Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

Why I Have Deleted my Facebook Account

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. Some people would consider Facebook a threat to the open Internet (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee), whereas other people see it as a key tool for promoting democracy in this world (e.g. Wael Ghonim). We decided to each argue both sides of the argument (300 words “for” and 300 words “against”) and then poll our readers to see which argument they find more persuasive. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Facebook or no Facebook?

Facebook or no Facebook?

For a couple of months now my pragmatic side has been battling with my principled conscience. The matter of contention: whether to keep my Facebook account.

Why I will delete my Facebook account

There are three main problems with Facebook:

  1. It creates a silo-ed version of the web . A big reason why the web works is the way you can link to other pages on the web: you don’t need anybody’s permission. The Berners-Lee video that I linked to earlier gives some great arguments about why this is important. Facebook is a closed silo from this perspective, creating an alternative network that does not have the same characteristics as the Internet. For some young people around me, the web (if not computing) is nearly synonymous with Facebook: they hardly leave the Facebook browser tab. If they do, it is usually to buy something. I am sure that soon you will be able to do that from Facebook too (e.g. Did you know that you can get somebody a Amazon gift certificate to be given to them on their Facebook wall on their birthday which they have registered with Facebook?)
  2. The social graph is too important to be under the governance of a single commercial US-based company . Knowing how you are connected to other people can lead to powerful applications (see below). In fact, the social experiences that this allows are so important that we would be crazy to accept that all this relational data is in the hands of a company that can do with it whatever they want and might even be forced to share this data with the US government. There is no easy way to migrate this social graph into another system and Facebook displays a very proprietary attitude to it. What would happen if Facebook was forced to stop doing business or would decide to start charging people for their services?
  3. Their sphere of influence is not transparent and ever-increasing . Facebook is all over the web now. What news site does not have a “Like” button? If you have a Facebook account and you don’t log out after you have used it, then Facebook is able to see the URLs of the pages you are reading, even if you don’t ever click on the like button. Your attention is mined and commercialized by Facebook. Even if you have very restrictive privacy settings your data will be still be given to any third party app that has managed to seduce one of your many Facebook friends. More and more sites are cropping up that will only allow you to log in using the Facebook login mechanism making it harder to use multiple identities the net. Facebook is becoming so pervasive on the net, that it requires tools like Disconnect or Abine’s TACO to make sure you are staying out of their clutches. Does this feel like a positive development in the way that you can use the web?

Why I will not delete my Facebook account

There are a couple of good reasons for me to keep a Facebook account:

  1. They are past the tipping point . The network effect has come into play. Why should you be on Facebook? Because it is the one and only (global) place where everybody else is! Two years ago I organized a reunion of the very first class I mentored as a teacher. It took weeks of searching using all kinds of media before we got about 50% of the class together. This year we are doing another reunion: within a week we found 95% of the class on Facebook. Facebook facilitates this so-called ambient intimacy with people that you don’t regularly see or talk to, but still want to stay in touch with. What other means of communications has transaction costs that are this low?
  2. They deliver an incredibly innovative service. Facebook deserves a lot of credit for the ideas that they have implemented and for the pace at which they keep innovating their mind-blowingly large scale service. They were the first company that decided to create a web platform for which third parties could write applications, they were the first to see and deliver on the true power of the social graph (turning it inside-out) and they have been creative in the way that they appropriate and add to ideas about activity streams, sharing in groups and even privacy controls (what other web service gives you that level of control over what you want to share?). For somebody like me, fascinated if not captivated by technology and looking through an innovation lens, there is an immense amount over ever-changing functionality to explore.
  3. Having a centralized social graph leads to powerful applications. The first time I realized this was when I played Bejeweled on my iPhone. It allowed me to connect to my Facebook account and suddenly I wasn’t playing against other people at Internet scale (how can anyone score 20.000 points?!), but I was engaged in battles with family, friends and colleagues. Soon there will be a time where every piece of content we consume (books, news, magazines, videos, podcast) will be enriched by this meta-layer of your friends opinions. I call this the social contextualization of content. Facebook’s integration with Pandora was one of the first examples of how this will work. This meta-layer assumes a persistent social graph: you don’t want to keep finding your different groups of relations again and again do you?

