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.

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Reflecting on Lift France 2011: Key Themes

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Lift France 2011 conference. For me this was different than my usual conference experience. I have written before how Anglo-Saxon my perspective is, so to be at a conference where the majority of the audience is French was refreshing.

Although there was a track about learning, most of the conference approached the effects of digital technology on society from angles that were relatively new to me. In a pure learning conference, I am usually able to contextualize what I see immediately and do some real time reflecting. This time I had to stick to reporting on what I saw (all my #lift11 posts are listed here) and was forced to take a few days and reflect on what I had seen.

Below, in random order, an overview of what I would consider to be the big themes of the conference. Occasionally I will try to speculate on what these themes might mean for learning and for innovation.

Utilization of excess capacity empowered by collaborative platforms

Robin Chase gave the clearest explanation of this theme that many speakers kept referring back to:

Economic Logic of Using Access Capacity by Robin Chase

Economic Logic of Using Access Capacity by Robin Chase

This world has large amounts of excess capacity that isn’t used. In the past, the transaction costs of sharing (or renting out) this capacity was too high to make it worthwhile. The Internet has facilitated the creation of collaborative platforms that lower these transaction costs and make trust explicit. Chase’s most simple example is the couch surfing idea and her Zipcar and Buzzcar businesses are examples of this too.

Entangled with the idea of sharing capacity is the idea of access being more important than ownership. This will likely come with a change in the models for consumption: from owning a product to consuming a service. The importance of access shows why it is important to pay attention to the (legal) battles being fought on patents, copyrights, trademarks and licenses.

I had some good discussions with colleagues about this topic. Many facilities, like desks in offices, are underused and it would be good to try and find ways of getting the percentage of utilization up. One problem we saw is how to deal with peak demand. Rick Marriner made the valid suggestion that transparency about the demand (e.g. knowing how many cars are booked in the near future) will actually feed back into the demand and thus flatten the peaks.

A quick question that any (part of an) organization should ask itself is which assets and resources have excess capacity because in the past transaction costs for sharing them across the organization were too high. Would it now be possible to create platforms that allow the use of this extra capacity?

Another question to which I currently do not have an answer is whether we can translate this story to cognitive capacity. Do we have excess cognitive capacity and would there be a way of sharing this? Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and the Wikipedia project seem to suggest we do. Can organizations capture this value?

Disintermediation

The idea of the Internet getting rid of intermediaries is very much related to the point above. Intermediaries were a big part of the transaction costs and they are disappearing everywhere. Travel agents are the canonical example, but at the conference, Paul Wicks talked about PatientsLikeMe, a site that partially tries to disintermediate doctors out of the patient-medicine relationship.

What candidates for disintermediation exist in learning? Is the Learning Management System the intermediary or the disintermediator? I think the former. What about the learning function itself? In the last years I have seen a shift where the learning function is moving away from designing learning programs into becoming a curator of content and service providers and a manager of logistics. These are exactly the type of activities that are not needed anymore in the networked world. Is this why the learning profession is in crisis? I certainly think so.

The primacy (and urgency) of design

Maybe it was the fact that the conference was full of French designeurs (with the characteristic Philippe Starck-ish eccentricities that I enjoy so much), but it really did put the urgency of design to the forefront once again for me. I would argue that design means you think about the effects that you would like to have in this world. As a creator it is your responsibility to think deeply and holistically. I will not say that you can always know the results of your design (product, service, building, city, organization, etc.), there will be externalities, but it is important that you leave nothing to chance (accident) or to convenience (laziness).

There is a wealth of productivity to be gained here. I am bombarded by bad (non-)design every single day. Large corporations are the worst offenders. The only design parameter that seems to be relevant for processes is whether they reduce risk enough, not whether they are usable for somebody trying to get something done. Most templates focus on completeness and not on aesthetics or ease of use. When last did you receive a PowerPoint deck that wasn’t full of superfluous elements that the author couldn’t be bothered to remove?

