Do You Know How to Ask the Right Questions?

Questions.207132418_std Looking at tools like Google Squared, Google Trends and Wolfram Alpha, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that one of the key challenges we have before us is learning how to ask questions. And not just any question, but the RIGHT questions. There's tremendous power in the possibilities of these tools, but if you don't know what to ask about or how to ask it, then what's the point?

This leads me to wonder if we're really doing a good job of teaching the art of questioning, either in schools or in the workplace. My anecdotal response would be "no, we do a terrible job of this," partially because we seem to do what we can to kill curiosity and creativity, starting from an early age. A 4-year old does a great job of asking question, but by the time he gets out of 2nd grade, not so much.

And from what I can tell,  many workplaces are structured to avoid questions. Let's just do what we've been doing and not stir things up with curiosity. We also seem to love moving immediately to answers and solutions. Maybe we need to spend more time formulating the right questions.

This seems like one of those areas where we need to think carefully about how our tools may be outstripping our ability to use them. I love all this cool technology, but are our skills keeping up with what the tools can do? And how are we going to address this?

Course Community Building with Ning

Alisa Cooper of South Mountain Community Colleges has produced a great narrated presentation on how she uses Ning to build community in her courses. She's also using podcasts, live streaming video and And check out her Voicethread on using Ning, which she said she started using because she thought the usual online offerings were "a little sterile and boring." Good stuff.

Some Video Advice from Two Companies On Using Online Communities of Practice

A couple of short videos on communities of practice. The first is from Dave Vance, former president of Caterpillar University, who shares some of Caterpillar's experiences in facilitating online communities of practice. His advice?

  • You need to have a sharing culture to build from--communities of practice don't work in organizations that have a culture of hoarding information.
  • It isn't about capturing the knowledge, although that can be a good side benefit. It's about facilitating the conversations between people.
  • Caterpillar makes their communities as de-centralized as possible. They provide people with the tools, the guidelines for using them and some idea of the potential and then they leave it up to employees to develop their communities. One full-time staff person supports 4,000 communities of practice that include 40,000 Caterpillar employees.
  • Don't worry that people will give bad advice. There are enough people participating in the conversations that if someone says the wrong thing, it will quickly be corrected. "You have to let it sort itself out," says Vance.
  • Don't put knowledge through a vetting process. Again, because there are so many knowledgeable people, the system is self-correcting. Plus having to always vet information will certainly hamper any kind of sharing.

This second video is an example of the benefit of online communities of practice in the mining industry at Rio Tinto. It shows how through an active online CoP, one Rio Tinto division saved over a year's worth of work and headaches because they were able to quickly connect with another division that had experienced and solved a similar problem.

Both Caterpillar and Rio Tinto mention that their communities of practice save considerable time and money. What's also interesting is that these online communities are being fostered in heavy manufacturing types of industries where you'd think that maybe uptake would be slower. Not the case, though.

Implementing Social Media: A Tale of Two Case Studies

A couple of interesting posts from Nathan Wallace on his organization's experiences in implementing a wiki and then a year later, a customized microblogging platform called Jitter. You need to read both, but here are some key points:

The organizational wiki seems to have been adopted more quickly and used more extensively than the Jitter solution. This is in part, Nathan says, because the wiki was responding to a need, while Jitter was trying to create demand:

Open collaboration and idea sharing are common organisational goals, but that doesn’t mean there is latent demand among the people of the business for the tools that enable it. With any new organisational capability, always stay focused on end users and helping them to solve a problem.

While Jitter is a highly flexible tool that people are already using for a wide range of purposes, we didn’t do enough to position this new communication medium or to demonstrate the business value. People didn’t know how to use this new tool. Some feedback was negative, but overwhelmingly people asked “What do I post to it?”, “What’s the business value?”. Without clear answers, people just waited to see what others would do.

Related to the idea of launching a social media solution in response to a particular need, the organization's wiki was piloted as an information source related to the moving of the company's head office. As Nathan points out, "Nothing drives traffic like a seating plan for a new office."