Anyway, for me it is clear: I don’t want to be a part of Facebook’s success and would prefer it if we all would be using a differently architected solution in the near future. Fully decentralized and distributed systems are in the making everywhere (e.g. Diaspora, Pagekite, StatusNet, Unhosted and Buddycloud) and I will invest some time to explore those further. As I also personally get very little value out of Facebook, it is not hard to act principled in this case: I will be deleting my account.

Update on 10-11-2012: As I still don’t have a Facebook account I’ve deciced to change the title of this post.

So what did I learn at Online Educa 2010?

Photo by David Ausserhofer (CC licensed)

Photo by David Ausserhofer (CC licensed)

For the third year in row I attended the Online EDUCA in Berlin. This learning technology event is attended by more than 2000 people from over a hundred countries. The timing and the location of the event are ideal: it is a sweet train journey away from Amsterdam and the end of the year is good time for reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the next. This year’s snow definitely added to its charm!

This post has some of my chronological notes, reflections, vendor descriptions and random thoughts on the conference. My apologies for its length (check out my tweets about the event for a much shorter and more random summary).

STELLAR
My first stop of the conference was the STELLAR stand, among other things creators of the Teleurope website. Caroline Windrum wanted to get some input for her session later in the conference. She was looking for ideas on how to bridge the gap between academic research institutions and commercial businesses. What things could universities do and what could corporations do differently to make these partnerships more successful? I have written before on the gap that I perceive between the academic and the corporate world. One thing that I think universities could do is to “productize” more. Businesses want to buy finished products, they are not comfortable buying something that is still maturing. Many businesses do not want to be early adopter in areas that are not their core competence. If universities could make it easier for their young researchers (i.e. students) to start a business and start shipping products it would be helpful.

Opening plenary
The opening plenary session had three speakers. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman of the UN Global Alliance, shared some of his thoughts on education (one of the eight Millenium Development Goals). He wanted us all to check out the MDG enabler, a “GPS” for development that will be launched halfway December. The GPS actually turned out to be an oft-used metaphor in the conference. Clark Quinn called the GPS an excellent example of mobile performance support and A New Spring prominently features a GPS in their marketing materials.

Next in line was Adrian Sannier from Pearson (a sponsored keynote). He is one of those speakers that shouts at his audience to try and convey his excitement. Luckily for us he did not cross the Steve Ballmer line. His opening question was whether we are disappointed in the future. Isn’t it shocking that after all these years of talking about it we still have not managed to fundamentally change education? According to Sannier, we now have three technological superpowers that should change the way we learn:

  • We are telepathic as we can instantly transmit our thoughts to other human beings at a distance,
  • we now all have photographic memories with perfect fidelity,
  • and we have total recall with access to all information everywhere.

These technologies will not change anything unless we have a corresponding change in culture. The “one instructor-one class paradigm” has not yet been broken. Sannier implored us to work toward three cultural changes (“the technology piece is over, it is all about the culture now”):

  • Turn education into a team sport. Can you imagine a television show being created by a single person? Why do we accept all these faculty members working completely individually?
  • Let’s start keeping score. Currently it is ok to look at the results of a student, but not of a faculty member.
  • Fix what is broken. We have been sensitive for many years, now it is time to get agressive.

Sannies speech ended with “Step forward and make the culture change, feel the love, thank you very much”. Although the message was quite simplistic in many ways, the emphasis on culture was something that came back again and again during the conference. More on that below (in the paragraph on Bersin).

