Featured

Navigating Context: Why Focus is critical for solving 21st-century problems

soulofmedium-1

“Where does a system start and end?” asked the bird outside the cage.

CHARLOTTE, NC – May 2020.  With the global spread of COVID, I’ve been thinking about the many factors that influence social ecosystems large and small, and our (in)ability to affect outcomes, at least to the degree we’d prefer. We just want it to stop. But it’s not that simple.

There are some important stories to unpack.

Unlike the structured, linear, mechanized world that we’ve spent a century learning to control, we’re now realizing that the vast majority of the world’s social ecosystems, and all of it’s natural ones – including humans, and unfortunately, viruses – are guided by unstructured, dynamic modes of interaction. It’s the organic, adaptive approach of complex systems.  It’s a place of uncertain outcomes, but significant implications.  It’s how plants and animals – and pandemics – evolve according to diverse environmental factors.

We can’t know with certainty how these systems will evolve. There are simply too many variables.

We can, however, learn to better anticipate trends and patterns, and perhaps even have some influence on things. Economists and meteorologists – good working examples of what I call “mainstream complexity” – can report some forecasting improvements over the last few decades, fueled by data, tools and experience. We still can’t stop tornados and hurricanes, but we better understand them. And now, living a global pandemic, we’re consumed in learning how to “flatten the curve” via social distancing, which is proving a critical (but still evolving) mission.

Getting our heads around complex systems is not easy, especially in social spaces like teams, where work needs to get done.

This is where context enters the narrative.

A DIALOG ON ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS

I was part of a fascinating conversation in July 2018 among several thinkers in the compexity space, related to systems thinking.  The pop-up discussion was on the challange of multiple system layers, as they interact in shifting contexts. To paraphrase the thread, it’s very hard to visualize all the layers of a complex system interacting with all the external variables, in one coherent view.

Our sense-making abilities and mental models, while powerful, have practical limits.

I’ve always loved Twitter because insightful conversations can “pop-up” around useful hashtags. Here’s one on the topic of systems:

Jan Höglund – @janhoglund – 3:40 AM – Jul 11, 2018 – “Not only is everything radically connected, but it is all moving, and with every move the nature and impact of the interrelationships can change. Worse yet, the rate of movement is random and differential.”  ~Harrison Owen, Wave Rider, p.49 #quote #systemsthinking
Maz Iqbal – @maz_iqbal 3:52 AM – Jul 11, 2018Deep assumption that is worth challenging: that there is the context, and there is the system, and the two are distinct or can be treated as distinct. @NoraBateson what do you say?
Nora Bateson@NoraBateson – 4:34 AM – Jul 11, 2018It depends on where you draw the edges of the context or system. There are contexts within contexts & systems within systems. And—For many the notion of context is another word for system. Interestingly people are more inclined to think about system change than context change.

 

My takeaway on this?  When thinking about complexity in layers of systems, its easy to “max out” due to the number of variables and interactions. Our mental models of the moment essentially crash. We need a way to manage this.

When we’re sense-making, we need simplifying assumptions.  Our mental models can help us. All models seek to approximate what’s really happening in front of us, and a useful model needs to allow enough clarity to make sense of what’s going on, at a level that makes sense for the problem at hand. We can’t “let all the complexity in” at once, or we drown in information. So in the above example, we must simplify things, by saying to ourselves, usually subconsciously “I’m in a reasonably trusting group that needs my input; let me focus on the question.”  Anything short of that personal investment finds us in another useless meeting, with limited value and virtually no collaboration.

Holding context – think of it as focus – is especially important for complex adaptive systems, that learn – like humans – where it is essential to hold most variable and external factors constant, so that mental faculties can stay focused on a specific problem, in a specific context. Both individuals and groups can do this for short periods. Some individuals and most larger groups will struggle. And I’ve found the duration for holding context, for true focus, must be limited, working inside the classic psycho-physiological ‘time box’ – no more than 60 to 90 minutes.

Ultimately, this is how we achieve results in a team setting, moving beyond idle thoughts to useful actions and purposeful work. We try to focus our energies like this every day.

Often, we struggle.

It is the process of complex adaptive (human) systems functioning in the world, not only surviving, but learning and creating, which means navigating context is a core (if not subconscious) element of our creative process. And all of it, ultimately, is fueled and driven by our individual and collective ability to make sense of what matters in the moment.

