21 March 2006

The asynchronous conversation

An experimental interview with Maish R. Nichani of elearningpost.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile you know that Charlie Rose is one of my favorite interviewers. One of the reasons is that every interview he does feels like a conversation.

Robert Scoble's new book on the blogosphere is called Naked Conversations for a reason -- Scoble is not the only one who has noted that the world of blogging is a world of conversation. You may have noticed that recently I have been testing this model by asking you to tell me what you think.

So here's a big thank you for your overwhelmingly positive response!

I believe that conversations are important in the business world, and that they will only become more so over time; you can read more about that here.

So when it was time to do an interview I wanted to try something different. Maish R. Nichani has been blogging -- well, it seems like forever. His blog, elearningpost, is always full of fascinating and thought-provoking links. But Maish himself has always been a bit of a mystery. So I asked Maish if he would be up for a little "experiment in conversation." Luckily he said yes!

The asynchronous conversation
Most conversations are synchronous; that is, they happen in real time, either in person or by phone. Some conversations are asynchronous: email for instance. If I write you an email you can respond when it is convenient for you. The conversation in the blogosphere is mostly asynchronous. One of the benefits of an asynchronous conversation is that it's easier for people all over the world to join.

The idea behind this "experiment" is to do an asynchronous interview with Maish, and open the conversation up to you, the Communication Nation community.

I will kick off the conversation with a couple of questions for Maish, and he has agreed to watch the comments section, where I hope that a rich conversation will develop. Of course, that part is up to you.

Here goes...

Maish, could you briefly introduce yourself and your work to Communication Nation readers?

I’m the editor of the blog, elearningpost, http://www.elearningpost.com/. To serve my passion (and for survival) I run a small design studio (http://www.pebbleroad.com/) focusing on intranets, websites and e-learning. As far as work is concerned, I pursue a design-thinking mindset; and as far as life is concerned, I like to think of myself as a passionate learner. I use elearningpost to explore the vastness of the design-learning intersect. I never intended to do this of course; it just so happened that I stumbled across something that I like. I have the blogosphere to thank for that.

What do you think people are missing? What (if any) topics do you think people should be thinking and talking more about?

I think it’s good if people are missing things! George Clooney spoke about the same in his Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actor where he professed that he was proud to be “out of touch” as being out of touch helped shine the light away from the stereotypical storylines.

And therein lies the crux of the matter for the rest of us.

It’s one thing to be out of touch, it’s totally another to do something about it. In this day and age, success, I think, comes to those who are comfortable being uncomfortable or those who deliberately practice being uncomfortable. But many of us shy way from being out of touch.
A few days ago I had a chat with a friend who runs creativity courses here and he signaled out the education system as the reason for this passive shyness. Right from the start we are told to draw on the lines and color inside the boxes and this conformity mindset has molded us into being passive receivers. But thanks to the Internet, there is hope.

The very nature of the internet – always hackable and always in beta – is helping to get the new philosophy across. Web 2.0 is an indication of this movement. If you think about it, Web 2.0 is actually making things messier. All this talk about platforms and mashups and APIs can make one dizzy, but yet, we seem to be coping well.

So, to answer your question on what we should be talking about, I think it would help if we could spend more energy on
1) learning from experience and
2) learning how to represent.

One lets us cope with the constant change, while the other lets us make sense of the constant change. James McGee posted an article on learning, mindfulness and reflection (http://www.mcgeesmusings.net/2006/02/27.html#a4734) that explains the first point. The second point is to do with what you’ve been doing with visual explanations – representing ideas to aid understanding. Representations, I think, are the driving force behind Web 2.0 and behind the Whole New Mind.

Can you name some recent things you have seen or heard that you think are especially exciting?

Web 2.0 apps are interesting. So is the prospect of reading Beautiful Evidence and Don Norman’s new book. I also like the current interest in experience design and narrative work. Also I can’t wait to play with the rumored calendaring app from Google. As you would have guessed, all links are from my blog!

What role do you see for face-to-face conversations in an increasingly global and technologically connected world?

When it comes to creating new knowledge – brainstorming, prototyping, sensemaking, etc., or when deciding on important things, having face-to-face interactions is crucial. Technology is useful when you’re dealing with the day-to-day working knowledge.

