Friday, April 27, 2007

Free Coffee Update: May the Force Be With Us

After a little tangle of events yesterday around our drive to bring back free coffee, the advice of Yoda somehow came through it all, "There is no try, there is only do", and so we went for it. Although I feel a bit sheepish about quoting a film character, and a Star Wars one to boot, somehow it seemed to fit - we are hoping that the wave of support for this initiative will help us succeed in bringing this interesting informal learning opportunity back to our institution, in spite of some challenges.

We relaunched the Free Coffee morning in partnership with our HR department, with a new sponsorship component. Neither of our departments really has enough budget to support the activity completely, even sharing the cost. However, we decided to try and invite other departments to use the Free Coffee Morning for their own purposes - to inform people about a new initiative, to celebrate an International Day, to honour a retiring colleague, to take a survey of staff on a key issue, etc.

I wrote the sponsorship message with my fingers crossed, hoping that interest and support would be with us in bringing back this opportunity for people to leave their offices for an hour a week to have a coffee and talk to each other. Our partner was a little nervous too.

Well, a day later, the sponsorships are coming in, and it is exciting to see that people are getting really creative with their adopted days. For example, we have an anonymous sponsor who is giving the coffee to staff to help celebrate his/her birthday (we promised anonymity to the end); one department is going to celebrate the launch of a big publication that has a colour in the title (red) so everyone who wears red that day, gets the free coffee; another programme has just landed a 16million dollar grant for a major international project and will sponsor a morning to let people know more about it.

So far this is working, and if we are lucky, we will just need to cover a few odd weeks here and there. We can do that. It was a bit of a gamble, but we felt that staff were supportive. Let us hope that this continues and that the force of popular demand is with us... (Lizzie, don't cringe!)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stop, Think and Act (In That Order)

Today I did not follow this sequence in the right order. I was in a hurry, I had tasks queued up, very little time between them, and lots of people depending on me to deliver and get to the next meeting place on time. So what did I do?

I put a full tank of unleaded petrol in my diesel car.

Then I zoomed out of the petrol station, drove about 500 meters and then stopped. There I sat for about 2 hours waiting for a tow truck. Now I don't have a car and I have plenty of time to think, no way to act, and am well and truly stopped (for at least two days).

I can think of less expensive examples of this happening in the office. Sending an email before properly considering the tone (and getting a surprisingly surly reply), walking into a meeting without having time to carefully read the agenda and seeing my name on it as I walk through the door and not making a great intervention, forgetting to submit my travel authorization in a rush and then having a bureacratic tangle to deal with on my return (all my own doing).

Stop, think and then act. Being "too busy" for reflection does not pay. Next time, I will get the order right.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blog Smart – Is That Enough for our Blogging Policy?

We are here this week at a strategic planning meeting for a major group affiliated with our organization. We have started having interesting side conversations one of which is about the trend for blogging and how some major businesses have been encouraging all staff members to set up blogs. Apparently Microsoft has over 1000 bloggers on staff. Other businesses have equally liberal viewpoints on blogging and actively encourage it as a way to open direct conversations with customers. The new book, Naked Conversations, by Soble and Israel, talks more about this radical transparency which is increasingly seen as having business value.

I am intrigued by the fact that when we started our blog 7 months ago, we were not exactly encouraged to blog as there was no policy about that in our institution. In fact we did not advertise the fact that we were experimenting with this new medium of expression, and working to understand how it could contribute to our learning in the organization. Now, half a year later, we are talking about it openly in organizational meetings and handing out our URL to those interested in interacting with us in virtual space. We have even given two internal workshops on setting up and using blogs and wikis. At the same time, we still do not have a policy on blogging, nor our institution's name on our blog.

Perhaps the next step is to draft our own policy and to use that to start an internal discussion about this. What might our policy entail? I understand that Microsoft is using the phrase Blog Smart to underline their policy – don’t expose trade secrets, don’t discuss personnel issues or company finances, be honest. That’s a lot of don’ts, and perhaps that is still a form of guidance that can help people get the good out of the practice.

For our blog we have decided on some parameters, which include being appreciative, being authentic, be personal, and focus on learning. Maybe some of these could feature in our blog policy. We would be interested to hear from others about their policies - are there some good guidelines, or examples that we could draw from while we draft our own?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Visualization: (a no-brainer or) a right-brainer?

On the morning of day three of a workshop launching a multi-million Euro strategy, we asked more than fifty international participants to write on a few flip chart sheets what they wanted to continue working on, what they wanted more of and what they wanted less of. Top of the ‘more of’ list was a desparate plea for more work on the integration of the various components of the strategy, which seemed to be working at cross-purposes at times. Responding to this, we quickly rethought the agenda of the day and after lunch we posed the question: “When fully integrated, what will the strategy look like to you, visually?”

Organized in groups of five to eight people according to language and role (as representatives of geographic, thematic and coordinating teams) and equipped with flipcharts and coloured pens, the room was soon buzzing with energetic activity. For the next forty minutes, we watched as each group worked and re-worked their ideas on paper. In most groups imagination was captured, creativity unleashed and collective ideas were caught easily in pictures that seemed to grow organically and colourfully from the page. For others, the process was rather more awkward, with wordy explanations and cravings for the diagramming tools in PowerPoint.

At the ‘great unveiling’ a representative from each group explained their drawing, as well as the process by which the group arrived at it. This was followed by a larger group discussion, exploring observations about the drawings and the exercise itself.

