A Personal Transfer: From Shell International to Bits of Freedom

Bits of Freedom

Bits of Freedom

About 4.5 years ago I wrote about me going to work for Shell. Now I am changing employer again. Starting today I will be the director of Bits of Freedom, a Dutch organization focusing on privacy and freedom of communication in the digital age.

I’ve had a wonderful time at Shell: a steep learning curve, many opportunities for doing interesting projects in the learning technology and disruptive innovation fields, smart colleagues and enough scale and budget to try out big things. I wasn’t looking to leave, but couldn’t let this chance pass by.

If you know me even a little, then you will understand that going to work for Bits of Freedom is very much a passionate choice. As somebody who understands and appreciates the positive potential of technology, I am deeply worried about the technology-mediated future we are currently creating for ourselves. I want to make an impact and change that for the better. I can’t imagine a place in the Netherlands that is more at the forefront on issues like surveillance, the EU privacy directive or net neutrality than Bits of Freedom. I am honoured that I get to work there for the next few years.

This will likely also mean a change in course for this blog. Future digital rights related posts will go up in Dutch on the Bits of Freedom blog (Creative Commons-licensed naturally). I will have less time to focus on the world of learning, but will put some thinking into privacy of learners, data ownership and learning analytics in the next few months. Let’s see what gets posted here going forward…

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.

The Quantified Self and What it Means for Learning

In early April I presented (in Dutch) at the e-Learning Event about the quantified self and learning. I have now translated the slides into English as I think the topic is important enough. The presentation explains (in five parts) why the quantified self movement will have big consequences for how we will learn in the future. You can download a full resolution PDF file, watch a video (with slides) in Dutch or watch it on SlideShare:

Below an outline of the presentation and links to all the sources I used.

Innovation

A short explanation about what an innovation manager does and how an innovation funnel works.

Scenarios

The scenario process is explained and the four scenarios that were create at the Online Educa workshop are presented.

Sources

Quantified Self

The history of the quantifying yourself (and the scientist and artists experimenting with it) is shown. Consumer products show that it is now not only scientist and artist anymore.

Sources

Learning

An exploration about what the quantified self might mean for learning (in organisations).

Sources

Risks

There are risks around measuring yourself.

Sources

Dutch Presentation about the Quantified Self (Leren is Meten Weten)

I presented the following keynote (in Dutch) at the the e-Learning Event 2012 (an English version of this message is available here):

Deze presentatie legt in vijf delen uit waarom de trend om jezelf te meten (quantified self) grote gevolgen gaat hebben voor hoe wij in de toekomst gaan leren (je kunt de presentatie ook als PDF downloaden en dan werken de overlay quotes bij de foto’s wel of je kunt een opname van de hele keynote bekijken):

Innovatie

Een korte uitleg over wat een innovatie manager doet en over de innovatie funnel.

Scenario’s

Het scenario proces wordt uitgelegd en de vier scenarios die uit een workshop op de Online Educa zijn gekomen worden toegelicht.

Bronnen

Quantified Self

De geschiedenis van de trend om jezelf te meten wordt uit de doeken gedaan. Met consumentenvoorbeelden is te zien dat het niet meer alleen voor wetenschappers en artiesten is weggelegd.

Bronnen

Leren

Een verkenning van wat de Quantified Self trend kan betekenen voor leren (in organisaties).

Bronnen

Risico’s

Er kleven ook risico’s aan jezelf meten.

Bronnen

Presentatie

De volledige presentatie kan hier als PDF gedownload worden.

I Really Hope to See You at Online Educa 2011!

From November 30th till December 2nd I will be attending the excellent Online Educa which bills itself as the “The largest global e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors”.

I’ll be co-organizing two different events and would really like to meet you at either (or both!) of them. One is an Edubloggers dinner (a good Dutch tradition, now in an Internationalised version), the other a workshop in which we will create scenarios for the future of corporate learning. More information below:

1. International Online Edubloggers Dinner

The 2008 Edubloggers dinner in Berlin. This year it will be an International version. (Picture by Wilfred Rubens)

The 2008 Edubloggers dinner in Berlin. This year it will be an International version. (Picture by Wilfred Rubens)

On Thursday December 1, 2011 Wilfred Rubens and I organize the International Online Educa edubloggers dinner.

Purpose

Networking, informal talk, having fun while eating and drinking.

For who?

