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May 22 13

Moving From Support to Development

by fsheahan

During the years I’ve worked in L&D roles, there’s been one part of the job that always puzzled me: support. I don’t mean Performance Support here, I mean honest-to-goodness support, where an employee is tasked with responding to a phone call, IM, or a tap on the shoulder to answer a question on their area of expertise at a moments notice. Take a look at Learning and Development jobs on any posting board, and you’ll find “must provide support to x, y, and z teams as part of your responsibilities” on a significant majority. I’ve seen job postings for L&D positions that list “support” as anywhere between ten to fifty percent of a job role. It’s especially prevalent in L&D roles where technology skills, software and systems are involved. We need to change this.

I’ll cut to the chase and say it plainly: helpdesk-style support as a core element of an L&D role is dumb. It’s not a smart allocation of resources and it doesn’t even solve the right problem. Why? Because it’s at odds with the critical measures of success for an effective L&D department. A successful L&D team doesn’t measure it’s success against a “number of users served”. It drives for deeper Return-On-Expectations outcomes. When support doesn’t connect strongly to a greater goal, like increased job performance, scaffolded learning or employee development, it doesn’t align well with ROE outcomes. We lead employee development teams, not maintenance teams. An L&D team isn’t carrying out it’s mission if it’s solely focused on keeping the lights on.

Support also establishes the wrong kind of interactions between your development team and learners. It’s the difference between giving a fish to those in need, versus teaching them how to fish. It provides a low-level learning scaffold that is typically never removed and rarely ever leads to greater heights of understanding. It reinforces the audience’s perception that they do not have a valued need to complete or learn a task themselves. Quite literally, a support-based task is one that’s beneath the valuation of your audience’s time and effort. This undermines the L&D department’s value-perception by senior leadership, and your own team’s ability to create a self-development culture within the organization.

Why are so many Learning & Development roles set up this way? I see it as an anachronism. It’s a carry-over business strategy from simpler work environments, where organizational change is infrequent, skill development needs are static, and employee time-to-competency learning curves are shorter. Under these conditions, most business strategies dictate that standardization and information-control practices lead to more efficient economies of scale than developing deeper, individual expertise. However, increasing conditions of workplace complexity, driven by the many facets of rapid technological advancement, have rendered these surface-level knowledge transfer approaches increasingly ineffective and outdated.

Yet, knowledge experts are still frequently tasked with automaton-like Question & Answer responsibilities in their given area of expertise. This expectation is often applied indiscriminately; the expert may field hundreds or thousands of low-difficultly questions in any given year, in addition to fielding skill-appropriate, high-complexity questions. This creates a highly inefficient resource mismatch; the expert is creating far less value than their skill levels could be generating. In a sense, this expert is serving as a Performance Support resource; they are routing commonly requested knowledge to employees at a point of performance need.

To be fair, this has utility, but a better solution is to refocus the limited resources our of knowledge experts. A knowledge expert shouldn’t have to answer any and all support questions on their topic, just because they know their topic well. Ideally, they would be allowed to restrict the vast majority of their assistance to high-complexity or long-tail knowledge questions, and increase their time on high-value production work. We shouldn’t be allocating our A-players to lower-difficulty questions that could either be automated or answered by employees who are newer to the area of expertise. Equally as important, we’re also denying valuable development opportunities to employees who would love to increase their expertise in an area. It’s amazing how quickly learning happens when an employee teaches another peer and troubleshoots questions.

The challenge for organizations is that many of these existing support processes have considerable inertia built around them. It may not be possible to make a clean stop of one practice and start another, for political or practical reasons. The trick is to maintain the motion of existing support processes, while slowly replacing the core elements with new ways of working. As long as these new ways of working provide greater, plainly-visible value to your support consumers and providers, a cultural and developmental shift can occur.

So, how do we change this?

I believe that the answer lies in social. More specifically, the L&D team’s active participation within your organization’s social intranet (e.g., Yammer, SocialCast, NewsGator, etc). Moving away from support won’t happen overnight. In fact, as companies continue to face changing needs, continuous support will remain a reality. However, it’s critical that we address these support issues intelligently. We need to solve just-in-time needs in a way that can also generate employee development opportunities. We must create new scaffolds for understanding, not simply increase the number of patches slapped on emerging and existing knowledge gaps.

