What I do

DB business cardMy role at Learning Pool is a hard one to define exactly. A couple of weeks ago, we had a big company meeting where everyone got together to discuss the last year’s efforts, and what we want to achieve in 10/11.

At one point Paul asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they knew what I did for the company. I don’t think anyone raised their hands. I know I didn’t.

That’s ok, though, and I stood up and rather incoherently tried to explain it all. I don’t think I did a great job, but I do think I managed to get across that it isn’t just about going to conferences.

My job title is Community Evangelist, and the first thing to say is that I’m not a Technology Evangelist. The role of technology evangelist is a pretty well established one in the techie sphere, pioneered by Guy Kawasaki at Apple in the 80s. Robert Scoble fulfilled a similar role for Microsoft in the mid-noughties.

This is important, because I’m a newcomer to Learning Pool’s core technology, based on Moodle, and would probably be a pretty terrible evangelist for it. Not only that, but my actual technical knowledge is sketchy at best, and I’m as good an example as any that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

Instead of technology, my focus is people – as individuals, members of communities of practice or interest, and organisations. My aim is to promote the behaviour and culture of the internet: collaboration, openness, generosity, curiosity.

So what do I actually do?

  • Well, I do go to conferences. I speak at them, sit and listen at them, wander around chatting to people at them. I collect business cards, I give out my own. I enthuse about the wonders of the internet and what it can do for people and organisations.
  • I also turn up at organisations, like Councils – occasionally invited – to talk to groups of people, whether management teams or whole departments about the work we do and why it’s important
  • I manage communities. This will be really important once the new LP website is launched, which will be full of online networking goodness. Encouraging participation, getting more people to join, providing real value for both members and for the company.
  • I convene. One of the things Learning Pool effectively invested in when they recruited me was my network: as a result of the past 5 years I’ve spent writing this blog, whoring myself on Facebook and Twitter and attempting to be as helpful as possible, I’ve built up a group of people who find knowing me occasionally useful. I introduce people who may not have otherwise known one another, and hope that interesting things happen as a result.
  • I curate. I spend a lot of time following hundreds of blogs and Twitter streams, picking out the best bits and distributing links to them via Twitter, Delicious, Google Reader, and of course this blog. As I like to say, I find this stuff so you don’t have to.
  • Of the stuff I read, a lot comes from sectors other than the public, and so I spend time thinking how emergent technology and ideas can be applied to public services. I guess I just put stuff into context. It isn’t that hard, and the joy of it is that I don’t need to have too many original thoughts of my own.
  • I write longer pieces than blog posts, like the Twitter guide – and I have some more of these planned. Hopefully they are useful for those that download and read them, and they promote LP as a helpful company who know more or less what they are talking about
  • I have ideas. 99% of them are stupid and never go anywhere. The other 1% are stupid but get made less stupid by someone else, and may end up actually happening.
  • I get wind of potentially interesting projects for Learning Pool to be involved with, which are often way outside the usual day to day business of the company. I do my best to win the work, and after completing it, we decide whether it is an activity that could be ‘productised’ and marketed as a service we could offer more widely.
  • Finally, I share stuff. Pretty much everything I ever think gets written up and published, whether here or on Twitter. I also try to share the interesting stories I come across in local government, finding the pockets of great innovation that are going on and making more people aware of it, so everyone benefits. My recent interview with Mark Lloyd is an example of that. I’m always looking for more.

So that’s a brief run through of what I do. In practice, I spend a lot of time reading, mainly off the screen and mainly within Google Reader, and a lot of time out and about meeting people. There are worse ways of making a living.

The Community Roundtable

I hadn’t come across this before, but the Community Roundtable looks like quite a useful resource. It describes itself as

a virtual table where social media and community practitioners gather to meet, discuss challenges, celebrate successes, and hear from experts.

…which sounds rather fun.

Two things on the site caught my eye this afternoon. First is the community maturity model, an attempt to craft some standards around the role of community management. I tend to eschew things like this as unnecessarily complicating something that ought to be really simple – but there’s always value in sharing ideas, as long as it isn’t in a prescriptive way.

Here’s the model, anyhow (click for a bigger one):

The second thing is ‘The State of Community Management‘ report, which is full of good practice and whatnot. Well worth a download (warning: you have to give up some personal info to get the report).

Community management is a skill required within any team using social tools, whether within an organisation or as part of some external engagement activity. It might not necessarily be a job in itself, but the simple art of making people comfortable and welcome, and encouraging activity and participation is one that is vital for success.

Any time I post about community management, I have to urge people to subscribe to Rich Millington’s blog. Also, read Jono’s book (disclosure – that’s an Amazon affiliate link, and I might make a few pence if you buy anything having clicked it).

Skills 2.0

There are some interesting points in this PDF about the skills required in the age of web 2.0 from Harold Jarche, including:

Attitude: Accepting that we will never know everything, but that others may be able to help, is the first step in becoming a learning professional. This is an acceptance of a world in flux and that knowledge is neither constant nor fixed…

Learning: Learning professionals can no longer rest on their past accomplishments while the field changes and grows. They should be testing Web 2.0 tools so that they can develop optimal processes to support their organizations. If learning professionals are not setting the example of learning online, who is?…

Collaboration: Through sharing and exposing their work on the Web, learning professionals can connect to communities of practice and get informal peer review. There is no way to stay current with the technology, the neuroscience or the pedagogy all by ourselves.

