Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)

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Web 2.0′s “Broadcast” problem: The case for Meaningful Engagement

For the commercial web’s first decade, people communicated the old fashioned way: broadcasting their messages to anyone who would listen. It was a simple, easy extension of traditional advertising, public relations, politics and academic publishing. E-mail, also cutting edge at the time, modeled the same broadcast mentality. It was yet another easy way to lob messages to large audiences.

Prevalence of the “broadcast model” has limited people’s view of how the internet can be used to deliver messages. Many still don’t realize that the new internet (Web 2.0) offers a radically different proposition: collaborating with others via an open, multi-party exchange.

Engagement is communication at a different level

If communicating via email was passive and routine, the connections possible with engagement are active and dynamic. True engagement is more work. It requires time, energy and active listening. But the resulting flow of information brings rich rewards. Insights begin to accumulate and multiply. Ideas get validated and enhanced in several directions at once. And as the value of the idea exchange increases, personal relationships begin to form around them.

Meaningful, high-value connections like these are at the core of the Twitter chat phenomenon that’s spawned successful, ongoing communities like #smchat and #blogchat and social innovation teams like #ecosys.

And yet engagement rates among the masses remain critically low. Try to talk about social media with the average person, and you can see the resistance in their eyes, as if to say, “I know better, I’ve heard that one before, you can’t fool me.”

That makes building social teams and virtual communities much harder than it needs to be.

Why so much resistance?

I find the Web 1.0 mindset serves as a filter to the possibilities, reinforced by a culture that has grown cynical and distrusting. Unfortunately, those old habits and opinions die hard.

Thought leadership in this space goes back 50 years. Concepts like Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” (1962), Charles Handy’s “organizational culture” (1976), and Peter Senge’s “mental models” (1990) all build on the theme of the filters we use when we perceive the world around us. It seems we’ve advanced our understanding, but have moved too little to act on what we’ve learned.

The idea of “getting outside the box” was clearly spawned from this line of thinking. Far too many remain safely inside those boxes.

Here’s a key takeaway, unvarnished:

Mental filters (influenced by culture, formal education and our past life experiences) shape how we perceive the world around us, blinding us to new perspectives and blocking us from making deep connections with others.

Can we take this problem on, unlocking engagement in the virtual space? I say yes. Getting past our mental filters may be the first hurdle, but there are more. I’ve posted thoughts on the specifics of meaningful engagement over at Talent Culture.

There’s a world full of complex problems out there. Embracing broad, meaningful collaborative engagement on a much larger scale is critical if we hope to solve them.

A “Playbook” for Open Government: A Grass-roots Federal Community that’s focused on Collaboration

On Wednesday, April 28, agency and industry stakeholders gathered for the 4th workshop in the “Open Government Playbook” series. The session was held at USDA facilities in Washington.

With the vantage point of three consecutive Playbook Workshops (one virtually, two in person), I have become a regular. But reflecting on our last session, I’ve grown even more intrigued. The ideas are getting traction, and I’m starting to see momentum.

Workshop Highlights

From the last session’s outset, balloons filled the meeting room as Lucas Cioffi, conference organizer, put a demo of collaboration in action. It was a hands-on exercise showing how teamwork could drive value. Participants were learning that more interactions produced more value, as they “traded up” to the highest value balloons.

Our special guest, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO from the White House, shared her vision for Open Government, focusing on the energy building in response to President Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive. She used a reference to Thomas Jefferson in the “lighting of a taper” as a metaphor for collaboration, with a powerful image: passing the flame to a new wick does not reduce the glow of the original.

As further framing, I offered insights on the need for active engagement in effective collaboration, and the need for a clear vision and a strong guiding coalition as a foundation for the required culture change.

Next came the main event: session breakouts.

For nearly 3 hours, roughly 60 participants engaged in intense conversation and brainstorming, with questions they had generated live, in real-time. Using a ‘self-organizing’ approach, topic suggestions went up on the board, and break-outs formed around topics of greatest interest. In groups of 12 to 30, the discussion around Open Government literally went full circle, as group members shared ideas and possible solutions.