In short, face-to-face conversations are absolutely essential when the risks are higher or when you are dealing with complexity. They key is finding out what constitutes as being high risk or as being complex.

For example, in a well-documented story, around 2000 TBWA Chiat/Day tried a bold experiment with virtual offices. They gave their staff portables and mobiles and asked them to work from where ever they wished. The thinking was that advertising was a well-structured discipline and all one had to do was to follow the process. They learnt the hard way that this was not true when their staff walked out on them and demanded their space back.

Another well-documented story is that of the Challenger launch decision. Here an important decision on the O-rings was made over the phone. The situation was both complex and high risk and yet there was no face-to-face meeting.

So, if its complex and/or high risk, just meet up. For everything else, look for the best mix. Now, I could be simplifying things here, but it’s a good start.

Dave [to you]:
Now the experiment in asynchronous conversation begins. What questions do you have for Maish? What ideas did his thoughts trigger? Do you have a relevant story to tell? Please put your questions and thoughts in the comments section and join the conversation!

[Update: Based on what I am seeing so far, the asynchronous interview has the following attributes:

1. It moves slowly -- one or two questions a day seem to be the norm.
2. The conversation is rich and dense, like chocolate cake. And like chocolate cake it takes some time to digest. Read it slowly and thoughtfully.

Since this is my first asynchronous interview it's hard to say if this is a general rule. However the patterns are interesting and unique enough that I intend to do some more of these.

Keep checking back on this post -- rather than post new entries I am focusing my attention on this interview; I want to nurture it and see what dynamics develop. Until the interview loses momentum I'll be posting my thoughts in the thread.]

Keep in touch! Sign up to get updates and occasional emails from me.


Murray said...

Interesting idea - I can see this interview technique expanding from here...

I refer to Maish's "learning from experience" and Web 2.0 sections.

Lately, it feels to me a lot like the heady earlier days of the Web, (mid 1990s), when there was an explosion of new technologies. Education institutions got left behind. Now, another new world is opening up (will Web 2.0 mean the death of Micro$oft?) and brick and mortar schools are becoming even more out of touch.

Maish: What do you think education institutions need to do to survive the next 10 years and to make student learning more meaningful?

Riaz said...

Something that really stuck me as true was this ability of being ‘out of touch’ acting as a useful tool for understanding. As a designer it reminds of the Charles Eames and his Powers of Ten video where you look at the same scene from great distance and then again incredibly close up. The ability to rapidly zoom in and out is what differentiates just knowledgeable people from the truly insightful. Another dimension I would add is the ability to circle. Being able to circle around the subject looking at it from every direction gives you holistic insight. One way to circle around topics can be cultural. What does one action look like from one groups perspective versus another’s.

In my mind I imagine cultural circling to be like a spotlight on a sculpture. For example, you shine the spotlight (lets say spotlight of language) on a sculpture some truth (lets say a classical David). The sculpture will feel a certain way with the spotlight shining from a certain point. Move the light around and suddenly the same sculpture (the same truth) looks different. It can look angry or insightful. Shine three spotlights on it at once and you get a much better idea of what the sculpture looks like.

Circling, zooming and defocusing are great ways to get your head around a subject but it leads me to THE question. How do you defend such whirling points of view in a specialized world? How can being ‘out of touch’ be represented as the positive tool that is rather than just a chance occurrence?

Anonymous said...

Hi Zac,
Yes, this format could catch on. Like I mentioned to Dave, the thinking is like the unconference format. In short, more fluid.

On to your question on the next 10 years for educational institutions. It’s a well known fact that we learn more when we leave our academic institutions. But it’s not just about learning more, it’s about learning differently. I like to think there are 3 different kinds of knowledge: academic, working and new knowledge.

Academic knowledge is the stuff we learn in schools and colleges. The facts, the direct explicit stuff. When we start working, we figure how to get ‘real’ stuff done. Whether this be fixing an airplane or writing a code, the stuff we learn is quite different from the explicit directives we learn in college. Now, we are learning experientially. But again here too, we are mostly playing catch up. The know-how that we seek in much of our work lives has already been figured out. It’s out there. We just need to find it out and apply it to our contexts (e.g. how to become a good project manager). New knowledge, however, is sought when we deliberately want be creative and to innovative. Here’s where we need the critical thinking skills or the double loop learning to break away from the working knowledge (e.g. James Dyson experimenting for 5 years to create his particular brand of vacuum cleaner).

