Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Getting Some Help in Letting Go: Online Communities, Nings and Del.icio.us

This title might sound like the start of a self-help entry, and in some ways it is. We have written a few blog posts in the past about seeing information as flow (rather than a stock). These posts included How is Information Like Electricity or Water? and Knowledge Has Changed: 6 Big Ideas from George Siemens. And we have even tried to experiment with this notion in our own lives, for example in our office, which we wrote about in the blog post No Trees Were Harmed Setting Up This Office. However, when you come right down to it, people just want to keep things, bits of information, papers, books. No doubt there is some deep psychological reason for this (did my family move around alot when I was a child?) or maybe I just don't have enough time to read all these things in the first place (so I imagine that I will have more time later?)

I have been active recently on a new community social networking tool called a ning. One in particular is devoted to informal learning, run by Jay Cross, called the Internet Time Community. On that site, the community of 90 members (this number has tripled, it was only 30 last week) discusses community building, blogging, PLEs (personal learning environments), and more, all at the same time. Here is where I found something that helped me take another step in letting go of paper. I shared with this community my urge to print things (I had just started a physical folder of interesting articles on web 2.0 and somehow it seemed very anachronistic) and asked them for some advice.

Several members of the community answered this question. Here is what Jay Cross (author of Informal Learning) said: "Try using Del.icio.us or Magnolia. When you see something you like, click and you have a breadcrumb back to that item. You can tag it for retrieval by any terms you want. And you can even see who else has tagged the same thing. "

So I just spent the last hour setting myself up on Del.icio.us and I must say, it's satisfying to go back through those many emails I sent myself with URLs to useful sites and documents. I was able to annotate them, and tag them for future reference. I won't lose them and I won't print them. And it feels good knowing that they are there - just like those community members in the ning; they helped me take one more small step towards letting go...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Giving Feedback That People Can Hear

We have been on the giving and receiving end of feedback recently and that has inspired us to think a bit more about this artful communication process. How can we give feedback that people can actually hear, and even potentially use as a part of their learning process?

A couple of questions come to mind when thinking about this often delicate transaction: First of all, why am I giving this feedback? What are my motivations? Is it to help the person do something differently, to improve a process, to establish myself as an expert in the area, to register my reaction to some behaviour? Or a combination of these things? How close can you come to the core reason for giving the feedback in the first place, and can that help you package your feedback in a way that helps the person understand your motivations, and therefore make your feedback welcome?

The second question is how can I give my feedback? We asked this question to our group of trainee facilitators two weeks ago during our course. Many responses came up, and fundamental to the means they picked (writing, orally, face-to-face, etc.) was the question of trusting the giver to provide the feedback in a way that was appreciative and balanced (so what worked and what could be different).

Ultimately, the best result of giving feedback is that the relationship between you and the recipient is ever better than it was before. After all, you care enough about her/him (the process, the work, your relationship) to think carefully and share your reflections, and genuinely work together towards constant improvement. Think about the last time you gave someone feedback, would you say that your relationship is even better now? If not, then you could have had a communication misfire. Thankfully, feedback is not necessarily a one-off event, if you really want to help, think about it and try again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Happy 100th Blog Post! What Blogging Has Brought to Us

Today we are celebrating - in the last 7 months we have written 100 blog posts! What is this practice contributing to our work? Here are some of the things that we have identified...

Making Space for Reflective Practice – Many people say they are too busy to think or be creative. For us blogging has created a space for reflection, and reflection is an essential part of our learning process (see Kolb’s Learning Model). In writing our blog posts, we are not skipping that essential step: taking an experience, reflecting on it, then applying our learning to new experiences. Our blog helps us map our learning on a daily basis, which encourages us and focuses us on constant improvement. No learning gets lost or goes unnoticed!

Capturing our Knowledge as it Develops – Our blog is a way to synthesize and record our knowledge and ideas as they develop. It is a way to capture and create new knowledge and meaning for ourselves. It is a means of analysis (in a most non-scientific way.) And it organizes these ideas for us so that we can track them and refer back to them later.

Fostering Creative Thinking and Writing – Our blog helps prepare us for conversations where we need to articulate new ideas. It helps commit our learning to memory, helps us develop our story, and practice telling it (albeit in writing) as the message is already "chewed over" in our heads.

Developing our Personal Knowledge Management Systems – Through exploring blogging and the theories behind it, it has introduced us to new thinking about personal knowledge management while at the same time providing a new tool in our personal knowledge management tool box. It also helps us practice what we preach in terms of experimentation and creativity.

Connecting Us for Quality Inputs – Our blog has enabled valuable comment from others in the blogosphere through a self-selecting mechanism (comments are opt-in) which in our experience been about quality versus quantity.