Takeaways

Notes from the Workshop breakouts are still being posted here, but several themes emerged from our conversations:

  1. Open Government (“OG”) is not an end in itself, but a means to better accomplish agency missions
  2. Silos are everywhere; guidelines for navigating them must evolve
  3. Collaborative approaches are key and must evolve as well, eventually becoming ubiquitous
  4. Focus on OGD compliance should not overshadow the objective of driving change in how government engages with stakeholders (internally, across agencies, and externally, with citizens)
  5. A core OG community is forming, based on shared objectives

Several noted that Open Government has been tried before.

Al Gore led the “reinventing government” charge (aka “NPR”) in the mid 1990’s, an effort that stalled. The reasons for that are still debated, with cultural resistance often high on the list.

What seems different now is the level of interplay among diverse stakeholders. There is growing energy around OG innovation that runs wide (across agencies) and deep (spanning both political and civil service hierarchies). But the OGD Playbook conversation is not limited to Federal employees. In this forum, thought leaders from all quarters are encouraged to participate, adding much needed insight from industry.

The magic is happening in the middle.

It’s a place where change can be envisioned, articulated, and given the chance to take root.

At the end of the Workshop, as participants summarized what they’d learned, there was energy on quality of inputs and progress. Many said they’d received a level of insight that exceeded their expectations, and said they planned to return.

Can OG innovations of this magnitude be sustained?

That’s a critical question, and the focus on the next OG Playbook event, targeted for May/June. We hope you’ll come out and join us. Watch the OGD Playbook Wiki front page for the latest.

Culture Change in Government: No Small Task

Per our framing, we’ve spent the last several weeks exploring theories of culture change, ranging from Schein (dimensions) and Handy (structural forces) to Eoyang (complexity).

Now let’s move to a specific scenario, to tie this all together.

With focus on large organizations, the Federal Government is a good place to start. This is even more timely given the recent push by the Obama administration for “open government”. The President’s January 2009 “Open Government Directive” (OGD) mandated that agencies move to a more open, participatory, collaborative stance.

As I’ve said in my GovLoop posts, that’s no small task.

Let’s explore the cultural forces underlying the challenges ahead.

Bill Eggers and John O’Leary in their 2009 book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government” offer some excellent insights, especially when held up to my prior posts on Schein and Handy.

The Agency Dimension. Like Schein, Eggers/O’Leary recognize multiple dimensions. While they claim there is no overarching “government culture”, they identify several operating cultures for each agency, according to the mission of each. Without naming specific agencies, the authors categorize the space by role: enforcers, instructors, helpers, processors, builders/fixers, housekeepers and scientists. To each they assign a cultural mindset which drive behavioral biases. Their distinctions are useful, as they bring focus to diverse objectives of each agency. Semantics could be debated. But Eggers/O’Leary are pointed us in the right direction. This alone has value to OGD planners.

Culture Clash: The Great Divide. But they also focus on an even more critical dimension: the divide between political appointees and civil servants. This is where Handy’s framework of 4 structural forces is immensely helpful. The political appointees in agency leadership roles follow Handy’s central, power-based, shorter horizon mindset. The civil servants? Clearly aligned (if not defining) the role-based, bureaucratic model, embracing structure, continuity, and focused on long-term horizons.

That means a deep culture clash runs through the management chain of the Administrative branch of our Federal Government.

Casual observers and insiders alike will quickly see this as ineffective, with compounding inefficiencies due to distrust and delays. Doubtless this was never part of the design. The U.S. Constitution is silent on culture. But the effects are nonetheless pervasive. Government moves slowly, often at cross purposes.

Raising the Bar (Further). To make matters worse, our last post developed a very modern concept of effective collaboration that, when deployed into complex, highly structured organizations, favors adoption of still another cultural structure: Handy’s ‘task/network’ model.

“Open Government” must be adapted and applied to the cultures of seven operational delivery models (per Eggers/O’Leary), supporting three non-aligned, competing structural forces. And that’s not to mention generational divides: a critical dimension to be certain, with yet another set of change factors.

No small task, indeed.

Path Forward with “OGD”. For Open Government to succeed, culture change must be taken on aggressively. Political appointees and civil servants must learn to see and to bridge their long-standing cultural divide. And both must seek to understand and adopt a new culture of networked collaboration that is inherent in the OGD vision, extending the work of government beyond its borders, involving and engaging citizens.