The final speaker of the session was former Financial Times editor and consultant on innovation and strategy Charles Leadbeater. His talked was titled “Learning from the Extremes”. According to him the route to radical innovation is not starting at the best and then copying that. “Radical innovation usually comes from the margins: social entrepreneurs and the hardest to reach.” As your vantage point determines what you can see he decided to travel the world and go where the need is the greatest and the resources the least. There were three things he learned from his travels:

  • Everywhere he went people told him: education + technology = hope
  • Everywhere he went education was like a religion (there is global belief in education
  • All around the world everyone accepts that education is dysfunctional

So how can this be changed? There are two types of innovation (sustaining and disruptive) and two educational domains (formal and informal). They produce four ways forward:

Four ways to innovate

Four ways to innovate

It is relatively easy and essential to improve education, but it is not enough. We can also reinvent: there are many examples of new types of schools whose teaching philosophies can generally be summarised as “Learning with and by and not to and from”. One of the obstacles of this approach is that it is very important what happens outside of school too. This leads to a supplemental strategy where schools are working with communities and where social and emotional conditions for learning are also looked at. The most promising way to innovate is the transformation to entirely new ways (here Leadbeater mentions Mitra’s infamous hole in the wall experiment). The characteristics of these new ways are:

  • Pull not push
  • Motivation is key: extrinsic and intrinsic
  • Learning through… (not schools, but things like music)
  • Different people, technologies, places for learning

He then focused on the learning habitats of the future using another interesting conceptual model. The future can be high on systems or low on systems and these systems can have high empathy or low empathy. Some examples:

Empathy and systems

Empathy and systems

Highly systematic and higly empathetic are where we want to be, allowing us to finally deliver intimacy at scale.

Presentations 2Go
The lecture capturing outfit Presentations 2Go had a strong presence at the event. They demonstrated their next version of the software and provided a live-stream of the plenary sessions and many of the sessions in the business track. You can view the captured version of these talks here.

Tobbi eye tracking hard- and software
Tobii demo-ed their hard- and software solution for tracking people’s interactions with a screen through watching their eyes. In the past people had to have their face strapped into an immobile position for the hardware to determine where somebody was looking. Now this can be done completely dynamically. I sat in front of a screen which immediately picked up my eyes as two green dots. I closed my left eye and one dot was gone. After a calibration exercise I had to do a little test. Tobii’s software allows you to create tests with certain tasks (like looking at a webpage, or answering a question). The results of multiple test subjects can be aggregated to create heat map like overlays of where people looked at what microsecond.

This type of technology is hugely useful, but not often used in the educational world. Education is opinion-driven, not data-driven and that is a real shame. I would love for big IT projects to not only do “testing” against the business requirements, but also do UX testing with these types of technologies. The technology isn’t cheap: a simple 60Hz setup starts at around €25.000.

Social contextualization of content
Online EDUCA allows people to organize Special Interest Group (SIG) lunches. I was the host of one about the “Social Contextualisation of Content”. Recent developments like Facebook’s opening of the social graphs of their users and Amazon’s aggregated Kindle highlights have shown me very clearly that all our interactions with any type of content (books, magazines, videos and also learning content) will soon be augmented by a social layer. The first time I noticed the power of this idea was when I logged into Facebook while playing the Bejewelled iPhone game: suddenly I wasn’t trying to beat global highscores (how the hell can they score that 50 times as high as me), instead I was trying to beat my family and friends. In a world where Google will be gamed, what is more useful than knowing the thoughts of your friend and colleagues about products, ideas and information?

The lunch unfortunately did not really progress my ideas on this topic, but Olaf Dierker from the TeleLearn-Akademie did have some interesting examples of large US-based publishers who are creating social networks around course books. I’ll update this post with some URLs as soon as I get them from Olaf.

Improving business impact using mobile learning
This was a very full session. Mobile learning apparently is a topic that is on many people’s minds. First up was Erica Wadley from Microsoft. She was in a situation where there were endless amounts of 60-90 minute online courses that could only be accessed by turning on a corporate laptop, logging in, going to the Learning Management System, logging in again and searching for the course you need. Her audience was incredibly mobile and busy. They wanted access anywhere and anytime. She aligned her effort to go to a mobile solution with an internal effort to create a YouTube-like site for Microsoft. The videos from this site can be pushed to any mobile device.