Even now, writing this 100th blog post has given us an opportunity to reflect again on what we are learning to help us consider what we can change, do more of, or explore further to improve our learning with this tool.

Re-Playing the Change Game – What We Noticed This Time

In a previous post, How is Change Like Strip Poker, we talked through how people react to change processes, and we used a game for experiential learning. See that post if you want to know the mechanics of the game. The basic idea is to have people experience a change process and notice what kind of reactions and emotions they go through while they try to change. Well, today we played the game again with a group of senior managers, who are themselves leading a change process in our institution. Here are some of the dynamics that we noticed as the group was asked to undergo a change process themselves. We also wonder, how might this "laboratory experiment" give us some insights on what is happening or might happen in our institution as we all undergo change?

Creativity breeds creativity and resistance breeds resistance. If your partner, or colleague, is having fun with a change process, you are more likely to find the fun in it too (or at least try). However, if someone is actively resisting change, then those around them are less willing to change, or feel less able to change.

Your willingness to change might also depend on who you are working with. Your reaction to change might be swayed by the observed behaviour around you (so following the crowd) but also with your underlying relationships. If change is perceived as a risk, how much trust is there in the team to encourage this perceived risk-taking behaviour?

Change is a highly individual process. Some people go from fear to delight and others go from delight to fear. People can have different experiences over the same period of time. Most people will question change, but they might question it at different times based on their assumptions of the goals and their perceptions of the results being achieved along the way, as well as how uncomfortable they might become (for many reasons) at different stages in the process.

Change will happen at different levels, and deep change takes time. It takes people some time to stop changing things at a superficial level and to start to think how they can change more fundamentally (like mental models, versus moving your watch from one arm to the other). Everyone will do the easy stuff first, and everyone has a different perception of easy.

Change can make you richer, but you can't always imagine that at the onset of the process. After the initial assumption about change as loss, and when there is nothing easy left to change, people start to use resources differently. At the end of our process, people tended to have more than they did when they started. They began to pick up tools, resources, other objects, and for the most part, were richer in material terms than when they began.

Looking at change differently. In our exercise one person in the last round actually put on someone else’s shoes – that seemed like a nice metaphor for trying to understand another person’s experience with the change process. This same person also asked, “is someone going to get a prize?”, as though openness to change should be rewarded. The nice part was, that person in both instances, was the boss.

How Should We Manage the Hard Sell?

Some months back, Dennis Meadows - a renowned Systems Dynamist and author of ‘Limits to Growth’ (1972), visited our organization and spoke with us about the future of oil. Recently I’ve been referring back to his presentation, and especially to the series of three graphs shown here and illustrating easy problems, hard problems and how hard problems become easy with greater time horizon. These graphs make great sense to me. My question is: How can we most effectively influence decision-makers in expanding time horizons – often beyond their term of office? This is a hard sell, particularly because we often see things get worse before they get better.

I come back to an earlier post in which I wrote about theories of change and concluded that the knowledge → behaviour change theory is not a universal truth (as many smokers, people working on climate change and many others will know only too well). How do we help prepare people to go ‘cold turkey’ for the sake of better longer term health - whether of us as individuals, as institutions or societies, or for the sake of the health of the planet?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Workplace of the Future: Technology-Enhanced Mobility

I was interested to hear last week, from the Regional HR Director at Dupont, that for many companies the virtual office is now the norm and that companies are turning their attention to helping employees maintain connectivity, not only of the technical kind but also of the interpersonal kind.

This may be the case for the private sector, but as far as I can tell it is still in an experimental stage for the not-for-profit sector. My organization for example, has a few people (only women I believe) who are working less than 100%, that gives them some flexibility, but no one (but me I think) is working part of my time from home as a rule. Experimenting with mobility has been interesting in an institutional culture which is very immediate and in some cases inpromptu. My observation is that dividing your time between a physical office and a home office demands a level of organization that is not always necessary if you routinely go into an office every day (for about 10 hours). You need to define and set some boundaries, and then keep both yourself and your colleagues mindful of them.

The Dupont spokesperson said that the golden rule of mobile working, especially if you are doing it for work/life balance reasons, was to set limits, but still focus on a) flexibility and b) the customer. To make this work, particularly if you are a part of an office-based team, is to identify your customer (your immediate colleagues, your line manager, the top boss but probably not everybody) and keep your customers happy. It also seems that if you are in a results-based environment, it is easier to show that this distributed team system can work and be productive (perhaps even more productive than a traditional office-based team).

