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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.


You Tube: A snapshot of humanity

I watched MIchael Wesch’s presentation on You Tube yesterday. It is a brilliant and very powerful presentation of new media research. I fully agree with , that after watching this presentation you will watch youtube contributions with very different eyes.

Michael and his group of students used participant observation, a method mostly used by anthropologists to study different cultures and by doing so offer a very different perspective of youtube. My first impression of many youtube contributors as weird and individualistic was replaced with the image of a highly connected community with strong values. Very frankand aggressive commenting, attempts to cheat and other acts against these values and the community complete a snapshot of humanity.

All in all, this research shows that you can only really understand (and should only judge) social media (and any community for that matter), when you have participated yourself.

Watch it:

More on digital ethnography and Michael Wesch’s work on his blog.

Changing Lives: Making Research Real

Our colleague Christina Lakatos just shared an interesting initiative of DfID Research and the InterPress Service (IPS) to better communicate development research findings.

The main page of Changing Lives explains:

Research findings may be widely published in scientific journals, peer-reviewed and academically admired — but are they filtering through to the public, and bringing about tangible improvements to everyday life?

In partnership with http://www.research4development.info, IPS is seeking to answer these questions, enliven the debate about research, and help to ensure that it does indeed change lives.

You can read the stories here.

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?

Taking del.icio.us for granted

Thanks to Chris Addison’s teachings and some serious futzing on my own, I’ve been able to learn over the past year and a half about many of the things del.icio.us can do. Namely, it can help you create an online database of your favorite resources, generate collaborative lists, share links with other del.icio.us users, and embed link rolls and tag clouds in your blog or webpage, among other cool tricks.

But the more I think I know about such tricks, the more dismissive I became. “I’ve seen all that before,” I would say to myself.” But all in a single tool?! Well, that’s where the title of the post comes in…

The other week, I was showing a colleague from the CGIAR what del.icio.us could do in a very hands on way. We started by uploading a list of bookmarks from her browser into del.icio.us. This was something I’d done for myself when I first started playing around with del.icio.us, but upon my arrival to Ethiopia and subsequent “misplacing” of my recently bookmarked pages in my work computer I suddenly realized that I needed to update my del.icio.us account more regularly. “I can’t find some of my bookmarked pages,” I explained to her. “I should be updating these bookmarks in del.icio.us more regularly.” (Let’s call this “aha moment number 1″…)

Next, we started playing with some different tags. She’d already done this before and got the basic gist of RSS, but wasn’t aware that each tag in del.icio.us had its own RSS feed. “You can think of tags like folders,” I explained. “Each time you tag a resource, it saves it to a folder by that tag’s name, along with every other tag you assign to that resource. And every page that you can view in del.icio.us- whether it’s by account name, your tags or even a common tag used by others, it has its own RSS feed.” Once again, I was struck by how special this feature was. Not many other services I could think of have this type of tagging, page view and RSS interoperability as part of the standard, free service. (And this was “aha moment number 2”)

Next, we visited her blog at WordPress. I explained that this del.icio.us widget she had in WP could be configured to display all her links from del.icio.us or just those belonging to certain tags. We configured the widget and voilĂ !- her del.icio.us items showed in her blog. Needless to say, we both were highly impressed.

Next, I showed her an webpage whose entire content was driven through del.icio.us. Euforic members bookmark in del.icio.us and they are pulled into the website (note: this is now done using feedburner as an intermediary step). “Amazing,” she said. By clicking through the links, you are taken to their del.icio.us account. And by clicking on the ‘save this’ link to the right of an item’s title, you can easily save it to your own bookmarks- “Amazing!” You can even see their tags for that item, or popular tags from more than 2 million other del.icio.us users and add your own already used tags with just one click.

“If i find someone who has a lot of interesting bookmarks,” I explained, “I can simply add them to my network.”
“What- no friend request?,” my colleague asked.
“Nope. In del.icio.us, these are all public and sharing is the default.” There is a way to hide individual items, if you like though…”

“What else?” I asked myself. “Maybe you’re all excited because you fnd great link and want to share it with a friend. All you do is tag it as as for:yourfriendsname and voilĂ ! it shows up the next time she logs into her account. Moreover, if you and your friends create a unique tag, you could take the feed from that and add it straight into a webpage so that whenever one of you tags a new item, it gets automatically pulled into your website or blog…”

It’s my own damn fault for not remembering how cool and dynamic del.icio.us was. As I mentioned before, Chris Addison helped turn it into the content management system for the Euforic website and Peter Ballantyne uses it to tag all his posts in the IAALD blog (thereby driving up incoming links, overall traffic and even their Google ranking). In many ways, I came to realize that del.icio.us had become the poster child for Web 2.0 functionality (whatever that means). Thanks for reminding me of this, Alexandra.

Any other tips or tricks I forgot to mention?