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The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

The Box, The Trellis, and the Marketplace

8 May

We invited community members to come talk about about IT Governance and help us figure out the right way to go about it in our school. As I was listening to the conversation, it occurred to me there were two ways to look at it.

For the record, IT Governance refers to a structured process for campus-wide decision-making about IT policies and services. Like what your LMS is, or how long you should wait before your desktop computer is refreshed, or whether your department or a central unit pays for your copy of Chem Draw Ultra 12.0. When governance works, everyone knows what the campus IT policies are and how decisions are made, and everyone feels she or he can have input into the decision-making process. Even if a particular decision didn’t go your way, you at least know the reasoning behind the decision.

IT Governance as a Box

When you first hear of things like “governance” or “committees” or “organizational structures,” you might tend to think of them as restrictive, top-down organs of control. Your lizard brain throws up images perhaps of misty, star-chamber-like, inscrutable rooms and byzantine processes issuing strange unilateral edicts that are action-oriented and constraining, and focus on products, stress “implementation” and “projects,” and use mysterious jargon that makes you feel like there’s something you’re supposed to know but you don’t.  Things that seem safely removed from the more organic ebb and flow of your daily life, yet there’s a nagging anxiety in the back of your mind that the decisions might sort of pop up at the 11th hour and disrupt what you’re working on—you might discover, that is, that a new presentation software became the campus standard the night before you’re set teach using your well-tried PowerPoint deck, and it no longer works, and now you look crazy in front of your class, etc.

This dread vision is what you might call IT Governance as product-oriented instead of people-oriented. As a system that limits decision-making for efficiency’s sake to a few people, doesn’t include everyone, doesn’t allow for a lot of input, and doesn’t really seek to understand what people do on a daily basis and what their needs are. It’s not about helping people grow; on the other hand, it constrains, no matter how well-intentioned it is, as a box might. I have to admit such an image popped up in my own head at one point, but there’s another way to view IT Governance.

IT Governance as a Trellis

As part of our conversation, we looked at such other IT Governance processes as were easily available on the web. Some systems of decision-making out there are (as you might suspect) amazingly complex; some are less so. Significantly, though, many have features that do not fix the star chamber model. For example, Western Carolina University calls IT Governance an ongoing conversation, that “will occur not just within the governance meeting structure.” Salem State University’s IT Governance web site takes the time to explain the various “sources” of project ideas, which can come through formal channels or even “casual conversation between department heads” (and hopefully other people, too . . . ). The University of Texas at Austin lists the six cardinal values imbued in their governance process, and “transparency” and “communication” top the list.

A conversation? Something that allows for sharing of ideas between equals, that could happen in a formal setting, or in an informal setting? Among anyone? Emphasis on the messy beginnings of new ideas, lurking on the edges of existing projects, that might come from anywhere? Unabashed promotion of communication and transparency? This all suggests a desire to admit a constant stream of destabilizing novelty (or what I call an Information Sluice)! The opposite of the bureaucratic sublime. That’s a governance process that includes people as they are, in their actual walks of life, and invites their input. That’s a governance process that has change and growth built into it, a structure like a trellis, that allows for a plant to bloom in the new, vertical dimension. Not a black box.

IT Governance as a Marketplace

My local community is headed in this direction, too. When we talked about what we want to achieve with our IT Governance structure, the primary idea expressed was “more communication.” “We don’t know what’s going on,” “there needs to be a better way to talk to each other than email,” and “we need people who can serve as nimble liaisons negotiating agreement between areas of disciplinary knowledge and areas of technical knowledge,” were the kinds of things we said.

And we decided that to help with this communication we need a “marketplace,” or an easy way to know what everyone else is doing and see what solutions and problems other people are creating and dealing with. So that we can better build on and integrate our various local initiatives, instead of creating new, parallel, redundant, isolated projects. Such a marketplace, we thought, should be easy to search and easy to add to.