It is also, ultimately, a perk. As the best people have more choice (HR is quickly becoming known as Talent Management in some industries), stay in the workforce longer (so salaries can reach their cap long before retirement), and the technology exists, I guess we will be seeing more people becoming mobile workers even in the non-profit sector. Institutions can also see that non-financial benefits work for employee retention and overall staff satisfaction. Still, there is a little fear about the empty institution; that social connections will be replaced by internet connections. So how can we make sure that the time people do spend together at work is really quality time, and not just coming in those big doors and going into a small office for the rest of the day (sending email to each other)? A workplace revolution needs to be accompanied by a workspace revolution....(and perhaps a small shift in institutional culture?)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

And the Award for the Most Valuable Team Member Goes To...

Earlier this week we ran an interesting activity in our Staff Meeting. Staff Meetings have changed in the last month, with the request from the Director General (formerly in charge of staff meetings) that they be facilitated by Communications and Learning. ( Perhaps this falls into the Be Careful What You Wish For category - See blog post on "We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting", November 2006) Actually we are having good fun thinking of ways to animate the staff meetings and getting them to focus, in a sometimes light manner, on serious issues within our institution.

The activity I am referring to was a type of social network analysis which we did as a group. We adapted a systems game called "Triangles" into an exercise which would show the interconnections between staff at the meeting. We asked each person, silently, to look around the room and select two people that really facilitated their work, that were always responsive, and helpful to them. Then we asked people to quietly move and stand equidistant between those two people, without identifying them.

Well, the room began to move as people tried to find and keep their places, and it took a few minutes to this large system to settle down and stop. Then we started to change the system. We moved the most senior person in the room back about 8 meters and told people that they had to continue to follow the rules and stand equidistant between their two helpful reference people, even if it meant that they had to move again. Not much adjustment happened. Then we moved a middle manager, some movement followed and a little shifting about. Then we began to move people in service units, in Finance, Assistants, and other support people, and we saw much more movement. In some cases, we would move someone, and a few people would shift to maintain their connection and position, and then their shifting would set into place even more movement, and then everyone was moving again.

This exercise really set the notion of the value chain of the organization on its head. The people who were most valuable in influencing the quality of people's work the most, who helped and facilitated their tasks, were not always the people in the highest positions, sometimes on the contrary.

Do we really notice how many people it takes for us to do a good job? All those people up and down the activity chain who help us deliver and be productive. Who often gets the credit for the good work that happens? How can we highlight more of the processes that make us effective as well as the outputs and products that are produced? How do we notice and value all of those interactions that get things done?

So who gets my Award for Most Valuable Team Member?

  • Cecilia: For being able to combine absolute attention to detail and follow-through, with perpetual good mood and great sensitivity to people's feelings;

  • Lizzie: For being a maximiser and taking something that is pretty good and making it excellent, and for being able to see very subtle things in people that I simply cannot see;

  • Caroline: For being incredibly pragmatic and clear thinking, and always being willing to volunteer to do something substantial, even when it sounds like quite hard work.
In our institution, it takes a team to get things done.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Creating Scenarios for Climate Stabilization?

“The paradox is that if you really want to change how people act, don’t ask them to come to a meeting on action,” said Adam Kahane during the presentation of a proposed scenarios dialogue process aiming to develop answers to the question: Who would have to do what by when, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate?

At first glance, inviting people to develop answers to the question – Who would have to do what by when, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate? – might appear to be inviting people to a meeting on action. But what Adam and colleague Earl Saxon are proposing is not a space in which people commit to action. They propose an exploration. They propose exploring a number of “possible concrete courses of actions by different sectors and countries that would, in aggregate, achieve climate stabilization, together with an analysis of the costs, benefits, tradeoffs and challenges for different actors in each scenario.”

Since the early 1990’s, Adam Kahane has been using scenarios for open and in-depth dialogue among diverse, influential and committed leaders. He has learned that “it is possible for all the people who are part of a mess to sit together and find a peaceful way forward.” And he has learned that this is facilitated by the creation of spaces for off-the-record exchanges away from formal decision-making processes, in which people can try to put political agendas aside and talk, listen and think differently with one-another. For Adam, this is an incredibly powerful part of generating the “will to act” – the challenge of achieving which is so often massively underestimated.

Whilst formal channels (such as the IPCC and UNFCCC) have their role in generating the will to act to address climate change, how powerfully might they be complemented by parallel, generative dialogue processes which ask leaders to explore future scenarios which stretch imaginations, challenge ideas of what is possible and develop shared understanding of options? How might other processes in which we are involved benefit from a similar approach? And how should we invite participants for greatest success?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blogging Across Cultures - How Well Does This Practice Translate?

Blogging seems to be slowly coming into our daily conversations at work as people start to experiment, and open up to the power of this tool. In our discussions we have seen some very different reactions to the notion of blogs by people at different levels of our international institution. In some of our conversations we have been wondering about the links between culture and blogging.