A company’s social intranet is a natural starting point for gradually evolving support into a self-development model. L&D teams can provide critical leadership for this transition, by leveraging elements of knowledge management, performance support, and community management.

The general idea is pretty simple:

  1. Start small; chose a specific topic (ideally, a single software program or system) which generates large numbers of support requests.
  2. Partner with the knowledge expert on the topic. For a pilot, it may be easiest to to pick a topic where you or a member of your team is the knowledge expert who provides support.
  3. Identify the most common questions asked by 80% of your support consumers. List these in a Q&A document, and provide a link to content artifacts that answer each question.
  4. Create brief, to-the-point, content artifacts for commonly-asked questions that don’t yet have answers. If it takes over two minutes for someone to read or watch the answer, it’s probably too long. If the topic that you’re covering is a software application or system, consider making short video screen captures demonstrating the answer.
  5. Create a taxonomy of tags for your topic. Use these tags within your social intranet. They’ll have the dual purpose of increasing searchability and enabling simple data collection.
  6. Drive questions to your company’s social intranet, in order to increase the reach and visibility of answers. Answer questions using links to content artifacts, whenever applicable. Seed the social space with valuable answers, don’t simply wait for users to come to you.
  7. Log any support exceptions to this workflow. Exception data raises visibility to any gaps in your topic’s growing knowledge base of content artifacts. It also raises visibility to whether support requesters may need other developmental assistance to solve performance gaps (e.g., project planning help, etc.)
  8. Repeat the content creation & sharing cycle. Participating knowledge experts will recoup large amounts time by moving away from a one-on-one support model towards a one-to-many, reusable support approach. Eventually, enough Q&A content is created to enable other, lower-skilled topic practitioners to resolve to the majority of support requests on the topic. Once enterprise collaborative behaviors and incentives have been better established, self-development and peer-driven cooperation can take over to a larger extent.

I’m skipping over several important considerations for workflow implementation and sustainability here, but these are the core steps. I’ve run a successful pilot of this framework, focused on Q&A for Adobe Captivate. The pilot is being extended to include several other technical topics this summer, but there’s no reason why it can’t include even broader topics, like questions about certain company benefits, information protection and brand standards.

How is this approach any different from any other user-generated content solution? In an ideal collaborative environment, it’s not. However, very few of our workplaces are at that ideal point yet. In the meantime, we need to work within the requirements of our unique processes, cultures, and politics. This framework isn’t just a tool-based solution for scalable delivery of content; it also focuses on content quality, alignment with support consumer and provider needs, and workflow tenability within the company environment. These are some of the harder issues that an enterprise inevitably runs into, once the shine is off a new social tool.

There are good reasons why going after support, in an enterprise Q&A way, is a great place to drive participation behaviors. Similarly, using expert-created content artifacts and human-assisted search to match questions and answers makes a lot of sense under certain enterprise conditions.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

How do you keep people fed while establishing a culture of fishing? At the end of the day, this pilot framework tests tactical solutions to that problem. The overall goal is much larger than that; establishing an enterprise culture of asking questions, self-driven problem solving, and cooperative knowledge sharing.

Mar 26 13

Learning & Innovation Misalignment: Identifying the Problem

by fsheahan

Escher CubeThere’s a misalignment in many Learning & Development departments today. Senior leaders are coming to departments, requesting outcomes like “adaptability, increased collaboration, and innovation.” Solutions for these new outcomes aren’t found within the toolbox of a typical enterprise L&D department. It may have things like “Change Management” classroom training, but traditional instructor-led and elearning approaches aren’t bringing the enterprise closer to “adaptability and innovation” outcomes quickly enough, if at all. The average department, and enterprise itself, is struggling to align with these new goals.

Why? Plenty of brilliant practitioners, including Clay Christensen, John Hagel, Jon Husband, Harold Jarche, Tim Kastelle, Andrew McAffee, Ralph Ohr, and Dave Snowden, and many more, have written about this topic. I highly recommend reading their work. Here’s my attempt at a rough synthesis, with a few of my own thoughts mixed in.