Note that the working knowledge and new knowledge are fuzzy and intertwined. What is working knowledge for one could be new knowledge for another and vice versa. But academic knowledge stands on it own. This is the problem for educational institutions. They need to figure out how to intertwine all the three kinds of knowledge. How they can do this is open for debate, but the Web2.0 thinking can provide some answers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Riaz,

Great observations. Your circling, zooming and defocusing concepts are at the heart of experiential learning. It is the same kind of concepts that lie at the intersection of Blink and Ten Faces of Innovation. Let me explain.

Blink goes on to show the powers of expert intuition or specialized knowledge. Actually it goes on to show how biases or traps can influence expert decision-making. So although the blink ability can help experts make decisions when conditions are ideal, it can also lead them astray when the conditions change. The Diallo shootout incident described in the book is an example.

Ten Faces of innovation, on the other hand, provides guidelines for individuals and companies to seek out the new. In fact, the 10 innovation archetypes are those that help with circling, zooming and defocusing.

In today’s day and age, specialized knowledge is on the move. And the only way to be on top of it is to constantly reframe and adjust our thinking. So seeking Blink knowledge is not the key, but being uncomfortable with Blink knowledge holds promise. And that’s the way to go into the future.

Unknown said...


I have found some of the concepts behind extreme programming have interesting implications for other types of work; specifically:

1. Redundancy
The idea that redundancy can improve efficiency -- For example, that two people working on the same thing at the same time can be more productive than if they are working on different projects.

2. Iterative design models
The idea that things come out better when failure and product testing are cheap and fast and planned for in advance. For example, rapid paper prototyping.

3. Storytelling
Customer-centered stories and scenarios taking a central role in the thinking and design process.

Do you think any of these ideas can help us achieve these new types of learning you describe?

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
I never explored extreme programming concepts this way, but yes, it definitely looks like it has all the ingredients for experiential learning.

In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink explored similar concepts. His six essential aptitudes – design, story, symphony, empathy, play, meaning -- communicate the same thinking.

Again we see that similar concepts are used in what has come to be known as “design thinking”. Stanford’s d school is basing its entire learning philosophy on this type of thinking. Dan Saffer has a post where he explores design thinking and here’s the concepts he’s come up with: A Focus on Customers/Users, Finding Alternatives, Ideation and Prototyping, Wicked Problems, A Wide Range of Influences, and Emotion.

Extreme programming and design thinking are applications of this kind of learning.

Anonymous said...

Here' something I came across today: The Clueless Manifesto that celebrates the state of being clueless. It captures the gist of what we are discussing here.

Unknown said...

That's a great article Maish.

In fact I am certain that I would never have founded XPLANE had I not been extraordinarily naive about what it would take to build and grow a business -- in particular a service business that was defining and fulfilling in such a new category.

Cluelessness has served me well in life.

But cluelessness alone is not enough. There are some other factors that I believe play a major role in learning and achievement.

For example, you have got to be curious; you've got to have a`vision; you need to believe that things are possible.

I have more questions for you Maish!

Q: How can we give people the room and courage to envision bold creative goals?

Q: What role do you think faith and belief play, when it comes to fulfilling a bold vision?

Q: How can we create environments that reward curiosity?

Q: Similarly, as we create learning experiences and environments, how do we avoid embedding our own biases into the system?

Anonymous said...

I like the chocolate cake metaphor, yes as an experiment, this is a very dense, rich conversation, and the potential messiness that Mary alludes to in a way mirrors the messiness of the topic :) (as an aside, are there any tools for mapping conversations like this collaboratively, online?)

My question is about the interplay between messiness/out of touch-ness/unfocussedness, and structure, focus and clean design... it seems to me there is and should be an interplay, otherwise we're just playing in the clouds, and we'll never get to those brilliant, simple representations of knowledge that Maish talked about needing.

I get the feeling that this tends not to be an interplay these days, so much as a set of battle lines between the structured and the unstructured camps - democratic folksonomists against centralist taxonomists a minor case in point.

Maish (or anyone) - how do you think we can get a productive interplay going between structure/focus, and creative, discovery-oriented messiness?

