Experimenting with Social Media for Change

I just posted some background on an online event I am helping to organize to the SustainableTeams blog.

The conference will happen this coming Saturday (May 9, 2009) and is an experiment in realtime virtual collaboration and will try to answer the question What tools and principles do we need to help change to unfold? Social and technological development as means for better organizations, and a better world.

Go to the Change Management Toolbook to register and to find out how to participate. Another way to get news and follow the conference is to tune into twitter hashtag #rtvc.

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Learning in a controlling environment

Thanks to Maxim’s comment on our about page I just discovered the following video. It is about education and the way we structure learning. Working for a research institute and more generally in an industry the main product of which is knowledge, all these same points apply to the creative potential of our organizations as well.

One very telling quote from the video:

For the last hundred years we have used the industrial narrative. Schools are like factories, it’s an administrative process, it’s about control and order.

Do you factcheck news stories that confirm your beliefs?

Environmental Graffiti posted an interesting story about a hoax written by Mark Twain in 1862 about the discovery of a petrified man. The story was widely copied and reprinted even though basic facts were evidently wrong.

Why am I sharing this? Besides being amusing, I think it teaches a valuable lesson about our predisposition to accept stories and theories that confirm our own preconceived ideas and biases. An example in development policy is the tragedy of the commons that still today is used to justify the dismantling of local (often collective) property rights systems in favor of individual, exclusive property rights.

Let’s question our assumptions before we take important decisions especially when they have an impact on others.

Three lessons from a year of teaching 2.0 to researchers

The purpose of this post is to share with you three lessons we wish someone had told us a year ago. But then again, what’s the point of teaching if you don’t learn something for yourself?

Last summer, some colleagues at IFPRI and I decided to begin offering a series of weekly trainings aimed at teaching researchers about new web-based tools and services. During the first several months, this is exactly what we showed- tool, service, tool, and so on. Staff who participated in these early trainings would later report that they had hardly heard of, let alone used, many of the tools and services we were showcasing- wikis, del.icio.us, iGoogle, etc. They also would reveal that few continued using them in the months that followed their first taste of the new tools and technologies.

So we did what people normally do when they get really busy for awhile- we continued teaching the same lessons in the same style until we had some time to calm down and reflect a little. Finally, we began to ask why more staff wasn’t using these tools on a regular basis. And why we weren’t able to attract more research staff to the trainings. We knew these were directly linked, and began to explore new approaches for reaching our target audience. Below is a summary of some of the more important lessons we’ve learned so far, along with the stories behind them.

