Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is there no substitute for face-to-face?

I’ve been having numerous conversations about how there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. And I understand this – we’ve been using the medium of the face-to-face for a lot longer than we’ve been using any other form of communication. We can see and sense each other in physical real-time 3D, and have all those rich qualities engaged. Yet face-to-face is not always possible, practicable or affordable – for business and personal – in our globalised world. So what to do?

I’ve been musing on the multi-layered approaches that communications mediums now offer us. The different types of relationships this means and enables, particularly in what is now called the ‘social’ environment. So we have social media, social networking, social business, social CRM, social marketing, the list goes on. They all mean different things to different people. What does this really mean as a movement?

To me it speaks of the changing nature of relationships and their potential beyond the borders and reach of the face-to-face. There is only so much time and ability to always connect in the face-to-face. Yet individuals and organisations collectively can do so much more in the virtual realm. It’s not a substitute for face-to-face – it’s a value-add or it's a new dimension, and can keep relationships going on many different levels. Levels that we have not seen before. Some might think these are not ‘real’ relationships in the way we have traditionally thought of them. Many of us are not comfortable with this.

Face-to-face communication has been around as long as humans have been on the planet. It’s ancient. The newer forms enabled by the web have been around for what, just over 10 years? And only in the last few years has this last round of ‘social’ communication become mainstream – it’s no longer a case of ‘if’, it’s now ‘when’ will you dip your toe in the waters of these mediums – both the shallows and the depths.

It's opened up the potential to go beyond the physical. Some people I connect with online, e.g. via Twitter, I may rarely or never meet in person. Yet this does not dis-count the value of the connection. I now have the opportunity to share knowledge, find out what they are working on and how this relates to my interests. And I can be selective about who I do and don’t follow, just as I am in face-to-face life.

I believe people and organisations will become better at using and managing these, and bring their human face-to-face behaviours into the virtual. It’s already happening, it’s all part of how we keep our relationships connected – and that can be business-to-consumer as well as consumer-to-consumer, manager-to-team, colleague-to-colleague and friend-to-friend. They happen on many different levels, when face-to-face is not a viable option. Or to introduce a new dimension that can be useful and meaningful to whatever it is. The guiding principle is to participate as if we were face-to-face – and keep it real.

So as a ‘consumer’, I can feel connected to a brand that makes the products I need and like, and can even participate in co-creation. Much has been said of Lego in this regard, where you can design your own Lego kit, and have it made up for you and share with other enthusiasts; or even the well-known Old Spice example
where the Old Spice guy (and of course his team) made real-time customised video messages upon request via Twitter and YouTube. The success of these kinds of approaches is that on some level, a real connection is made. Even if it is kind of transient and for fun (or to build an authentic brand connection).

We are social creatures and how we relate to each other is what drives us (and the organisation) forwards (or backwards, depending on the constructiveness of the relationship). Best that we all understand how to use it ‘for good’ in our multi-dimensional world. That goes for face-to-face as well as virtual. And that we keep our web of relationships connected using whatever medium makes sense for us and ‘fit for purpose’.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Is the virtual really real?

Once upon a time, I studied virtual communication. Whenever I mentioned this, a common response was ironic laughter. ‘You mustn’t have much to talk about,’ the thinking went, ‘because it’s not really communicating, is it?’ In their eyes the irony was that the virtual couldn’t possibly be ‘real’ communication by ‘real’ people.

Yet the knowledge that we’re in a ‘virtual revolution’ is so common now, there’s even a TV series about it.  Its tagline is “how 20 years of the web has reshaped our lives”. Forever. And the curious thing to me is that in our human history, each time there is a huge shift (and new tools) in the way we connect and share what we know or think, it takes some time for our social customs to catch up.

In using these new tools, some people get very concerned that our brains are being changed for the worse, that it signals the downfall of civilization as we know it and it regresses human behaviour. For these ‘disruptive innovations’  introduce a new way of being together, fundamentally changing the status quo, power balance, business models and our jobs too. But do they actually make us less human? Isn’t it up to each of us to ‘be real’ and choose our behaviours? With people as well as how we work in organisations?

I recently discussed this at the Melbourne Knowledge Management Leadership Forum (in the ‘Ignite’ format – a fast-paced 5 minute presentation). My slides are below.