Making this a successful change did require a big culture change (see, there it is again!). She branded her project strongly, did a lot of evangelising and educated people on how to create and use these materials. She created reward programs for usage of the system and found early adopters (“look for the bloggers”) who she equipped with a fourty dollar “podcasting in a box” kit. The results? 70% of the content is now built by the right people and she showed a very impressive graph with the uptake of mobile content consumption versus traditional elearning consumption. Proofing ROI therefore wasn’t a hard question.

One other idea I picked up from Erica was to have a newsletter that consists of nothing but pictures. A nice challenge that I might pick up whenever next I have send something out.

Adam Salkeld from Tinopolis talked about a mobile course his company had made teaching people some soft-skills around communication. They relied heavily on well produced and very funny videos (which ironically for a media production company didn’t play from his slides). He shared some of their lessons around the difficulties of trying to make it the same for every platform (in the end they dropped the Blackberry) and advised us to keep it simple when in doubt.

Clark Quinn, author of the forthcoming Designing mLearning book, gave a much more conceptual talk titled “Harnessing Magic, mLearning for Business Impact”. All mobile devices share the fact that they are a computing device that can have inputs, have output, are connected and have sensors. Mobile devices are accessed way more in a single day then traditional laptop or desktop computers, but have much shorter session times. When you pick up a device you are accessorizing your brain allowing the four C’s of mobile (content, compute, capture and communicate) to help you in your performance.

Battle of the bloggers
IBM’s Bert De Coutere, author of the fabulous Homo Competens book, kindly invited me as one of the three bloggers (Tom Wanbeke and John Traxler were the others) in this year’s “Battle of the Bloggers” session on the graveyard of learning. His goal was to answer the following question: What are the concepts, theories, best practices or trends in the land of the learning that we will declare dead and send to the heaven or hell they belong in? The voting technology of Shakespeak (a possible interesting alternative to PollEverywhere for interactive real-time audience voting and response) allowed the “Just don’t get the microphone near my face” OEB audience to participate in the discussion.

I think the session was more entertaining than insightful (the three bloggers were probably too like-minded), but we still got very positive responses afterwards. In about an hour we talked about Podcasting for Learning (alive), Mobile Learning Content (alive, with some provisos), Learning Styles (dead), Diplomas and Certification (very much alive) and ADDIE (most of the audience had never heard about this: dead).

Business plenary
Josh Bersin talked about what he calls a “High-Impact Learning Culture”, which according to him is the next “big thing” in corporate training.

First let me state that I have love-hate relationship with companies like Bersin. Many large corporations look to analysts like this for guidance in their decision making processes. They presumably to this to beat their competition. I have a common sense approach to this: if you want to do something better than other companies, you will have to do something different than other companies. By virtue of all companies listening to  the same analysts, the analysts have a homogenizing effect. Reading Bersin reports will therefore not drive your innovation. Bersin’s Enterprise Learning and Talent Management 2011: Predictions for the Coming Year – Building the Borderless Workplace is a good example. The ten predictions in there (e.g. “Innovation, Empowerment and Learning Culture Will Become Common Themes for Talent Management and Business Growth”, “Informal and Contineous Learning Will Continue to Transform Corporate L&D, and Will Drive Further Adoption of Internal Social Networking” or “Companies Will Start to Unravel and Replace Their 20-Plus Years of Investment in HRMS Systems – And Evolve to SaaS and More Modern Systems for Core HR Management”) are all very likely to occur in the next year, but the predictions itself should not be underestimated as part of the cause for them becoming the truth. Analysis will show good practice and maybe best practice, but it will not show you next practice (thank you Jay Cross for that last one).

That said, Josh Bersin did deliver a very interesting and engaging talk. He started with the current big focus on innovation as a consequence of the downsizing of the last year or so (my current role is probably a consequence of that) and the real struggle to hire talent while most companies are suffering from the aging of their workforce. He used Chevron as an example: 40% of their workforce have been with the company for more than 25 years and senior production engineers take 5-7 years before they are fully skilled up. How do we bridge that gap?