The key is setting and holding context while we make sense of what’s happening. When we have an idea, a few theories, something to work from, only then we can shift that context, and let in more or less data, to further refine our thinking. The lens can zoom in, or back out. It can expose more details of a system, and it’s subsystems, or less. Neither are right or wrong to the sense-maker – only more or less useful, in the moment.

And (this is also key) we must capture takeaways. We need contextual stakes in the ground, to inform and spark follow-up, the critical, final learning step that most philosophers called “synthesis” – but that’s another thread.

Much to process. But more and more, I see it like this:

Navigating context is our principal tool for understanding complexity. To the deep thinker, it takes a flexible process and some mental gymnastics to learn how to hold and ultimately shift context on demand.

Doing it a group is harder still. Harder. But not impossible.

I’ve laid out some of these core, interdependent dynamics in my book on collaboration.  As we speak, I’m mulling ideas for two additional books, and a 2nd edition of the first.  The journey of deeper learning starts with looking around, and asking better questions.

Join me for conversation here, on Medium, Linked-in and/or on Twitter

We have much to discuss.

Chris Jones | Charlotte

Featured

Trouble in Social Media Paradise: Is Anybody Listening?

Who is on the receiving end, if anyone?

Who is on the receiving end, if anyone?

CHARLOTTE, NC. September 2013, by 

One thing you can count on with Twitter: everyone on it has something to say.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be there. But there may be trouble in paradise:

Social media consultants and PR folks: look around. Many early adopters have grown fatigued, and are increasingly absent. Take a deep breath, and ask the hard question: Is anybody listening?

To me, factoring in social media’s rapid evolution, its not too soon for it to be having a mid-life crisis.  Gartner, the industry think tank on technology trends, would call it the trough of disillusionment, a predictable window of second thoughts.  Enterprise 2.0 advocate Andrew McAfee would be quick to point to technology adoption cycles that run 10 years or more. Even so, our collective excitement over social media’s breakthrough in marketing and PR is increasingly ecclipsed by a vague realization that maybe we were wrong.

Does social media matter in the scheme of things?

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Social media continues to post user gains on Twitter and new platforms like G+ and Instagram. Perhaps it’s only natural that newcomers bring the same bias to their marketing communication that they had in traditional web and broadcast media. Key word there, of course, being broadcast. It is the bane of those who seek to engage, and it’s a trend that’s clear to see in a typical Twitter stream. Even Twitter chats aren’t immune. You may find social interaction and friendly banter. But examine the content.

Do aphorisms outnumber personal perspectives?

And what do we know about our audience? Do we have one? Hopefully, we’re speaking to a community, or at least a group of loosely connected but interested stakeholders. If not, our tweets are simply flying off into thought space (and arguably, outer space) undirected and ill-focused, in hopes that somebody, anybody, might notice.

It’s time we take accountability for our messages. Ultimately, I think we’re experiencing growing pains as we learn a new way to communicate. Here are a few things we can do to put the social back in social media:

  1. Listen. It’s harder than it sounds. Watch people and hashtags that matter to you, and get into their flow. What’s being said today? Is it anything new that deserves a response?
  2. Focus your energy, responding to ideas that resonate. Many in the stream seem intent on outwitting colleagues with ever more clever tweets. Are we competing to be heard? Or adding value? Take ownership for helping with noise control.
  3. Tweet something that matters. Even if it means waiting.
  4. Tweet with personal insight. That’s what social media is about. Quotes and aphorisms can inspire, but that shouldn’t be all we have to say.
  5. Say “No” to broadcasting. Period. It’s a very 20th-century approach. It’s all TV and radio had to go on. Target your thinking, and be prepared to enage when someone responds.
  6. Use hashtags for context and relevance. If you can’t give your tweet a hashtag to associate it with a topic or audience, just maybe it’s not of value to others. Sobering? Perhaps. Hashtags help you think about your focus, and they increase the chance your tweet will reach someone who needs to hear it .. beyond the limit of your current followers .. which extends the half-life of your message.

Props to Su Wilcox for her tweet at #smchat #socialchange this week that inspired this post, as she advised: “make it clear somebody is listening”

As it happened, I was.

Are a significant number unplugged from social media?

Are a significant number unplugged from social media?

Twitter tells me I’ve tweeted over 27,000 times. I’m sure there are a few broadcast tweets in the mix. I’ll own them. But I’ll also challenge you to find them. There aren’t very many.

To me the ability to connect and engage with like minded people is the magic of Twitter, and social media in general. When I turn to Twitter, I’m focused on making an impact in specific ways, with a specific audience in mind. I’m not hashtag OCD. I’m bent on making a difference.

