Learning curves

Learning curves, we’ve all had them. Some are extremely enjoyable, exhilarating and satisfying, in other cases the ride is less pleasurable, the curve is just too steep or rocky.  Over the last two years I’ve been riding the learning curve of setting up a community of practice.

I’m glad to say this curve has been enjoyable but I’ve learnt a lot and this post reflects on that learning.

In 2011 I was part of a team from NatCen Social Research, Sage Publications and the Oxford Internet Institute who launched a peer-led network for researchers using social media in their research studies. You can read more about the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science?’ network on our blog. Social scientists have been exploring digital behaviour for over twenty years, so digital research methodology is a growing but pioneering field which needs to respond swiftly to a changing technological landscape. By 2011 tools like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were embedded into daily life and social researchers had realised that there were insights to be gleaned from the behaviours and opinions voiced on social media.

image We wanted to create a reflective space where researchers could come together to learn more about how turning a sociological gaze onto social media might change or challenge our practice. Our aim was to create an enduring network of researchers who could share ideas or approaches and challenge each other to push our practice forward. Two years in, we have over 500 members worldwide and have recently handed over the reins of our main @NSMNSS Twitter account and blog to members of the community. I’ll post more about the fascinating things we’ve learnt about doing social media research later but in this post I want to focus on building the learning community.

“Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger: 2007)

They utilise the power of social and experiential learning to develop shared skills, cultures and values; new practices, techniques and tools; alternative models of thinking and novel approaches to persistent challenges. Widely used for continuing professional development the model was well suited to the goals of our network around facilitating shared learning and knowledge exchange. Communities of practice use a range of learning and development strategies to share ideas and we aimed to create a similar blend of activities.

We were lucky enough to receive funding from NCRM in our first year which paid for a series of face-to-face events but most network activity needed to happen online. Luckily, social media have extended the field of play for communities of practice. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, Ning and blogging tools can be used now to support community activities and enable members to participate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions of their practice and we set out to make full use of these social tools.

Being active online was critical in building and maintaining our network it helped us keep network discussions moving, engage participants who could not attend the face-to-face events and build a network that drew in researchers from around the world. We started out with a Twitter account, You Tube channel, Blogger account and Methodspace group (Methodspace is a Ning community platform for social scientists run by Sage).


So what did our learning curve teach us?

  • Engagement 101: keep it simple.  Get creative, come up with a catchy, short name for your community! Our name spelt out what we were exploring but it was a mouthful and I can’t think of a single event when someone hasn’t tripped over it, even the acronym NSMNSS doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. 
  • Building a visually engaging, easy to use platform is critical for developing an online community. Find the right platform to act as the hub of your network, then create spindles from that to provide a richer source of resources and engagement points as needed. We started with too many platforms which diluted their impact and confused new members. As our community developed, activity crystallised around our Twitter account and blog, and our dialogue was tighter as a result.
  • It’s hard work and takes more time than you’ll anticipate. New networks need the active involvement of ‘community gardeners’ or ‘facilitators’ to ensure that engagement is sustained and the content, connections and community are nurtured.  People do come if you build it (and promote it) but they won’t stay unless you give them a reason to. You need to be there to keep conversations moving, help new members find their way around and encourage existing members to contribute.
  • This sounds obvious but it’s important to think about your community and who they are. Ask them regularly what they want. We used quick Survey Monkey polls and tweeted questions, as well as Doodle polls and other tools to find out about people’s interests and context. Our developing network was global, spread across several time zones, so we had to be mindful of when we ran online activities and take care to create asynchronous resources for learning outwith the live events and debates. We also had to consider cultural and legal differences which might affect the experiences of network members in different regions.
  • Actively involve your members, otherwise you’ll end up broadcasting at them. We found this frustrating initially until we learned how to entice members out of their watching mode.  Early on we invited member blogs from researchers but a critical breakthrough came when we introduced a regular Twitter chat. This created energy in the community, drew people in and provided volunteers for more structured learning sessions. We recruited members to present case studies of their research, share their experiences of the tools & methods they had used at ‘how to’ sessions and take part in Q&A sessions. This meant the agenda was built from the members up and that we sometimes needed to review our own assumptions and ideas about the direction of the community which was no bad thing.
  • You don’t have to be an island. Reach out to related communities, cast about for groups and networks with similar or related interests, see if you can support one another. We ran co-hosted events with related groups including the PhD forum #socphd which opened our network to new audiences and widened the voices heard in our discussions. Reciprocity is key in building online connections so we tried to remember to give back by RTing and promoting our fellow networks’ news and shares. You can also learn a lot from how other unrelated communities operate. NSMNSS owes a debt of gratitude to the #cht2lrn community who showed us the way around Twitter chats and set a great example of member led community learning.
  • Try to make the walls of your network porous. Think about who’s missing, be open and inclusive to avoid becoming an echo chamber (thanks to @sukhpabiel for reminding me of this) where members repeat the same points and discussions with one another without ever hearing dissenting voices or alternative perspectives. It’s been fantastic to have researchers from the arts & humanities, physical sciences & computing involved in the community, this has really helped us to understand how social media research is breaking through disciplinary boundaries. But we’ve been acutely aware that our community is low on members from the social media industry and we know this has limited our learning, we’re still trying to reach them so if you happen to know anyone at Google, Twitter or Facebook do let them know about us!
  • Establish a rhythm for the community, do things at regular intervals so that the community knows when things are happening. We found it helpful to run a Twitter chat before an event to rehearse the issues and set the themes for debate, we ran guest blogs & published transcripts of the chats to spark thoughts before the event. On the day we live tweeted events, streamed or videoed speakers, and then followed up by posting those resources and event blogs. Members liked the rhythm of familiar activities and having a rhythm means you can mix it up when things are flagging and need an injection of energy.
  • On that note, try new things and experiment, they won’t all work but that’s OK. we hadn’t planned to run Twitter chats but we decided to give it a whirl after people picked up the hashtag #NSMNSS to share resources and build connections. After the first few agonising moments when we thought we were tweeting into a black hole (if you’ve ever run one you’ll know that feeling!) the format took off and we ended up running regular, themed chats.