Ivo Wenzler reminded me of Checkhov’s gun (no unnecessary elements in a story). What percentage of the learning events that you have attended in the last couple of years adhered to this?

We can’t afford not to design. The company I work for is full of brilliant engineers. Where are the brilliant designers?

Distributed, federated and networked systems

Robin Chase used the image below and explicitly said that we now finally realize that distributed networks are the right model to overcome the problems of centralized and decentralized systems.

From "On Distributed Communication Networks", Baran, 1962

From "On Distributed Communication Networks", Baran, 1962

I have to admit that the distinction between decentralized and distributed eludes me for now (I guess I should read Baran’s paper), but I did notice at Fosdem earlier this year that the open source world is urgently trying to create alternatives to big centralized services like Twitter and Facebook. Moglen talked about the Freedombox as a small local computer that would do all the tasks that the cloud would normally do, there is StatusNet, unhosted and even talk of distributed redundant file systems and wireless mesh networking.

Can large organizations learn from this? I always see a tension between the need for central governance, standardization and uniformity on the one hand and the local and specific requirements on the other hand. More and more systems are now designed to allow for central governance and the advantages of interoperability and integration, while at the same time providing configurability away from the center. Call it organized customization or maybe even federation. I truly believe you should think deeply about this whenever you are implementing (or designing!) large scale information systems.

Blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual worlds

Lift also had an exhibitors section titled “the lift experience“, mostly a place for multimedia art (imagine a goldfish in a bowl sat atop an electric wheelchair, a camera captured the direction the fish swam in and the wheelchair would then move in the same direction). There were quite a few projects using the Arduino and even more that used “hacked” Kinects to enable new types of interaction languages.

Photo by Rick Marriner

Photo by Rick Marriner

Most projects tried, in some way, to negotiate a new way of working between the virtual and the real (or should I call it the visceral). As soon as those boundaries disappear designers will have an increased ability to shape reality. One of the projects that I engaged with the most was the UrbanMusicalGame: a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers hidden in soft balls. By playing with these balls you could make beautiful music while using an iPhone app to change the settings (unfortunately the algorithms were not yet optimized for my juggling). This type of project is the vanguard of what we will see in the near term.

Discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of technology

A surprising theme for me was the well articulated discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of some of the emerging digital technologies. As Benkler says: technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice and not all practices that are becoming feasible now have positive societal impact.

One artist, Emmanuel Germond, seemed to be very much in touch with these feeling. His project, Exposition au Danger Psychologique, made fun of people’s inability to deal with all this information and provided some coy solutions. Alex Peng talked about contemplative computing, Chris de Decker showed examples of low-tech solutions from the past that can help solve our current problems and projects in the Lift Experience showed things like analog wooden interfaces for manipulating digital music.

This leads me to believe that both physical reality and being disconnected will come at a premium in the near future. People will be willing to pay for having real experiences versus the ubiquitous virtual experiences. Not being connected to the virtual world will become more expensive as it becomes more difficult. Imagine a retreat which markets itself as having no wifi and a giving you a free physical newspaper in the morning (places like this are starting to pop up, see this unplugged conference or this reporter’s unconnected weekend).

There will be consequences for Learning and HR at large. For the last couple of years we have been moving more and more of our learning interventions into the virtual space. Companies have set up virtual universities with virtual classrooms, thousands and thousands of hours of e-learning are produced every year and the virtual worlds that are used in serious games are getting more like reality every month.

Thinking about the premium of reality it is then only logical that allowing your staff to connect with each other in the real world and collaborate in face to face meetings will be a differentiator for acquiring and retaining talent.

Big data for innovation

I’ve done a lot of thinking about big data this year (see for example these learning analytics posts) and this was a tangential topic at the conference. The clearest example came from a carpool site which can use it’s data about future reservation to clearly predict how busy traffic will be on a particular day. PatientsLikeMe is of course another example of a company that uses data as a valuable asset.

