Bill Snyder on Communities of Practice

18 Jul

Bill Snyder, expert on communities of practice, spoke at the Learning Organization Academy last week. My notes below. For the record, Bill co-wrote Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.

The Engaged and Messy Nature of Knowledge and Learning

Knowledge, according to Bill, is not abstract, fixed, and unconnected from life. It’s “situated, tacit, dynamic;” “social;” and “practical.” It’s interwoven between and among people and what they’re doing and need to do, in the environment where they are. Correspondingly, learning is largely informal, is built on communication and connections—stories, conversations, experiences, coaching. It depends heavily on trust and reciprocity.

Communities of Practice Steward Messy Knowledge

The kind of knowledge and learning above aren’t that well-served by formal education. What works better are communities of practice–groups of people sharing a particular domain of knowledge who gather and talk about what they know and what they do. The emphasis is on social relationships and communication; communities of practice are heterarchical as opposed to hierarchical. There isn’t a rigid power or control structure; they grow up where people who share a particular passion feel a need to talk to each other. They’re voluntary. As such they stand in contrast to the hierarchical workplace, its emphasis on control and outcomes, and its investment in its own existence. They can be “natural” in that they occur on their own when a few people find their way together, and intentional, in that people actively develop them, though this is an art. They can be conceptualized using a three-mode framework: domain (or subject matter); community (the people); and practice (how they apply the knowledge they share).

Peripheral and Core Participation

A key feature of communities of practice is that they allow for a variety of ways to be involved. You don’t have to be an expert: peripheral participation, or lurking, is OK, and even seen positively (because it’s a way to enter into the field—consider the apprenticeship model).  Usually, though, a core group comprising 3 – 5% of the people ends up being responsible for most of the activity of the community; these people are generally experts and well-respected (though there is a role for some in that core group to focus on the organizational details who don’t therefore need to be a subject mater expert). Importantly, the community of practice allows you to shift from lurker to middle to core group and back—in fact, you can see that movement as a kind of sideways Zone of Proximal Development.

Distinction Between Communities of Practice and Project Teams

Bill makes a key distinction between communities of practice, which self-organize to shepherd the learning in a social group, and project teams, which are formed, usually by fiat, to achieve a particular end. The community of practice focuses on knowledge sharing, is voluntary, has a long-term focus, boundaries are permeable, and the nature of the group is often emergent; the team is different—it has a clear outcome in mind, it gathers information on whether it meets that goal or not, it ends, roles are kinda fixed, it reports back. The project team works well in the hierarchical workplace of course; but it’s not antithetical to the community of practice. A project team can peel off of a community and go work on a project then share outcomes with the community. Just don’t assign a discrete, short-term, actionable goal to the overall community.

Phases of Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice go through various stages: Potential (basic parts are there: topic, social group, desire to share); Coalescing (community begins to work together and build trust); Maturing (clarification of the subject, individual roles; identification of gaps in knowledge); Stewardship (focus on action and maintaining momentum, attracting new members, keeping knowledge up-to-date); Transformation (its work may be done; members may leave; it may go dormant to return later).  Bill notes that it’s important to accept the community where it is—the stewardship phase isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, for instance: a community may function perfectly well and serve its members even in the early stages.

Things to Avoid

There are some things you shouldn’t do if you want your community of practice to be successful. You can’t tell it what to do—the passion has to come from the people involved (although you can find and build on existing passions). You need the domain to be somewhat practical and problematic; if it’s too superficial—that is, only about relationships and pleasantries, it won’t work. The topic also can’t be too narrow or too broad. You have to be wary as well of problems that occur in all communities: cliques and factions, and people who “squelch” or “spoil.” And a key pitfall: “impermeable boundaries”–if people can’t move from the fringes to the core group and every stage in-between, it’s not a heterarchy anymore.

Communities of Practice Improve Performance

You might think such an ephemeral structure might not result in anything tangible, but it does—those relationships and passions drive the participants to “build, share, and apply” core practices and capabilities, increasing their capability, and all that of course translates to improved performance outcomes.

Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.

Prompts

The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf'” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

Deciduous Scissors

11 Jun

We recently made up a game called Curly Cravings for our grandmother for her birthday.

Here’s how it works. You make three teams. Your team is given a noun, an adjective, and a problem randomly selected from hats filled with pre-populated items of the respective categories written on slips of paper by players in advance. You’re required to conceive of a solution to the problem you draw that makes use of the noun and the adjective you draw. You then give your solution to another team, who draws a picture of it, and then to a third team, who dances it. All the while, you’re drawing and dancing other people’s ideas, too. At the end you have a “Curly Craving,” which is the 3-part combination of an idea, a picture, and a dance.