According to Bersin skill specilization is now driving value. High performing organizations realize they have to have specialists. Accenture for example has a hard time to continue their expansive business model. It is not good enough anymore to train their relatively smart generalists with some business skills and put them to work at a client. Customers now expect to procure world class experts.

He then went on to share an insightful result from his research: development planning is one of the key indicators for good performance (using median revenue per employee as a performance indicator). Real learning and developing is informal. If you ask people how they learned to do their job their answer is always something informal. Bersin sees this as an opportunity for the renaissance of the learning and development profession.

Is it important for organizations to have a true learning culture. Learning culture is the collective set of organizational values, processes and practices that encourages individuals and the organization to contineously increase knowledge, competence and performance. The Bersin team brainstormed and got to 40 practices that are manifestions of culture and correlated these with eight business performance indicators to get some very interesting results. The 40 practices are divided into six “families” of cultural practice:

  • Building trust (it is important for people to be able to share what doesn’t work, “knowledge can be shared without political risk”)
  • Demonstrating value of learning (you will always find people that are passionate about developing themselves, you have to honour and value that)
  • Knowledge sharing (traditional instructional design is too slow for many things)
  • Empowering employees (people need to have control over their jobs, autonomy, Microsoft is suffering from these problems currently: people are really confused as to how decisions are made)
  • Learning as a process
  • Encouraging reflection (giving people time to think about what they have learned)

The five practices with the highest impact are:

  • Leaders are open to “bad news”.
  • Asking questions is encouraged.
  • Decision-making processes are clearly defined throughout the company.
  • Employees are frequently given tasks or projects beyond their current knowledge or skill level in order to stretch them developmentally.
  • Employees have influence over which job tasks are assigned to them.

The bottom line of the research is that innovation and business success depend heavily on a learning culture. This culture can be built taking the following into account:

  • New roles and skills for Learning & Development (content manager, community manager, connection manager, performance consultant)
  • New reward and policy systems (promoting and rewarding knowledge sharing)
  • Leadership is critical to success (of the 40 practices 33 are owned by line management and senior leadership, only 7 are in the hands of the L&D organization).

I would love to get my hands on this research and study the research methodology. If this is indeed solid, then it should be a huge driver for the ambition to change.

Balancing individual and organization learning
This session was a bit disappointing to me. It was very traditional in its form and the chair did his utmost best to turn it into an ELIG commercial. Some choice quotes:

Paul Hunter told us that individuals are members of various communities both in an out of “work”. Your organisation is a collection of communities. Learning happens in communities across boundaries. Learning happens through individuals bringing their outside community in.

Bersin spoke again about the impending retirement of older workers and senior executives and how this is still a really big problem for companies. He sees an opportunity for stronger alumni networks: allowing people to scale down while still being involved.

Martti Raevaara is Vice President of the Aalto University: where science and art meet technology and business. This is an innovation university built in 3 years. They don’t compete with their salaries, but with an inspiring environment. All curricula must be based on future scenarios and competencies with enough flexibility for new studies.

Carin Martell from Exact Learning Solutions was there “to increase the diversity aspect of the panel” (which I thought was an insensitive and unnecessary statement). Her talk was very much focused on the tool that she was there to promote, but she had one brilliant example that caught my eye: the Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. This hospital has no waiting lists and treats over 500.000 “healthcare tourists” each year. They can only do this by staying at the forefront of medical science. Do yourself a favour and look at their pricelists to realise that we are doing something wrong somewhere.

Working smarter with learning networks
The Internet Time Alliance hosted this session in which they could share their ideas about “working smarter”. For me it is interesting to track the way that their thinking has evolved since last year. Jay Cross does not talk about “learnscapes” anymore, he now calls it “workscapes”. Charles Jennings talks about “real learning” to battle the “conspiracy of convenience”. Harold Jarche links where and how work will be done to the Cynefin framework: anything that is simple is being automated, if the work is complicated the work will be pushed to countries with low labour cost (remember the hospital?). Complex work requires creativity, passion, specialisation and is what we need to start focusing on (this aligns with what Josh Bersin was saying).

