Archive for June, 2008

I came across an interesting set of concepts that quite predate the Learning 2.0 proclamation. Building upon Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice, Brown and Duguid developed the concept of Network of Practice. Ranging from communities of practice to electronic or virtual communities, and differentiated from formal work teams, it focuses on how individuals come together to learn and collaborate in the context of their daily practice or tasks.

Defining networks as a set of individuals that are connected together in a social relationship (strong or weak ties) and practice representing the common area of focus or substrate that links the individuals together, the network of practice is differentiated from other types of networks such as photo sharing insofar as this kind of a network is based on a practice area where individuals engage in a conversation to ask and share in order to perform at their work.

Networks of Practice (NoPs) include communities of practice (where ties are strong and face to face interaction is predominant) at one end of the spectrum, to electronic networks of practice (typically virtual/electronic communities brought together by weak ties) at the other end.

NoPs differ from formal work teams primarily in the way they are structured and by their control mechanisms. They also differ in terms of their size (they can get very large) and by restrictions on membership. I think, most importantly, they are differentiated by the expectations about participation from members.

I also found Eva Schiffer’s blog taking about an interesting activity that she coordinated. The activity was to take a community and map out the networks that the members formed in pursuance of their practice. Also, I found an interesting read also at Building new social machines.

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The book by the same name written by C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan has much to offer us in the learning industry. There is a fundamental transformation in the way we do business and it is critical for companies to negotiate two fundamental pillars of this change – co-created experiences and access (rather than ownership) to global resources.

If we look at traditional distinctions such as between products and services, hardware or software, these distinctions are getting blurred. Rather, a new order is emerging that conforms to global standards yet is locally responsive. This change can be seen in companies like Bridgestone and Goodyear, traditionally thought of as a product (tires) companies. Both companies now offer their customers an experience rather than a product. This experience is based upon creating a revenue model based on actual usage rather than on the product itself. The relationship becomes more of an ongoing relationship with the customer and from just a business to business interaction, it starts focusing on the consumer directly. The service model is simple – provide guarantees, support and services on the usage of the tires (say in a fleet management scenario) rather than transactionally on just the tire. The experience includes then additional services such as fleet management, sensors in the tire that send real time usage information to the company and training  for tire users to manage their investment better.

A similar experience is being brought to us by TutorVista, an online tutoring service. TutorVista provides its customers with the ability to choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn and for what duration they need tutoring. The student can decide she needs tutoring on a particular area, go to Tutorvista and determine the exact training fit for her requirements.

This is different from mass customization where customers have preset choices or combinations thereof. It also moves away from the heavily used tools and techniques for market segmentation. The market segment consists of one consumer at a time. Personalized yet scalable, affordable and high quality. This is what they call N=1. The locus of value is seen to be shifting from products and services to experiences.

Making this happen means the firm has to be very flexible. Operationally it must be able to plan based on needs and trends, i.e. ability to reconfigure resources is key. Complexity increases in an N=1 world because we are dealing with more and more analytic or consultative selling rather than information based selling. Simplicity of the customer interface also becomes critical along with the ability to initiate and grow a dialogue with the customer. This also requires a new level of IT sophistication.

N=1 involves a new approach to access and use of resources. The authors term this R=G. We need to move away from owning access to resources to co-opting them rather than attempting to own them. There are two big advantages to this and one necessity. The advantages are that the firm can rapidly scale based on expectations and needs of customers and that each resource is an independent entity capable of providing innovations that can percolate to your customers (innovation arbitrage vs. traditional cost arbitrage). The necessity is that no one firm can even attempt to own all the different resources that it would need for creating new experiences for the customer in an N=1 world.

Business processes and associated analytics are what will be the key enablers of an innovation culture. And firms should move from a cost based to a value based model operating as a nodal enterprise in a complex network of global resources. N=1 and R=G need not be costly to create, rather it should be possible to create the social and technical enterprise infrastructure to support these in an affordable manner.

What does this augur for us in learning? We have seen outsourcing and leveraging a global vendor base as a trend and necessity in most situations for large global firms. I would also believe that R=G is thriving in the learning industry and innovation arbitrage is a key factor along with rapidly shrinking and sensitive-to-performance budgets for training. But N=1 is not and that I think is the challenge facing the learning industry as well – how to co-create effective learning experiences for learners. To take an analogy from the tire example above, WBTs/ILTs etc become the “tires”/products that are produced by the firm to train employees and partners. But the end experience for each customer is very personal; learning needs a personal touch. In a socially networked world, this can become a reality because it is a high touch network and based on relationships. This could imply that firms start breaking down content and instruction into manageable transformable forms. Or it may imply that L&D needs to play a more active role in ensuring learning happens by facilitating it more strongly in a 2.0 manner.

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In the last post, I talked about the characteristics of these learning formations. To summarize, these ad hoc formations are characterized by:

  • life cycle – duration and phases
  • interaction frequency
  • interaction depth or complexity
  • extent of formal structures
  • formation size

There may be more characteristics, but these seem to be key. By life cycle I mean both the length of the interactions but also the progression from one stage to the other. Interaction frequency is the index of user participation in the interactions in terms of frequency and interaction depth or complexity is the index of user participation in terms of the quality and inter-relationships in the interactions as also the quality of knowledge and its complexity that is a resultant. Formal structures, democratic and open as they may be or maybe completely non-existent, are again a characteristic of these formations. Size plays an important role (not necessarily a sufficient condition) because it brings with it diversity of opinions and perspectives.