Unknown said...

Hi Patrick. I will give you my thoughts while we wait for Maish to respond.

I believe it is possible to develop structures that do not constrain creativity.

Look at the internet as an example. When it was originally developed people had no idea that it would be used for email -- the idea of a web page didn't even exist!

Yet they developed a structure and set of protocols that made these things possible.

One of the reasons I initiated this "asynchronous interview" is that I am very interested in developing stuctures that can enhance rather than limit collaborative creativity.

Open Space and The World Cafe are two examples of such open structures.

Anonymous said...

Wow! So many questions; have to catch up! Here's one:

Q: How can we give people the room and courage to envision bold creative goals?

It’s same Web2.0 thinking isn’t it? First we need to have an “internet” kind of organization and then we need a champions and challenges. The hard part is getting to that “internet” kind of organization: bottom up, decentralized, and organic. It’s real easy to communicate these kinds of things, but very difficult to carry it through.

There can easily be a mandate for staff to be more “creative” or “innovative” and there could be incentives to encourage this behavior, but this is not a sustainable strategy. For example, many can make better burgers than McDonalds, but not many can sell like McDonalds. And selling like McDonalds has been tried, tested, and refined till it’s in the very veins of McDonalds.

For a company to change, especially if it has historically been top-down, tightly controlled company, is really difficult. There’s just too much history and too much baggage. We know this for a fact simply because we celebrate those who have overcome this resistance: Who Say’s Elephants Can’t Dance Dance, Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace, etc.

So, in essence, I think that it’s all about initiating a change and then seeing it through.

Anonymous said...

Q: What role do you think faith and belief play, when it comes to fulfilling a bold vision?

Faith and belief play important roles in executing a bold vision, but it really depends on the context under which faith and belief are activated. For me, it took a long while before I could muster up courage to try and pursue a path that I found comfortable. Until then I was tangled under my own beliefs. I would go so far as to say that elearningpost had and has a large part to play in my continuing untangling process. The connections, the feedback, the reciprocity, the acknowledgement, and the trust of the blogosphere were crucial elements that got me started.

And I guess it’s the very same elements that can be applied in an organizational setting or an educational environment to nurture a desire for learning and innovation.

Again, as I see it (I’m learning a lot from this interview) there’s this kind of two-layered approach that seems to be at play here: it’s not just about faith and belief, it’s about how it can be activated.

Unknown said...

That's a really interesting point about faith. I also have learned a lot about myself and what motivates me through activities like blogging and Flickr photo-blogging.

One of the big lessons is the importance of feedback. When you feel appreciated you want more of that feeling; it drives you.

Blogging and Flickr both offer nearly instantaneous feedback in various forms:
- Site traffic
- Links
- Flickr's "interestingness" designation
- Comments

Even negative feedback is helpful. For example, I have a dry sense of humor and I learned early on that my jokes did not translate well to the blog medium.

I'm very interested in this idea of untangling and self-awareness that comes through conversation, feedback and iteration.

Unknown said...

Regarding your earlier thoughts on courage and creativity: I agree that things don't just "bubble up" unless the environment is right.

And deeply embedded behaviors don't simply disappear overnight -- even when the cage doors are opened, an animal that has become inured to its imprisonment will remain there.

I also agree that the answer lies in internet-style networks and cellular dynamics. I think of the way films are made; there's a network of professionals with various skills who come together to make a project and disband.

Especially in cases where intellectual property os the product, these kinds of arrangements can make a lot of sense. The catch is that you need a critical mass -- an ecosystem of a certain size and richness -- before this is possible.

One of the reasons the internet grew so successfully was because the communication protocols and the structure of the network could be adapted for uses beyond anything the designers originally imagined.

What kinds of business structures and protocols do we need in order to generate the ecosystems that can scale appropriately?

If you agree that the film industry is a good model, what can we learn from the way it began, and the way it has grown over time?

Shannon Clark said...

Building on Dave's last point I want to raise a question that has often puzzled me - I don't have an ideal answer for it.

"What is the role in all of this (Web 2.0, unconferences, Open Space meetings, business in general) for those who are not actively participating?"

Specifically I have argued that in any given social network, and this includes the readers of a blog, the participants in a meeting, the users of an app, there are MORE people who are not actively generating content than there are those who are creating it.

