While not claiming that the information presented in the charts below is very scientific, I think there are a few nuggets of information to be gleaned if we reflect on how communication differs by organizational type. Anyone reading this via a network and who has gone to school or works in a traditional setting, notices the differences. Power and the direction in which it flows are clearly delineated in the hierarchical organization. This is, of course, by design. Having everyone understand their role and the amount of power if confers, allows the hierarchical organization to operate as a control system—one of its most important functions.
What’s interesting is, that over the last 15 years, with the birth and rapid evolution of the World Wide Web, we’ve been able to experience how communication differs in flat systems. It’s quite a change, isn’t it? I think what is notable, is that while network communication can have its sharp edges (think: YouTube comments), on the whole, it’s great for learning, for getting things done quickly, for innovating, for argumentation, and for the quick dissemination of ideas.
We are learning how to make the best of these sometimes-unruly network environments by building systems that promote more pro-social behavior such as using reputation systems (thumbs up, thumbs down), or by using techniques that allow for higher quality feedback and discourse. An example would be embedding a YouTube video into a blog where the commenting can then be handled in the blog itself, limiting the antisocial remarks found on larger, undifferentiated networks like YouTube. Another method would be using a simple, yet powerful, technique like ignoring trolls. Good system design lowers antisocial behaviors while increasing diversity of thought and the quality of discourse.
Another benefit of hierarchy-free communication is that it is more conducive to the reporting of bad or unpopular news, hence, it can be more informative and accurate. It can diminish group-think through dissent, argument and variety of opinion. Users are not muted by the political considerations created by rank. This type of communication is more divergent and heterogeneous, and often more honest (no need to tell the boss what he wants to hear), more democratic, more meritocratic, and importantly, as a system, more tolerant of insult. Hierarchical organizations can become paralyzed by dissent and difference of opinion. They can become fragmented, stalemated and toxic, with members feeling trapped, their ideas ignored. Frustration builds as members are left with few ways to express themselves. Open, flat systems, on the other hand, allow for people to freely disagree, to have vigorous debate without fear of retribution, and to come and leave the network as they please. Those who continually violate the group’s norms can be easily ignored or blocked. Group dynamics are based more on the quality of ideas than on title. Those who can, direct and lead the group through the quality of their ideas; those who can’t either step aside or leave. Certainly, both organizational systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Combining the best of both can be a viable alternative. Many of the most high-performing organizations are figuring this out.
A Massively Multi-vennular Scattergram
This graphic tries to illustrate how various technology layers have, over time*, allowed for the development of new information tools. The rate of tool development is growing exponentially, leaving many people and institutions confused, trying to catch-up, and wondering how to cope. Some organizations are making the most of these disruptive times, as are some individuals. Others are not and will soon become irrelevant. What will differentiate the winners from the losers?
Not too long ago, an information worker or student could get along fine and keep up with their colleagues using a handful of well-known and well-understood tools. Every office worker was familiar with the telephone, filing cabinet, word processor, e-mail, calculator and spread sheet. When a new tool came out, it was soon adopted by all.
Students used textbooks and expected their teachers and schools to tell them what to know. They went to the library for information, and later, used Google to find stuff.
An handful of well-known tools kept people and companies working and learning at similar rates. No longer is this the case. The rapidly growing toolbox has made some knowledge workers much more productive than others–some2 say twenty times more productive. When observing optimum learners, one can see that they have figured out how to manage their own learning environments, using just the right tools when needed. The productivity gap and learning gap keeps widening.
Information technologies are having a significant impact on how people work, play, gain information, and collaborate. Increasingly, those who use technology in ways that expand their global connections are more likely to advance, while those who do not will find themselves on the sidelines. 2009 Horizon Report -Key Trends-
In an upcoming post, I’ll argue how it’s not a learning style but a learning attitude that will help us cope with–and ultimately take advantage of–all the new tools available today.
*Don’t get all technical on me about the exact dates. They are only approximations.
2 Jay Cross – Informal Learning, 2007
The top-down, authoritarian model found today in most classrooms and work places looks very different from the model many people experience when they learn online. The classroom’s hierarchical approach, with the sage on the stage, and the workplace environment, filled with experts, requires (and, ultimately demands) passivity and deference on the part of the learner. Informal, interest-driven networked learning (i.e. communities of practice), with its access to large stores of information and variety of opinion, on the other hand, takes a much different view of authority. It’s usually peer-based, largely democratic, meritocratic, often creates dissonance due to variety and demands evaluation. Knowing what we do about active learning, one would seem clearly superior to the other.