Al Gore and his “NPR” team ran into these obstacles in the mid-1990s, when “Reinventing Government” took a run at these topics, but the challenges (or politics) of the day seem to have won out over lasting change.

Will history repeat itself?

Perhaps not. Obama’s “Open Government” mandate appears to have a vital combination of leadership backing and increasing momentum.

Beth Noveck has not only helped to shape the vision for this, she has been asked to lead it, as Deputy CTO for Open Government. In her 2009 “Wiki Government”, she lays out the challenge in the context of fundamental transformation:

“The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

What does this mean to our concept of Government? Noveck continues:

“Citizens are no longer talking about the process; they are the process. The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise to engage.”

The Open Government vision is as strong as it is ambitious.

Significant work lies ahead. But in corners of the world and even in Washington, that work is underway.

What’s Ahead? Next post, I’ll make an updated pass at John Kotter’s well-circulated “8 Steps” toward cultural intervention. I’ll argue that all of his ideas still apply, but that they’ll need to be amended, at a minimum, to cope with complexity. Your input would be valued.

In the special case of Government (which I’ll keep on radar) those updates will need to focus on the impact of 3 divergent cultures: political, civil servant, and collaborative .. as well as the many operational dimensions that compound those differences.

Complexity in Organizations: Finding Patterns that Work

As our series on org culture continues, its time to raise the bar in our thinking.

Imagine an overlay of the many cultural dimensions of Edgar Schein onto the four primary cultural forces of Charles Handy. The plot thickens: these are conditions present in virtually all organizations. Large orgs have many, diverse subcultures, making cause and effect of broader organization behaviors elusive. The many variables drive an unpredictable dynamic. Traditional OD interventions often take on issues or interventions one by one, in an effort to simplify. But this simply leaves prevailing forces intact.

It’s a complex but common situation, and for most, it’s hard to imagine how to deal with it. As we said in our framing post, that’s why org and culture change efforts often struggle or fail.

The key focus: complexity, and how it impacts culture change in large organizations.

A modern, more holistic perspective for grappling with complexity in organizations comes from the Human Systems Dynamics Insititute (HSDI). Glenda Eoyang w/ Ed Olson, in “Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science” (2001) introduce some new thinking. Let’s take look at how their model creates focus on specific group interactions amid a sea of variables:

    What, Where and When (defining: the “containers”). Must focus on the problem scope or domain that bring a group of people together at a point in time. Many contexts are possible and potentially meaningful, but to achieve a result, one must be picked for focus, to produce a tangible result. More simply, if its a “box within a box” world, which box are we working on right now?
    Who (defining: the “differences”). Ideally, members of a group will be diverse in their thinking. This brings strong creative energy via opposing viewpoints. Each member can be a catalyst. Bringing members in contact helps them to see alternatives and challenge the status quo. This is essential, and often impossible in Handy’s ‘role/silo’ culture.
    How (defining: the “exchanges”). Ensuring an efficient means for interaction is key, including face to face conversation and electronic connections. How and why will people in this problem space connect? What is the currency of their interaction? Again, difficult in a ‘role/silo’ world.

I see these as the critical building blocks for framing (and ultimately, teaching) collaborative behaviors. And from this conceptual framework, some useful and practical insights have already emerged.

To advance these ideas, let’s tap the perspectives of additional HSDI thought leaders Royce Halladay, Christine Quade, and Mary Nations:

    Patterns are outcomes that result from adaptive group collaboration. It is important to reinforce (and thus, reproduce) the positive patterns, and stop the negative ones.
    Simple Rules are the basis for guiding behavior, which can be done by selecting valuable patterns and reinforcing them (eg. corporate “guiding principles”). These must be actions, starting with a verb.
    Generative Engagement (aka “productive outcomes”) may be the holy grail in this thought process for OD. It is the way to tap value from the theory, as teams model desired behaviors from the organization, and adopt simple rules.

Over time, the theories go, the organization adopts the best, most valuable behaviors, learning to follow useful patterns. There is more engagement. Good things happen. The organization learns, adapts, and becomes more effective.