This marketplace sounds a bit like the kind of “ideation platform” or “idea stock market” I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Sounds a bit like the Internet itself, in fact, used as a metaphor of facile connectedness, of grass-roots, horizontal, non-bureaucratic engagement, with low-threshold entry requirements, applied retroactively unto the world itself, the child teaching the parent.

IT Governance as Email Fixer

Just a thought about email, which we thought was the kind of thing IT Governance could help us change. I think it’s a commonplace that our current use of email is less than satisfying, seeing that it is co-opted by everyone for every kind of communication: official institutional pronouncements, lightweight invitations to lunch, your mom to check in on you, your department to remind you about an upcoming talk, to let you know your water bill payment went through, to ask you to come to the PTA meeting that night, to share the project management charter, to ask your boss for time off, to tell you to check in for your flight, not to mention the inundation of unsolicited business-related emails, spam, etc. There’s so much crazy stuff in there opening the inbox is like our own personal version of Fibber McGee’s hall closet gag.

Email is a social problem as well as a technological problem. One where we have to talk to each other and agree on the parts to fix and try things out and adjust those things and ask ourselves to honor new conventions of behavior and give ourselves feedback on how we’re doing and so forth: pieces both mechanical and behavioral, individual and communal. Now if IT Governance can help that to be fixed (as we seem to think it can), that’s a different kind of governance. That’s not about circumscribing behavior. That’s a way to identify and heal problems that go deeper and broader than technology, that’s a meta-view on the way we live life and talk to each other, that’s about finding well-being together wherever we can, that’s about community, that’s about getting issues out into the open, that’s about being vulnerable and trusting each other, that’s the kind of thing that makes life worth living. That’s the kind of IT Governance we need.

Liaisons, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Soup

12 Jan

I was invited to talk to a group of wonderful library, IT, and teaching and learning center staff at UMASS Boston in early December; they are thinking about new ways to organize their community liaisons, and they asked me for my two cents.  I loved every minute of it; they were enthusiastic, engaged, reflective, fun. And here’s what I said, somewhat abbreviated.

When you look up the definition of liaison, you get what you’d expect. A person who interfaces between two organizational units to “ensure unity of purpose.” That makes sense. But I like some of the more obscure meanings of the word, too, like “any thickening for soups, sauces,” such as cream. Liaisons should see themselves as binders and thickeners. Liaisons, you are cream. Hold that thought.

I then worked with Lee Shulman’s definition of collaboration, as “a marriage of insufficiencies” (see “Communities of learners and Communities of teachers,” Mandel Institute, 2007, freely available online) and the well-known contrast in education thinking between collaboration and cooperation.

Cooperation, in my recap, is how you work together in a static environment. Your roles are defined, you basically perform consistently: you do things together that you don’t have to do together, you do them for convenience, and you don’t need to communicate much, because you all know your part. Collaboration, on the other hand, is the inverse. You do things together that you can only do with other people, because the goal is lofty, and none of you is sufficient to the task. It’s improv rather than reading scores, it’s sailing a boat in a storm rather than having a transaction at a bank window, it’s risky, it makes you vulnerable, you’re aware of and processing together all sorts of environmental factors and responding dynamically; there are feedback loops on top of feedback loops, and there’s a massive emphasis on communication.

I proposed four hypotheses related to collaboration and cooperation:

  1. In an environment of change, collaboration becomes more important.
  2. Collaboration is required for group adaptation.
  3. Collaboration builds relationships.
  4. Liaisons may be the best positioned to collaborate of all the people in the entire planet.

A brief explanation of these: I decided that in our fluid, changing environments, we have to collaborate to be successful, that that collaboration is the only way to get a group of people to do something differently, that it’s the best way to build relationships with peers (because you have to have each other to survive), and I suggested that it’s the role of the liaison, in particular, to effect collaboration. Because the liaison is by nature half in and half out of the group. Relationships–a tying-together kind of thing, in other words, a thickening of the soup, bringing us back to the cream idea. N’est-ce pas?