A curious thing – the word ‘virtual’ has its roots in something very human and real indeed: it means “having the essence or effect”  and it comes from the Medieval Latin for ‘virtue’: “moral excellence and righteousness; goodness”.

So my thinking here is that the underlying behaviours and emotions that make us human remain the same – as do our motivations to behave or feel a certain way. Only the technology changes. And unless we really connect, it is not real. Not the fact that we might be physically co-located.

We’re all now familiar with the telephone. Yet the social customs of the telephone took a long time to become clear. Arranging social gatherings by telephone used to be considered vulgar, the proper etiquette was by a mailed letter. Bad behaviour was rife – we’d now call it ‘flaming’. In America in around 1910, some cities passed laws allowing authorities to fine or even jail those who behaved badly on the telephone.  To encourage civil behaviour AT&T created the “telephone pledge” which said “I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be as Courteous and Considerate over the Telephone as if Face to Face”.

A wonderful early example of this is in the 1910 advertisement below. It starts off by saying "Courteous and considerate co-operation is as essential at the telephone as in the office or home"…

The social history of the telephone makes fascinating reading – there's some great passages here in this book by Claude S Fischer.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same. So too it is with using new communication mediums it seems! Social media is the one we’re grappling with now. It amplifies human behaviour – the good and the bad. It’s up to us to use it constructively and find the right balance.

So perhaps it’s about putting the ‘virtue’ back into ‘virtual’. And to not worry about the medium so much. Jump in, find where the people are, participate and create the meaning and connections for ourselves.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Delicious, yet it’s leaving an odd taste

If I have a major reflection on the past week’s revelations around the “sunsetting” of the Delicious social bookmarking service, it’s that while some things may not generate cash, they do generate highly valuable goodwill. While a service may not be a “strategic fit” for the organization, somewhere and somehow it is a strategic fit for the people who use and love it.

This seems to have happened with Delicious. Much has been said about the value and loss of Delicious, and what might be going on inside Yahoo:
For me, one of the biggest observations is how Yahoo’s trust and reputation have been compromised, and it didn’t take very long from when the story broke on Twitter.

I’ve used Delicious since around 2004, firstly for my Masters research, where I compiled all my references for writing my papers, and have used it since as a safekeeping place for articles and tags I want to remember. I loved it, it was easy, it met a need. For me, it’s been integrated into all my online reading – through the various browser toolbars that made it so easy to save and tag at a click. I’d tried other things, but nothing seemed to have the stickiness of Delicious for me. It had become a habit.

Fast forward through to the breaking story of last Friday, Melbourne time, which I discovered first thing in the morning via the flurry of tweets around rumors that Yahoo were closing down Delicious. Firstly to find out if it really was true, then the “oh no” moment through to finding out what were the alternatives. To me this says that many people valued and used, relied on and even loved the service.

Such is the nature of the current web, and having valuable memories in ‘the cloud’, where things can change and disappear – inconvenient, yet a reality. The interesting thing to me is the immediate impact on trust in Yahoo, and the multiple services it offers. Through association, the thinking seemed to be “if Yahoo can do that to Delicious, what could they do to all the other services?” Data, lists and tags are being hastily extracted, exported, backed-up offline and looking for new homes.

Definitions were loose as the story emerged. When it first came out, sunsetting meant “closing down”. Then after a little while, it meant “find a buyer”. Of course I don’t have all the information; yet something doesn’t add up here for me. Maybe it’s all down to interpretation, but the messages from Yahoo have not been clear enough to its (more than 5 million) Delicious users, and I am one of them.

On the web (and in life), some things need to be ‘for free’, to be a hook, to complement paid services or just because it makes sense to give something to the community of users. I believe these models can work together in business. The challenge is in deciding what, where and how ‘free services’ strategically fit in, and how the value of goodwill is handled. In my view, this challenge is here to stay, and each organization will need to sort this out along with how it communicates in the environment of social media, where small leaks can have big consequences.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Striking sparks of interest

I've been lately musing on creativity and satisfaction - in work, at home, for fun, for business, for career. How do each of us find the thing where we feel connected to what we are doing, with a sense of purpose and meaning?