Jay Cross then made a very good point: we need to stop judging technology without giving it a try. You cannot have a sensible opinion about something that you haven’t experienced. As an innovation manager that is something that I am convinced of too.

Another interesting concept that I picked up in the session was the “social media cigarette break”. Many organizations don’t allow people access to tools like Facebook and Twitter, cutting people off from their valuable networks. This forces people to take a break from their corporate PC’s and use Twitter on their smartphone in the toilet if they want to find out something quick using their social network. An absurd situation.

At the end of the session I had an interesting chat with Clark Quinn who is a former student of Donald Norman (one of my heroes). We talked about the appaling state of design understanding in the learning function and I shared my feeling that we don’t do enough engineering of the environment of the employee to get the behaviours we want. When we want to change how somebody does their job, we always try to intervene at the level of the individual, rather than in their environment.

Winner of the best learning game
Through Twitter (I wasn’t in the session) I learned that the winner of the best learning game award was Enercities. I have put it on my list of things to look at and might report on it in the near future.

The importance of decent wifi
The Internet connection during the event wasn’t optimal. There were many moments where the wireless connection just wasn’t working for me. I really felt dismembered at those times. How was I to enhance and contexualize the information I was hearing? I cannot be the only one who expects a flawless connection when they come to a conference and I do hope that ICWE will manage to get this sorted next year.

Conclusion
All in all this event has shown that it is worthwile coming back year after year. There is no other way to get connected to as many new ideas and people in such a short time. Where else would one meet the former world champion in Pooh Sticks?

More of the Same: The Web Turns Us Into Mussels

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. In our previous post we tried to argue whether you could engineer serendipity. The conclusion was: no, you cannot engineer serendipity (on the web). In this post we use the same recipe to investigate the corollary: the (social) web is hindering serendipity by clustering and clumping similar information around our web presence based on our online behaviour (e.g. the social graph). You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

In my teens I went to a Montessori high school in Amsterdam Zuid. The school is known for its liberal and cultural approach to education. My friends and I all thought we were free thinkers and radicals. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I learned at the college for PE teacher education that not all people had the “VPRO gids” at home and read the “Volkskrant”. It suddenly dawned on me how silo-ed my experience at high school had been and how similar we all were in our drive to be different. Occasionally I get the feeling that I am in a very similar position in my current educational technology profession.

The current toolset on the web helps us find people that are like ourselves, recommends us books that are similar to the ones we have already read and amplifies our existing opinions by aligning them to people who think the same as us. There are no tools to do the opposite: find people who are very different from you or content that gives new perspectives. In this post I would like to give a couple of examples of how the web helps in turning us into mussels (sessile animals that like being close to each other).

Example 1: The concept of RSS and Google Reader
Every day I spent 30 to 60 minutes reading my news feeds through Google Reader. I have subscribed to over 300 feeds and try to not miss any news items from about 100 of them. These feeds are very specific (one of the affordances of RSS is that it can easily be generated based on tags or search words). None of them carry general world news. Instead of reading the Guardian’s most important world news, I read the Guardian news that is tagged with Royal Dutch Shell. Instead of general feeds about the state of education and learning I read the posts of certain learning gurus. This means that on my Google Reader news from the last couple of days there was no way for me to encounter the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (I only learned about it by looking it up just now), whereas I read about Facebook’s new messaging system at least three different times (here, here and here) with very similar perspectives each time.

Google is also willing to suggest some new feeds for me to subscribe to. As of today the first four suggested sources that Google gives me are as follows:

Google's first recommendations

Google's first recommendations

More of the same! Wouldn’t it be way more beneficial for me to be confronted with people, opinions and news that is very different from the things I already know? It seems like there isn’t enough semantic understanding of the things that I am reading to be able to tell me: “You always read news about Shell on the Guardian, the Financial Times usually has a very different perspective”. How far off do you think we are before that becomes a reality?

Example 2: Amazon suggestions

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon recommends the book I am already reading

Amazon was one of the first companies that made use of its customer’s behaviour to improve the service to that same customer. When you browse at Amazon they track everything, not just your purchases, but also your browsing history, the links you click, the reviews you read and write, the books you don’t buy and probably how much time you spend doing each of these things. They use this data and correlate it with other people’s data to be able to suggest a couple of books that should interest you.