Do certain cultures take to the practice more naturally than others? (This includes national cultures and organisational/team cultures.)

Within the field of intercultural communication, there are some sets of cultural assumptions that seem to, broadly speaking, be embraced by different cultural groups. One of these is called "Power Distance". If you think of this as a continuum, from Low Power Distance to High Power Distance (with most cultures falling somewhere in between), here are some of the features at the extremes:

Low Power Distance - This features a democratic management style, power is not jeaously guarded, subordinates take initiative and are not overly deferential to managers. In cultures with low power distance, the CEO or boss might go to the cafeteria and have lunch with the staff uninvited; young professionals could comfortably contest ideas in meetings run by senior staff members; and hierarchies would be flatter.

High Power Distance - This is a more authoritarian culture, power is more centralised, there is more deference to authority and managers tend to hold on to power. In cultures with high power distance, CEOs would have lunch with Senior Managers in a separate room with reservations (and have a better lunch than the staff); plenary discussions would not feature much open dissent of ideas, certainly not by younger staff; and hierarchies would have many levels between general staff and the top management.

So how might this relate to blogging? Well, blogging is definitely a democratising tool, it lets people at any rank in an organization make their viewpoints known (agree or disagree); it allows anyone to start a discussion, a movement or an activity; it allows many voices in an organization rather than one top one; it distributes the right and ability to speak, share and discuss across an organization or a community. Would blogging be considered threatening in a culture with high power distance, or at least might there be strong cultural norms that create a disincentive to blogging? When we send out our draft blogging policy for internal discussion, what might be some of the responses based on cultural interpretations of this new medium? I would be curious to see what others think about the cultural aspects of blogging practice.

Moving to Music - The Isicathamiya Effect

I have long loved the traditional South African choral song -‘isicathamiya’ - of Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has spread the message of peace, love and harmony for 47 years, and teaching people about South Africa and the culture of the Zulu people. So great has been their success and popularity that they have performed at many musical award shows, the Olympics, South African Presidential inaugurations and Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies.

A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing them live for the first time. One thing I think anyone who has seen them live would agree is that the performance of this group stirs something in you. And not only the music, but the presence of these artists and the way they dance. (Their movements are derived from the tradition of the mine workers of South Africa and the ‘tip toe’ steps they used so as not to disturb the camp security guards during their weekly singing competitions.) Beyond the beautiful harmonies, this is powerful, moving stuff.

Reflecting on this and a call from organizers of the World Conservation Congress (Barcelona, Spain, October 2008) for event proposals, I’m wondering how we can harness the role of music in such events and more generally as we work? How can we use music to ‘stir something’ in participants and help move us to better work together in co-creating sustainable solutions to the challenges we face? Put on the music of your choice and share your thoughts (including your musical recommendations)...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Speed Up-Dating: Views from a Guest Blogger

This post was contributed by Caroline, a member of our Learning Team, and today our guest blogger. She writes about a recent strategic planning meeting we held to develop our main programme goals for the next four years. She writes...

In the first morning of our 3-day meeting, 25 people gathered for the first time in several years. So many updates, so little time! To have formal presentations of the work done and ongoing activities from all participants and all parts of the world would takes hours (if not days!), yet in one hour all people were updated sufficiently for the time being, and equipped with the knowledge of who to go to find out more. How? Speed Up-Dating! To prepare for the activity, everyone wrote a few words about what they wanted to discuss on their name badge. Then, the hour was divided into eight segments (15, 10, 10, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5 minutes) which the facilitator timed, and in those time periods people were invited to find other people with similar discussion themes, or ones they wanted to hear more about.

What happened? Once the activity officially started, half the group went straight to one place – there was an obvious lead speaker who initiated discussion, but questions were soon being fired and the group reached a discussion stage a lot earlier than if it had been a formal presentation. People started offering their own experiences (potentially feeling more comfortable about this than if they were in a formal presentation setting). The conversation was rich, and there was input from nearly all participants. Elsewhere three people had found a computer and logged on for a 1-to-1 tutorial about an online toolkit, given by the author to someone really keen to learn how to use it. The two could engage in a productive conversation about it, tailor the explanation directly to the learner’s needs, and both got much more value out of the session than if it had been in a larger group.

These were just 2 examples of groups that formed in the group … the room was buzzing with activity in other group formations as well.

So why did it work? Everyone was given a role as learner - rather than changing roles back and forth between learner and presenter, the responsibility was put onto all learners to identify what they wanted to discover, to decide how best to do this, and to source their own learning opportunity themselves. As soon as someone feels ownership or responsibility over something they are part of, they invest in it more, and are more keen to see success. Basically the learners are actively investing in what they take away, and choosing to learn – two recipes for success that were proven in this occasion!