Roles, Platforms, Worldviews – Processes?

David Wilcox twittered the other week:

chat with @davebriggs making me think we need some way to reduce the networking overhead. Too much New: roles, platforms, worldviews…

Which is an interesting point. There is a tonne of stuff going on at the moment, lots and lots of noise, lots and lots of honest endeavour and lots and lots of great ideas. There is, for example, the meetups and projects following barcampukgovweb, the RSA Networks, talk around the role of the BBC in participation, the Membership Project, discussions about the future of new media in a world of user generated content and reducing trust, the OurKingdom online consultation. But how much overlap is here? How much effort is being lost because those involved (at various levels) don’t have the worldview that can cope with these discussions? How many initiatives will fail as a result of key roles not being identified and filled quickly enough?

Here Comes EverybodyI’m interested in how the various strands of discussion can be tied together to bring down the levels of duplication, reduce the noise levels and allow people to involve themselves in projects that interest them while making the most of what is happening elsewhere. This is very much the thinking behind the etoolkit, in creating a learning environment in which organisations can determine their approach to social media and participation. I’m wondering whether discussions even wider in scope might be necessary.

Part of this is tied into Clay Shirky and the ideas espoused in Here Comes Everybody, as well as the discussions held in various places and in various mediums about forming loose associations of like-minded folk. We need some organisation, but not organisations. With organisation can come the roles, the platforms and the worldview required to make the most of the opportunities that face us. I have to say that this notion is an exciting one, and when we combine it with the open and collaborative projects such as those which David promotes, a model for increasing participation at all sorts of levels opens up: whether local volunteers, political campaigns, nationwide discussions or within individual organisations and companies.

Let’s have a look through those three issues David identified in his tweet that set me off on this ramble.

Roles

Roles are important, and they are changing, as I wrote here. There is a key role for people who understand the notion of organised non-organisations, who can filter their way through the cast amounts of available information, who can throw up a blog or a wiki in a matter of seconds to meet a need. The increased use of online tools makes the role of online facilitator vital, but it is one that is being ignored to a hugely detrimental effect. Without the people there to drive conversations forward, to draw folk with stuff to contribute into the discussion, your platform will whither and die. You don’t necessarily have to pay people to do this: you just need to identify who they are and empower them to perform the role for you. I know this because I am one of these volunteers: make me feel that it’s worthwhile and I’ll spend hours doing stuff for you.

Platforms

There are too many platforms, it is too easy to create new ones, not enough use is made of those that already exist. All of this is true, and yet there is still scope for new stuff to come through. It’s not about the technology, really, we all know about status updates, friend and follower lists and embedded video. It’s about the application of that technology in a way that is genuinely useful.

Choosing the right technology is important. Sometimes an email list is all you need, maybe a wiki or a group blog. You have to make sure that everyone is comfortable using the tools though, but most importantly that the tool fits what you are trying to achieve. Can it handle the content – and the interactions with that content – that you are likely to be dealing with? If you want discussion, a wiki probably isn’t the best way to go. If you are using a group blog, how can you ensure that outputs are tied together and the best use made of the various conversational strands? We can aggregate blog posts easily enough, but what about the comments, the responses to those posts?

There isn’t one perfect platform that will suit every purpose. With a strong idea of what that purpose is, though, it should be easier to make the right decision. And that right decision, of course, doesn’t have to happen right away. Experiment, try things, see how they go.

Worldviews

Now for the biggie. Even if you have the right people in the right roles with the right skills and the right platform, it isn’t going anywhere if those who are directing the endeavour haven’t got their heads right. Open, collaborative processes need to be organised by open, collaborative people. This means people who see the value in having contributions coming in from different people, with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. It means not trying to control the topic under discussion and not trying to set arbitary standards on the quality of submissions.

This worldview is the hard thing to get right. It means significant culture change, especially for those in senior positions who might not necessarily be open to such a change. But any collaborative project is doomed to fail if those who are driving it are not willing to change their own culture to open things up to others.

Processes

I’d like to add a fourth item to the list, and that’s process, which for me encompasses an awful lot of the above, and some other bits as well. If we accept that open, collaborative working is A Good Thing, and that we have people with the skills, and a platform to use, and our bosses are clued up too, then we still need a method: how is this going to be achieved? I’m not sure how much has been done in this area. On the Membership Project, everyone blogs stuff that is of interest to them, without really paying too much attention to the needs of the project (at least, that’s how I do it) and David tries to pull it all together with regular summary posts, and project pages where themes are established and work can be done to try and get some of the ideas turned into deliverable work packages.

It would be interesting to find out what other models for online collaborative working exist. Much depends on the platform, I guess, but then my argument would be that it should be the other way round: decide on process then choose the most appropriate platform!