Our modern, enterprise work is experiencing a profound shift. It’s becoming less automated, repetitive, and simple; we’re moving from a Capital-based economy to a Knowledge-based economy. In a Knowledge-based economy, our ability to use knowledge to create or improve goods and services (intangibles) drives greater wealth and market share than the production of capital resources (tangibles). One only has to look at company stock prices over the last 10 years to confirm this trend. Production jobs are being replaced by lower-wage globalized workforces and machines. Many tangible products are experiencing decreasing, razor-thin margins. In this new Knowledge-based economy, the critical driver for success is knowledge work: ”non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking (Reinhardt et al., 2011).

As we enter the Network Age, the demand for knowledge work is growing faster, and has greater impact, than ever before. It’s being driven by data, information diffusion, and technology. The rapid evolution of network connectivity and technology has also increased the complexity, scope and speed of business. Knowledge work is the key to creating a virtuous circle under these conditions. An enterprise that nurtures knowledge work can support a creative, highly-adaptable, and skilled workforce that thrives under conditions of continuous change.

Unfortunately, supporting knowledge work requires significant enterprise change for many organizations. The vast majority of traditional business models within an organization aren’t structured to support non-routine, creative problem solving. In fact, many prevalent business models are designed to intentionally prevent emergent, evolutionary thinking from occurring in the workplace, and instead maintain strict controls over divergent, organic growth. These models are carry-overs from the successful business strategies of the Information Age.

During the Information Age, enterprise knowledge work was frequently precluded by highly ordered, process-centric business activities. This makes sense, as drives towards simplicity and codified “best practice” methodologies are very valuable within repetitive, slow-to-change production environments.

However, in rapidly changing market environments where adaptation and innovation is prized, highly operationalized models can be catastrophically counter-productive. Reductionist thinking, assembly-line methods and simplified “best practices” frequently miss the bigger picture in times of rapid change. When applied indiscriminately, they can lead to dangerous conditions where the organization becomes unceremoniously outdated, or is leap-frogged by market competition.

Information Age business strategies that unilaterally build for consistency, far slower development cycles, and “good enough” standards for low skill-depth workers don’t align with the Network Age’s demands for adaptability, agility, and creativity. A prolonged misalignment is likely to feed into a vicious circle of organizational irrelevance.

So, what does this have to do with Learning & Innovation? Here’s the answer, in case you haven’t guessed it yet: a huge number of enterprises are still trying to fit outcomes like adaptability, creativity, and innovation through a simplicity-driven meat grinder. What comes out the other side, is the hot dog of over-operationalized, universal application, rather than the prime rib, t-bone, and filet mignon of diverse Knowledge Work outcomes.

We can do better than this. Encouragingly, there are fantastic business models that address these very issues. In my next post, I’ll tackle one of the best models I’ve found so far: the Cynefin Framework, by Dave Snowden. I think that this framework can help guide enterprise alignment away from over-used, reductionist models, towards more mature approaches that align desired outcomes with organizational strategy.

These are the common challenges that we’re facing in Learning departements, IT, K-12 education, Marketing, and many, many other areas. These aren’t problems that are primarily driven by use of the wrong tools or leadership communication; these are systemic, strategic alignment issues. We must learn to free our organizations from the tyranny of past success. The faster we adopt a strategy that’s truly aligned with our modern market environments, the quicker we’ll realize a virtuous cycle and avoid a vicious cycle.

Mar 14 13

“Wait, Can We Do That?” Innovation In Your Org

by fsheahan

I’ve had a lot of fantastic conversations about innovation at Learning Solutions 2013. Learning & Development and innovation fields have tremendous overlaps, when you consider that adaptability and agility are key to both. A lot of these conversations have wrestled with the question of introducing and successfully implementing new ideas. How can we best support them? What pathways should we set up to encourage great ideas throughout the company?

So, I’m taking off my L&D hat, and looking at this thorny problem from an innovation lens. Here are a few thoughts on how I view the effective growth of ideas at within an organization.

First, I don’t think that all ideas are at issue here. It’s the ideas that will cross existing processes, turf, valuation methods, or decision-making hierarchies that need a better way to grow. It’s very difficult to nurture these kind of ideas in any large organization, so there’s no shame in calling it like it is. However, it’s critical to an organization’s future to establish support pathways for the hard ideas, not just the one’s that’ll gain easy acceptance. Let’s be honest; these are the ideas that are most likely to solve the critical problems or lead to high-value, disruptive innovations.