Some notata bene I felt it important to add:

  1. Collaboration is politically vulnerable.
  2. Collaboration works best in a community that appreciates it.
  3. Confusion about when cooperation or collaboration is more appropriate freaks people out.
  4. Collaboration takes a lot of time. And the groundwork is invisible. And it’s occasionally hard to explain.
  5. Collaboration (and learning in general) is anxiety provoking.
  6. Collaboration builds on cooperation and is a ground for it.

Explanation: basically collaboration comes at a cost: being highly unstable, political unwise, and anxiety-provoking; we should not jump into it without knowing the costs. The best of all worlds is when your enlightened boss, school, organization know(s) what it means to collaborate and unleash(es) you to do it, with all that it will consequently entail for you and them, including lots of short-term inconveniences, because they want the long-term payoff.

Another two points I think worth making.  First, it’s probably wrong to contrast these two approaches, which really need each other. I can’t really collaborate if we haven’t been cooperating or if I can’t subsequently evolve that collaboration into a cooperation.

Second, every organization at any given moment should be running some mix of collaboration and cooperation. Lean towards cooperation in the calm periods. Lean towards collaboration in the crazy periods. Whatever the case may be, it is important that everyone on the team knows what that mix is, and who is doing what. As a kind of natural collaborator, I see all the time the quite remarkable stress caused when peers assume I should be cooperating, and I’m collaborating. If you’ll have a particular person do one or the other, it would be good to let everyone know it, and to know the ramifications thereof, and to say a blessing on them.

As a tantalizing concluding device, I’ll leave you with this little association table I concocted–eight, arbitrarily chosen, other ways of expressing the same sort of dichotomy I develop here between collaboration and cooperation:

  1. Transactions vs. Virtual Circles
  2. Linear or Causal Systems vs. Complex, Dynamic Systems
  3. Departmental or Compartmental Views vs. Institutional or Holistic Views
  4. Consistent Performance vs. Inconsistent Creation
  5. Bergson’s Intellect vs. Bergson’s Intuition
  6. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset (see Carol Dweck)
  7. Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean
  8. IQ Test vs. Zone of Proximal Development

About Grades

3 Jan

Someone asked me recently why I tend to frown when grades are mentioned. My attempt to answer.

I don’t think a simple, one-dimensional linear scale (grades) is the best possible way to represent (or honor) the rich cognitive development that occurs in complex patterns across a variety of domains in the growth of an individual.

For instance, grades provide no information on the learning context—no considerations of the course design; social group dynamics; style of teaching; particular assigned, tacit or implied, learning outcomes; opportunities for formative assessment; what was on the syllabus; humidity in the classroom; and so on. And yet the environment is so crucial to understanding how people develop, ignoring it would seem to make your data almost meaningless. If Vygotsky is right, and the most important thing in the study of our development is understanding the potential growth of the individual-in-society, grades aren’t helpful.

For another instance, grades don’t show you what sorts of cognitive development are happening.  Or even what skills are being used. Of the various Howard Gardner intelligences, say, which did the student effectively draw on to get that B in Russian History? That might be interesting to know. A grade won’t help you know that.

You might say that we could supplement the grades with a variety of other things, like the syllabus; an essay on the course by the teacher or a trained observer; a discursive evaluation of the student; a narrative self-evaluation by the student; some pre-and-post testing to learning outcomes; a collected portfolio of produced work with reflective analysis by the student; etc. Yes. Basically, I think that’s what we should organize ourselves to do. Ken Bain describes a kind of “synthetic” (in the sense of creating a synthesis of diverse kinds of data) course evaluation that he thinks would be more helpful than the traditional student survey. I’d like to see along with that a synthetic development report replace the letter grade.

So grades don’t show you everything they possibly could.  What’s worse is I suspect grades might even undermine learning. When people focus on grades rather than learning, which it’s hard not to do, what should be a positive and productive relationship between the learner and the learning environment, leading toward a virtuous circle of robust growth, tends instead to become a cynical negotiation, sadly tending toward a vicious circle of minimal growth. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn on the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments.

