Confessions of a justified camper

A little while ago, Paul Coxon wrote a blog post querying the long term viability of unconferences in the public sector. I didn’t respond, because I felt I couldn’t do so without sounding defensive and chippy.

This evening, the weekly Twitter chat, #lgovsm, was based on Paul’s ideas. I did decide to involve myself, and it turned out that everything I said was defensive and chippy. Ah well.

Paul’s basic point is that there are a lot of unconference type events going on – perhaps too many – and that this saturation means people will soon get annoyed that they don’t get enough out of all these events, all these Saturdays that they have to give up and so the ‘movement’ will implode and the sector will be no better off.

I think my issue here is not necessarily with what Paul is saying – he is of course perfectly entitled to his opinions. Nor am I touchy about criticism of these events – after all, I am only vaguely responsible for two a year, and there’s usually some critique of them afterwards, which doesn’t tend to bother me.

Instead, I think Paul is perhaps criticising a group of events – and I can only speak for the ones I am involved with of course – against a set of criteria (ROI, measurable outcomes etc) that we never aimed to meet – which strikes me as being a trifle unfair.

Unconferences for me are social learning events. People learn from each other. But it’s just one type of learning event, and there’s room for many. I get involved in traditional conferences too, and they can be extremely valuable when done well (e.g. when they have me speaking at them).

So here’s a quick overview of how I see this stuff and why I think that some of the things Paul is talking about don’t matter for me all that much.

1. When I am involved in these things, I have no objectives other than people turn up, sessions are pitched, people talk to one another and there is plenty of smiling. That’s it. Others may have their own outcomes in mind – good for them!

2. The content of the event is of course driven by the attendees and that can have variable results. I’ve attended some sessions at ‘camps that were frankly rubbish. I’ve attended others that were simply a room of people telling one another how great they are. The point is that I could leave, and I did.

The other point is that if people want to spend time discussing how great they are then of course that’s fine and I am delighted to have provided a space for them to do that in.

3. The echo chamber argument is true to a certain extent and not in another. The attendance of the events I am involved in grows all the time and there’s roughly a 50% churn in attendees each time. So new people come, veterans come, and they all add what they feel comfortable with. There’s a lot of agreement, because it’s a self selecting group – and again, that’s fine. But it’s not true to say it is a load of continual back-slapping, because it isn’t. There is debate and disagreement – albeit very polite debate and disagreement.

4. I feel no responsibility for anyone else’s personal development. If you got nothing from an event, then that’s a shame, but at least you tried.

5. The best people to attend an event are those that attend the event. I don’t like the idea of trying to get specific groups along – it’s a melting pot of the enthusiastic, the curious and the weird. Let’s keep it that way.

6. What a good unconference is, at the end of the day, is a room full of interesting people. What people choose to do with within the time and space that they have chosen to be in is entirely up to them.

7. There are lots of ‘camp type events going on. I guess we will now when saturation happens because people will stop going. But of course nobody goes to all of these things (I hope!!) and it’s a case of picking and choosing the best ones for you. Nobody ought to feel under an obligation to attend (unless it’s the sort of thing like when you go to the pub with your mates, even though you really don’t feel like it, just in case you miss something).

8. Sponsors see value in these sorts of events, increasingly so. Also, they don’t ask for ROI, or direct sales, or access to budget holders. They come for two reasons, I think. First, it’s to get to talk to people they rarely get to talk to – often the people who actually use their products, or products like theirs. Second, they just want to support the sector, and a bit of the sector that feels dynamic and motivated.

9. If you feel you can do these events in a better way, that appeals to different people, or more people, then go for it! Steph might even let you have some money to make it happen.

10. It might be that nobody will want unconferences any more, which would be fine by me. They are a pig to sort out, and other than a bit of goodwill, aren’t terribly productive. But it seems to be that for the moment, there is plenty of demand and plenty more people who want to be involved, and plenty of interest in more specific, focus events.

Unconferences are an important part of the learning mix for any sector, but it’s important not to think of them as more than they are, nor to ascribe overly high expectations for what they might achieve.

By the way, UKGovCamp is back on 19th January 2013. See you there?

Experiments in social learning

Social learning is a really interesting concept. It’s basically the idea that we can often learn better from each other rather than from an expert or teacher.

There’s an obvious usage for the internet and the kind of social tools I write about here in social learning, and an additional argument in favour of making them available within organisations.

Creating easy to use, informal spaces for learning to happen is something I am really committed to – GovCamp and LocalGovCamp are offline examples and lately I have been experimenting in online social learning too.

Two examples are fairly similar. Earlier this week, FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell and I were in Exeter, speaking with Devon County Council’s managers about the opportunities of digital innovation in local government.

My talk was an expansion of this ancient blog post, entitled If Place is a system, lets make it an open source one (slides here). Part of the talk is to tell some of the interesting stories about the birth of hypertext, the internet, the world wide web and free software.