A couple of thoughts:

1) Research shows that people tend to be more dismissive of ideas that come from individuals outside of their own group; it’s called the “intergroup sensitivity effect” (Hornsey, 2004). This effect can be an innovation-killer in organizations.
Incentives, hierarchical decision-making, and accepted/protected time can also play large roles in determining whether or not “non-traditional” ideas get a foothold.

2) The good news is that there are ways get around these problems. Innovation in large organizations typically follows three pathways:

* Sandbox/Sandpit model: “Create a safe space to increase the resilience of a maverick idea, within specific constraints.” (Dave Snowden, Complexity sub-domain framework). This assumes that someone with authority has some interest and respect for the idea. Examples of this might include innovation branch-teams or offsite offices, but this can also be done at a smaller, local scale.

* Sponsors and Coaching model: a politically savvy, influential org champion acts as a coach to the supporters of an idea. Getting acceptance involves compromise and possibly making changes to better fit dominant ideas or existing corporate goals.

* Wisdom of Crowds (e.g. KickStarter): This is an abductive approach where the broad experiences and knowledge of many people is taken into account to create objectivity for the value of an idea. This can work really well with certain kinds of ideas, but might not work well for highly-disruptive ideas, or ideas that have high-value for a small in-group.

As organizations dive more into enterprise innovation, it’s important to recognize that different kinds of ideas are going to require multiple “flavors” of support pathways. I’m excited to see this happening. I know there are tons of team members bursting at the seams to share, nurture, and develop difficult ideas, just for the sake of seeing an idea grow into something valuable. We owe it to them to do whatever we can to make this a simpler reality.

What do you think? Do you already have a good handle on surfacing, noticing, and developing new ideas at your organization?

Mar 16 11

These go to Eleven – Thoughts on “Top 10 eLearning Mistakes”

by fsheahan
"These go to eleven"

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kainet/

I read a fantastic, thought-provoking article the other day, titled “Top Ten eLearning Mistakes”. I’ve edited it down below to convey meaning (list-item slugs alone do a major disservice to the topic), while encouraging you to read the full description of each item in the original blog article by @shackletonjones.

1.     Overlooking the implementation: (..)It is perfectly possible to create a mediocre course and achieve 100% completion, or a fantastic course and achieve 5% completion rates. It’s all in the implementation.

2.     Building courses: it’s usually an illusion to think that providing information or changing attitudes will result in behavioural changes. Generally the only thing that changes behaviour is changing behaviour. As a result we often find ourselves trying to mitigate a problem instead of tackling the process that gives rise to it, and for that reason it would be better if we were more squarely engaged in performance consulting than learning consultancy.(..)

3.     Dumping information: there’s this curious script for what happens with learning: someone important says ‘people need to know this stuff – go talk to Bob’, Bob pushes a document across the table, we employ the dark arts of Instructional Design in producing something whose effectiveness is never measured. My response to this tendency has been ‘Story-Scenario-Simulation’: our job is not merely to summarise information, but to construct experiences which make it clear why anyone should care enough to invest their precious time in learning.(..)

4.     Ignoring the audience: (..)overlook the central importance of our ultimate customers in the equation, and instead produce something that merely satisfies the expectations of our proximal stakeholders. Often this ends up being ‘on message’ but ineffective(..)

5.     Not making use of informal learning: so by now we all realise that around 80% of the learning is happening around us, in the informal/natural learning space. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean there is no role for formal learning (Andrew Joly points out this may make the formal stuff even more important), it is possible to build learning programmes that blend formal and informal elements to greater effect(..)

6.     Failure to challenge: (..)Find out how people fail (i.e. the reason why people are doing the training), build these into a scenario/simulation (..)learners want us to provide them with situations in which it is safe to fail, whether these be role-plays or online scenarios.(..)it is the challenge element that is the distinction between ‘just-in-case’ and ‘just-in-time’ learning – we don’t always have to engineer a challenge ourselves, ideally learning is supplied to enable people to tackle a real and pressing challenge that is not one we’ve cooked up ourselves.

7.     Not considering the emotional landscape: (..)In my experience 90% of courses open with something moderately entertaining (e.g. a video) then flatline for the remaining 30 minutes. There are any number of ways of avoiding this so I won’t spell them out here – but rather just say: if you had to draw a line representing the emotional landscape of your course, what would this look like? Why does this matter? (..)broadly speaking it matters because learning is almost entirely governed by subtle emotional cues. No cues, no learning.(..)