The usual relationship that arises between learner and school–a sort of reluctant, dogged cooperation; a work-to-rule; and a general defensiveness or mutual suspicion–might be the best way to prepare us for the same kind of negative relationship we’re likely to have with our work environments.  But it is a far cry from what you need (in my opinion) to learn, and what you would get in the sorts of safe spaces you see in, say, a Reggio Emilia or Atelier model, where can be developed the kind of wonderful, risky, vulnerable, collaborative learning Lee Shulman calls a “marriage of insufficiencies.”

Fortunately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we develop more sophisticated ways to represent the breadth of student and group learning in context, or (what is perhaps also as important) before we learn to show the potential for growth that is present in a culture or an environment. And I think it’s also only a matter of time before we grow school and work environments that are humane.

As a parable, I offer a recent parent-teacher conference experience, with the identities of participants obscured.  In this conference, the parent found his child’s first grade teachers to be amazingly gifted interpersonal perceptors (if you will)–wonderfully attuned to his child’s social development, personality, learning styles, perspective, strengths, loves, fears, challenges, successes.  The teacher’s evocation of the child-as-person-in-context was the bulk of the conversation, and the parent reported that it felt wonderful and appropriate and life-affirming.  Then there was a change. The teacher almost reluctantly drew out from a folder a sheet upon which she’d been forced to register linguistic and math “grades” (only in those two domains, I note!), and the atmosphere of the conference changed immediately from one that was generative, productive, alive, adaptive, full of hope–in short, everything good about education–to the opposite: one that hinted at a lifetime of compliance, fear, bureaucracy, guilt, and worry.

If we could have deleted the grades from that conference, it would have been thoroughly great. And that’s what I’m after. Thoroughly great stuff.

Things-in-Use-by-People

11 Jan

Gardner Campbell talked at our school recently, and a comment he made resonated with me. “See those books,” he said, pointing to shelves of books nearby (it was in the library), “we see that as a conversation.” By “we” he meant the teachers, staff, grown-ups, etc., listening to him talk. His point: that it is our job to get students to do the same–to see the wall of books–learning, scholarship, life–as a conversation. As a multi-dimensional interchange that’s part information and part relationship. As an interaction between people, vibrant, living, committed, engaged people. As something they can and ought to be involved in. As something that can benefit from their involvement. Not as some limited, flat, inscrutable, mysterious, dusty, impenetrable, boring facade of emptiness.

This might be part of the idea behind the slow sea change we sense in undergraduate education–shifting toward student-centered learning, active learning, engaged students, “authentic” learning, experiential learning, experiments, on-site activities, road trips, real research–all things that help students see the world of learning and research as a place they can engage with people.

David Lewis, on a recent visit, said something similar. Students aren’t that motivated to understand research as a complex social activity, when our assignments call for finding, say, five credible sources. That’s an assignment that calls for a list of discrete things. (I.e. a flat wall of book spines). But we need students to enter into the world of information sharing and learning that generated those five items. Into the conversation. Some other kind of assignment is needed.

And some other kind of representation. Fortunately the ways computers can represent complex stuff may come to our rescue. For example, Daniel McFarland and Eric Klopfer in a recent article in Teachers College Record suggest we need a new interface for searching the scholarly literature. Unlike the existing search tools, which return flat and impenetrable (my words) lists of information resources, McFarland and Klopfer call for something that shows the information resource in the context of the people using it, representing relationships and networks and thought-structures. Some cross between the information object we know so well and a map of people talking to each other. With rankings and trends.

The future looks very interesting.

By way of concluding on a random thought: this substitution of discrete things for the more complex idea of things-in-use-by-people might help explain why IT shops and Libraries have always seemed to be a tad isolated from the communities they serve. We’ve focused on the thing, the list, the tool, and we haven’t really taken the time to understand the thing as an integrated part of a community in conversation. We just might need to get our own selves into the conversation along with the students.