But that this is not a problem.

However I think as those who do generate content (we post blogs, write comments, speak up in meetings, write web 2.0 applications, hold 3 day conferences on these topics, etc) it is all too easy to assume that both the tools and everyone using them should be for those who generate content.

I think that, for example, more tools should add features such as threading of these comments, that are there for those who are participating vis reading, via listening, vis digesting and understanding.

It is very important to also think about the fact that we are all part of many networks - and that how we participate in those networks will necessarily differ. We all do on some level "create" (even if it is just conversations with our family and friends), not all of us do that creating in public, but what we do create and communicate is also highly influenced by what we hear and experience in all of the other contexts and networks to which we belong.

As both someone interested in Web 2.0 (indeed I host a monthly networking event in SF for Web 2.0 - see http://blogs.sfwin.org) and someone who is organizing a three day conference on Networks (MeshForum - http://www.meshforum.org) where Dave will be one of my speakers. I am extremely interested in how to incorporate everyone into the experience.

But I do not think to do this requires forcing everyone to create content in the same way.

But what the solution is I'm not entirely sure - any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

Q: How can we create environments that reward curiosity?

Quite simply: hire the right people and provide supportive, forgiving structures.

Let’s consider two examples.

Xerox engineers came up with the concept of a GUI. These people were smart and curious and were working under quite a forgiving environment. But their management was not as supportive. So even if their curiosity was satisfied, their vision was not. And for Xerox, this was a substantial loss (and Microsoft’s substantial gain).

At 3M, Art Fry was curious to find a use for a weak adhesive. His concept of the “sticky notes” at first did not get a hearing. But a remarkable selling strategy – providing free samples to executives – made the management support the project. And for 3M, this project launched a billion dollar industry.

Apart from proving the obvious -- experimentation and prototyping do work -- these examples also highlight the importance of a supportive structure (and the art of selling).

I feel that the current Web2.0 phase is doing its part to inform and influence organization and management that it’s okay to tinker an experiment without having expectations; it’s okay to launch in beta; and it’s okay to change course midway.

Now, this would have been considered to be totally idealistic a decade ago, but we seem to have a Whole New Mind(set) and a whole new passion and it’s not uncommon to find such right people flourishing under the right conditions even in large organizations – Microsoft’s Scoble is an example.

Anonymous said...

Maish (or anyone) - how do you think we can get a productive interplay going between structure/focus, and creative, discovery-oriented messiness?

Patrick, yes, getting a balance between structure and focus can be tough, but instead of bending towards the extremes, we need to find a balance, a point that provides the maximum benefit in solving the problem at hand.

Take the case of free tagging vs. structured taxonomies. It ‘s quite obvious that free tagging will not work in many circumstances, e.g. large scale projects that have departmental or organizational dependencies. But it might just work if the point of view is different, e.g. when individuals or a team wants to keep track of their documents or dependencies. But instead of just striking out the viability of free tagging in organizations, we should be playing, experimenting, and tinkering to find what works and what does not.

Denham Grey’s article, Classification - does it work?, is a good reference point here.

I really do believe that free tagging, social networks, etc., are small discoveries in themselves, and they may not present their case immediately, but taken in aggregate, they might just present a totally different solution set – a Blue Ocean if you will.

Anonymous said...

Question: If you agree that the film industry is a good model, what can we learn from the way it began, and the way it has grown over time?

I can relate the film industry model to the Networks of Practice model that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid described in their fantastic work, The Social Life of Information.

Communities of Practice are learning relationships between individuals in one company, but Networks of Practice are learning relationships between individuals from different companies or groups. The point Brown and Duguid make is that it is easy for knowledge to flow across organizational boundaries when a networks of practice is in place. In short, networks of practice makes knowledge leaky.

For long, knowledge managers did not like the film industry model or the network of practice model simply because it undermined the very essence of their work, which was to protect knowledge from leaking. And it was quite natural for them to do so because what they were protecting was valuable and very precious.

Then the Internet comes along and raises the bar of “value”. This changed the entire equation. Now value was not in protecting precious knowledge, but in creating precious knowledge by allowing local knowledge to leak. In fact, the faster you are known to leak knowledge, the more valuable you are considered to be. The current trend of open source consulting and open source research are some examples.