I haven’t bought at Amazon for a while (I now buy my books at Book Depository as they ship for free), but my current suggestions do include titles like Drive (which I am reading right now), Free and Growing Up Digital (and many other similar titles that I have already read). These books increase my specialization in the field of Internet and educational technology. There is no way for me to try and find books on Amazon that can function as a bridge to other genres.

There also is no way to really browse serendipitously. Like RSS, the categorization of the books is incredibly specific. Much more than in a traditional book store. On Amazon I would be able to go to one of my favourite subjects cognitive psychology (finding more than 8000 titles), whereas in a book store I would have to go to “popular science”. The latter forces me to run into books in fields of science that I wouldn’t usually look at. A book shelve also has a nicer (and faster!) browsing experience: running with a finger past all the books, taking one out and quickly scanning its contents all do not work on Amazon.

Example 3: Anglo-Saxon focus through the English language and through Silicon Valley based innovation
Silicon valley seems to be a village. I listen to Leo Laporte’s podcasts (e.g. This Week in Tech), read TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and am inundated with news about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and mobile phone carriers in the US. A lot of the web technology innovation is indeed driven by companies in Silicon valley and innovative start-ups from all over the world flock to California to be successful (see here for an example). But it does leave me wondering whether I am not missing out on a large part of the technium by not being able to read Japanese, Mandarin, German, etc. Through Western (English) media I have learned that Japan has a very specific mobile phone culture. But in all ways I am completely disconnected from it.

To experience how true this is, I would like you to do the following assignment: Use Google to try and find three sites in Japanese about technology culture. Let me know in the comments how that went…

Serendipity 2.0

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to try and find out whether it is possible to engineer serendipity on the web. The post should start with a short (max. 200 words) reflection on what the Internet has meant for serendipity followed by three serendipitous discoveries including a description of how they were discovered. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

There is an ongoing online argument over whether our increasing use of the Internet for information gathering and consumption has decreased our propensity for having serendipitous discoveries (see for example here, here or here). I have worried about this myself: my news consumption has become very focused on (educational) technology and has therefore become very silo-ed. No magazine has this level of specificity, so when I read a magazine I read more things I wasn’t really looking for than when I read my RSS feeds in Google Reader. This is a bit of red herring. Yes, the web creates incredibly focused channels and if all you are interested in is the history of the second world war, then you can make sure you only encounter information about that war; but at the same time the hyperlinked nature of the web as a network actually turns it into a serendipity machine. Who hasn’t stumbled upon wonderful new concepts, knowledge communities or silly memes while just surfing around? In the end it probably is just a matter of personal attitude: an open mind. In that spirit I would like to try and engineer serendipity (without addressing the obvious paradoxical nature of doing that).

Serendipity algorithm 1: Wikipedia
One way of finding serendipity in the Wikipedia is by looking at the categories of a particular article. Because of the many to many relationship between categories and articles these can often be very surprising (try it!). I have decided to take advantage of the many hyperlinks in Wikipedia and do the following:

  • Start with the “Educational Technology” article
  • Click on the first two links to other articles
  • In these articles find two links that look interesting and promising to you
  • In each of these four articles pick a link to a concept that you haven’t heard about yet or don’t understand very well
  • Read these links and see what you learn

Instructional theory was the first link. From there I went to Bloom’s Taxonomy and to Paulo Freire. Bloom’s Taxonomy took me to DIKW, a great article on the “Knowledge Pyramid” explaining the data-to-information-to-knowledge-to-wisdom transformation. I loved the following Frank Zappa quote:

Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not wisdom,
Wisdom is not truth,
Truth is not beauty,
Beauty is not love,
Love is not music,
and Music is the BEST.