Everybody interested in blogging about technology-enhanced learning. It’s not necessary that you have your own blog. You even don’t have to be an Evangelist. A believer is sufficient 😉

When?

Thursday December 1, 2011 at 20.00 hrs.

Where?

In a restaurant near the place where the Online Educa is held. So at a walking distance from the Intercontinental. We will take into account that we’re in the middle of an economic crisis.

How?

We are not sure yet. If the group is small, we will eat à la carte. If the group is bigger, it might be a buffet. Everybody pays his or hers own food and drinks. We’re Dutch, so we are going Dutch. If we have to order a buffet we might ask you to pay beforehand.

Registration

Please go here and comment on Wilfred’s blog post. Fill in your email address with your comment (it will not be visible on the blog). Do let us know if you have suggestions for restaurants on walking distance of the hotel. Furthermore, you should mention if you are vegetarian or have other special dietary needs (e.g. an allergy to something).

Deadline

Due to logistics the deadline for registration is November 22, 2011.

We will inform you by old-fashioned e-mail when we have found a decent restaurant.

2. Preparing together for the future of corporate learning

When, costs and registration

This workshop will be held on November 30th from 10:00 till 13:00 and costs € 90,-. Registration is through the Online Educa website.

Description of the workshop

What will learning and development look like in the future and how can we prepare for success in these new worlds?

This workshop uses scenario planning and is a unique opportunity for those involved in defining strategies for learning and development within the workplace to consider potential futures in this field. Participants will examine the external factors shaping corporate learning and work together with industry experts and like-minded peers to create future scenarios that can be used to help them prepare more effectively for new worlds.

Scenario planning has been used extensively at Royal Dutch Shell to help change perceptions of the influence of external factors in shaping future working worlds. It is a strategic planning method used prior to defining strategies to help the organisation understand and respond more effectively to change. Willem Manders and Hans de Zwart from Shell, supported by facilitators from within the industry, guide participants through the process of:

  • understanding the external factors that can potentially shape the future of L&D
  • defining a number of L&D scenarios or worlds that could emerge as a result of external influences.

However, this is not just a workshop; the scenarios created in this session will be presented as part of the BUSINESS EDUCA conference track, enabling all BUSINESS EDUCA delegates to contribute to the development of these methods. Conference delegates will be encouraged to look for signals supporting different worlds as they take part in the wider conference and are invited to come together at the close of the conference to reflect on how these developed scenarios can be used in their respective workplaces to help shape future strategy.

In the “Closing Conversation” of BUSINESS EDUCA last year, delegates wanted to find a way to leverage the “brainpower” at the conference and create some new and tangible outcomes which will support them at work. In response to this need, this workshop is the start of a unique collaboration that all BUSINESS EDUCA delegates can be part of at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2011.

Proposed Agenda

This half-day workshop leverages the Scenario Planning methodology adopted by Shell to help participants consider the external factors influencing Learning & Development in business in order to establish scenarios. External factors include:

  • technology playout – the impact of accelerated adoption
  • the effects of changing legal requirements
  • the influence of changing educational systems
  • the “Big Crew Change” – know-how that leaves with older staff while new staff arrives with different expectations

These factors are not exclusive and delegates will identify other external influences that are shaping our future. Industry facilitators will also provide additional perspectives and help identify challenges. Delegates should come with an open mind but expect disagreement and debate in order to allow for a rich range of outcomes.

We will have three blocks of approximately an hour:

  1. Key trends and uncertainties that will shape the future of corporate learning (in four groups)
  2. Drafting first set of scenarios based on uncertainties (in four groups)
  3. Summarise the key insights and discuss how we can leverage this during the rest of the conference (one group)

Target Audience

This workshop is specifically designed for all those directly involved in defining strategies for learning and development in the workplace. Senior learning and development executives from private, public and not-for-profit businesses are invited to network and work together. Seating for the workshop is limited.

Prerequisite Knowledge

Experience in, and responsibility for, defining learning and development strategy for business.

Outcomes

Participants can take the developed scenarios back to their own organisations, to look for signals which will help them prepare for the most appropriate future for their Learning & Development department.

The workshop also aims to expand the scenarios further into the main conference dialogue, allowing the contribution of BUSINESS EDUCA conference delegates to benefit the wider conference audience.

Finally, the resulting conference outcomes will be highlighted as part of the closing conversation of BUSINESS EDUCA.