8.     Outsourcing it: bit of a contentious one, this. I do believe that a well-formed online strategy is a three-tiered triangle. At the top are online resources best built by highly capable elearning suppliers. At the bottom are resources generated by learning staff and employees and shared between peers. But the middle tier should be a healthy chunk of learning content created by the organisation itself, using rapid development tools and techniques.(..)

9.     Shoddy visual design: (..)if you underestimate the impact of good typography, layout and design in your screens then you do so at your peril.(..)

10.  Poor content management techniques: (..)Put simply ‘Don’t build some inscrutable tangle of flash files that we have no way of editing when the text changes or updating when our branding moves on’. There’s also a point around accessibility here, where good content-management (such as the use of XML for content) can really make a difference to users of assistive technology.

I can think of another elearning mistake, one that I believe any professional must overcome in order to take organizational learning to Eleven.

11. Failing to embrace active communication, collaboration, and leadership roles within the organization

Learning and Development professionals must embody the action/energy/chutzpah required to resolve these mistakes within an enterprise context. Many of these Top Ten e-learning items require shifts in org culture, strategic implementation, or significant stakeholder buy-in. These conditions are unlikely to develop unless L&D workers establish leadership roles, ranging from one’s own behavioral modeling of content & technology development, to broad collaborations and investments in visible communication & outreach.

So, take a risk, and put yourself into new communication, learning, and technology situations outside of your cubicle. The benefits to yourself and your organization are extraordinary.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Dec 7 10

How Ideas Take Flight

by fsheahan

I love this video lecture from Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Corner. Within it, Jennifer Aaker (Twitter: @aaker) explores the importance of happiness, meaning, and story in successful and powerful social media campaigns. I highly recommend spending an hour of your time on this topic; it’s immensely applicable to any business, education, and nonprofit organization with a need to leverage activism and outreach in a networked world.

Also, please take a minute out of your day to join the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. If you can’t spare an hour for this video, please skip directly to 23:50, and become moved to meaningful action by an amazing story.

One small, meaningful act taken, when connected to others, can drive massive change.

Nov 19 10

RSA Animate: 21st Century Enlightenment

by fsheahan

I highly recommend this fantastic talk by Matthew Taylor, paired with compelling animation from the RSA.

21st century enlightenment should champion a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy, one that recognizes our frailties and limitations. This does not mean repudiating the rights of the individual, nor does it underestimate our unique ability to shape our own destinies. Indeed it is only by understanding that conscious thought is only part of what drives our behavior, that we become better able to exercise control and distinguish our needs from our appetites, and our amazing human potential from the hubris of individualism.

Nov 17 10

Your virtual self is making you more honest

by fsheahan

Why I love online social interactions

Technology-enabled social interactions and digital culture are fascinating. Seriously, they’re mind-boggling. There are so many phenomenal, exciting aspects. However, I love one key facet above all others. I think that online social interactions and emerging digital culture will drive a resurgence in the valuation of authenticity and honesty.

Swearing In Ceremony

Image by Grand Canyon NPS: http://www.flickr.com/photos/grand_canyon_nps/5021872334/

Remember when people used to be defined by “their word”? When character and honesty were perceived as far more critical virtues within society? I think that our online lives are beginning to reestablish this idea. The accountability and authenticity that were so prized when people lived in small, tightly-knit communities is being reestablished through our growing familiarity with, and use of, online social interactions.

Human beings are hard-wired for social interaction

As human beings, we seek out social tribes to explore and validate aspects of our identity. We frequently use social structure as a defining characteristic of self. For example, one may feel wealthy, popular, intelligent, respected, or loved, to different degrees, based on the comparisons one makes of himself to others. We feel an intrinsic need to maintain our social reputation and standing within the groups that are important to us. The gain or loss of status within the tribes that we belong to, or aspire to belong to, can represent very real opportunities or threats to our being.

An extensive literature in behavioral economics, psychology, and sociology, forms the basis of these generalities. Throughout this post, I’ll likely do disservice to a large number of important fields by grossly synthesizing complex ideas (my apologies, cognitive bias, group dynamics, social facilitation, and many other concepts). Bear with me as I work through these ideas within a distilled form, and please jump in with your own comments, experiences, and thoughts. If you’re reading this post, you are a respected, valued member of my own social community, and I’d love to hear your perspective.