If you’re an OD professional, this should be resonating a bit.

As a simple example, cross-functional problem-solving teams can accomplish much using this model. But an even more specific example is a special case: online social communities like #smchat and #ecosys. The diverse thinking of such a group tends to challenge established norms. There is no pre-existing structure to unwind. Innovation can commence as soon as the simple rules are established. The group creates its own situational context, and develops its own specialized, often highly productive method for exchange of ideas.

In complexity terms, we call this “self-organizing”. It is a powerful way for groups to spawn new, emergent results.

That’s a fancy name for innovation.

Seeking to Understand Optimal Conditions. Creating optimized, cross-functional discovery teams is a great way to demonstrate and model effective collaboration. They function best in Handy’s “task/network” model. They are designed to adapt, as members learn from interacting with others, tapping their collective base of experience. And they quickly grow adept at pursuing only patterns that produce desired results. Quite literally, they learn. Without such dynamics, the hardened status quo of the “role/silo” culture prevails, restricting exchange, and providing insufficient diversity of thinking to move beyond the status quo. Thus in traditional structured, top-down groups, innovation can easily be shut down. In groups that understand and build energy from complexity science and the HSDI framework, innovation can flourish.

The “Learning Organization” is a future state imagined by Peter Senge in Fifth Discipline (1990). His systems thinking concepts assumed more structure, but his vision of what is possible is congruent with what I’ve outlined here. We are working in the same direction.

Where Senge left open the “how”, Eoyang and others at HSDI are applying complexity science to get there.

The rest is up to us. When we’ve connected the dots on the core elements of organization and culture change (as we’re doing here) we can move more swiftly to pilot implementations.

Next, I’ll post on implications of Culture Change in Government and will update Kotter’s “8 interventions” to account for 21st century forces of increased complexity.

Meantime, your insights are, as always, greatly appreciated.

On Semantics: When Ambiguity is the Enemy

Asking for directions at the Tower of Babel must have been quite an ordeal, with everyone speaking a different language.

I guess they had organizational silos way back then.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we still can’t get through a day without debating simple words and phrases. The latest roadblock: unpacking the overused and often misleading term “social media”. In general, the confusion often comes down to context, ie., how or where the words are being used. And as I’ve posted previously, in a virtual world, context can change quickly.

The fundamental question is this: Do you care if people understand you? I’ll go out on a limb here:

Our messages get misunderstood, if not ignored, when we’re not careful in choosing our words. It’s worse if we fail to consider what filters our audience may use to interpret them. Collaborators today have no choice but to recognize: ambiguity is the enemy.

The answer lies in renewed focus on semantics, the study of what words and phrases mean. Language is an inexact science. Fundamentally, it requires interpretation. And as message volumes increase and the rate of exchange accelerates, we need to get better at mastering it. Fast. Let me throw out some areas for focus:

    HURDLE #1: MOTIVATION

    1. Try to be clear. Ok, it’s a stretch: it’s more fun to be trendy and cryptic. Twitter’s 140c limit is a great excuse for short cuts, substituting all sorts of phonetic (“sounds like”) spellings due to lack of space. But if it means you can’t be understood, re-group. Simplify your message.

    RESOURCES

    1. Dictionary. Don’t be shy. Save time debating. Look it up.
    2. Thesaurus. Are you stuck? Look to thoughtful lists of related words, aka synonyms. Stuck on a word that is causing endless debates? Find a better one.
    3. Learn the etymology. If you’re (still) stuck, check the dictionary or other sources to learn the origins of a word, what it’s fragments mean, and the history of how it’s been used. When getting it right really matters, this level of digging can really help.
    4. Authoritative SME’s. Use your favorite search engine, Wikipedia or Twitter to find experts. Try searching relevant hashtags. Reinventing wheels is a great exercise in creativity, but reinventing words and their meanings slows down collaboration. Find a source everyone can agree to.

