web 2.0, although this version is missing the "Boo/Yeah" that Lee has become known for. Another great resource for helping non-techs understand the power of Web 2.0.

While we're on the subject, I'd also encourage you to check out Beth Kanter's screencast on tagging (a key feature of sites like del.icio.us). Also check out other videos in the Common Craft Plain English series, including:

 


Why Face-to-Face Still Rules

Yesterday's plea for rethinking face-to-face meetings apparently struck a nerve, as a lively discussion broke out in comments and Jane of Wandering Eyre weighed in on her blog.

As you'll recall, I was complaining that a group I'm working with wouldn't use online tools to gather information, preferring to meet face-to-face and I suggested a few reasons why I thought that might be true.

I was initially going to keep the converations going through comments, but too many people had interesting things to say, so I'm bringing them into another post.

Here's what I've learned so far.

First, I'm not alone in wishing that we could figure out how to get people to move online, at least in certain circumstances. Writes Shannon of Random Mutterings:

This has been a very challenging question for our organization as well. As a nonprofit with globally dispersed staff, face-to-face meetings are expensive, often unfunded by donors, difficult to coordinate. But yet there seems to be no progress without them -- it is almost as if people don't become "real" until you meet them in person. I think this resistance is more pronounced in cultures where technology is not so prevalent. I don't have any suggestions or solutions, only frustrations. But I am open to all suggestions for how we can make virtual teaming work when the reality is that there is no substitute for face to face, but costs and other concerns often prevent it.

This made me feel somewhat better, because after I wrote the post I started to think I was just being unnecessarily crabby. But obviously other people struggle with the same issue. And I think that Shannon's point that people aren't "real" without face-to-face contact is an interesting one. I certainly know that it's one reason why I like bloggers to include their photos on their site so I can at least picture a person doing the "talking."

That said, a number of people had some additional suggestions for why so many resist moving away from f2f meetings. First up was Harold Jarche, who suggested that people are simply uncomfortable with online tools and that if we could just expose them and let them poke around, it might be an easier sell. I tend to agree with this, although in my particular case, the group I'm working with is apparently familiar with things like blogs and wikis, but have no interest in using them because it "takes too much time." Which I find interesting, given that they're willing to give a day and night to a trip that will accomplish less.

Then Jane at Wandering Eye suggested that people might be uncomfortable with the transparency and accountability that comes with online meetings, something that definitely hadn't occurred to me:

When you hold a meeting over chat, develop an idea on a wiki, discuss solutions to problems on a discussion board, or collectively edit a document, you leave little traces of the process everywhere. There are transcripts, different versions of documents, and there is an actual record of who made what comment and contributed what material.

In a f2f meeting, we rely on a person to take notes. We all know that Meeting Minutes are nothing more then a list of decisions and action items. Meeting minutes do not reflect the decision process, the tension a topic may have induced, or the crazy idea that got thrown on the table and very quickly was swept under the rug. Meeting minutes are the sanitized version of what really happened. Sometimes, they are so sanitized as to be completely useless to those who were not in attendance.

Conducting committee work on the web can be dirty, it can be chaotic, and, in most instances, it is open for all the world to see. Moving committee work to the web is the picture of radical transparency and that scares people. Big organizations hate admitting failure and process can look like failure.

Wow! Very true, I think, although I also wonder if people have been that strategic in their thinking. Or is this something that they intuitively understand and dread? Regardless, this is a really powerful point that probably does have an impact.

Another reason to keep meeting face-to-face was suggested by Bronwyn Maudlin--the "trust factor":

I think there's something more going on here that goes beyond relationship building and motivation, or lack of comfort/knowledge of web 2.0 tools, and that's about trust. It's about looking people in the eye, seeing their body language and being able to react appropriately to all those nonverbal cues. It's the ability to react instantly when a question or concern is raised, rather than waiting for cumbersome written messages to make their way back and forth across the ether. As humans, we're built with a lot of communication tools that we often aren't aware we're using.

Michelle Murrain echoed these thoughts and added that to her, face-to-face is the "glue" that holds virtual groups together. She also made a plea for balance, arguing that while she didn't want to spend all of her time traveling, she also didn't want to spend all of her time in front of a 14" screen either.