Our ability to trust and judge trustworthiness in others, while maximizing individual physical and psychological benefits, has been a strong evolutionary trait for millennia. However, numerous experiments in psychology and sociology have shown that human beings have a tendency to cheat in our social contract with others, when we feel like we won’t incur any personal cost (i.e., we can get away with it). A perception of anonymity, whether due to a masked identity or the viewing of oneself as a faceless member within a larger crowd, can make people feel as if the negative personal consequences of violating social norms can be avoided. The lack of an established, personally meaningful, and recognized social framework for behavior can drive greater anti-social behaviors and exploitation strategies which discount harm to others. Closely-knit social environments and strongly established norms for interaction can prevent these anonymous, opportunistic behaviors, as the costs to violating social norms become dramatically elevated.

The cost of losing status in a “small town” is particularly high

A “small town” is a common example of an environment where societal values for authenticity, honesty, and reputation are very high. We are all familiar with the social dynamics of a small town:

  • the community knows a lot about each other’s activities and behavior
  • the community remembers
  • everyone is connected to each other
Town Sign

Image by 7 Bits Of Truth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7bitsoftruth/4708856/

In general, the need for community interdependence within this enclosed social system is a non-negotiable factor for quality of life. An implicit contract is established within these environments: if one violates the community’s trust, by disrupting their expectation of dependability and mutual protection, one may rapidly become a social pariah or end up in the proverbial stocks. These norms and a strong surrounding culture of accountability and recognition, generally describe the pressures behind social adherence. However, keep in mind that social adherence is an entirely neutral concept: whether it’s used for good or bad outcomes is dependent on far more complex factors.

Our online social interactions are increasingly occurring within a “small town” of digital space

These general observations of social behavior hold up pretty well for most of us. However, pervasive digital culture, created by online social interactions, is driving a new societal norm. Our society now expects that the virtual profile created by your online data is an accurate reflection of your real-life self. Even more so, having an online presence is rapidly becoming a requirement for any individual or organization that wishes to stay socially relevant to their personal and professional tribes.

We already exist within a digital world where the lines between in-person and online social interactions have blurred. The distinction is becoming more abstract each year. Consider that we are constantly providing more and more online clues and personal identifiers throughout our entire lives. All of these markers will allow an online version of us to be found by any interested party. As social beings, these digital windows to our lives present very high stakes. Our virtual representation may affect how much we’re liked by a potential new employer, a potential new friend, or a potential new soul mate. (Full disclosure: I met my amazing wife on an online dating site; we both thoroughly vetted each other with online searches before our first date.)

However, I also want to heavily stress that becoming more and more recognizable online is in no way an inherently negative process. Much like increased personal visibility within a small town, it’s inherently neutral. Its value or cost lies in how well one’s social visibility matches one’s own personal and professional goals. It’s a reflection of life, albeit through the unfamiliar and magnifying lenses of digital permanence, distributed networks, and information aggregation and filtering:

  • digital permanence = the community remembers
  • distributed networks = everyone is connected to each other
  • information aggregation and filtering = the community knows a lot about each other’s activities and behavior

This is why we should all care about our own translations of real-life self into a digital space. Have a poorly defined sense of self, or don’t believe that it’s worth the time to consider what you’re about? Well, I suppose that’s not a problem, so long as you don’t mind other people, Google, or a future platform du jour coming up with a definition for you. You can’t easily hide or opt-out of this process, because your own trail of information, your inclusion within other people’s streams of information, and companies that deal in information aggregation services, will find something to say about you. In other words, if one wants to remain a digital hermit, one will need to become a hermit in real life.

This new social reality has already arrived

Teens and young adults understand that online spaces are an extension of real social interactions and self representations. This is why social networks are used by almost three quarters of younger generations. I strongly believe that it’s misguided to say that social usage rates are driven by oft-cited, massively co-opted, and increasingly creepy treehouse concepts, like “digital natives.” Younger generations’ adoption of social platforms are driven by needs. They don’t necessarily understand the technologies at all. They do understand their pressing social need for online use (this is why media literacy is critical within education).

These generations are in the thick of the most socially valanced period of their lives. A young adult’s use of online social platforms is driven by an intense need for peer acceptance and recognition. Digital spaces are one more environment where they can find identity within a social structure, explore new representations of self, and navigate white-capped social waters with peers. Remember those intense feelings of social pressure as a teen and young adult? Teens and young adults are trying to manage their appearance to peers, irrespective of whether these interactions occur within in-person or online environments. Their social perception of self means far more at this point in their lives than at any other age. The social platforms that they’re using are merely expanded conduits for these interactions, or new battlefields, depending on your own perspective from having been that age.