He also has some great advice on dealing with people's concerns about people making "improper" changes to a wiki:

Predictably, the main argument against this system was fear of improper changes to content, particularly for information subject to regulatory control. I would counter this argument in two ways:
  1. There are two ways to control people's behaviour: social forces and technical forces. Currently, we successfully rely on social forces to control a wide range of things like who calls or emails the CEO with their latest crazy idea. Technical forces are powerful, but with each technical feature we increase training and raise the bar against collaboration. Surely, we can see if social forces will be enough for all but the most critical of content?
  2. Anyone can choose to monitor any content that they are concerned about (e.g. automatic email alert with changes). So, they can quickly jump in and correct any mistakes.
  3. For exceptional cases, we may choose to lock down critical content and define clear ownership and responsibility for its maintenance.

It also seems that there are real challenges to implementing microblogging in the enterprise:

Microblogging is particularly difficult to position as a business tool since it’s so hard to say anything worthwhile in so few characters. For an organisation starting the journey of sharing ideas and thoughts, blogging may be an easier starting point. Posts can be more serious and business like. Blogs are better known, and at worst look more like normal web pages. Authors can craft and position their entries to meet the political challenges and communication realities of the enterprise. Even if your organisation is ready for fast thoughts and short posts, authors can evolve towards really short blog entries.

Note that this doesn't say that microblogging shouldn't be used in the enterprise. Nathan suggests that it might not be a great starting point though.

Finally, check out this excellent article on implementing Web 2.0 in a 1.0 Culture. In it Nathan discusses the two cultural barriers to collaborative tools in the organization--sharing knowledge adds more work and sharing knowledge increases personal risk. Then he outlines some strategies for minimizing these barriers. He also proposes four values for building Enterprise 2.0:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  2. Ease of use over comprehensive training.
  3. Flexible tools over completeness.
  4. Responding to needs over creating demand.

Really great stuff, well worth your time. 

Comprehensive or Comprehendible? The "Best" Choice or the "Good Enough" Option?

Confused Massive list posts ("50+ Ways to Use Flickr,"  "100 Social Media Resources", etc.) seem to be a really popular format. I know that I myself am attracted to them, bookmarking almost every one I see because the sheer quantity of items seems to indicate that it must be useful. But this morning I was thinking that these kinds of posts, while attractive, are not necessarily very helpful, particularly for newbies. It's just TOO MUCH information to absorb, even for someone like me who prides herself on her information management skills.

What's attractive about massive lists is that they seem to somehow be comprehensive. We see "100 Resources" and we think, "Great--I can bookmark this one post and it will take me to 100 other things." And that's true. But realistically, will I ever explore even a small portion of these links? If I go to 10, that's probably a great post.  And again, I'm an information glutton.

The more I work with people who are new to social media, the more I believe that simplicity is the key. No massive lists of resources or tools. No long, multi-step posts on how to accomplish a particular task. This stuff needs to be broken down into smaller chunks that are easily digestible. Choices need to be limited and instructions need to be simple and concrete.  Don't show me 10 possible wiki tools. Show me one and then give me the simple steps for making it do what I need it to do. If for some reason that particular tool doesn't work for me, then we can talk about other options.

Of course, you could argue that authors of list posts aren't writing for newbies. That may be true. But like many things, these resource kinds of posts can be subconsciously absorbed into our culture of how things are done, making us forget that less is more when it comes to working with most people.

We may be information omnivores (something I think might be indigenous to the culture of early adoption), but the next wave of social media users (the early majority) are less adventurous in their information-gathering strategies and more pragmatic about what they consume.

Something else with this group--they are not looking for the BEST tool or process as much as the "good enough" solution. They want something that does it better than they have in the past, even if it isn't necessarily the "ultimate" option. And ironically, these good enough solutions may actually turn out to be revolutionary in their impact, as indicated by the model of disruptive innovation.

I find that periodically I need to remind myself that while I may exist in a particular culture that wants more, more, more--more tools, more ways to apply them, etc.--this isn't where most people are at right now. I need to focus less on comprehensiveness and more on comprehensibility. I need to help people find not "the best" but the "good enough" options.