The alternative to broadcast? I call it “social intention” – a force that transforms broadcasting into purposeful sharing. It’s more than semantics. Two-way interaction is the core of social’s paradigm shift.

So think about it. And I mean, this time, really reflect. Go deep. I’d love to know your thoughts.

And there’s one more thing you can count on: I’m listening.

Chris aka @sourcepov

Featured

Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

These days, the ability to achieve deep, meaningful learning seems more and more of a challenge.  Hamstrung as we are by an ever growing mountain of content, dwindling attention spans, fewer available hours of focused energy, and pressure to prove results, it’s a wonder anyone can truly learn anything anymore.

Some say we can’t, and that increasingly .. we aren’t.

Rather than piling more fuel on the pyre of discontent, I’ve begun to focus my energy on new ideas in the learning space.  For most of the last 4 years I have been reading, researching, and discussing the challenges.  Much of that has happened over at the #k12 #ecosys, where deep & insightful discussions continue.

The result?  It certainly remains a work in progress.  But I’ve begun to put increasing stock on how to drive a synthesis across professional practices that claim much of the high ground on what it means to learn:  KM, OD and Education in particular.  Here’s a discussion framework that has emerged out of these conversations.

What do I mean by these?  I’ll offer a working definition of each, in the context of “learning how to learn”:

  • KM – Knowledge management, a business practice from the 90’s that seeks to  define, capture, and reuse knowledge across an organization, helping its members to share and ultimately learn from past achievements
  • OD – Organizational development, a business discipline most commonly in HR (human resources) that seeks to increase the productive capacity of the people and teams within the organizations walls
  • Education – the immensely broad ecosystem of teaching professionals across K12, colleges and universities, deeply immersed in the art and science (mostly science) of helping our young people learn

Challenge me here. Is this a good foundation?

Assuming so, would cross-pollination of experts like this be unthinkable?  It seems daunting on the surface.  Getting experts working together is hard work, as I’ve explored throughout The DNA of Collaboration.  But to me, crossing these boundaries is precisely the challenge.  We must work together to redefine the problems in solvable ways.  It means changing the stakes so that all the generations around us .. Boomers,  X, Y, Z and beyond .. can embrace new ways to learn how to learn.

In the face of increasing pressures for results, seemingly ‘soft’ initiatives like these are often scaled back, reducing our capacity to learn and to innovate at precisely the wrong moment.

What are some of the requirements in gaining cross-disciplinary cooperation and teamwork?

  • Intention and focus – to define what it means to learn deeply, and to establish new benchmarks for what is possible and achievable
  • Cultures that evolve – fostering new levels of trust, risk-taking and collaboration, so they might earn a more venerable status: ‘cultures of learning’
  • Solution language – that help insights and ideas emerge and converge into fundamentally new possibilities
  • Releasing the flow of insight – surrendering structure to more organic and adaptive methods of exchange

Working across professional disciplines exposes visible fault lines.  Many are deeply entrenched in decades of research and practice, convinced that the only path to success is the one they learned in grad school.  For some, their deeply held convictions will need to be left by the door.

In terms of some key ideas, what might we be talking about?  Here’s just a starter list of topics, to spark the synapses ..

  • Social Capital – building skills, networks and resources to help ourselves to help others
  • Evolution of Teacher/Learner – teachers that learn; learners that teach
  • Learning Cultures – how do we foster them?
  • Weaving a Collaborative Learning Fabric – discussing 1Q13 at CDNA G+ Community
  • Self-Selection and Ownership – customization of the learning agenda
  • Motivation and Growth Mindset – removing fear of not-knowing
  • White space – exploring and exposing the creative urge
  • Social, Team & Project-based Learning – is all learning truly social?
  • Key Stakeholder Roles – including Community involvement, and the notion of Resilience
  • Open Knowledge Frameworks – via a 21st century read of Kant
  • Virtual Environments – the purposeful evolution of distance learning and e-Learning

Under the hashtag #cdna (for “collaboration DNA”) we have begun to explore what it means to learn deeply and learn together, across all the contexts described here.  To get at the issues more directly, we will use this space, related posts on the book site, and other spaces (join our CDNA G+ Community) to expand on what we mean by the practice of KM, OD and Education in the context of learning.

Change demands new thinking.  And as you likely know by now, that is the sort of discussion that  keeps me up at night.  I would love your input and ideas.