  1. Focus on the job, not the tool. The first couple of times we talked about social bookmarking services with researchers, we showed them del.icio.us. In fact, we showed them how to create an account, how to import their browser’s bookmarked pages, and briefly explained about tagging and how to share resources with friends and colleagues. At the end of the session, we basically just told the researchers to go to it. A handful of researchers later asked us for help setting up their accounts. Few, however, reported that they were still using the service months after the training.
    What went wrong? Well for starters, we were focusing on the tool rather than the application. Turns out, researchers wanted to see how this tool could be applied in their daily lives. Otherwise, their interest in the tool quickly passed. The leadup to a major international conference on “Taking Action for the World’s Poor and Hungry People” turned out to offer a perfect opportunity to showcase one strength of social bookmarking services- the ability to create collaborative lists in real time. In years past, organizers of such events spent months and months contacting leading researchers asking them to submit lists of important works related to the conference as well as publishers to request permissions to make these texts freely available to audiences in the developing world. Prior to this event, targeted individuals received an email invitation to submit their lists electronically and were given three options for doing so- emailing in their entries, filling out an online form from a website or using their own del.icio.us account and a tagging their recommended papers with a common keyword (food4all). Though the majority of submissions were collected via email or online form, our del.icio.us page became the central repository for these resources and was used to publish the bibliographic list onto the conference website. When we showed this application to researchers in subsequent trainings, it provided a concrete example of what the service could be used for in supporting their own work. And, not surprisingly, more researchers got on board and have begun using social bookmarking in their daily lives since then.
  2. Researchers like hearing from other researchers, not us. Our first couple of sessions about blogging were well attended by research staff, but few expressed interest in setting up their own blogs. Once again, this had us scratching our heads as we tried to figure out why blogging wasn’t catching on among staff. Our approach was to present blogs as a website-in-a-box that anyone could set up in a matter of minutes and showed how many millions of blogs were started by “regular people” every month. So it seemed to be another case of focusing too much on the tool rather than on how it can be used.
    Yet in subsequent presentations, we began showcasing organizational blogs from IFPRI and other research organizations and still few seemed interested. Fortunately for us, though, we were able to capture the attention of a couple of younger researchers during these early trainings who would later take blogging at IFPRI to new lengths. Eva Schiffer, a post-doc who developed a social networking analysis tool, thought a blog would be ideal for sharing ideas and applications for her tool with the wider research community as well as on-the-ground development workers. Soon, the number of entries and amount of traffic from Eva’s Net-Map Toolbox blog had surpassed that of IFPRI’s other blogs, and we invited Eva to present her experiences with her colleagues at IFPRI. During her presentation, Eva explained how the blog connected her to new audiences of readers and that her research actually benefited from the online exchanges with these readers, many of whom included other researchers and development workers engaged in similar issues. Truth is, Eva’s story wasn’t all that different from our own adapted sales pitch- that researchers were using blogs to reach new audiences that didn’t visit our organizational website and that these new audiences often were looking to actively engage in creating knowledge rather than passively receiving information- but the fact that the message was passing from one researcher’s lips into the ears of her peers seemed to make the difference. Several staff approached us following the presentation requesting that we help set up their own research blogs. Go figure.
  3. Don’t assume you know what researchers need- go out and ask them! I saved this one for last because, truth be told, we’re only now just starting to move in this direction. Or rather, we’ve been asking them what they want to learn for some time now and we typically hear them recite back to us the list of tools we’re already presenting. For a while, we took this as a sign that we were doing everything right, but then we started to wonder whether or not we were asking the right question. Or, put another way, were they saying they wanted to know more about blogs and wikis mainly because they knew that’s what we could teach them or because they suspected that these tools would help them in their work? Based on how few were actually starting their own blogs and wikis, we had to assume that the former was true.
    We began asking ourselves how we could find out what researchers needed in a different fashion. So we decided to rephrase the question – What are some common communication bottlenecks you face in your work? Many complained of email overload. Others expressed the need for collaborative work spaces for posting data, figures and working versions of research papers for sharing among colleagues and project teams. All this has led us to the point where we are now testing out several content management systems that support the type of functionality researchers have requested. And it seems unlikely that we would have arrived here so quickly had the researchers not shared with us information on what they needed.

All told, we’ve learned quite a bit from our experiences over the past year (and maybe even more than we’ve taught). And I’d like to be able to tell those of you interested in implementing similar trainings to simply follow the tips I’ve shared above and your organization will be Web 2.0 savy in no time. But with all change, these things take time. Having another year under our belts of not just training but also implementing these tools and services in our daily jobs as well as in our personal lives probably has just barely laid the foundation really getting our hands dirty and supporting researchers eager to swallow up knowledge and information on working with new web tools and services (see Stephan’s last post on project management 2.0). In the meantime, keep us posted if you have any tips or “best practices” for teaching 2.0 in your organization and we’ll do the same as new ones pop up.

Project Management 2.0: It’s not about the tools

Looks like flooding our colleagues with information about new ways of working together is showing effect. More and more of them are asking for help to improve the way they share information and to take down the email and network drive silos we have been building up over the years.

Several projects are trying to deal with this at the institute level (Pete has written about the intranet project), but there are also a few research teams that are trying to find new approaches and tools to best match their needs. One of these teams is on a good way of changing how they work and communicate with one another. This group identified three factors that have been crucial for their success so far: (1) early on in the process the group reached an agreement about the need for change, (2) everyone was asked to be involved in identifying the new way of communicating, and (3) they have a team leader who is committed to this new way and who forces everyone to come along.

In other words, creating the demand for our support put us right in the middle of a number of change processes. What an opportunity, but now what?