I think that it's important to find the balance, and understand that people who might seem simply wedded to old ideas might actually have a point. It's not really about efficiency of information transfer, it's about information transfer of the kind that can only happen when people are physically in the same room together.

One final suggestion for why face-to-face persists came from Chris, who suggested that the real issue here is that 70% of us are extroverted, which means we tend to get more out of talking and face-to-face interaction and less out of reading a website or adding to a wiki:

There have been many studies in this area over the years. Basically, only about 30% of us are satisfied with quickly interacting for the exchange of data.

That leaves a whopping 70% who want to meet in person, and who will NEVER prefer to do otherwise. In short, these people draw their enthusiasm and personal energy from direct contact with other people. Video does not satisfy that need. Podcasting does not satisfy that need. It involves more than sight and sound.

Now if Web 2.0 tools could pump human pheromones across a "meeting enhancement" wiki, then you might have a hope of prying those people out of the face to face meeting mode. Apparently, the scent of others who reach agreement is part of the face to face crowd's need. . . .
Anyone up for developing a pheromone releasing keyboard?

This is something I'd considered after I wrote the post. I'm definitely an introvert, so to me, social media is a dream come true--social interaction and information sharing on MY terms! But I also do a lot of work with an extrovert who HATES all things Internet. At a minimum she needs to talk to (at?) me over the phone in order to get her thoughts in order. In her perfect world, though, I would be on call 24/7 to capture everything she says because she's never sure when she's going to come up with something good. Her response to just about every situation is "we need to have a meeting." I say this lovingly (we have a great relationship), but she's one of the people I have in mind to avoid by doing more things online. To me it would be so much EASIER to get to what I need.

So where does this take us? Tim Davies has one suggestion:

There is something interesting about looking for the 'bridging' technologies. The ways of meeting, or holding a conference call, that bring in benefits of social media and online technologies alongside an existing meeting/discussion practise - so that face-to-face meetings without their online compontent become unthinkable... and the online compotent without the face-to-face becomes a bit more thinkable...

I've been exploring this a bit with conference calls, using parallel online workspaces for note-taking (http://www.thinkature.com was particularly interesting to use), and through making sure from meetings information is captured and fed back to people through an online tool - rather than as an e-mail attachment / paper minutes. By offering the online element and tools 'in-addition', no-one is forced at first to engage any of the extra features (or as they may see - complexity) - but as participants come to experience the added value - the hope is that they choose to use these tools and that they transition away from inefficient ways of meeting...

Very true and this feeds back into what Harold suggested, which is finding ways to get people comfortable with the technology.

I also think that at a minimum, we need to do a better job with structuring meetings and outcomes and being sure to share that information on the web using tools like tagging and RSS so that people see how information can be better categorized, accessed and used when we put it online. One of the beauties of online meeting, I think, is the creation of re-usable bits of knowledge that can always be accessed and re-packaged long after a meeting is over.

But at the same time I recognize that at least for the foreseeable future, people will still want face-to-face. It may be something that we've evolved to need, as Chris and Bronwyn suggest. Or it may just be that it makes us comfortable. Regardless, I'm afraid we'll always have meetings. The best I can do is to figure out how to eliminate some and then make those that remain more productive.


More On Facebook

Facebook_logo_2 Looks like interest in Facebook is continuing:

It's Facebook Week!
Over at Read/WriteWeb, it's Day One of Facebook Week. You can join the Facebook group for Read/WriteWeb readers and learn a little about the platform. During the rest of the week the plan is to look more closely at some specific applications--like in this post Top Ten Facebook Apps for Work.

If you're interested in following the posts, you may want to sign up for the feed.

Facebook Apps as Portals,  PLEs and Conferencing Supports
The University of Wales/Newport has taken advantage of Facebook's open API to create MyNewport: My Learning Essentials for Facebook, an application that students, staff, etc. can integrate into their Facebook profiles. According to the developers, it took about a day and a half to get from conception to a completed application. You can see the application and learn more here.

This may be the future of portals and/or a step forward in the PLE discussion (although I'll say that I'm inclined to see this as more of a learning management system than a real personal learning environment.) And if it's truly this simple to create Facebook applications, might this not be an addition to the better conferencing thread as well?