Folk like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, Richard Stallman and others. People for whom the primary role of technology was to support learning and knowledge sharing.

Devon

Anyway, before the event, Carl Haggerty and I threw together a very quick private WordPress site to enable some social learning to happen around the talks Dom and I were giving. We kept it very, very simple, choosing five or six examples of digital innovation, providing a bit of background with some text, links and videos, and then opening up the comments for people to discuss how that technology might affect their service.

So, nothing clever, technology-wise. But such a simple setup clearly resonated with people – we had 67 comments in less than a week – many of which were left in the evenings, or at the weekend.

By doing this, we managed to turn a short, half day learning event into a conversation, with ideas and experience being shared between people at a time and in a place covenient to them. It makes complete sense.

I’m taking a similar approach with a group of up and coming local government folk who are taking part in the SOLACE Springboard programme. Again, I’m providing a one hour workshop session later this month, on digital innovation.

To make this a bit more useful, I’ve built a similar site to the Devon one, with a few pages outlining some of the concepts, with some text, videos, documents, links and so on, and encouragement to use the comments to discuss these issues before and after the face to face session.

Again, the aim is to reinforce the discussion at the face to face event and add some value to it – not necessarily to replace it entirely.

The key thing to me in terms of making social learning like this work is to make it as easy to get involved with as possible and to allow it to be as self-directed as possible – not to make too many rules or force people to do things in a certain way. Again – pretty much like GovCamp!

The second example takes more of a lead from social networking ideas, and uses BuddyPress to create a dedicated social learning network.

This was done following conversations with my friends David Wilcox and Steve Dale, inspired by the work on social learning shared by Harold Jarche.

Social Learning NetworkThe site has all the usual social networky bits like profiles, friends, activity walls, groups, wiki type pages and so on. But of course it isn’t the features that matter but how you use them. Steve and David have used this platform to provide an easy to use environment for an exploratory learning exercise on behalf of the Nominet Trust around the use of technology by those in later life – something they both know a lot about, of course 🙂

People share their stories, links to interesting things and so on – and follow up what interests them. Nobody claims to be an expert, there are no hierarchies and people get as involved as they want to.

As I have mentioned here before, we do a fair bit of training for various organisations and increasing I see that we need to offer an element at least of online social learning as part of this.

I’m even planning how a whole course could be delivered in this way – although I suspect that’s for another post.

On a slightly related note, this post by Clay Shirky on the concept of the “massive open online course” is a really good read.

Social knowledge and learning at BT

I spoke at an Open University event last week on behalf on Learning Pool, discussing the role on communities in social learning and how they can help improve engagement. More on the specifics of my talk on the LP blog in due course.

One of the other presentations, which I found really interesting, was from BT’s Iain Napier on their approach to social learning. This focused on two main initiatives, it seemed to me:

  1. The use of social networking to build communities of practice and interesting within the organisation, and to make the identification of talent and skills easier
  2. Encouraging staff to develop content to share their knowledge with colleagues, creating what are effectively short pieces of informal e-learning

BT use Sharepoint to enable rich staff user profiles listing interests and experience, and encourage blogging, status updates and document sharing to help inform others as to everyone’s expertise and skills.

From what I saw at the session, it looks like one of the most well-used SharePoint instances I’ve ever seen.

The staff generated learning content is published using a tool BT call ‘Dare2Share’ and is mostly video content, recorded cheaply and quickly using Flip cameras and the like.

Towards Maturity have written up Dare2Share and reveal the really interesting statistic that 78% of BT staff prefer to learn from their peers, but that very little attention or resource was put into making this happen.

Here’s a quick video about Dare2Share:

I wonder if it is just as true in public services that staff would rather learn from each other rather than from external trainers and experts? I’d imagine it probably is and the success of networks such as the Communities of Practice seem to confirm it.

It seems key to me that government organisations do more to maximise the skills and knowledge already present in the organisation, especially at a time when recruitment of new skills is tricky and L&D budgets are squeezed.

While technology isn’t of course the whole answer (see electric woks) nonetheless it must form part of the answer. How many public service organisations make the tools available to staff to do this stuff without a fight?

Personal learning and technology

I blogged over on the Learning Pool site about the personalisation of learning and development in public sector (indeed, any) organisations, and the role of technology in it.

Thought DavePress readers might also be interested.

One of the interesting developments of web technology has been the increasing focus on individual, personal choices. Don’t like what’s on TV? Choose something for yourself to watch on YouTube. Nothing of interest in the newspaper? Use Google to find a blog that covers the issues you’re into. And so on.

Now this issue of personal choice isn’t limited to our personal tastes in media consumption. It applies to everything. Increasingly, it’s applying to learning and development – and that could have significant implications for workforce learning.

Read the rest of it here.

Bookmarks for March 16th through March 18th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.