For one, I had to learn that it is counterproductive to start talking about tools right away, even though it is easy (and thus very tempting). Focusing on tools gives the impression that there are easy fixes without ever addressing the underlying communication problems of the group. Rather, we have learned to try and encourage conversations with and within these teams to help them find out what they need to change to communicate more effectively with each other by asking how they typically share information, if they feel that they get all the information they need, and what bottlenecks they have encountered when communicating within their team.

With more and more groups not working at the same place at the same time, part of the answer to improve team collaboration and communication will lie in adopting new (web 2.0) tools, but for some groups the answer might simply be to meet regularly.

As you can imagine these are not easy processes to go through, in particular if the team leaders do not fully buy into them, and it is quite a challenge to try and support these processes. We are learning as we are going but would love to hear about others’ experiences. Have you been there and want to share the experience? Any specific advice on how to guide these processes? What are good ways to help teams to identify their communication bottlenecks?

How to start using social media tips

Two days ago Chris Brogan finished a series of 5 posts on tips of how organizations can start to use social media. After starting with a introductory post he talked about Listening, Blogging, Audio and Video, and Social Networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

To me this series presents a great starting point for those curious about what they can and where to start, but it also helps those who are using the tools to convince others in their organizations to follow suit. I will definitely try out the listening tips to see if this helps in showing my colleagues that they can observe without having to commit to anything. Will this convince some that it is worthwhile to engage? Has anyone tried this? What happened?

Justifying the Value of the Social Web

Last week I read two (German) articles on the social web taking very different positions: Christian at crisscrossed.net published an article about “Das Netz der Ideen” (The Net of Ideas) in Internationale Politik, in which he talks about the positive learning effects the social web can have for development cooperation. The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published an article called “Die neuen Idiotae Web 0.0” (The new Idiotae Web 0.0) with the conclusion that most of the content on the social web is “Loser Generated Content,” by users who think they know everything (while in reality not knowing anything at all) and rejects the notion that the transparency generated by the social (or participatory) web will lead to positive change. This anti-web 2.0 view illustrates a point that Christian makes in his article and that I want to focus on in this post: there is a need to continuously justify the value of the social web and collaboration more generally.

The increased transparency of the social web leads to more possibilities for collaboration, but also to more competition, which often is perceived as a threat especially by experts and other established opinion leaders like the author of the “Web 0.0” article. Working for development organizations I have encountered the same issue myself. Employing approaches and tools (both for research as for management) that lead to more openness and transparency and thus decrease control are often met with resistance. This resistance, however, is not only a result of fear to lose control and power. Other reasons have to do with literacy, time pressures and trust.

Even if they want to, it is difficult for many people to invest enough time to learn how to use the new tools. Additionally, engaging with people means listening and engaging with others, which again requires time. Many of us have to deliver outputs in the short-term and are pressured by supervisors, clients, or donors, so we often cannot afford to “lose” time by fully engaging with too many people.

Another reason for resistance is the noise to signal ratio of the social web, which is the main argument made by the “Web 0.0” article against it. Already, most people are struggling with their email trying to separate the important messages from the rest (spam, other mass emails, FYIs, newsletters, etc.), so the thought of having to deal with even more of the same on other media (feeds, social networks, wikis, blogs, etc.) does not make us eager early adopters. The question whether I’ll be able to manage all the information I can access thus turns web 2.0 into a threat more than it is perceived as an opportunity.

Especially in research people live from the uniqueness of their ideas in a highly competitive environment, and sharing a half-developed argument to be developed further by a group of people who do not necessarily know each other (for example on a wiki) is something many people will not be comfortable with. Trusting others is not an easy thing to do in an environment that is characterized more by competition than by collaboration.

So, what’s the solution? I have asked this question quite often and this is what people usually reply:

  • Be an example and use the tools and approaches yourself (walk the walk);
  • Work with the enthusiasts to make a case for more openness to show that the benefits outweigh the risks;
  • Help those who are willing to try but don’t know how to approach and use the new tools; and
  • Try to not overwhelm users with new tools and ideas (sometimes it is best to go with a tool with fewer features that does not require too much change).

What do you think? Does this reflect your experience? What other advice can you give someone who is trying to improve collaboration? Is embracing the social web the right strategy to promote a different more transparent way of working?