Keep in mind that younger generations are recognizing online social interactions and virtual representations of self as a continuation of real-life, within an extremely formative developmental period. Expect their acceptance of these norms to be with them for life. When they grow older, these norms will travel with them as consumers, as employees, and as future leaders. This is incredibly important. I can’t express how much this energizes our current need to create opportunities for good. We have an opportunity to establish the future communities that we aspire to cultivate as a society, online or otherwise. We need to model online behaviors through our own active participation, and through the development of spaces that represent meaningful, real, strategic values, rather than cheap, disenchanting, and self-idolizing tactics.

These new online social realities are not limited to younger generations

Skype'ing the grandparents

Image by Ollie Crafoord: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lollaping/4113878830/

Are you still deriving a social media strategy (or non-strategy) from a “digital native” argument? Then please consider that social networking adoption by adults aged 50 and older has almost doubled in the last year. While the learning curves for digital platforms are without a doubt real, access to them is increasing all the time. As digital access continues to increase through affordability, availability, and better user design, the true driving factors behind age-related adoption numbers will become clear. It’s a reflection of the importance that we, as individuals of different ages, place on establishing our lives within a social context. As we grow older, we experience a reemerging need to perceive ourselves and the meaning of our lives within a broader social framework (e.g. we become grandparents, or we reenter the dating world). Additionally, as younger generations advance into the workplace and into community leadership roles, expect a dramatic increase in social interactions and online profiles for individuals of all ages.

A return to authenticity and honesty

Nowadays, the digital culture surrounding your online social life is like a small town. There are lots of easy opportunities to get to know one another, everyone knows what you’re up to, and most importantly, it’s easier for weak ties to develop into strong, meaningful relationships. The growing transparency of online social interactions, paired with the increasing adoption of these platforms by comprehensive, rather than fringe, social communities, is driving a stronger culture of accountability and recognition. As more individuals are choosing to use digital spaces for meaningful personal and professional social interactions, the intrinsic value that we place on these digital communities is becoming more and more like our valuation of real-life communities. Similarly, a violation of trust within a digital community will disrupt the quality of life of its members, as if their expectation of interdependency, self-identity, and social standing within a real life community structure had been betrayed.

This new definition will continue to create waves of dissonance, while our existing cultures strive to better understand and ultimately accept this new social-world-that-is. Make no mistake, these new digital platforms are not simply reflecting real life; they are ever increasingly driving the social interactions that define our real lives.

So, what’s the best advice for someone venturing into this unfamiliar and somewhat scary new social environment? It’s the same advice that we all wish we had received and taken to heart, when we entered the exciting and intimidating new social environment of high school:

Be honest. Be respectful. Be yourself.

Nov 6 10

Emerging professions require a break from tradition

by fsheahan
95 Theses

Images: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keren/2989215726 & http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickgray/4455685221/

Social Media Strategist. Online Engagement Specialist. Online Content Specialist. Knowledge Management Consultant. Online Learning Specialist. Interactivity Designer. Learning & Development Designer.

That’s just a small sampling of job titles within the broadly-defined fields of online communication, engagement, and learning. You can find scores of variations from these titles at any given learning conference, on any LinkedIn group, or Twitter professional list. There are almost as many different placements within departments. I’ve met professionals within these online fields who are embedded into IT departments, distance education departments, training departments, sales & marketing, HR, and ever-increasingly, knowledge-sharing and social learning initiatives.

Two things are immediately clear:

  1. These are complex, rapidly developing fields.
  2. There is a lot of confusion about how these roles fit within a traditional organizational structure.

What’s in a title, anyway, and why does it matter? Aside from designating a minimum set of skills, I’d argue that a title affects how one’s role is perceived within a traditional organization. If a title is poorly defined within your field, there’s a good chance that a traditional organization will misunderstand your role, negatively affecting both your career prospects and your ability to influence institutional stakeholders and systems.

However, the key words here are traditional organization. Online communication, engagement, and learning fields are evolving professions, and they require room to grow.