Supercrunchers is full of examples of data-driven solutions to business problems. The ease of capturing data, combined with the increase in computing power and data storage has made doing randomized trials and regression analysis feasible where before it was impossible.

This means that the following question is now relevant for any business: How can we use the data that we capture to make our products, services and processes better? Any answers?

The need to overcome the open/closed dichotomy

In my circles, I usually only encounter people who believe that most things should be open. Geoff Mulgan spoke of ways to synthesize the open/closed dichotomy. I am not completely sure how he foresees doing this, but I do know that both sides have a lot to learn from each other.

Disruptive software innovations currently don’t seem to happen int the open source world, but open source does manage to innovate when it comes to their own processes. They manage to scale projects to thousands of participants, have figured out ways of pragmatically dealing with issues of intellectual property (in a way that doesn’t inhibit development) and have created their own tool sets to make them successful at working in dispersed teams (Git being my favorite example).

When we want to change the way we do innovation in a networked world, then we shouldn’t look at the open source world for the content of innovation or the thought leadership, instead we should look at their process.

Your thoughts

A lot of the above is still very immature and incoherent thinking. I would therefore love to have a dialog with anybody who could help me deepen my thoughts on these topics.

Finally, to give a quick flavour of all my other posts about Lift 11, the following word cloud based on those posts:

Lift11 Word Cloud

My Lift 11 wordcloud, made with Wordle

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The Future State of Capability Building in Organizations: Inspirations

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:

What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?

Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:

Humanistic design
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.

Learning theory
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).

Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.

Working smarter
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.

Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.

The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.

I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?

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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?

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What Does an Innovation Manager for Learning Technologies Do?

Magazine interview

Magazine interview

A couple of weeks back I was interviewed by Amir Elion who was a guest editor for an Israeli magazine on Human Resources. The interview has now been published (if you can read Hebrew it is available online for free). The publisher has kindly given me permission to publish the English version of the interview on my blog. It might give people a better idea of what I do every day.

Please tell us about yourself, what you do, and how you got there?
Basically I studied to be a philosopher and a physical education teacher. I taught high school children in a difficult neighborhood in Amsterdam. I got very interested in educational technology that I could use personally to support my teaching. This was for project based work, where children had to do real assignments for an external party. I needed educational technology to support the process. That’s when I got to know Moodle, an online course management system. I was one of the first people to use Moodle in the world, and the first one to use it in the Netherlands, for sure. I translated it into Dutch, and started consulting around Moodle. I got picked up by the Dutch Moodle Partner to work as a consultant. Shell was one of our clients, and I made a switch to Shell, to become a blended learning advisor. Blended learning is one of the core strategies of Shell HR. I did a lot of “evangelising” about the strategy, trying to give people a nuanced view of what blended learning really means, and that it’s not just a move from the classroom to an online system but slightly more complex than that. Following this, I moved to a new job as Innovation Manager in Shell’s Learning Technologies team.

And what does that mean?
I am actually not a part of the HR function, but of the global IT function. In the IT function that is responsible for HR applications, I work for what we call a Business Systems Manager (BSM). We have one for Learning, one for Talent, and one for Payments and Remuneration. And each of these BSMs has an Application Portfolio Manager, somebody who is aware of all the applications in their landscape and tries to manage these sensibly – usually by reducing the amount of applications, to rationalize. And learning is the only BSM that has an innovation role. Actually it makes sense, because in learning the tools that you use actually affect the process. My example is always Payments – the fact that we use a particular tool to process our payroll, doesn’t affect when and how much salary I receive, and how I get it. So what the systems do is protect the integrity, and the correctness, make sure things are automated and that costs a relatively low. But with learning – the applications that you have in your portfolio change the outcome of the learning. So they actually change the learning process, the learning events. The more the tools are on the delivery side of things, the more this is the case (less so for administrative things). That is why I have to keep abreast of new learning technologies, because they are so entwined with what you can do with the learning function itself and how you deliver your learning.

