Archive for January 2007



Squashing the sounds of silence

jiminy_140x143Imagine, if you will, a community organizer taking the time and effort to identify important resources, create multiple opportunities for discussion, learn a new method for administering software, and opening up an online community with great fanfare…only to be met by the sound of virtual crickets chirping.

Not a great experience, especially for a new community manager. As disheartening as such an experience can be, it doesn’t have to be the death knell for a new community, proivded that the community manager is willing to learn from the experience, and adjust his behavior and expectations accordingly.

Here are eight actions community managers should consider to inject life into an online community:

  1. SimplifyPeople sometimes mistakenly think that a community with a lot of different discussions looks more interesting than a community with just two or three.

    Not true.

    When creating discussions, consider the rule of three – three discussion rooms, with three threads to start. Any more tends to dilute attention, and therefore participation.

  2. Don’t overassume the importance of resourcesOne of the goals of a community may be to create an information clearing house, which is fine, but remember that once people come to the community and get the information they need, they may not have a reason to return for a long time. Resources are important, but they do not drive discussion.
  3. Generate a little controversyCommunities, like families, are not intended to be completely harmonious entities. Nothing gets people to chime in to a discussion like putting forth an idea that people feel strongly about. Sure, it takes a little more skillful facilitation, but it’s worth it in the long run.
  4. Create an activity plan – and stick to it

    You wouldn’t create a physical community center with the idea that it would be a place for nothing more than pick-up games and impromptu meetings, so why would you create a virtual community center with that expectation? Creating a series of activities gives people a reason to come to the community center. Impromptu activities and coversations usually take place as a result of people interacting around official ones.
  5. Assume – or assign – an active role in facilitationCan you imagine a meeting or training session in which the facilitator walked in the room and announces that this is an opportunity for discussion on topic X, without taking an active role in facilitating the converstation? Yet time and again, this is what seems to happen in online communities.

    The medium does not change how people interact, and understanding that facilitating an online community is no different than facilitating a co-located community must drive the way that facilitators interact with community members.

  6. Put a little faith in the “cult of personality” (but only a little)Creating a “star attraction” is one way to get people into a community, but understand that it takes on-going commitment from that star personality if you are going to rely on her to get people to keep coming back. Also consider whether featuring a charismatic personality may work against participation…are people less likely to ask questions of someone who has a certain je ne sais quois?

    Lastly, consider the availability of your personality leader…if you want to create a forum for your CEO, creating a CEO blog is a great vehicle, but remember that your CEO may in fact not be the person who has the time to publish her thoughts on a regular basis.

  7. Don’t rely wholly on the community for interactionA popular concept in the 90’s was MBWA – management by walking around. The truth is, relationships may be formed, but are rarely cemented in online communities. Taking some time to welcome new members offline – by email, or better yet, by phone, can pay big dividends in creating buy in for the relational aspect of a community.
  8. Give it time

    Neither Rome nor any other community was built in a day. It takes time to generate momentum. Don’t be surprised if your first series of activities generates a little interest, but no more. Instead of adopting the attitude of having done all you can to start a community, think of your initial work as just that – a foundation for generating more interest and participation.

    Many community managers aspire to create communities that are self-maintaining, and it can be done, but to expect it can be done quickly is a recipe for failure.

Creating a bustling community (online or in person) is not an easy task. But with a little understanding and renewed commitment, drowning out the crickets with the sound of robust dialog CAN be done.

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High-Quality Rapid eLearning?

bigquestionThe Learning Circuits big question this month is “What are the trade-offs between quality learning programs and rapid e-learning and how do you decide?”

I guess the issue I have with the term “rapid e-learning” is that it’s sort of a misnomer.  There is little evidence that participants in programs regarded as “rapid e-learning” learn a set of material any faster than participants in more traditional programs. We don’t know if they learn it as well, or better in these programs, either. We just know that  it takes less time for us ID folks to develop the program, and that sometimes we can zip people through these programs more quickly.

Now, if you previously were taking 40 hours of learner time and say, 60 hours of trainer time to present information which can effectively be offered in 16 hours, and you’ve found a way to demonstrate that learner mastery is every bit as good, or better, than with your previous program, more power to you!  Similarly, if it used to take you months to develop a new program, and you can develop a similarly effective program in a coupla weeks now, that’s great too!

But let’s get real. A quality learning program is one which results in measurable changes in learner behavior which in turn produce measurable improvements in organizational profitability.

Being able to whip out an Articulate page-turner in a week is a significant improvement in instructional designer productivity over the laborious weeks previously required to work with web designers.  But if the hour spent by the learner looking at that lesson doesn’t change the learner’s behavior, it’s sort of wasted time all around.

We know that moving learners beyond awareness through skillfulness to proficiency demands more than the most elegant presentation of concepts can achieve. Learners need time and space to reflect on the material, to apply it in practice situations, and to get feedback on their first efforts in changing behavior.

That’s why at Q2, we subscribe to the blended learning model. Though content does matter, and it needs to be presented in a logical, relevant way, we see content as just the beginning.  The meat of a good course is in giving the learners chances to apply what they are learning, and give feedback on those efforts. Our platform permits the rapid development of a learning program incorporating content of any form which seems applicable (If you are offering more in the course than just a presentation of content, something as simple as a little .pdf file “cheat-sheet” on the new procedure can be enough to get people started!), synchronous or asynchronous discussions of that material, plus workspace for learners to post assignments for practice and receive feedback from coaches/instructors.