For more information, here’s a link to the instructions; and the “Picto-Instructions” image from those instructions is below. Note: the instructions make intentional use of alternate English spelling conventions adapted by our game-development team.

By way of example, in the legendary first game, one team was asked to solve the problem “Keep People From Killing the Animals” using the adjective-noun team “Slippery Eyeball.” The solution involved a rapidly moving eyeball keeping watch on all would-be animal killers, and flashing them to sleep with a powerful wink method immediately prior to the act of killing, at which point the animals would escape. We’ve lost the remarkable picture drawn of this solution, but we remember still the actor in the role of an wild, but gentle, animal grazing contentedly, the actor playing “Eye” and his dramatic wink, the actor playing a hunter overwhelmed by drowsiness even while in the very midst of aiming his rifle.

Some things I like about the game:
  • It’s an exercise in constrained problem solving. You inherit problems and try to solve them with components you have no real control over the selection of. In this way it’s like life.
  • It makes you creative. You put together things that generally don’t belong, which is the essence of creativity. “Deciduous Scissors,” one such unlikely combo, was a favorite noun-adjective pairing from another past instantiation of the game. There’s a mad-libs-like, surreal quality to the combinations and the solutions developed from them that helps people escape, as it were, from the dictatorship of conventional psycho-realism and its social restrictions, fixed attitudes, beliefs, group think, anxieties.
  • You care about other people’s ideas. You receive the ideas of other people, and you interpret them by drawing. You interpret someone else’s interpretation by dancing. This has a funny way of making you feel like the solutions are part of you, too. In this way Curly Cravings draws on the core power of other idea-sharing structures, like World Café facilitation methodology.
  • Memory is engaged. You’ll never forget a Curly Craving once you’ve drawn it, danced it, or seen it danced or drawn. Something about seeing my friend Richard (name changed to protect her identity), for example, embodying the role of a Deciduous Scissors as it “healed” a Rusted Combine-Harvester (played by me) will never allow itself to be forgot.
  • It’s inclusive. Curly Cravings uses verbal, visual, and kinesthetic thinking. As such people of almost any age and learning style can be involved.
  • Nobody wins. Even though the instructions say “vote on best” at Step 6, everyone essentially wins, because they’ve contributed part of each solution or its representation. Also, by the time you get to voting, everyone has had to dance, which serves as a kind of positive cathartic moment. After the dance, the voting is an emotional denouement and nothing more.

But the thing I like about it the most? It’s very much unlike work.

In the average workplace we generally don’t dance, draw, or combine unusual things. We generally don’t hand off our naked new ideas to others for safekeeping, nor do we act as stewards for someone else’s thoughts. On the contrary: new ideas are more likely seen as destabilizing threats to our status quo that we mush squash or commandeer.

The world, however, is slowing realizing that workplaces which overly reinforce a status quo are at a disadvantage in a context of change, when learning, experimentation, and risk are all to be foregrounded. We’re realizing we need more ways of developing new insights, creative solutions, and unexpected combinations, as silly as they may at first seem; and we need to treat these insights and sometimes-crazy thoughts, these Slippery Eyeballs, as carefully as we might treat babies, because they might just grow into the bold strategic plans that reinvent our work and reshape our industry, etc.

Use Curly Cravings at work? That sounds crazy . . . until, that is, you imagine yourself replacing the random problems like “Keep People from Killing the Animals” with an equally difficult problem that’s relevant to your work, or until you imagine replacing the randomly-chosen nouns and adjectives with resource components you have in place at work or skills your staff happen to have, etc. Then you begin to see that the solutions people playing this game might develop could be the kind of thing that helps you rethink the way you do work. It might even be the kind of place you would think of adding the “repeat” to lather and rinse (to refer to a famous case of creative problem-solving in the shampoo industry).

So maybe we won’t see Curly Cravings itself, but I suspect we’ll see a proliferation of similar kinds of simple processes designed to help us conceive of and honor new ideas. And won’t they be fun to play? I hope they keep the dancing part.

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.

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.

Whither Higher Education? 16 Ideas.