What is it I really do? – I manage an innovation funnel. We have an innovation process which takes ideas and develops them. This crosses each part of the business and includes innovation around drilling, refining and retailing, for example. It’s kind of a classic funnel idea, where on the one end of the funnel you have a lot of ideas that you investigate minimally, that other people can give to you. Then there are certain stage gates, with documentation and more research that you need to do for each opportunity to progress through the stages. It’s quite a structured way of doing things. A lot of stages in the funnel have to do with doing small Proofs of Concepts, pilots, in kind of “micro-ecologies” of the real situations. So you would always try something out before you do a global rollout. By doing it this way, when you are ready to implement in a larger fashion, you should have already answered the most difficult questions around implementation.

So you take this global innovation structure, with its stage gates, and apply it to learning technologies?
Correct. And my direct partner in doing this is the Learning Strategy and Innovation Manager. In the HR Learning function there is somebody who tries to do innovation from a learning perspective, more than from a technology perspective – and we share our funnel together. Of course, most learning innovations have a technology component, but there are innovations in there that are purely process innovations around learning that are also managed with the same process.

So looking at the structured Innovation processes at Shell, how do you encourage employees to support these efforts – to submit ideas, to participate in the pilots or gate reviews, to be positive towards change?
First of all, I have noticed personally that “Innovation” seems to be the current Buzzword in the business world. It’s all about innovation now – how to do it, how not to do it or whatever.

I have read a book a little while back, I think it was Innovation to The Core, that argued that with innovation we should reach a similar point which we reached with Quality management about 20-25 years ago. It started with the car manufacturers in Japan, that made quality management an integrated part of the company – and not something that you have a Quality Manager to do – but you make everybody’s responsibility. I agree with the sentiment that companies should be innovative, and should keep innovating, and like we as people should keep learning – companies should do the same. In that sense Learning and Innovating could become synonyms. It should be a lens that you put on everything. The fact that I have “Innovation Manager” in my title is actually not a good sign of how mature we are with innovating. If we were more mature it wouldn’t be the case. It is a good sign because it is better than what we had – we are moving in the right direction.

If you look in what is happening our company – first of all our CEO is driving a couple of behaviors very strongly, expecting everybody to take those behaviors on board – all his senior managers, etc. And one of those is innovation. Whenever we have a speech by the CEO, there are three things that he will always talk about – the first has always been for Shell – Safety (especially of course now – after the BP oil spill – but it didn’t really change because it was already a big part of the culture), and he nearly always talks about having an external focus and about innovation.

So that would be a top-down approach to innovation?
Yes – that is a top down approach to the innovation effort. At the same time, there are been some processes that have existed for a long time in Shell. One of them is called “Game Changer”. Anybody who has an idea which they think can change our business, can hand it in, in Game Changer. There is a committee who looks into these things and writes back to people. The committee has the authority to hand out an initial set of money to good ideas. These ideas can be developed further with that money, and perhaps make the next step. So that can be a grass-roots approach to innovation.

And what does the person who suggested the idea get from it?
Usually that person is very involved in the implementation. Often that person would be made free from their regular work and be able to work as a project lead or in developing these ideas. I don’t think there is any real monetary reward – it’s more that you can go in a direction that you’d like to go.

That’s interesting. And does it really happen?
Oh, it really happens. Because there is quite a significant budget, ands some really good ideas have come from it in the past. A lot of them are on the technical side of our business – around engineering, sustainable energies, etc. It gives people the chance to experiment in a sanctioned way

The other drivers are people like me – there are a lot more people like me dispersed throughout the business in different locations. I try to do two things – I try to first look outside – so I see what technologies are out there, in the learning technology world. I try to translate those into what would work for Shell. I noticed that there are lots of Web technologies out there that aren’t even developed with learning in mind, but if you “translate” them in a smart way, they can be very beneficial for learning. For example – the way that new companies do their customer support, or what universities are doing around their teaching – and try to adapt that into the business world. That’s the external focus of what I try to do. When I find something that I think has potential then my job is to find some stakeholder inside Shell who’s willing to experiment with it. I can’t experiment by myself because I don’t have the customers and I don’t have the resources. I need to find a partner somewhere in the business who’s willing to work with me.