When you have the right people doing the coaching…the folks who know in their bones why the desired change is being forwarded, learners hear from the horse’s mouth what they need to do and why. When learners get the opportunity to talk about the impact of the change on their work with colleagues,  when they practice implementing the change, and they are coached effectively by colleagues on how to do it better, they develop a personal relationship with the material which is just not achievable by watching  the most advanced one-way broadcast or even participating in a machine simulation.

So yeah, round these parts, we do think it’s possible to achieve truly rapid e-learning. To us, it’s an issue of placing the emphasis on a different syllable. By shifting some of the current laser focus on content development to the development of exercises which give learners the chance to practice new skills under the supervision of people who know their stuff,  We’ve seen that it’s possible to raise quality of the learning experience, beyond awareness building and on to the promised land of proficiency. And we know, from experience, that developing such programs can be accomplished with impressive rapidity.

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Capturing Dialogue?

neutron_capture_smallOne of the key values we see in collaboration software is its ability to capture dialogue.

Which sort of begs the question, why do we need to capture dialogue? Isn’t it enough that we’re having it?

In a small organization, it may seem as if the need to capture dialogue is non-existent. My husband operates a solo medical practice, where he depends on a staff of three.  There aren’t staff meetings because it’s generally possible in such a small group to coordinate a response to emerging issues as they come up.  The only memos which circulate are those for which having things in writing satisfies legal requirements… the annual renewal on the SIMPLE plan deduction, for example.  The idea that people in this very busy place, where they’ve long ago worked out how to hold effective communication with all stakeholders, face-to-face in real time, would find value in typing their conversations into a discussion board is pretty laughable.

And yet… there are deep dialogues which take place in that office. They are generally with patients.  And only the physician’s impression of what transpired is documented in the chart.   If there is a misunderstanding, (and studies suggest that when the news is upsetting, people process only a fraction of the information which is being provided to them!)  neither party may be aware of it until the patient returns for another visit, or calls with a question.

I often feel we’re at an advantage on this count where I work. We have a *lot* of conversations with a lot of different clients, and we try to have as many of them as possible in our discussion rooms.  Beyond the obvious benefit of being able to read back to see what we said and remind ourselves of what we’re in the middle of in each of multiple projects we’re involved in, we have the terrific bonus of many eyes on the ball. A team member may chime in with a question which reveals that there’s been an assumption, or perhaps even a set of conflicting assumptions, underlying the conversation to date. Finding out early that reconciling those assumptions will be necessary to going forward markedly improves the prospects for success of the project!

There’s something about having the contributions to a dialogue laid out chronologically which makes it easier to see those hidden assumptions, and easier to address them, as well.  It’s not “interrupting” to post a question, the way it might be if one happened to overhear two team members talking in the hallway.

Teams which make a policy of posting the results of telephone conversations in a place where all affected team members can see them not only keep the team informed, they also help mitigate the risk that a misunderstanding of what has been agreed to throws the team off.  The question “When he said a, was he talking about x, or y?” can be a critical contribution, especially if the original conversant hadn’t even considered that y might have been on the other person’s mind.

I doubt any of us would want to have to document each and every conversation we have. But when it comes to the ones which move projects forward, dialogue “in captivity” can be a lot more functional than its wild cousin.

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A Dialog Manifesto

manifestoAn outline, in draft form, a series of beliefs I have about the importance of dialog, some of its key characteristics, and their implications for collaborative technologies.

  1. Lack of understanding is often the result of differing assumptions, beliefs, and values.
  2. Our assumptions, beliefs, and values come from our personal experiences and history.
  3. Sometimes people are aware of their assumptions, beliefs, and values. Sometimes they aren’t.
  4. Sometimes they are willing to explore them. Sometimes they aren’t.
  5. People often hold onto them at an emotional level, because they get something out of it.
  6. Thus, the roots of lack of understanding are often at the emotional as well as cognitive level.
  7. Dialog, when done well, allows people to identify differences in assumptions, beliefs, and values.
  8. Deep dialog allows people to explore the sources of those assumptions, beliefs, and values.
  9. When people explore these together, they often understand the source of their differences
  10. They also often find common ground
  11. This common ground is often the source of a reconciling principle that can lead to agreement.
  12. Understanding is thus often best achieved through deep dialog
  13. Deep dialog can be rewarding.
  14. It can also be scary and painful.
  15. Deep dialog requires self disclosure, commitment, and trust. It requires vulnerability.
  16. In the give and take of dialog, trust can be built through increasing levels of mutual self disclosure.
  17. This type of dialog requires that each person speak his or her own truth.
  18. It requires that each person listen to, acknowledge and respect the truth spoken by the other.
  19. Deep dialog can happen in a dyad, a small group, or a community characterized by strong ties.
  20. Within a community, it is important to have participants who stand in relationship, one to another.
  21. It is important that the community evolve norms that facilitate self disclosure, respect, and acknowledgement.
  22. Otherwise dialog becomes debate, and self disclosure becomes a competition to prove one’s point.
  23. Vulnerability is extremely difficult in crowds, or social networks characterized by weak links rather than strong ties.
  24. Deep dialog is easier face to face, where cues are rich and feedback is immediate.
  25. It is also possible when communication is mediated by technology.
  26. Deep dialog within a technology mediated group has the same requirements of dyadic, face-to-face dialog.
  27. It still requires that people stand in relationship one to another, and norms of respect and acknowledgement.
  28. Collaboration technology will not make deep dialog happen, but the wrong technologies can inhibit it.
  29. Technologies that support deep dialog provide containers for a group or community to converse with each other.
  30. They ensure that conversations are contained within, and accessible to, the group.
  31. They enable sustained back-and-forth exchanges.
  32. They enable the group to create the conditions within which self disclosure and exploration can take place.

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