My fear is that increasing numbers will someday fail to learn how to learn.  It’s a slippery slope with serious implications.

We’ve got work to do.

Philosophy and the Search for Ideas: Foundations of Critical Thinking

As historians are quick to point out, the parallels between modern times and the classical world – including not only Greece, but also Rome – are plentiful. No new thinking here. In profound ways, our modern society, laws, forms of government and language are embedded in the classic traditions.

But there’s more to the story than that.

The history of philosophy, more broadly framed as the history ideas, tells a compelling story about a journey to new levels of understanding – a tale that traces evolution of ‘critical thinking’ itself.

At its core, philosophy is about learning how we ‘know’ what we know, and learning what we can do with the knowledge that can be gained.

Critical thinking and philosophy seem to share a common heritage, as shown in this table:

CT-foundation-x10_v2-200514

There is scant space here to do justice to such a rich history, but to advance the topic as part of my critical thinking series we need to at least expose the biggest pillars. In the paragraphs below, I focus on philosophers who have provided significant contributions to what has evolved as the modern notion of critical thinking.

  1. Pythagoras. A pioneer in math, Pythagoras advanced geometry with his famous theorem on triangles. In so doing, he brought the concept of ‘abstraction’ into the mainstream. He effectively demonstrated that what we observe is one thing, while what we comprehend mentally is quite another.
  2. Socrates. Famous for asking deeper and deeper questions to get to the core of an issue, Socrates was a relentless advocate of critical thinking. He is said to have used Pythagorean triangles drawn in the sand to challenge skeptics on their limited view of the ‘knowable’.
  3. Plato. While famous as both student and scribe of Socrates and an early political scientist, Plato was important in this discussion for driving concepts of perfected universals – truth, as one example – derived from accepted perfections in abstract mathematics. When we think about ideal solutions and archetypes, we owe a debt to Plato for asserting their importance, laying ground work for the modern framing of ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn) and ‘mental model’ (Senge).
  4. Aristotle. A critical inflection point in Western philosophic thought, Aristotle used his deep appreciation for observable science – biology in particular – to bring a rational, logical rigor to the abstract ideas of his time. He laid key foundational ideas of ‘causality’, and described abstract universals as characteristics that describe what we see in reality, reversing ideas of his predecessor, Plato. He was also the first rigorous ‘ontologist’ – developing categorization structures (including the classic genus-species taxonomy for plants and animals) that help us classify the world around us.
  5. Bacon. While not the first in a long empirical tradition, Francis Bacon is typically held up as the earliest catalyst of rigorous thought that established experimental science as a discipline. He provided the building blocks of what would later become known as the scientific method. With this structured approach, man gained the ability to discover and prove the causes of things.
  6. Decartes. One of the earliest to fully articulate human self-perception in philosophy, famous for cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am” with significant contributions not only in rational philosophy but also in math, where his thinking was foundational in analytical geometry.
  7. Hume. Among his many contributions, Hume helped advance the idea of ‘mediation’ in our perceptions, arguing that our logic and conclusions are often filtered, whether by our senses or by our prior patterns of behavior, describing how the mind makes assumptions around causation based on our experiences (note: watch for future discussion of ‘mental heuristics’).
  8. Kant. Perhaps the most influential critical thinker of the last 400 years and a rich source of insights, Immanuel Kant brought many of Aristotle’s early notions forward into the modern world. He advanced the categorization of knowledge, with ideas that hinted at ‘context’ based on the notion of “a priori” (pre-existing) factors such as the special external functions of space and time. He also introduced a rational approach to our behavior, bringing logical underpinning to the discussion of ethics.
  9. James. Known as the father of modern psychology, William James developed our appreciation for focus, and its importance on perception and discernment.
  10. Wittgenstein. Famous for bringing the nuances of language into the discussion of ideas, Wittgenstein argued that both culture and semantic bias carry a fundamental influence in any kind of meaningful exchange. He argued that semantic rigor is essential to philosophical endeavors, serving as a cornerstone of what we now call critical thinking.

At the risk of leaving holes in our story, I’ve left out some key names – deep thinkers like Hegel, Locke, Hobbes, Reid, Mill, and a raft of others – and I’ll take responsibility for the exclusions. This was in part due to space, but also due to the focus of my research on the dynamics and demands of modern collaboration.

If you can help me fill any gaps in the progression, share your thoughts and I’ll provide updates. There’s also a quick survey in the toolbar that would help build a broader consensus on those most influential.