Flickr photo via BTal.

Announcing the Launch of the Work Literacy Network

Work_literacy_logo Building on my ongoing interest in understanding what it means to be "literate" in the 21st century, as well as my exploration of professional development and personal learning environments using social media tools, I'm pleased to announce a new project I'm working on with Tony Karrer--Work Literacy.

Work Literacy is a network of individuals, companies and organizations who are interested in learning, defining, mentoring, teaching and consulting on the frameworks, skills, methods and tools of modern knowledge work. It's a result of our recognition that knowledge work in the 21st century not only has us using new tools like blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, etc., it's also demanding that we develop new skills to make the most effective use of those tools. What it takes to be a great knowledge worker seems to change almost daily, so we need structures, frameworks and supports that can help us make sense of everything that's coming at us.

We're purposely keeping things loose with Work Literacy as we see the network and its work evolving over time. What we hope to do is generate discussion and ideas that will help us think about what it means to be a literate knowledge worker and the best ways to support and build work literacy for all knowledge workers.  Some very cool and knowledgeable people are already involved, but we want to expand the network to hear from as many individuals, organizations and sectors as possible. If you're involved in knowledge work, then Work Literacy is something for you to check out.

Some ways to Participate:

  • Subscribe
    • RSS Feed for the Work Literacy Blog
    • RSS Feed for an aggregation of related content.
    • You can subscribe by email using the entries in the sidebar to either of these feeds.
  • Point us to resources using the tag: WorkLiteracy
  • Comment
  • Blog your thoughts.  When you blog, include the term workliteracy or better yet a link to and we’ll do our best to aggregate these posts for access by the community.

I'd also love to hear your thoughts on what kinds of questions and issues we should be discussing and addressing through the network. What skills do you think literate knowledge workers need? What resources would you want to be able to access? What do you think we could be doing to support companies, organizations and individuals in developing work literacy skills for the 21st century? Drop me a line in comments or better yet, head on over to Work Literacy and leave a comment here.

Reflective Practice: Most Significant Change Stories

Thinking_2 I'm currently leading a project where we are bringing together four nonprofits and 11 young people who have dropped out of high school and/or who are aging out of foster care. There's a lot of data about the bad outcomes for HS dropouts, but not a lot of political will in some areas to do something about it. Through our project we are working with our student teams to help them videotape interviews with their peers and pull together digital stories that make the numbers come alive for people. Our ultimate goal is to put faces with the numbers so that we can engage the entire community in addressing the needs and issues of these youth.

As this is a grant-funded project, one of the requirements, of course is evaluation. This is being conducted by an outside organization using a technique I haven't previously experienced in these kinds of projects--"most significant change stories." Each month our team is required to submit 1-3 stories about what we are learning and how this is impacting the structure and approach of our projects, as well as our outcomes. It's been an interesting experience that has forced us to reflect more carefully on what is happening with our work.

I've written previously about incorporating reflective practice into individual work and organizational culture. This "most significant change story" strategy would be an excellent addition to the process. It could be used to:

  • Regularly reflect on your individual growth or the growth of a department or organization.
  • Measure the progress of various projects, similar to how it's being used with my project.
  • Help you or your organization reflect on crucible experiences, those "trial by fire" times in our life when everything about us is tested.
  • As part of a leadership development or certification training program.

The structure of the process is that we respond to several questions:

  • At what level is the change--individual, organizational, system-wide or community-wide?
  • How was the story obtained? (did it come from personal experiences? Overheard in meetings? Told to you by someone else?)
  • What's the story?
  • Why is it significant?
  • Which project outcome is it impacting and how?

Obviously the specific reflection questions might change depending on the context in which the stories are being gathered.

In our case, we are submitting the stories to evaluators who are compiling them for a final report. If you used this process for reflective practice, however, I would see using social media tools. For example, individual reflections might be maintained in a blog or microblog, like Tumblr. If you were using this as a tool for organizational development, I would create a wiki where there would be a more collaborative opportunity to build upon and comment on the stories, maintaining them in a single repository. If your organization was particularly brave, I'd even open up these significant change stories to your customers, at a minimum so they could see how you reflect on your experiences as an organization. Ideally you'd allow customers to submit their own and/or comment on what you've shared.