Many paths of exploring ideas around this have led me to the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology who is very well-known for his work into "flow", including "human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility". (his work was referenced in Dan Pink's recent book Drive)

(Side note: According to the articles I've read, you pronounce his name as "Mee-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee". Apparently those that know Csikszentmihalyi, call him 'Mike'. )

In one of the articles I read, Csikszentmihalyi shared some suggestions on how to live a more creative life. And I'm thinking too, that through practising these tips, those connections we look for might be found also. So here they are:

Enhancing your creativity and happiness
  • Try to be surprised by something every day.
  • Try to surprise at least one person every day.
  • Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.
  • When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.
  • Recognize that if you do anything well it becomes enjoyable.
  • To keep enjoying something, increase its complexity.
  • Make time for reflection and relaxation.
  • Find out what you like and what you hate about life.
  • Start doing more of what you love and less of what you hate.
  • Find a way to express what moves you.
  • Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible.
  • Produce as many ideas as possible.
  • Have as many different ideas as possible.
  • Try to produce unlikely ideas.
I practised no. 4 today (When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it). It drew me through many paths on the web to the journal article where these tips were published, and I've shared them here, with you.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Are there aliens on social media?

Watching the 7.30 Report segment The global water cooler about the popularity of social media and social networks, I was prepared for the worst.

You know, that social media and social networks are causing the downfall of civilisation, that our brains are all going to slowly (or quickly) deteriorate as we keep using them to connect, that we will steadily un-evolve and lose all our social and communication skills with humankind. We will stop working and being productive, and contributing to society in ways that we deem as human and constructive. The normal kind of report you see in the mainstream media about this newfangled virtual communication thing.

Thankfully, it was not that, it had some interesting things to say and presented two sides to the story. Which I thought ended on the note that most sensible people were in favour of the whole thing.

At one point Kerry O’Brien mentions that “critics also wonder whether time spent in the virtual world is coming at the expense of real human contact” (my emphasis). Understanding that the meaning might be in the semantics:  if I didn’t have a real human being on the other end of my virtual social network, I wonder what it might be (apart from a bot or alien). And I would hope I’d pick that up pretty quickly and not friend or follow them/it. Because authentic people speak in human voices, and it is really necessary to ‘be human’ online to develop trust and connection.

Social media is not likely to be your sole source of relationship. It’s how it all ties together. Look for example, at the success of #coffeemornings and #socialmelb (among others). Connections and friendships might start online or offline, but they transcend the medium, and we have such a choice of communication mediums these days. The tools that make up social media are among these, of course. For myself, sometimes I forget where I had the conversation, was it F2F or online? And it doesn’t matter - for when I do see that person F2F again, we have kept the relationship going in-between the times we meet in a ‘media-rich’ environment, aka face-to-face.

The points that the neuroscientist made on the 7.30 Report like…“It's (an) ‘all about me’ culture where you just have to publicise you're cleaning your teeth or you're putting your socks on or whatever”…is from a narrow viewpoint. This kind of thing can happen face-to-face too. Social media can be used for both good and evil, and the banal. Just like pretty much anything can.

And what of those people for whom face-to-face is not an option? If it’s a choice between ‘nothing’ and ‘online’ to keep a friendship going, virtual communication is better than none. Tools like Facebook in particular are a testament to that. I’m thinking travellers, expats, families/friends separated by geography, etc.

And there is evidence to support that rather than decreasing our social ties and connections, use of virtual communication actually increases it, and our social and literacy skills along with it. Research organisation Pew Internet has some interesting reports here and here.

There seems to be a pattern that when new communication technologies such as the printing press, television, web and now Web 2.0 come around, we think it will set us backwards. Then we find the balance.

We’re human. We can be really really very good at wasting time, whether it watching television, reading romantic novels, ‘surfing the web’, gossiping on the phone or even shopping. I’m pretty sure we’d be able to find time to waste time no matter what the medium.

It’s up to us to know when to switch on, and when to switch off. And when it’s useful and when it’s not. These things are not technology issues, they’re people issues. We’ll invent some other marvellous communication medium sometime soon.

Now, where are those aliens again? ;-)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Learning to change culture

To me, culture seems like gossamer, hard to touch and see; even define. It can be oddly attractive as it settles around you, even comforting. Yet it can pervade the environment so surely, that when something needs to change, it may as well be fishing line.