Paulo Freire took me to Liberation theology which is is a movement in Christian theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political or social conditions. This began as a movement in the Roman Catholic church in Latin America in the 1950s-1960s. The paradigmatic expression of liberation theology came from Gutierrez from his book A Theology of Liberation in his which he coined the phrase “preferential option for the poor” meaning that God is revealed to have a preference for those people who are “insignificant”, “unimportant” and “marginalized”.

The second link was Learning theory (education). That led to Discovery learning and Philosophical anthropology. Discovery learning prompted me to read the The Grauer School. This link didn’t really work out. The Discovery learning article had alluded to the “Learn by Discovery” motto with which the school was founded, but the article about the school has no further information. A dead alley on the serendipity trail! Philosophical anthropology brought me to Hylomorphism which is a concept I hadn’t heard of before (or I had forgotten about: I used to study this stuff). It is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle analyzing substance into matter and form. “Just as a wax object consists of wax with a certain shape, so a living organism consists of a body with the property of life, which is its soul.”

Conclusion: Wikipedia is excellent for serendipitous discovery.

Serendipity algorithm 2: the Accidental News Explorer (ANE)

The Accidental News Explorer

The Accidental News Explorer

The tagline of this iPhone application is “Look for something, find something else” and its information page has a quote by Lawrence Block: “One aspect of serendipity to bear in mind is that you have to be looking for something in order to find something else.” I have decided to do the following:

  • Search for “Educational Technology”
  • Choose an article that looks interesting
  • Click on the “Related Topics” button
  • Choose the most interesting looking topic
  • Choose an article that looks interesting
  • Click on the “Related Topics” button
  • Choose the most interesting looking topic
  • Read the most appealing article

The article that looked interesting was an article on Kurzweil educational Systems. The only related topic was “Dallas, Texas”. This brought me to an article on Nowitzki from where I chose “Joakim Noah” as a related topic. The most appealing article in that topic was titled: Who’s better: Al Horford or Joakim Noah?

Conclusion: An app like this could work, but it needs to be a little bit better in its algorithms and sources for finding related news. One thing I noticed about this particular news explorer is its complete US focus, you always seem to go to cities and then to sports or politics.

Serendipity algorithm 3: Twitter
Wikipedia allows you to make fortunate content discoveries, Twitter should allow the same but then in a social dimension. Let’s try and use Twitter to find interesting people. I have decided to do the following:

  • Search for a the hashtag “#edtech”
  • Look at the first three people who have used the hashtag and look at their first three @mentions
  • Choose which of the nine people/organizations is the most to follow
  • Follow this person and share/favourite a couple of tweets of this person

So the search brought me to @hakan_sentrk, @ShellTerrell and @briankotts. These three mentioned the following nine Twitter users/organizations:

  1. @mike08, ESP teacher; ICT consultant; e-tutor
  2. @MsBarkerED, Education Major, Michigan State University, Senior, Aspiring Urban Educator, enrolled in the course CEP 416
  3. @jdthomas7, educational tech/math coach, former math, computer teacher. former director of technology at a local private school. specializing in tech/ed integration
  4. @ozge, Teacher/trainer, preschool team leader, coordinator of an EFL DVD project, e-moderator, content & educational coordinator of Minigon reader series, edtech addict!
  5. @ktenkely, Mac Evangelist, Apple Fanatic, Technology Teacher, classroom tech integration specialist, Den Star, instructional coach
  6. @Parentella, Ever ask your child: What happened at school today? If so, join us.
  7. @Chronicle, The leading news source for higher education.
  8. @BusinessInsider, Business news and analysis in real time.
  9. @techcrunch, Breaking Technology News And Opinions From TechCrunch

I decided to follow @ozge who seems to be a very active Twitter user posting mostly links that are relevant to education.

Conclusion: the way I set up this algorithm did not help in getting outside of my standard community of people. I was already following @ShellTerrell for example. I probably should have designed a slightly different experiment, maybe involving lists in some way (and choosing an a-typical list somebody is on). That might have allowed me to really jump communities, which I didn’t do in this case.

There are many other web services that could be used in a similar fashion as the above  for serendipitous discovery. Why don’t you try doing it with Delicious, with Facebook, with LinkedIn or with YouTube?