So in some wired sense, the network of practice is slowly coalescing into the community of practice, or vice versa, depending on your stance: free agent or organization man. Hopefully this will mean that we focus less on protecting current knowledge and focus more on creating new knowledge. Again, this points directly to the design-thinking mindset. Argh!

Anonymous said...

Hi Shannon,
The tension between active participation and passive listening is a hot topic in this part of the world (South East Asia). Solutions to address this tension are a permanent fixture in many educational and management conferences. Some say that being reticent is an Asian value. Others say that this cultural value is an impediment in this day and age and deliver spectacular change management plans to spark participation. Answers and solutions are still being sought.

Here’s something I’ve learned after many teaching, facilitation and event organization sessions.
1) People learn and understand in many different ways. Some are active and some are passive. And some are on the edge. We need to accept this.
2) Set the correct format. Participatory formats like OpenSpace and the Unconferences shout “active participation required”. This is in contrary to “lecture” formats where active (passive) listening is kinda expected. Trying to “cross” expectations is difficult.
3) Deliver with the right content. Participations should feel satisfied with the learning experience.
4) Provide archives. Now this seems to be a standard these days (e.g. SXSW, IA Summit, etc.). Of course bloggers are doing their bit too in covering the conferences. They offer different perspectives and make up for the corridor talk one would have after a session.

Now, all of this content is a boon for both active and passive participants, but I do agree with your suggestion that we need look into some other methods that focus on the passive group. I’m still experimenting with this!

Here’s a good article that might cast light on this issue.
Stolen knowledge:

Shannon Clark said...


Thanks - I think, however, that there is a very important and indeed even vital role at "unconferences" and Open Spaces in particular for people who are actively listening.

I think there is, perhaps, a distinction to be drawn between active and passive listening.

Active listening is what I would call being very present and intent on what is happening - but may not require further participation at that moment - i.e. you don't have to be compelled to talk or even comment, but by listening, digesting, and perhaps documenting, you add deeply and richly to the value of the experience.

Passive listening is perhaps more common, as you cite the common experience of listening to a presentation as a member of the audience.

In designing MeshForum, I'm seeking to get a balance - I want many opportunities to active listening (deeply interesting and valuable speakers) but also many opportunities for participation and interaction.

However I also value and treasure, and will give explicit permission at the conference, to those who attend but do not speak up - who just listend and digest. I think that even as "just" an audience member, as a listener, they add to the value of the experience.

I come to this in part by a comment someone said to me as I was graduating high school - they commented "you were the designated audience member" and meant this in a very good way. I was one of the few people in my high school who attended almost every theatrical performance at the school. I was in one play as a freshman, but most often, I just came, watched, and supported my many friends who were on stage and involved in the productions in various ways.

My role was very valuable to the performers and participants, without an audience they might still get up on stage and perform, but they did it for the audience.

In business, we have to consider how to grow, support, and treasure the audiances, at the end of the day, they are the measure of the value (and typically a major source of the resources needed for the "performance" in the form of paid tickets etc).


Anonymous said...

Hi Shannon,
You might have something going here. Are you going to experiment a bit with MeshForums? It will be wonderful if you could document (or blog) your observations.

Shannon Clark said...

I have blogged about what we are doing in a few places.

On my professional blog - piecing IT together - http://blogs.jigzaw.com

And on the MeshForum website (http://www.meshforum.org) - though some of the more "out there" brainstorming we haven't yet tried (we considered for a while running a social experiment around attending MeshForum - an idea of not letting anyone pay for themself to attend but instead asking that people pay for each other... I still think that if done right this might work very well)

I'll try to find my exact posts and link to them but they should all be in my archives, almost certainly with MeshForum in the text...


Unknown said...

I recently gave a talk to a group of journalism students where I gave homework in advance of the session.

The students were asked to take a look at this blog as background and bring three index cards with the following:

- On each card write your name.
- On the first card write an idea that was triggered by the blog.
- On the second card write down a question that you have for me.
- On the third card write a personal story or anecdote that relates to what you saw on the blog.

By far the most interesting were the stories and anecdotes.

Maish, how do you think stories about personal experiences can be better used in organizational settings to drive learning or performance?