    CRITICAL THINKING

    1. Domain. Everything that’s related to the topic you’re talking about.
    2. Understand Domain Boundaries. So you’ve got a domain. Where are it’s edges? What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion? For important, longer-term collaboration, getting this right up front is important.  If it needs to change midstream, spend a little time letting everyone know and agree to the boundary change.
    3. Set Context, and try to hold it. In simple terms, this means staying focused on the topic at hand, keeping within the domain boundaries specified. This may be the single biggest “critical thinking” skill that virtual collaboration forces on us. It’s a challenge, because different contexts often imply alternate cultures, goals, and semantics. Pay attention to that. Starting a dialog? State the context. “Today we’re focused on  X in the context of Y.”

    ADVANCED APPLICATIONS: FOCUS AREAS

    1. Knowledge Management (KM). Since the mid-1990’s, a business practice focused on the identification and capture of the critical insights in an organization. By most accounts, this is evolving with the help of social media. Follow: #km #kmers
    2. Controlled, Shared Vocabulary. This is important where organizations or ecosystems need to agree on enough key words that its worth publishing the definitions to “lock them in”. Very helpful for structured collaboration in a specific, closed domain. (Note: We may need to find a more open-ended alternative for virtual collaboration, that allow working semantics to evolve in open domains, with vocabulary that is “guided” vs. “controlled”.)
    3. Solution Language. Often, a group can get traction through starting to frame the end state. In the process, common ground is established, and key terms emerge. What will a solution look like? How can we describe it? Who will be the major players, and what will be the outcomes?
    4. Taxonomy & Folksonomy. A taxonomy shows how words or topics relate in a “top down” hierarchy. Important in biology. Once important in classifying knowledge. Current importance debated, mostly by folks in KM. Not to be confused with folksonomy which is how words or topics are now getting tagged, forming an unstructured, crowd-sourced, “bottom up” view of topic relationships. A great current example of this is the use of hashtags on Twitter. These are created in a random fashion, but gradually gain acceptance (or not) among folks that see value in them. SME: @StephLemieux #taxonomy
    5. Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.

    Yes, there’s a lot to this. That’s why its hard. And why its important that we get it right.

    Do you want to help fine tune the above definitions?  Watch for these definitions in wiki format, so we can work together toward a baseline of semantic concepts for virtual collaboration. If you already know of one, super, let’s not reinvent it ..

    Meantime, let’s focus more on what it takes to be understood. It can make our days go so much faster. I’ll try to hold up my end. Will you?

    In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

    Back in the day, when tribes were really tribes, the most critical need within a community was survival. Separating from the group introduced risk. Staying close improved your chances. In some ways, little has changed. These conditions seem strangely familiar.

    No wonder an emotional connection often exists among the people and places of our local communities.

    Borrowing from the anthropology books, the community of practice (“CoP”) concept emerged. It was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990’s to reflect the tendency for professional groups to form based on common interests, independent of local boundaries. With a gradual introduction of work group and email technology, geographic constraints diminished. Knowledge Management (KM) brought recognition that groups in remote places could collaborate.

    Today, social media dramatically improves on that capability, serving to amplify, accelerate, and even multi-thread interactions. But there’s a need to strike a balance between capability and usability. For a virtual community to survive, some key ingredients are required:

    1. A common, stated purpose (affinity).
    2. An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
    3. Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
    4. Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
    5. Awareness of diverse contexts (recognizing differences across functional silos, or along social vs. commercial, or local vs. global dimensions). This implies an ability to manage your mental filters.
    6. Semantic clarity.
    7. Strong connection (or access), providing intuitive ways for members to interact.

    Virtual communities cut across traditional geographic, social and political boundaries; membership in many groups is possible. This allows cultures to mix. With increased interdependence comes new complexity. So it’s a mistake to believe virtual communities work just like the local ones. In the physical world, we had nonverbal cues; getting our bearings involved our ‘line of sight’. Now, we must rely on our ‘line of thinking’. And that can change quickly.

    If a traditional community gives us a social context and a sense of place, a virtual community gives us optional contexts, diverse ways to view a problem and its solutions.

    It’s more capability, with a price .. it takes more rigor to drive it.

    Social media is just a platform, the next set of tools. The hard work of change remains. Is our culture more aligned with a race to the future? Or is our desire for stability prompting us (even subconsciously) to cling to the past?

    I’m an optimist, but many take the latter perspective. For the ultimate answer, I’m holding on to the complexity view: the optimal solution is likely someplace in the middle.