So when myself and Tony Gleeson  were planning how to prepare our session on ‘Changing your organisational learning culture to ensure eLearning adoption’ at this week’s eLearning Connected Forum (Ark Group), we knew we needed to challenge our own thinking about what that means.

The priority of the session was to get people talking, to light the conversational fire. And as well offer something of our own experience into the mix. We framed the conversation with a statement that we hoped would get people talking, even from polar opposites. So we put up one slide that said ‘eLearning as we know it is dead. What do YOU think?’.

We talked about the changes that are happening around learning: social learning, informal learning, participatory culture, virtual spaces, next generation elearning. Our focus was that the people in the room held the keys to understanding these issues around the discussion themes:
  • Value: what is the value of next generation elearning to your business and employees?
  • Audience: what (and who) is the right audience for next generation elearning? Is this just for 'the young people'?
  • Change strategies: what change management activities would you use to implement next generation elearning successfully? What would you do to break down resistance to change?
I loved the energy in the room. It was clear that people wanted to get talking as soon as possible, because once they started, it was challenging to get them back into the room for the group sharing bit! (thank goodness for microphones).

I noted the main themes on the whiteboard…

And some of the take-outs:
  • It’s about being truly ‘Learner-centric’: ensure the value for the audience
  • What creates value for the learner? There are now more options to suit learner needs
  • Learner determines the meaning: connectedness is the key
  • Create hunger and intrigue; then learners will identity value for themselves
  • The language we use needs to change too
  • Next-generation elearning helps to maintain equity for those in remote locations
  • Its not the age of the people, its the age of the organisational culture that is the issue
  • The power of networks: we need to value this, use & extend it
  • Be more inclusive of IT people: involve them in strategy development, planning, etc
  • Lets drop the ‘e’ from ‘elearning’
  • It's about knowledge generation
  • The ideal learning culture is emergent, collective, with transparency

Self-directed learning came up a lot in the conversation. I like this – I think it’s evolving where there is much more choice about when and how we learn. Learning doesn’t even seem like learning; it’s just part of the flow. Our own preferences can drive the learning. We can participate and be involved. Culture change starts with us.

Did I miss anything?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Holiday reading, how far have I got?

About a month before breaking for the end-of-year period, I started compiling my list of books to read.

This may seem counter-intuitive since I am such a fan of following clues and links of people on the web via Twitter and blogs, etc; however at this time of year I really enjoy the expanse of time created by holidays and lying around reading a hard copy paper book (purchased online of course).

So here is the list I've been reading through. Considering I've only finished one and I'm going back to work on Monday, this reading is going to extend w-a-y past my annual leave.
  • Change by Design (Tim Brown): now this is the one I have finished reading. The concepts here are familiar to me, as I believe they dovetail neatly into other types of thinking that revolve around human needs, and then meeting them in innovative ways. Even in my former career in the performing arts, the study of human motivation and actions was a fundamental part of the 'design' of a character, to then elicit a response in the audience as a result of the performance.
    I think that human-centred design is pretty much fundamental to everything, even more so in the 'knowledge age.' I found Tim Brown's approach to design thinking useful and straightforward, especially the way he explains the concepts through visuals.
  • Enterprise 2.0 (Andrew McAfee): I've just started this one. It's a great read so far, it has some great case studies and of course he's a key guru for Enterprise 2.0 and the practicalities around how it transforms organisations.
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls, Weinberger): An oldie and a goodie, prophetic, insightful and entertaining. It's been published free online for years, yet I felt the need to have a hard copy. I read it years ago and I'm looking forward to revisiting it.
  • Digital Habitats (Wenger, White, Smith): Another one I'm looking forward to. I've followed Etienne Wenger's work for years, and I participated in a few activities with Nancy White when she was in Melbourne last year. Great ideas and thinking in different ways about communities.
  • Drive (Dan Pink): Actually, this one was a late inclusion, I only discovered it last week when doing one of my regular scans, following clues for interesting material. It follows a theme I'm fascinated by, human motivation, particularly our intrinsic motivators to connect and share what we know with each other, and why we want to achieve and learn together.

So that's it for now, I have lots to occupy me and prepare me for reading and reflection into 2010!