A recent example is something relatively simple – the idea of capturing lectures. We still have a lot of face-to-face education, and we will continue you to have it. But none of it is captured (by video). So we’ve brought in this system which is widely used by universities to capture both the speaker with a camera, and their presentation – this allows you to playback both synchronized and skip to different slides. A thing like that – you find a customer inside Shell – in one learning center, who has a need for this kind of stuff. The other way around happens as well, where there are people inside the company that have technology related problems that they cannot solve with our current offerings of learning g landscape, and you try to find a solution that could help them. It goes both ways. You are in a kind of a broker role, and at the same time really look ahead. There is a bit of tension because I am supposed to look 3-5 years ahead of time, but my appraisal is annual.

So you have to find the mix of short term and long term things?
Yes. You have to be creative in how you deliver. You have to be creative in where you find budgets, in that sense quite challenging.

So this would be the other channel – innovation brokers throughout the organization each in their field (as you are in Learning Technologies), that drive innovation – connected of course with business needs, and with an outlook they see a few years ahead?
Yes.

Do you have links with other innovation people in other fields in Shell?
I work with the general Information Technology innovation people as well. We have a new business. We used to have a downstream business and an upstream business, and a Gas business. What we’ve done is put the Gas into Upstream and we’ve created a new business that’s called “Projects and Technology” – that does our big projects. This allows our upstream and downstream businesses to leverage each others strong points. The head of Innovation of Shell is at this new business, and they have an innovation team. They have a larger budget so I am in touch with them to make sure we are aligned, and occasionally there are things that have a learning aspect but are bigger than just learning. One example would be the Serious Gaming where if we create 3D models of our plants, we can create learning scenarios in them using a gaming engine. But you can also imagine that a lot of other processes in the business could benefit from having this kind of information. For example – we’ve done some research into decommissioning plants using 3D models to see how to do it quickly and efficiently. That’s when we find them and ask them to co-sponsor some ideas or maybe even drive it a bit more than we drive it ourselves.

This is a general HR magazine. Your examples are related to Learning due to your role, but perhaps you can share some other HR stories of innovation – i.e. in recruiting, performance management, etc.
The one thing in which Shell is different perhaps from other global companies is in how global the rollout of our performance management is. I don’t know to what level that’s the case at Motorola, but in Shell literally everybody has the same goals and performance appraisal. The goals for your year are in a central system. From the top down you can see a complete overview. And it really flows down from the top. The first person every year to write their goals for the year is the CEO. Then the next level of management writes theirs. Then their people write something that reflects those. It gets more and more specified rolling down from the top. I think that’s quite an interesting way of doing it. I haven’t seen it globalized to that extent anywhere else (but maybe I haven’t looked a lot).

Another thing I like is that everybody has an individual development plan. This is really part of the manager’s responsibility that people fulfill their individual development plan. It goes even so far that you can use it like a leverage point with your manager to do the things that you want to do as an employee.

I think we also have some innovative things in the way that we set up our HR practices and services, but I am not sure how that is done.

Of course we have global competence profiles, and jobs match these competence profiles. In fact all learning should be geared towards filling competence gaps. Our learning framework is really based on a competence framework.