Above all, remember to enjoy it, a buzzing group of members sharing ideas and learning from one another whether in real time or online is a hugely satisfying moment to be involved in. How does this compare to your own experiences of building or participating in communities of practice, I’d love to hear your views?

Corporate Earthquakes and hacking change

Back in April 2013 I found myself signing up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon, Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage.  The idea of the Hackathon was to encourage CIPD members; and anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues, to join together and come up with creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of organisations to a fast-changing world. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect, I’d heard of hacks but I thought they were to do with technology, coding and software. In fact if you look up ‘hackathon’ on Wikipedia (as I did) this is how it describes the process:

hackathon (also known as a hack dayhackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software.


But as I found out, the approach has moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. See this write up in advance of an event last year in NYC for a great review of the many and varied ways the hacking mentality is being used.  Nowadays, hacks and hackathons are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in a range of fields and disciplines. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in the public sector, whilst some events have a specific technology focus, aiming to find digital solutions to persistent problems, others take a more inclusive approach and are simply looking for any type of solution to overcome challenges. In the UK a great example is the use of NHS Hack Days, the most recent was run in January in Cardiff and you can read more about the event here.

Like Chris Bolton, who writes the ever-informative What’s the Pont blog , I believe hack days and hackathons are a potential antidote to clogged up systems and clogged up thinking. What I’ve found most exciting about these events is that they move beyond traditional models of public consultation and engagement to inspire people and solutions. You don’t come along to a hack just to comment, complain or have your voice heard, you come to contribute to a solution. And at their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create solutions for the future. Invariably, at the end of a hackathon a number of hacks are selected as ‘winners’ and supported in some way (either through funding or corporate/organisational support) to ensure that the ideas come to be realised.

Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints during which we were asked to first help refine the problem (see The enemies of adaptability for a summary of the issues identified during the initial sprint) and then to come up with mini-hacks (short descriptions of our ideas about what could help to overcome the problems identified), participants were then encourage to comment on the hacks and sign up to join hacks they were interested in working on. This was all managed on a simple digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange  (who run global hacks tackling a variety of issues). Usually then teams begin work on speccing out the detail of their solutions, working collaboratively in whichever way suits the team. Ours, like many others, was global in membership so we made use of Google Drive and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack. The lead author has the responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it’s designed to be a collaborative process from end to end. For the CIPD hackathon this process took place over a three month period, for the NHS Hack Day it was completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same.