Facebook Etiquette
Pamela Smart of Escape from Cubicle Nation wonders about the etiquette of social networking and when it's appropriate to accept friend requests. She also has a Wall Street Journal video on the delicate issue  of accepting your boss's friend request. Does putting your boss on limited profile signal that you have something to hide?

Facebook as a Tool for Engagement and Re-Invention
David Wilcox of Designing for Civil Society has some good information on how Facebook is helping a nonprofit he works with to re-invent itself. As David points out, creating Facebook groups should probably become a regular part of the engagement process.

Other Facebook Resources


The Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Portal

In the past few days, I've found a number of new portals online. I'm starting to wonder if we can't learn a thing or two from what's happening.

First, via Eisenblog, came Open Learn University's portal, created by Stuart Brown in Netvibes to support OU students and instructors.

Then I find Crimson Connect, the student-run Harvard University portal, developed in the wake of student dissatisfaction with Harvard's "Official" website. (Take note--if you don't create a useful website for your organization, someone else might take matters into their own hands).

And finally, last night I see that Impactiviti has launched a Training Bloggers portal using Pageflakes, featuring feeds from some of the best bloggers in the training and development space. This on the heels of two other portals they've created--Pharmacentral for the pharmaceutical industry and the Marketing Bloggers portal for marketers.

So why should we care?

First, take a quick look around each portal. Harvard's includes access to email and Facebook, shuttle schedules, Boston weather, feeds to student clubs, athletic events and activities, the library--even dining hall menus. Open Learn University's portal has video lesson feeds, feeds to each of their departments, and a keyword search of their content. The Training Bloggers portal includes feeds to several different categories of T&D blogs, pre-selected for quality.

Think about how these types of portals could be used in the nonprofit world:

  • Create a "cause-related" portal that includes feeds to related blogs, audio, video, etc., as well as a calendar of events, etc. I've written about this before and I'm really seeing the possibilities now.
  • Create portals to support better conferencing. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how to improve the conference experience. Portals are another option. Imagine sending an email out to all conference participants with a Netvibes or Pageflakes portal link that includes feeds to weather, newspapers, events, etc. in the location where you'll be holding the conference. It could also include a calendar of events and feeds to the wiki pages I suggested that you use to develop the conference agenda and get the conversation started. It could also include access to MySpace and Facebook modules, audio and video feeds on related content, email, etc. This can also become a way to follow-up on a conference, by adding feeds to those bloggers who are blogging the conference.
  • Create an organizational portal for staff and volunteers and make it the start page for staff so that they can be updated daily on what's happening in the organization.

Putting together a portal is really not that difficult. It's a matter of finding the content you want to include,  setting up the tabs in Pageflakes and/or  Netvibes and then sharing them with the world.

You can see how other people are already doing it. Tony Hirst blogs here about how he created the predecessor to the Open Learn University portal.  PC World  has an article about creating a Netvibes portal or you can check out this screencast that will give you the basic elements of setting up and configuring an account and using tabsharing. If you're interested in Pageflakes, then this tutorial can help get you started.

The tools are there. Many people are already using them. It's just a matter of us figuring out how to use them on an organizational scale to create value for various stakeholders. As I watch what other people are doing with these tools, I can't help but feel that we may be missing something big if we don't act soon.


Schedule Your Meetings with Doodle

Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting with several participants? It can be a nightmare of emails and back and forth phone calls as you try to find the perfect date and time.  Lately my meeting planning has been much easier as I've started to use Doodle to set things up.

Here's what I do (more instructions here):

  • Click on Create a Poll.
  • Name my poll and identify myself as the initiator
  • Select potential dates
  • Select potential times
  • Create the poll

Within seconds, Doodle emails me with a URL to my unique poll that I can then share with everyone I'm trying to schedule for the meeting. Once I notify them of the link, they can go to the site where they will type in their name and check off those dates/times when they're available. Each time someone "votes" I'm sent an email so I know when to check the poll. As you can see from the screen shot below, the site even tells me the most promising date/time for my meeting.

Pollready I've found the site to be remarkably easy to use, with even non-techies able to participate with no problems. A few upgrades I'd like to see include the ability to add a potential location to the poll, as well as an address book and the capacity to email the poll from within Doodle. But really, for a free tool, I can't complain. The site  has definitely been a timesaver for me  and one I highly recommend.