Tuesday, June 14

The Power of Us

For anyone who has heard me rant about the power of the Internet being it's ability to connect people together on a scale previously not possible it is invigorating to see that the June 20th US edition of BusinessWeek is all about this topic. The cover story, titled "The Power of Us" is an excellent article about how the Internet can connect all of us in new and exciting ways (there are also some online exclusives like Tour the Collectives of Cyberspace which are well worth checking out).

Continuing this theme of collaboration Sam Adkins wrote an article called "Innovations in Collaboration" for the latest issue of the Chief Learning Officer magazine which is a great indepth review around the state of collaboration for learning (I have known Sam from his early days at Microsoft where he created the Microsoft Online Institute! (my first company, scholars.com, was a founding partner with Microsoft)). I'm happy to see that more and more people are starting to realize that the Internet is more than connecting people to websites, it is about connecting people to people to leverage their existing knowledge so we can learn/work better faster (for anyone following the writings of Jay Cross (blog), this kind of collaborative mentoring is an essential part of his concept of workflow learning (website)).

Of course the challenge is that for collaboration to be effective it needs to be linked back to something, like an underlying event or topic (i.e. something that provokes collaboration versus being just passive). Collaboration for the sake of collaboration just doesn't work anymore (just look at the state of the commerical social networking companies out there). Patti Anklam has it right when she talks about "object-centered sociality" in her blog posting "Linking Out and Looking for Objects". Effective mentoring (rant - collaboration to me is a guy using a nickname to go into an AOL chatroom to talk about essentially nothing; collaborative mentoring is about forming deeper long term relationships where something of value is exchanged) is more than technology, it is focused around optimizing the connections both between users and the collaboration technologies. You need things like eBay's rating system or Amazon.com's feedback forms when you start connecting tens of thousands of people together; the vast majority of whom do not know one another and thus have no context for evaluating interactions (this notion of trust and reputation). Heck, it is about making the whole process scaleable because the value of the network increases exponentially based on the number of using (basically known as the 'network effect') so you need a lot of people in order to get effective knowledge sharing occuring across all types/groups of people.

You think learning objects (i.e. *content* objects) was/is exciting? Wait until this kind of collaboration gets (better) integrated into the process of learning!

What do you think? Is the collaboration in online learning today good enough or do we need to improve it (or does it really matter?)


Ben Watson said...

Posting a comment to my own blog posting is a little weird but I forgot to mention that over the last several months, as companies have started to look at collaboration more closely, I have seen them become interested in using online collaboration in several ways:
- a bridge between ILT and eLearning to get people used to eLearning'being online (i.e. regardless of the delivery method you have access to a collaboration workspace to continue the conversations)
- for succession management (i.e. storing the results of collaboration over time so that when a person leaves some aspect of their knowledge stays behind). Jay, myself and others recently spoke at the Defense Acquistion University conference at George Mason University and this was a popular topic among the military/government where upwards of 40% are retiring over the next few years.
- encouraging collaboration among customers as a way for a company to make their technical support more effective as often the 'problem' lies with a customer's environment or policies and other customers may have the answer or a best practice versus getting the 'technically correct' answer from Tech Support.

David Grebow said...

Great blog. Absolutely matters. It's also the last "C" in the great three "C's" - Content, Context and Collaboration - that John Seely Brown noted as necessary for real social learning to take place.

Online collaboration is only in it's beginning stages. Yet I think the adoption curve will be steep.

I recently saw a new software tool that merged on demand access with know-how, project management functionality and chat, IM, email, interactive FAQ's and Forums. It was one of the nicest workflow tools I've seen to date. Told you what needed to be done by when, and showed you what to do or who to get in touch with if you weren't sure about how to get it done. Had all the usual timelines and charts that were nicely and graphically done to be easy on the eye. Let a Program Manager see at a glance who was on track and who was lagging behind. And lots more. Instead of a command and control hierarchical tool like MS Project, it was a dynamically and completely collaborative project management system with onboard know-how.

Here's another one.

I just finshed work on a next generation LMS (for want of a better word) that incorporates chat, IM, email, ementors, forums and communities of practice and a program I called The Learning Bridge. It connects the student from the schoolplace to the workplace. It keeps you in touch with other graduates from your program who are all over the world. Not only the ones you went to school with, but the ones before you with more experience, and the ones who will follow. It's a living online Community of Practice in which, for example, you can IM someone (or many people) with a question while you're working.

So the tools are appearing and it will be a relatively short period before they are pervasive and people will come to expect them when they are involved with learning programs.

If you want to dig in further, I recommend a recently published book by Marcia Conner and James Clawson called Creating a Learning Culture. It's the best book on the subject of collaboration and learning in the digital future I've yet read.

Bill Bruck said...

Hi, Ben

I have a pretty deep interest in the topic of online collaboration as it applies to learning, so this article is of special interest to me, and we've been supporting corporate collaborative online learning for several years, so I believe we have a fair idea of practices that work (and don't!).

(Disclaimer - my company produces a collaborative learning platform...)

A couple thoughts in response to your great article...

1. In response to your "how people use online collaboration" piece, we use online collaboration to support learning in three ways - action learning projects (e.g.. for leadership development), informal learning via CoPs, and most often in structured blended learning programs - to supply the practice-with-feedback and coached-application-on-the-job pieces.

2. As with all things related to collaboration, PPT is central - people, process, and technology. We often focus on the sexy part (technology) but having the right processes to motivate and incentivize learners, and people with the right skills and available time to make things work is critical.

3. We've found a few things related to the technology piece. First, the synchronous piece usually supports meetings, and we all know how productive meetings are per se. The asynchronous piece supports the practice, work, and learning - that's where I believe the real action is. Thus, having an extremely robust asynchronous discussion engine is KEY. Second, tracking coach and small group behaviors to the same precision that we currently track content acquisition behaviors is critical - and it's a piece very few technologies are doing. We hear over and over that the success of blended learning programs depends on the quality of the coaching. So why don't LMS's even know about the coach role!

Anyway, I'll be interested to discuss this topic further in this and other articles here.

(Also, small rant, I find blogging to be an example of a kewl new technology that is TERRIBLE at supporting discussions. Sigh.)


Bill Bruck (Q2Learning)
Collaborative Learning Blog
Join our CoP at http://cop.collabhost.com

jay said...

Bill, I was worried about you when I read "PPT is central," thinking you were referring to PowerPoint.

What do people think of adding a collaborative component to Learning Circuits Blog?

Bill Bruck said...

Well, from my perspective a lot of these articles generate some thinking and responses on my part, but the impoverished nature of this medium for sustained dialog makes it nearly impossible for me to know if anyone has responded to my comments, so unless I bookmark and come back to blog entries I've commented on, I am not aware if anyone responds to anything I say.

So I'd sure be for a collaborative component to support better discussions of the thoughts people are posting here...

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