With a foundation in place, where can we go from here?

Unlike any time in history, people and their ideas are getting connected at an accelerated rate. That changes the rules of what’s possible. Critical thinkers who collaborate are likely to drive a potent set of outcomes.

The ability to realize the new dynamics of knowledge sharing may be the next significant challenge our society faces, but also, I believe, it is our greatest promise. Building a sustainable future requires that we relearn what it means to learn, and to advance our ability to learn from each other – globally, deeply, and ever more quickly.

There’s still much work ahead, as this series continues to rediscover what scholars have known all along: the importance of critical thinking.

Let me know your thoughts.

Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

Featured

Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

CHARLOTTE, NC. January 2011, by

On the road to unlocking collaboration, our culture series has taken us through a review of Schein’s many layers, Handy’s four structural models, and Kotter’s eight steps for change – lots of ways to slice and dice the cultural barriers.

To me, it was important progress and worth the deep dive, tapping dozens upon dozens of insightful comments, for which I remain grateful.

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced:

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

We need some breakthrough thinking. How can we foster collaboration and cultures that encourage it?

Where do we turn now?

Peter Senge, in his 1990 watershed work The Fifth Discipline (latest ed. 2006), laid an important foundation for Learning Organizations that still resonates today. As we look to frame the core dynamics of effective collaboration and the many challenges of the necessary culture change, I think we need to go back to the source.

While Senge advocated 5 critical disciplines for the modern organization, I struck gold on several foundational takeaways, each resonating with my views on collaborative innovation. Not all of them qualify as ‘disciplines’ as he defined them, but they all seem to have strong relevance to the challenges at hand.

Let’s look at them:

  1. the power of dialog to weave new insights on broader, divergent ways, in his words “open to the flow of a larger intelligence” and “taking us in directions we could never have imagined.” (is it just me, or does that sound a lot like Twitter?)
  2. exposing the vital role of context as the critical lens through which our ideas relate to the world, to each other, and to potential innovations
  3. understanding our social ecosystems, with a nod to “systems thinking”, exposing relationships across parts of the whole; this was an important stake in the ground for interdisciplinary thinking, concepts at the core of the collaborative model and Senge’s view of organizational learning
  4. recognizing that cultures can and must promote learning through deeper inquiry, encouraging us to challenge the rigor of our thinking; ‘critical thinking’ has lost focus in the commercial space and across western society, creating a fundamental problem in education priorities (but that’s another stream!).
  5. harnessing heuristics and paradigms to capture the mental power of abstraction, which he called “mental models;” these help us frame ideas, solutions, and (eco)system relationships in visual, more intuitive terms
  6. importance of the study of nature’s patterns, many holding secrets to how our world and our problems relate, with key messages for ecosystem sustainability and a means to understand complexity around us.

Senge looked to future organizations to master these challenges, becoming increasingly skilled at complex problem solving, and increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, adapting to handle more complex environments and challenges. Successful organizations, he hoped, would demonstrate resilience, and an expanding, repeatable capacity for learning.

Like many visionaries, Senge challenged future leaders to pick up the cause and drive these conceptual ideas into practice. Where are those leaders when we need them?

Some of them may be staring back at us in the mirror.

As we depart from Senge (with much to mull over!) let me direct your attention to the work of Marcia Conner, who has produced a series of books that lay out much of the work ahead in crafting a viable, sustainable learning organization.

Perhaps you’ve connected with her at #lrnchat, on Twitter?

Read up, and listen in.

Ultimately, we must promote cultures that value both learning and collaboration. That’s where innovation and great ideas come from.

We’re at a crossroads, of sorts, and here’s why:

Talking around notions of collaborative cultures is easy, in the same way people banter about collaborative innovation. Small wonder there’s such a buzz about it. But fostering cultures that spawn collaborative behaviors is hard work. I wonder: do we have the resolve to take it on?

Ahead: I’ll provide more specifics on the mechanics of effective collaboration. The journey continues, and we’re picking up the pace.

Here’s some additional dialog just posted on Quora, based on this thread.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Barriers to Twitter Adoption: Unlocking a new Communication Paradigm

Some people believe, as I do, that Twitter has the power to fundamentally enhance our ability to communicate, accelerating access to both people and information. By most definitions that would make it a paradigm shift. Others, perhaps the majority, remain skeptical.

Let’s dive a bit deeper, to see what we might learn.

Twitter simplifies communication, removing barriers of time and place. Without the overhead of email, conversations can spark around the globe. Every contact can be a source of inspiration, a new collaborator, a potential customer.