To encourage reflective practices, you have to create the right kinds of structures for them to flourish. The most significant change story technique combined with social media might be a good place to start.

Photo via galo/*

Google Notebook: The Lazy Way to Blog

Yesterday I was trying to catch up with my feeds and I came across a great post from Janet Clarey--Do You  Have a Learning Strategy for the Recession? This led me to think about recession-proofing your career, which led me on a hunt for some articles to post here.

Normally, what I would do is have one tab open to my blog post composition window and another for my search. I would then toggle between the two tabs to add links and comments to my post. But yesterday I wanted to get things done more quickly, so I created a new Google Notebook for my topic and started right-clicking on each page I wanted to save into my Notebook, creating a basic resource list in about 15 minutes. When I was finished, I realized that I could actually use my Notebook as a blog entry, simply by creating an introduction summarizing what I found. Then I could publish my Notebook and write a quick entry here (as I'm doing now) with a link back over to my public Notebook.


If you're blogging for learning, this could actually be a great ongoing strategy for research and resource kinds of posts. You can use your blog as a more accessible and searchable centralized portal to your research. The posts themselves, though, could be maintained as Notebooks. The advantage is that you can more easily add to and update your Notebooks without having to go back and redo posts. You can also move your link items to group them differently, as well as use tags to organize. Each time you add to your Notebook, it will automatically update your public page, so any "post" is always current. This keeps related resource and research items together, rather than having them scattered through several posts. You can then add reflections or comments directly into the Notebook as you continue to gather information.

You could do this sort of thing in a wiki, too, but what I like about Google Notebooks is that with the Firefox extension,  when I find new links or resources to add to the Notebook, I just have to right-click on them and they'll automatically be added. I can then add notes if I want to. Definitely the easiest way to pull things together.

You could also choose to share your Notebooks with other people, so they would be able to add resources as well.


This could work well for a collaborative project or if your department wanted to provide regularly updated resources to others in your organization. It might, for example, be a good quick way to do a "Buzzin on the Biz" kind of posting where you highlight trends and news in your industry or organization. Create a Notebook and then publish the link to your organization's blog or wiki. Definitely a good alternative strategy for blogging research and link posts.

More on Workplace Learning 1.0

Manishphoto_2 In response to my musings this week on why educators seem to have more readily embraced Web 2.0 for learning, Manish Mohan has written an excellent post.  You should read the entire thing, but in a nutshell:

  • "In the field of education, the onus of learning is on the learner. In workplace, the onus of training is on the organization and training department. If I don’t learn in university, it is my shortcoming. If I don’t learn in the workplace, it is the training department or functional head’s shortcoming."
  • Spending time on social networking sites is considered "wasting time" in most organizations.
  • Learning with social media can't be "measured."
  • Training is easier because specific time can be allocated to it--learning is too amorphous.

He concludes:

With most companies struggling to find talent, struggling with attrition and shortened employment span of employees in a single organization, organizations are spending more on “training” and less on “learning”. Training is measurable; learning doesn’t quite seem to be so easily measureable. Can the organizations afford to take a chance that employees will “learn” on their own? Isn’t it easier that they just be “trained”?

Check out the entire post here--well worth the read.

More Thoughts on Why Workplace Learning Is Largely Learning 1.0

A few days ago, I posted on Jane Hart's latest list of 100 Tools for Professional Development, picking up on Jane's point that it seems that there's a tool divide between workplace learning professionals and educators. According to Jane's survey, while corporate e-learning staff may use social media for personal learning, when it comes to designing learning for their organizations, they're primarily using authoring and presentation tools--more "Learning 1.0" types of approaches. I made a few suggestions about why I thought this might be the case and wanted to add a few more thoughts that I picked up through comments and some blog posts elsewhere.