In my understanding, what you describe could be called an application of best practices in performance management, in learning management, in employee development, which is of course very difficult to achieve. It’s good to let others know that it does work if you really do it. Can you think of stories of going “beyond the best practices”? I mean – you have the organizational structures and the way you do things – but do you “shake” them a bit and make things work not only according to paradigms – when it is called for and it’s worthwhile?
If I am very honest – I think that’s a difficult point for a company like Shell. Because exactly as you are saying – we completely focus on best practice. So that means that in everything we do we look at external benchmarks, and we try to be top quartile – the best 25% in those categories. What that means is that it’s relatively hard to do something “out of the box” at a global level. Because whenever you want to do anything, the first questions will be – “What other companies have already done it?”, “Can we prove that’s it effective?”. In the learning technologies and knowledge management fields there have been certain practices that were innovative when they started but are now best practices. Shell is one of the first companies to have a truly global Wiki implementation. We have an internal Wikipedia, using the same software as Wikipedia – it has about 70,000 users and 30,000 articles – it’s a real big and incredibly useful Wiki that has a lot of business value into it.

The one thing that I think that Shell is innovative about is in its complete focus of alignment of learning and work. We focus more and more on On the Job Training, on learning events that are completely relevant to somebody’ s work. The way that learning events are designed – they always have work-related assignments to them, and most of the require supervisor involvement. You need to agree with your supervisor on what you need to do. Learning is often integrated with knowledge management – through the Wiki for example.

It’s not just a course. You have to think about application and about follow-up…
Yes. And it’s part of the standard knowledge management process. Not a course that stands in itself. A part of it is alive with the business.

That’s sound very good. Could you compare how things were 3 years ago, to something that’s happening today and how you see it in 3 years’ time? (Possibly in learning or learning technologies because that’s where your focus is).
If you look at learning 3 years ago, and is still the case a bit (but less so)…there are different ways of delivering learning. It could be face to face, fully virtual learning, a-synchronous, synchronous. We have email based courses where you automatically get a weekly email with an assignment and some reading to do, etc.

There’s really a broad spectrum in the delivery of learning, but everything is still delivered from a course paradigm and from the idea of competence profiles. What you are starting to see is the course paradigm is starting to crumble a bit. So it’s called informal learning or on the job learning. I think you will see (and we are starting to see it here in the way we are architecting our next steps in our learning landscape), is smaller, modular content pieces; A different perspective of what we consider to be a learning event, what things can be seen as a learning event. More of a “Pull” idea – learning when you need it, than a “Push” approach. Specific learning event interventions around very current direct business problems – instead of through competencies. Because competency based learning for me has two abstractions. First you have to make sure that your competence framework is a very good reflection of your business, the skills it requires, and their translation into competencies. You hope you’ve done that correctly. Then there’s another abstraction when you create learning that has to match these skills and competencies, and you hope that the learning that you create can produce these competencies. If one of those steps goes wrong so the learning is pointless. What you are seeing more and more is a very direct, shorter event interventions. They will also have a shorter lifespan. This has to translate into your development methodology. So I am really starting to see an increase in how fast the learning function is expected to deliver for less cost – so it has to be cheaper and faster! Those requirements are starting to drive change in the way things are done.

If we are moving away from the competency based model, can you predict or imagine what model we are heading towards?
Yes. I think we will go to a simplified competence model. Because a competence model with the amount of functions like Shell has is an incredibly complicated structure that offers room to be simplified. What we are really working on in the next years is a high quality learning typology. The different business-related things where learning interventions could be a good solution. And they are very different, because on the one end there is a big need for “Certified Knowledge” (for instance – airplane pilots that are assessed yearly, and have to prove that they have the right skills and knowledge). That kind of certification levels will be seen more and more in our business. I am sure there will be legislation after the BP oil disaster that will push us even more towards having certified geo-engineers. That’s an aspect learning will have to cover, and it requires a very different solution than helping people implement change in the business as quickly as possible. I think a lot of learning will be related to projects – and that’s a different part of the learning typology. If the learning function can help get a factory online in 4 years instead of in 5 years – that’s a massive cost savings and business results improvement for a company like us. I think there will be a lot of focus on that.

Thank you very much for this interview. It was really interesting to hear these things.

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