1 May

Whither higher education in the global, digital, flat world of today and tomorrow? It’s the cocktail party conversation topic du jour. My pick of 16 thoughts on the subject:

  1. We’ll Pay to Be Members: Education will be seen as something you pay for regularly, before and after you draw on it, like life insurance or a membership to a benevolent society or tithes to a church; although there won’t be an “after”–in the future we’ll never stop learning;
  2. Disaggregated Learning Bits: The “feel” of participating in higher education will be disaggregated, with much more involvement of crowd-sourced-like components and entrepreneurial thinking (and perhaps funding), in which people in all walks of life will play equal parts (as in Jim Groom’s “proto-MOOC” which is both in and outside of a university);
  3. Control to the Students: Students will have a greater role in shaping and selecting the components of their education; course catalogs will take on the dynamic feel of stock markets or some other wide-scale selection and value-confirming interface; students will be allowed to drop and add components as they feel they should; students will write components that other students use; students may even sometimes teach teachers; and that’s OK because of number 4, below;
  4. More Sophisticated Learners: Students will be much more sophisticated about how learning works and more aware of their own learning (we’ll encourage this with “how to learn” structures of all kinds), so they’ll be much more thoughtful in the selection and creation of their educational components, more conscious of whether they’re learning or not, and much more demanding; they’ll move away quickly from things they don’t like; also they’ll be of every age and culture and life experience;
  5. End of Bankers Hours: Hours of synchronous instruction, where it remains, will spread across the clock and will include times 16 – 32 year olds are mentally active (midnight to 4 am) as well as times the rest of us are; the work day for staff and faculty will be replaced by widely distributed work-chunks popping up throughout the calendar and clock;
  6. Faculty and Staff Will Phone It In: Faculty and staff will increasingly work from home and spend minimal time on campus, and that’s good, because we’ll be able to draw on a greater variety of people, and have access to wider skills, and people will be able to live where they want (like among beautiful grasslands) and still work for schools elsewhere (like in the city); where I talk about the end of the four-year student residency below, I also mean the end of the life-long residency for many faculty and staff;
  7. Work and Learning will be Similar: It will be less easy to distinguish education from work and vice-versa (and that’s good, in that we’re retraining the entire workforce to be effective in the digital, flat, global age, even as we’re training students to be similarly effective); and there’s a lot both work and formal learning can learn from each other; and people will be shifting in between each mode constantly;
  8. On-sites are Brief and Intense: Residential experiences will only happen at key points–bookends, or for particular parts of a sequence, but won’t be constant throughout the learning cycle, which will let us move many more people through the campus, as through a hotel or a resort and give more access to a campus experience to more people; it’s the end of the four-year residency. But don’t worry: you can still get that community feeling from brief stints: remember summer camp?;
  9. It’s About the Culture: More emphasis will be placed on creating and assessing the “culture” that supports and surrounds learning (this will complement our focus heretofore–on learning as a thing that happens in the head of the student); this means more investment in (and assessment of) faculty and staff learning and more attention to community-enriching things like faculty-student interaction studies or assessments of workplace dynamics; we’ll consciously try to craft a “learning organization” (or Argyris “Model 2”) culture in our schools and workplaces;
  10. Roles Will Be Fluid: There will be less differentiation between what have been seen as fixed roles: most staff will have some greater hand in instruction; students will increasingly teach each other (through tutoring, etc); and faculty may even play student-like roles more happily; instruction will be seen as a collaborative partnership of multiple people;
  11. Massive Retraining Will be the Norm: We’ll be constantly ready to retrain all staff and faculty at a moment’s notice in the various new processes and forms dictated by shifting market conditions and incessant innovation;
  12. We’ll Cultivate Ideas: We’ll see our own internal creativity and ideas as perhaps the key component of long-term institutional success and we’ll build systems and cultures to support, generate, and encourage ideas, the testing of new models, entrepreneurial thinking, innovation laboratories, etc.;
  13. We’ll Share with Other Schools: We always said we would, but now we really will–collaborate with other schools. In shared infrastructure (LMS, Information Systems, shared skill positions, shared risky innovation environments) and in shared academics (you offer French and we’ll offer Greek), but we’ll try to keep a wrapper of core institutional identity around the things we offer and do;
  14. Feelings Will Guide Us: We’ll describe a certain kind of institutional “feeling” that should exist in the learning that happens under our auspices, and this will be the thing that we’ll use to vet new structures and courses, which are likely to be formally radical;
  15. We’ll Analyze Stuff: We’ll make much more use of Learning Analytics and Corpus Linguistics sorts of real-time analyses and dashboards to better understand (in meaningful ways) how our students learn and to adjust our pedagogy in response (and we’ll share these analyses with the students themselves);
  16. We’ll Archive Everything: We’ll invest significantly in the infrastructure that archives and retains (and makes analyzable) the intellectual record of the institution–and we’ll interpret this “record” broadly, to include conversations, written work, emails, course syllabi.