Traditional organizations have the potential to adapt and innovate under the right conditions, but the hierarchy that defines their workforce is often a tough place for a start-up profession to take root. This is one of the reasons that companies positioned in emerging or rapidly shifting industries often adopt horizontal structures and less rigid organizational cultures, where each employee is empowered to learn and grow as customer needs require.

Take a long look at your institution: Does it have the potential, flexibility and desire to nurture and sustain your profession’s growth? Is it positioned to react strategically to new consumer and organizational needs? Or is it mired in the inertia of tradition and the comfort of established processes? An institution’s capacity to respond to shifting needs is a telling bellwether for your career as an evolving professional in an emerging field.

It could be that you can leverage significant opportunities within your current organization, or, you may have a better ability to stay at the forefront of your growing field elsewhere. Wherever you land, be prepared to work with the tenacity of a start-up entrepreneur. That’s exactly what’s needed if you want to excel within an evolving job, regardless of title.


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Oct 31 10

Changing Education Paradigms

by fsheahan

I highly recommend this animation of a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert. Spend 11 minutes this week watching this video; it’s a wonderfully articulate and reflective view in support of aesthetic learning and divergent thinking.

Oct 29 10

“So, what do you do?”: The Mystery of the Online Learning Specialist

by fsheahan
Shadowy person

Image by Aditya Grandhi; http://www.flickr.com/photos/grandhi/3590403975/

I recently read an interesting Letter from the Editor in the November 2010 issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine, titled “Content Du Jour.” In the article, editor Joel Hoekstra describes perceptions of his job:

Every once in a while, someone asks me what an editor really does. Unlike the term construction worker or flight attendant or assassin, the word editor conjures up a murky image at best among most members of the American public—a slovenly dressed bloke in a green eyeshade, or a schoolmarmish spinster gleefully capitalizing the words of an e.e. cummings poem.

I often make comparisons to other professions when describing my job. Sometimes I say that an editor is like an air-traffic controller, making sure pieces “land” on deadline and then “depart” in the form of a magazine. Sometimes I liken editing to conducting an orchestra—the maestro is essential to the music-making yet completely reliant on the artists that surround him to strike the right pitch. But usually I compare editing to being a chef at a busy restaurant: You draw up a menu; you buy the ingredients; you plate, season, and garnish; and you deliver the dishes. Your aim? To delight, satisfy, and surprise your patrons.

I love this description. Joel’s article resonates strongly, for two reasons. First, when describing my own work as an online learning specialist, I frequently have to make comparisons to other professions. Second, after reading Joel’s description, I co-opted “editor” as my new favorite comparison to an online learning specialist.

Anyone working within the broadly-defined field of online learning will instantly recognize similarities between Joel’s description and their own role. Online learning specialists are editors; the general role that’s described above is required for the success of any online course, interactive learning module, or online knowledge sharing initiative, more often than not. To do our jobs well, we should employ several of the same skills. We should:

  • use design thinking
  • curate effectively
  • successfully guide the development of content, often from multiple subject matter experts, into a cohesive, meaningful vision
  • present content compellingly within our appropriate medium, in order “to delight, satisfy, and surprise your patrons.”

I had one final thought about the comparison between an editor and an online learning specialist. I believe that most online learning specialists would agree that an average person has a murky understanding of their job. In fact, I’ve practiced elevator pitches for years, to better answer the question, “what do you do?”, without leading into a conversation that ends in confusion or gratuitous detail. However, here’s where I believe an editor’s job is different, and frankly, I’m more than a little envious. While a layperson might not understand an editor’s role and responsibilities, it would be surprising, if not downright disturbing, if her/his workplace did not implicitly understand the role for which they were hired.

Do many organizations truly understand the role of their own online learning specialists? Are these professionals empowered to take on that logistical and ownership magic that likens a good editor to a traffic controller, orchestra maestro, or restaurant chef? I’ve heard many learning specialists voice concerns that their own organizations have a very murky understanding of their work. While this is true of many of the professions that have emerged from the intersection of human behavior and technology (examples in UX and social media immediately come to mind), it certainly doesn’t make the muddy professional waters in online learning any clearer. Through our acts as good editors, maestros, and chefs, we must actively develop recognition and understanding for our roles. Then, let’s hope that our organizations can recognize us as chefs, and not just as cooks.

What do you think? How does the title “Online Learning Editor” sound?