One thing we noticed was that after the exercise, integration was no longer a problem. Having gone through the exercise to work together to visualize what integration looked like, it became apparent that it would be possible and that collectively it would take form as the process of working together unfolded, as demonstrated by the exercise (after an initial 10 minute struggle, teams worked together to figure it out.)

The visualization exercise worked to dissipate the fear about this complex part of the strategy. At the same time it was captured in a creative and fun way. For some people for whom integration was not an issue, this exercise seemed like a waste of time. For others for whom integration was a preoccupation, it dispelled their fear and let them move on to concentrate on other parts of the programme with greater confidence and energy.

Was the exercise a no-brainer or a right-brainer? Actually, it doesn’t matter too much. For the group as a whole, we noticed that immediately after the exercise the integration issue was no longer an obstacle. That worked for us!


A week ago, whilst on the train returning from a week-long workshop, I was skimming through the feedback forms and surprised to read the comments of one participant. A recommendation for next time: “Less touchy-feely”. For a while I’ve been wondering where this comment came from. In a literal sense there was no physical touching or feeling of ourselves or one another. The closest we came was a group drawing exercise (more on that in another blog post). And as far as tuning into personal or group feelings – a light “How is everyone feeling about the workshop and the progress we are making?” was as far as it went. I think my ideas of touchy-feely must be a little different to others. So, please tell me, what does touchy-feely mean to you?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Crossing the Digital Divide: A Story from Egypt

We hear a lot about the digital divide between northern and southern countries, but we know deep down that the real digital divide lays somewhere in that fuzzy expanse between 18 and 40 years of age. Somewhere between those who were born digital and who are discovering digital.

In the last few days in Egypt we learned more about this. Yesterday we heard a great story from Ahmed, a teenage undergraduate student at the School of Engineering in the University of Alexandria. Ahmed and some of his friends had recently engaged one of their professors in a little experiment.

In a course on the combustion engine, the students had finally had enough of their professor lecturing them on how the engine works. He did this by drawing the parts on a white board and explaining how the various parts worked to them. Drawing took a long time, was nowhere near to scale and, most problematically, did not move. The professor simply drew arrows to indicate how the engine worked or acted it out himself (no doubt with high amusement factor).

Ahmed asked his professor one day if he could have his notes and try to represent the lecture in a different way. After initial resistance, the professor handed over the notes. With the help of one of his friends, Ahmed learned Flash and animated the whole lecture. The professor was delighted as it saved him time, was accurate, and the other students loved it. Ahmed also put it online for sharing with professors, and students in other classes and engineering schools (still patiently working with engines drawn on whiteboards) could benefit from it too.

Being on the “wrong” (forty plus) side of the digital divide can be a humbling experience. At the same time, it does serve the nobler purpose of leveling the playing field and opening it up for more intergenerational co-learning opportunities which present a win/win for both professor and student. Having converted the lecture of the professor into animation, Ahmed himself gained a much better understanding of the workings of the combustion engine. Having accepted the possibility that his learners (students) may have something to teach him, the professor has also learned how new technologies can enhance his work.

If this heralds a paradigm shift, what will our universities look like in the future - will we all be learning together?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Know Any Informal Learning Bloggers in the Arab Region? Na'am? Shukran!

Lizzie and I are here at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria), in Egypt with our colleague Rania, who works in our Amman office. We are here planning a workshop on new learning (formal and informal) for sustainable development in the Arab region this September. We are going to be inviting some Universities who are developing and delivering e-learning courses in the region (on our topic of environment and development) and will also be inviting people who are using informal learning tools (like blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) to foster learning on this topic in the region.

We were delighted to hear today about how the library is a great forum, source of inspiration and an experimentation space. The senior staff member that we spoke to told us that it was "born digital" and as a result is encouraging students to help their professors enter the internet age, from offering to put their lecture notes into PowerPoint to engaging them in internet-based chats, and more. The learners are helping their teachers to help them learn. We are interested to know how Web 2.0 is supporting these efforts to enhance learning across the board in this region.

Rania told us this morning about a Jordanian blogger who is writing about environment and development news in the region. This blogger says that, "Blogging has became a highly effective and free expression medium that is spreading all over the Arab world. Amongst thousands of blogs in the Arab World very little focus can be found on environmental issues. " We have already found some bloggers who are talking about this topic, like him. That is however just one part of our search...

Does anyone know any Arab region bloggers who are writing about formal and informal learning? We would be happy to know about them too!

Getting Back in Shape: Blogging and Jogging

Draft one (late February):

So, I’m sitting on the train this morning; the air is cool, sky clear, and I’m enjoying the aroma of a pain au chocolat that I’ve just bought, asking myself – At what point did I slip back into this naughty habit? And I realize that it was just about the same moment that I slipped out of other good habits, such as writing my blog posts or going for a run. Broken routine!

Draft two (today):

About three weeks later, I’m in a hotel room in Alexandria, Egypt. I haven’t posted anything on our blog in weeks and I decide it’s finally time to get back in shape. I’m a little reticent having not been exercising my blog-writing skills recently. The thoughts don’t translate into words quite as nimbly, just like that first sluggish jog after an indulgent, feasting holiday period. I know that there will be a feel good factor at the end; that the next time I jog / blog it will be that little bit easier; that the nimbleness will return as the muscles are trained for these workouts and re-learn the fluency that comes with practice. So here goes, time for that first step back into blogging. And time to reconnect with my blogging friends to help me along the way…