Learning as Transaction
Art Gelwicks brings up an interesting point that learning in many organizations is about ticking off the boxes--"you've passed Module X, which will now be recorded in your file." He says:

". . . most corporate educational approaches are targeted to a deliver and account mindset where the content is made available, completion is mandated, and success is noted for future review of the student (employee). There’s no easy cost justification to the back and forth of web 2.0 tech for businesses to rationalize their use beyond PowerPoint and Webex."

Learning in this kind of environment is less a social process and more transactional. Technology is seen as a tool to make it easier and more efficient to deliver and track learning units, while social media tools might actually  detract from an organization's ability to keep track of what's been "learned."   If your approach to learning is in fact more transactional, where the goal is to basically to transmit information and manage who has completed various modules, then authoring and presentation tools would more naturally be the elearning tools of choice.

I'm not suggesting that this is because elearning professionals WANT to have a transactional approach. I suspect that usually its management pushing this idea, in part because it seems so cut and dried. Real learning is messy, which isn't always attractive to a lot of people.

The Tools are TOO Inexpensive
Over at WikiPatterns, Stewart Mader suggests another reason why social media for learning might be resisted in many organizations:

Sandy Kemsley’s fourth challenge to social media/enterprise 2.0 in organizations:

The fact that these technologies are inexpensive (or even free) and quick to implement causes them to be discounted by executives who are used to spending millions on information management systems.

This sounds so counterintuitive, but it’s a by-product of software vendors creating a skewed system where their high prices force potential customers to spend a great deal of resources (people, time, and money) deciding to use a tool. When they finally decide whether to go ahead with the tool they have no choice but to do it to justify the expense of deciding to do it!

In many organizations, not only has a lot been invested in making the decisions, when it comes to learning, much has also been invested in setting up and training staff in the use of various authoring tools and systems, particularly at those organizations where LMS systems are in place.

I suspect that what is also at work here is our own human belief that if it's free, it can't be valuable. Many (most?) of us have not yet adapted to a world where you don't have always to pay an arm and a leg for value. Social media in some sense seems "too good to be true," since we tend to think that higher price means higher value, even if that's not the case.

Loss of Control and Power
Stewart's post  led me over to Sandy Kemsley's post on social media adoption in the enterprise, where I found another issue that may interfere with using social media for learning in organizations:

Resistance to adoption isn’t correlated with age, it’s correlated with position in the company: higher-level people are more resistant to bringing in Enterprise 2.0 technologies because it represents a democratization of content and a relative loss of power at their level.

In comments on my original post, Bud Deihl echoed this idea:

Two of my friends in the corporate world have emphasized how communication and training is really controlled. Their materials must be approved and in many cases very tightly controlled through password protection, so other companies cannot see their information.

Regardless of the reasons for control (as a form of power, as Sandy suggests, or for competitive advantage, as Bud indicates), the key issue here is that use of social media for learning does mean giving up a level of control. You have less control over content, less control over how it's used and less control over how people interact with it. If control is a major aim, then social media tools are clearly not going to be attractive.

I question, though, the kind of learning that takes place in a tightly controlled environment. If learning is measured by how well you perform on a test, then control may have less impact. But if learning is, in the end, about changing workplace behavior (which I think it is), then learning in controlled circumstances is inherently problematic because people typically don't WORK in controlled circumstances.

To my mind, one of the major advantages of social media is the fact that it provides a forum for learning that's perfectly suited to a constantly changing world where nothing is really controlled. You are able to build up a network of people with whom you can brainstorm solutions to problems and troubleshoot issues as they arise. You create a platform for learning every day, rather than "learning as event," which keeps your skills sharp and evolving.

I don't think that it's a coincidence that blogs, wikis and the like have developed at this particular point in time. I think that they've evolved because we need these types of tools to manage the complex skills and systems necessary to function in a global economy. Old command and control, behind the firewall approaches create "friction points" that simply don't work in this kind of world.  The global economy by its nature is about eliminating those places in the network that create hitches in they system that impede the movement of goods and services to their destinations. I'd argue that eventually, the learning systems we use will have to catch up to this paradigm if organizations are going to survive and thrive in the global network. That's something social media is well-suited to support.

What are your thoughts? Do these points make sense? Where am I off-base?