Where else can you message the world and get answers?

Many have seen the potential of Twitter and are running with it. From custom news feeds to social activism, from blog promotion to chats and book clubs, from corporate promotion to a new era of participative journalism. Access to people and information appears to be accelerating.

So what’s the problem?

No issue, for the brave. On the surface, it seems easy, and it can be. If you’re able to multitask across dozens of threads. If you have unlimited free time. If you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish during all your waking hours. Ambitious? More like impossible. Not enough caffeine in my latte for all of that. Control of the world’s information feeds is NOT the goal. Our families like to see us from time to time, and there’s this useful notion called ‘sleep’.

Still, my instincts tell me we’re leaving significant value on the table. The fundamental question for me remains:

What are the true barriers for adoption of the evolving Twitter and social media paradigms, and what can we do to unlock new levels of collaboration?

On WEDS 12/15 at 1pET, #SMCHAT will be joined by Laura Fitton, aka @Pistachio, CEO of oneforty.com and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. It’s part of her sweep of Twitter Chat’s for the TFD #BookTour. A true ‘early adopter’ herself w/ +70,000 followers, Laura has been at it longer than the rest of us. Let’s ask her to join us in brainstorming our hardest open questions:

  • Q1. Engagement. New rules include need for authenticity, clarity of intent, agreed semantics, less broadcasting & more listening. What else?
  • Q2. Influence. CW says numbers don’t matter, but marketers know eyeballs equal hits. What are dynamics of smart social network building?
  • Q3. Saturation. With so much info streaming in, Tweetdeck can barely keep up. Hashtags are imperfect. How do we manage the deluge of ideas & when is enough, enough?
  • Q4. Convergence. Apps & options keep proliferating, adding to the confusion. Should there be convergence to fewer tools, or is integration a better path?
  • Q5. Upside. Time for your crystal ball. Will twitter growth plateau, or will there be mass market adoption? What role does culture play?

The New Year is approaching. What better time reflect on the “State of the Social Network?” Let’s use the 90 minutes with Laura to good advantage. They’ll go fast.

Bring your questions and ideas, and join the conversation. It promises to be a good one. (click here at the appointed time)

Help me plan our time. Which of the topics above resonate the most for you? In which dimension(s) do the most significant barriers lie? Leave a comment, let’s discuss it.

Featured

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.

Starting 2010 with a Bias for Action

It’s the New Year, and there’s no time like the present to embrace all the things we spent 2009 talking about. Trouble is, there was lots of talk in 2009. Talk full of buzz words. Some claim that we’ve begun talking in circles. Maybe so. But in the process, we’ve laid an important foundation.

Look at it like this:

Meaningful, sustainable change starts with an informed conversation. Together, it’s easier to frame the future, to find the best path forward.

In 2009, via blogs and chats, we began to frame that future.

In many ways, 2009 had to happen. It’s not entirely clear how, but we survived it. We realigned our cost structures, built our networks, and learned how to interact using social media.

Now, with scarcely time for a breath, the hard work begins anew. Let’s start 2010 with a clear mindset. Here are four key themes, resolutions to guide our collaboration efforts:

  1. Bias for action. The key step in breaking the talk cycle.
  2. Bias for engagement. Moving away from the Web 1.0 broadcast model of communicating, toward a more valuable 1:1 exchange that builds relationships.
  3. Bias for learning and discovery. I’ve posted on the need for a learning culture, not only increased higher priority for education, but renewed focus on critical thinking and semantic clarity. If we succeed, the prize is a knowledge renaissance.
  4. Bias for change. None of the above will matter if we continue to cling to the past. Our risk-averse cultures are often biased to resist change. To move forward, we need to embrace it.

What does action-oriented collaboration look like? Here are some case studies in virtual community that seek to use engagement and discovery to drive new solutions:

  1. Look for some immediate changes at #smchat. Building on insights from 2009, we’re brainstorming how we can drive even more value for members. Thought leadership and emergent insight have been the core of our value stream. How can we leverage that?
  2. We’re at an inflection point for exciting things w/ #ecosys, our pilot project on public engagement to drive social innovation.
  3. Take a look at what’s happening at govloop. Over 20,000 voices from across government are self-organizing. Ideas are everywhere.

Let me know if you know of others.

2010 will be a time of culture change and new paradigms. We don’t have much choice. So strap in and hold on. We’ve got some work to do.

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?