The diagram above attempts to show two things. Firstly, there seems to be a predominance of a large number of formations that are ad hoc, small, low interaction frequencies and potentially low complexity of knowledge generation as well as formations that rarely make it past the storming phase.  Actual complex learning scenarios would perhaps be encountered at the other end of the curve and would possibly include formations focussed on achieving common goals and objectives, but these would be smaller in numbers and more structured. These would make it to a performing formation phase.

Secondly, the same individuals may belong to various formations at the same time with different individual behavior depending upon motivation, trust, interest and other factors.

The first segment (Ad hoc) is characterized by a high level of diversity of opinion, open-ness, ad-hoc relationship creation and a very utilitarian workflow or just-in-time type of interaction. Examples include a twitter, IM or facebook notification, simple sharing of photos or videos or presentations, quick queries through services such as Yahoo! Answers for example.

The second segment is where I would place traditional learning and some part of the learning 2.0 style. Formations  that occur here are typically those who will get to some extent to the performing phase (and thereon to organizational or institutional excellence), but I think everyone agrees that these modes have not really been very effective in the past. A degree of formal structure starts becoming visible here, whether it is an LMS controlling enrolments or an instructor leading a class.

The third segment is where things start getting complex. These formations are tightly focussed and driven by commonly accepted goals. Examples include CoPs (Communities of Practice) and massively multi-player on-line role playing games (MMORPGs) and where gaming, simulation, e-portfolios and immersive learning environments would fit naturally and play a great role. These formations would be highly structured and would move all the way up into the performing stage very quickly.

As you can see, I am attempting to connect learning to stages in development for groups or learning formations to technologies that are available and as they are used today. However, this diagram could be too simplistic and we may need multiple dimensions instead of the two I have here.

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In my last post, I talked about networks and groups and discussed how groups make for more meaning for Learning 2.0 than simply the concept of networks.

As we look at the way Learning 2.0 styles possibly function in a network, it would be helpful to think of ad hoc formations that are forming and adjourning continuously; sometimes morphing into other ad hoc formations of different shapes and sizes.

Not all these conversations are real time and synchronous. We are also learning from records or histories of conversations that have already occurred, with some older dialogues getting rekindled by new thoughts. Nothing is evanescent and yet everything is.

What remains characteristic of these ad hoc formations are that they have very small sizes, short life cycles, are based on immediacy of a need to learn or share something and that they do not have a formal structure.

These formations are really generated to answer questions such as “Did you know.?.”, “What is..?”, “Need some clarifications around…” or “How do I…?” or simply “I am looking for…”. These are usually simple contexts with limited interaction or guidance. Blog comment chains are very indicative here, you don’t often see comment trees that are more than a couple of levels deep.

These could morph into formations that are more long term based upon relationships between protagonists in these networks and their willingness/ability to enter into such relationships.

Also interesting is that the stages that group behaviorists predict really do not apply to these formations. What is symbolic of these formations is the brevity of the dialogue, more of a matter of fact, transactional type of interaction.

So what happens at the other side of the spectrum. That is, when these formations or derivative thereof, become formations that are characterized by long life cycles, compound “serious” interactions and in most likelihood, accompanied by a formal structure. Communities of practice quickly come to mind here. Theories such as Tuckman’s five stages of group behavior and evolution start making sense since there is a broader canvas to paint on.

These groups leverage the power of networks to achieve their growth and the context of a focused community to provide learning for their members. These groups may get “political” at some time or may impose barriers to entry and employ their own strategies for teaching-learning; some may remain very open and make that their strength. It will take all kinds of people to form and sustain these groups. But learn and share they will.

One last point. In any dialogue or dance, both parties to the conversation must dance. The dance must also result in meaning for atleast one of the two. Both need to have the staying power or it will lead to a frustrating and de-motivating experience. Someone must take responsibility for somebody else’s learning – whether in a direct or indirect manner. This is critical.

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In the last post, I looked at some of the basic components that any formal methodology for Learning 2.0 shall need to address. These are Network organization, Group organization, Content, Measurement and Tracking and Collaboration.

In this post I will attempt to dive deeper into Networks and Groups and try to identify the characteristics of how groups and networks need to be organized to support a formal methodology.

If we look at a definition of groups and networks, groups are defined as two or more individuals connected to each other by a relationship, while networks are defined as an interconnected group or system.

Let me refer to a specific distinction made by Stephen Downes on the nature of groups versus the nature of networks.