What’s so exciting about this model is that it thrives on collaboration and connection, bringing people together from a range of backgrounds, experiences and disciplines and it values everyone’s voice. This is heady stuff for public engagement. For me the CIPD hackathon was a chance to get more familiar with the new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. It did all of that for me, I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability. I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The final hackathon report is here and as you read it you can see how the ideas ranged from the creatively complex to those brilliant in their simplicity (see for example Chuck Out Your Chintz led by Gemma Reucroft aka @HRGem).

So why write about this now after all these months? Two reasons, Firstly I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think the model is ripe for use in all sorts of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational improvement. How often have you been pleasantly surprised by a colleague’s ideas for tackling a problem or issue? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more democratic way to solve problems than traditional project teams or committees. Don’t get me wrong to implement change you need plans and milestones and organisation but in the early stages when you’re trying to identify what’s going wrong, or not as well as it should be, why wouldn’t you want to have the widest discussion possible and get everyone involved? And if you’re looking for creative thinking and novel solutions why wouldn’t you want to hear from as many people as possible?  If you can make use of simple platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. But not everyone in an organisation will necessarily be up for using digital tech to manage the hack so you can either go back to basics and do it without digital tools or, even better in my book, use the process to help a wider group of staff get familiar with sharing ideas and thoughts digitally, Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.

My second reason for blogging about this now is that a refined version of our CIPD hack ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘  led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt FrostStephen Remedios, Conor Moss  and Guido Rubio Amestoy has been chosen as a finalist for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) Digital Freedom Challenge. The Digital Freedom Challenge team evaluated contributions from hackers around the world , in their words ‘looking for depth, boldness, originality, thoroughness, and the ability to inspire and instruct’.  Our hack focuses on using immersive learning techniques to empower organisations to face up to seismic change, in doing so participants gain skills and ways of working for the future which will increase organisational agility to predict, survive and build positively on unexpected change. We’re very proud that our hack has been selected but in order to make it even better we need people to comment on the hack and give us their thoughts. And time is short so please do have a read of the hack and add your comments, we’d love to hear from you. I’m sure the other finalists would be interested in your thoughts too, see it’s never too late to get involved in a hackathon!

Why it’s time to talk

Today is the first #timetotalk day, part of the brilliant Time to Change campaign led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. The aim is to start a million conversations across the UK about mental health and wellbeing. It’s five years now since I was diagnosed with clinical depression and talking was a huge part of my recovery and continues to be an important element of how I manage my mental health on a daily basis. I first blogged about this a couple of years ago so it feels right to return to the topic today.

At first talking was impossible, not just because I didn’t know how to express the depth and despondency of the feelings I had but also because I was worried about what people would think, how they’d react. What snap decisions would they make about my abilities or competency because of my mental health? At a point when I could barely understand my feelings let alone verbalise them, someone suggested I cheer up & snap out of it. I wished I could. But then I wondered if everyone else was thinking the same. We wouldn’t dream of telling someone with a broken leg or cancer to snap out of it. Just when you need to talk that sort of response, that stigma, can lock you away. Thankfully the stigma around depression and other mental health conditions is slowly receding in the face of concerted public campaigns like Time to Change. But it still exists.

Talking really does help. I don’t mean professional talking (although talking therapy is invaluable to many people and played a big role in rebuilding my world), I’m talking about the everyday emotional connection that comes from someone saying hello, asking how you are doing and meaning it, and most of all not avoiding you or averting their gaze because your illness makes them uncomfortable.

I was lucky I had family, friends and colleagues who took time to check in with me, help me take things at my own pace and who importantly listened when I wanted to talk, didn’t force it when I couldn’t connect, and let me shape the flow of our dialogue. It meant the world to me. And many of those conversations weren’t about my mental health, they were simple day-to-day natters about everything and nothing. But each one was a thread that wove me back into my life.

The more we bring conversations about mental health, wellbeing & illness into our daily lives, the more time we make to talk and really listen to each other, then the better our relationships & connections will be. We all have mental health, and one in four of us will experience mental illness at some point in our lives.

So why not join me today, start a conversation. It doesn’t have to be ‘the’ conversation, or a deep or long conversation, just a chat, maybe with a cuppa, it could make all the difference, it did to me. If you want some tips then see the image below or visit the Time to Change site.


And if you’re stuck for a way to start the conversation then why not sign the pledge wall and let everyone know you agree it’s time to change. And to everyone who took time and care to talk to me when I needed it, thank you.