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
Storytelling strategies are all the rage in organization these days. But they are mostly used as a way to broadcast corporate propaganda. A far more interesting and rewarding way of using stories is to use the story building or narrative technique of using stories to probe deeper and more complex relationships. Dave Snowden has been leading the charge here with his Cynefin methodology. You can check it out here: http://www.cynefin.net/
(Check out all the articles in the knowledgebase)

The basic premise of this work is that we can narrative, especially in complex domains, can be analyzed to reveal deep rooted beliefs, values and themes. And it all starts with people sitting down in what are called anecdote circles and revealing their personal experiences in the selected domain.

I’ve been involved in some anecdote circle sessions and I must say that this is a much more fluid way to getting to know the organization.
Once the anecdotes are mapped out, they can be analyzed to reveal, for example, archetypes that are present in the domain.

Patrick Lambe has done a similar archetype mapping exercise for a Yahoo! Group discussion forum. You can find the write up here:

Jay Cross reported on something similar that Patrick and I have been trying to do in the e-learning domain. The write up is here:

Shawn Callahan to has some write up on using the same techniques to reveal community, brand, culture, etc. See:

So, narrative techniques, used correctly, offer immense possibilities, especially in the complex domain, to probe and make meaning in organizational settings.

Unknown said...

Well, this has been a rich and thought-provoking experience.

I'd like to say thank you to Maish and all the rest of you whose thoughts and questions made this thread so enlightening.

Thanks Maish!

Swamy VKN said...

Hi Dave - chanced upon to your great blog from your website squidoo.com and instantly fell in love with your thoughts.

I was thinking about my 5-year-old son who had received a grade B at KG-2 for not drawing between the lines. Unfortunately, kids are not learning any kind of collaborative creativity at their schools. Folks - your thoughts on this.

Joolz said...

Interesting blog you have here ... I followed a trail from you 'favouriting' one of my photos and then into your flickr stream. Can I contribute one thing? Some of your discussion was about schools and the way they focus on more narrow learning opportunities. One of the problems, I think, is the institutional obsession with assessment which drives forward an individualist agenda (spotlight model). Web 2.0 stuff is about networking and collaboration (of course); by far the best way to learn. Web 2.0 is also about being able to follow trails and to deepen your knowledge in ways unpredicted by any teacher. These days, teachers are expected to plan out learning journeys (I am not kidding) for their students. Education in institutions has become narrow and controlled because of government drive to push up standards in ways they can measure - limiting creativity. I have found james Gee's work on affinity spaces better that Communities of practice in illuminating all this area.

Unknown said...

Joolz, I agree that group productivity will be a key driver in the future; and I also think that standards and measurement are important because they make "visible" where you stand, how well uyou are doing and how far you have to go.

Do you have -- or have you seen -- any thoughts on how to set and measure standards for group learning?

Joolz said...

Hi Dave

No I haven't ... only clumsy attempts where teachers try to untangle the htreads of group works and try to attribute things to individuals. To be frank, I amnot keen on the whole idea of assessment where individuals are compared to each other. I think there is too much of that everywhere; I have probably got an idealsistic view of education where we try to value group endeavour and moving forward with everyone on board. I liek to think about making a project good and different people making contributions where they can. It is strange that in a world full of individuals we are taught that we all need to be accomplished in the same things!

Unknown said...

I agree that we need better ways to measure group effectiveness. I think in the future we may be hiring whole teams as opposed to individuals.

In effect this is what mergers and acquisitions are generally about.

However the fact remains that it is very difficult -- if not impossible -- to delegate authority and accountability to a group.

You can delegate it to an individual, who is then accountable for managing the group to success. This might be the equivalent of the teacher in education, or the coach in sports.

But inevitably, while it is the group that generates results, it remains the manager's decision to distribute rewards (and punishments!) to that end.

Usually you find ways to measure the achievement(s) of the group, and rely on the manager's judgments.

The manager is measured on the success or failure of the group. Which is why, in my opinion, the biggest constraint in most companies is the caliber of management talent, and the quality of strategies to improve it -- which gets us back to education and learning.

I imagine it is also a major constraint in educational environments, even though the one put forward most frequently is budgets.

Of course that's the most common one in business as well, not always because it's true, but because it's always an easy point to raise and easy to defend.