A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness – like an ingot of metal  

A network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem 

  • Groups require unity, networks require diversity
  • Groups require coherence, networks require autonomy
  • Groups require privacy or segregation, networks require openness
  • Groups require focus of voice, networks require interaction
  • Groups are limited by the capacity of the leader
  • Group knowledge is transmitted and simple (cause-effect, yes-no, etc) while network knowledge is emergent and complex           

    (Source: E-learning 2.0 in development)

This is fundamental to the way 2.0 theorists look at the traditional vs. the new style. Whereas a group represents a formal attempt to bring people of the same skills or needs together for a common goal, a network is seen as a non-controlled, needs based ecosystem driven by user interactions and the ability to form diverse connections. In this sense, networks are seen as being distinct from groups.

However, this distinction renders any attempt at creation of formal methodologies for Learning 2.0 useless if not infructuous if we view groups as a 1.0 construct and networks as a 2.0 construct. For example, a component of any 2.0 formal learning methodologies is the goal. Goals require coherence, unity, privacy/segregation (as required), focus and leadership to achieve in any learning context. Does that mean the concept of learning goals are irrelevant in a 2.0 network?

I think the answer to that is that learner formations around a common learning goal occur commonly in social networks but in an ad-hoc and autonomous manner.  Learners themselves are free agents retaining the freedom to harness the power of such formations to learn. They regularly constitute the formations which are aligned to their own learning goals. Let us take the example of Tony Karrer’s blog or the Learning@Work blog carnival.

A question is posed. The community that views this question and responds (or passively views the conversations) is really an ad-hoc collection or formation of people bringing in diverse perspectives, engaging in dialogue and generating knowledge that really is emergent and perhaps complex. Their curiousity is piqued, they have a need to contribute, it solves a problem for them – the goal could be very specific or it could be an exploratory activity discarded quickly if it doesn’t help meet their goals.

This is not a 1.0 group with a leader. There was no LMS involved that generated a course offering and enrolled learners into a course. However, the dance or conversation provoked learning that was every bit as substantial as potentially a WBT that took the question as a central theme. Not only that, this emergent knowledge would now be shared across multiple such ad-hoc formations across the networks bring the learning to others in turn creating new knowledge.

Suddenly in the chaos, there was order. And then there was chaos again. Blink!

I believe that formal methodologies for 2.0 will have the greatest value if they focus on maximizing the probability of learning effectively through networks.

What if we interpret networks to really be the medium through which these ad-hoc groups can form or be formed and design methods that shall facilitate this new style through formal methodologies?

George Siemens presentation on On Becoming: The cognitive and social impact of technology makes a lot of sense. In a slide titled The Promise, George brings about this quote from the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence:

How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?

This makes direct sense because now we are talking about the power of the network as a medium to connect people so that they can become more intelligent or generate learning that is greater than the sum of individual contributions. Note that the quote refers to both people and computer (devices, systems). George, with his theory of Connectivism, also refers to Learning as a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual and that it is the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

This brings us to group dynamics. Let us examine some theories or models around group behavior and stages of formation.

If we look at George Charrier’s Cog’s Ladder model, there are five stages to forming efficient groups. These are:

  • the Polite stage – where members get acquainted with each other, engage in dialogue and verbal spars to really assess each other and what they bring to the group
  • the Why we are here stage – where members rally around a common context, whatever their individual motivation is, facilitated by a moderator or leader
  • the Power stage – where opinions, dissensions or simple abstentions dominate the interaction
  • the Cooperation stage – where members realize that to meet the common goal they need to accept diversity of thought and opinion
  • the Esprit stage – where mutual acceptance, team spirit and learning efficiency is the highest

If we look at Bruce Tuckman’s five stage model, it has:

  • Forming – similar to the polite stage in terms of making acquantances and assessing the other members and their abilities, but includes context setting and motivation with a lot of direction being provided by the team leadership
  • Storming – where different perspectives compete for attention and conflict may undermine progress towards achieving goals
  • Norming – where trust, motivation, agreement on rules of the game and participation become enhanced and team members get more acquanted with the how of achieving shared objectives
  • Performing – where team members are highly motivated, become really knowledgeable, manage conflicts amicably and participate at a deep level
  • Adjourning – where when the goal has been achieved, teams disband to pursue new tasks or learning goals.

In both models, there may be iterative cycles as new members are inducted or issues arise that force the group back to a prior stage.

Let us try and compare this with the experience of learning in social networks.

The network may exist, but may not be aligned around a specific goal or purpose. The team may not have staying power. There is no binding on any member to work together with other members and all interactions are really based on autonomous, self driven motivations of the members.

In circumstances that members really engage, I would estimate the conversation not going more than 2 or 3 levels deep before either members lose interest or the conversation reaches a premature end because of non-participation. A lot of this is evident in blog comment chains. The responsibility for maintaining and building the interactions in order to generate meaning and higher intelligence is high and commitment is often low and dependent upon the individuals’ own schedule or motivation.

This is a crippling factor. If there is no purposeful conversation in a connected world or if the conversation does not even get us past the polite stage or the forming stage, the utility of this style for any kind of organized learning becomes really limited. If no members were to even respond (or even be aware) to Tony Karrer’s question of month or not sustain conversation to create enough meaningful learning for a large part of the community, the utility is limited.

Of course an individual member may end up really learning a lot from just the question and supporting links (and the subsequent explorations), but it was not the dialogue or conversation really that Tony had intended that created any learning. Rather it was the member’s own 2.0 style that helped.



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