Tim Clydesdale, in an article titled “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), quotes one of his students, “I think this access to information seriously undermines this generation’s view of authority, especially traditional scholastic authority.” The recently published study Living and Learning with New Media states, “Youth using new media often learn from their peers, not teachers or adults, and notions of expertise and authority have been turned on their heads.” Online for several years now, students are deciding how to define expertise on their own terms and it looks nothing like what they are seeing in the classroom. Too few schools and workplaces are taking advantage of the power of peer-based learning while limiting access to the greater amounts of expertise found outside the institution. Employees today, many frustrated by the inefficient, linear, bloated information systems in their offices, are sidestepping corporate policy in order to move beyond the company’s firewall, accessing the tools and networks they have become familiar with in their own personal lives.
Many learners, especially those who are participating in communities of practice, are more accepting of an authority that comes from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down. Credibility and reputation in networked publics is earned by high-quality, active participation. In many cases, each contribution can be rated by participants, and the most prolific can earn titles such as “top reviewer”. This network-produced evaluation, coming from the bottom up, not only looks much different from what is happening in the classroom or boardroom, but also motivates differently. The Living and Learning with New Media study found, “Our cases demonstrate that some of the drivers of self-motivated learning come not from institutionalized “authorities” setting standards and providing instruction, but from youth observing and communicating with people engaged in the same interests, and in the same struggles for status and recognition, as they are.” The same study later describes a writer’s heightened sense of authenticity that comes from peer feedback as opposed to school evaluations: “It’s something I can do in my spare time, be creative and write and not have to be graded,” because, “you know how in school you’re creative, but you’re doing it for a grade so it doesn’t really count?” Opening up learning environments to genuine audiences seems like a worthy goal since it allows for a variety of feedback, often from peers, who by virtue of joining the conversation, show an extra-ordinary interest in the material–just the kind of person many would want to be evaluating their work.
In an age when anyone can publish, how do networked learners and information workers determine authority? Who do they trust? What information is deemed high-quality? Clay Shirky points out that when mass publishing was one way, top-down, filtering of information happened at the source of publication. We relied on editors and publishers to be the authority. Today, learners and information workers need a new skill set in order to effectively filter at the point of consumption. Interestingly enough, some of the best ways of determining authority are evolving from social media that allows aggregated user input such as voting and rating. Those people who know how to develop effective personal learning and professional networks will be at a great advantage when it comes to evaluating authority. Their networks, tailored to their needs and interests, will help them filter and evaluate at the point of consumption.
Some companies and institutions are starting to understand that in this era of social media, it’s necessary to change the rules of engagement. Social media has the power to quickly drive your idea to large audiences in ways that are very authentic and powerful–although at times, unexpected and unintended. Ignoring the bottom-up rules of today’s online playing fields could cost an organization a lot of social capital.
GreenPeace Learns a Lesson
It is a fact of life that people like to share ideas and new-found knowledge. They also like to have discussions about them. Today, it’s easy to share thanks to the Internet and the myriad of tools available online. Links can be shared via social bookmarks, passages in web pages can be highlighted and shared via annotation systems, funny lists (and not-so-funny ones) can be easily forwarded in an email. When it comes to books however, our ability for participatory involvement–the kind we see in a blog post or online newspaper article–is quite limited. Sure, we can talk about a book on sites like Amazon or GoodReads, but we are not easily able to reference its contents or view “group-think” about particular passages. Soon this will all change and so will book learning.
Today’s enthusiasm around e-readers has mostly to do with their ability to store many books, their crisp screens, and their ability for instant delivery of content. Their main shortcoming however, is that they do not connect to each other in a way that plays to our social inclinations. What little connectivity they have, is primarily for the delivery of content and not for the creation of conversation. E-readers will become powerful learning tools when they allow for two-way conversations centered around the books loaded onto them. Responding to people’s desire to interact and learn from one another, developers will design e-book platforms with sharing and conversation in mind. This will change everything.
Let’s look at some of the possibilities of a networked book:
The evolved, peer-connected e-book will allow us to expand our dialog about books worldwide and allow us to look at individual and aggregated feedback in ways never before possible. We will soon be able to highlight text in a book, possibly commenting on it, then share it either with groups, individuals or the entire public. While tools like Diigo allow for some of this functionality using networked computers, books–especially current ones–have remained largely untouched by collaborative markup systems.
Whose book notes do you follow?
We’ll be able to follow various personalities, much the same way we can on Twitter, and see reader’s highlights and marginalia. (Of course, people would have to decide on what level of sharing they are comfortable with.) It would be very interesting, for example, to be able to turn on guest highlights, and see how Bill Gates annotates Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, or vice-versa. Maybe you have a trusted blogger, someone you consider an expert, and you’d like to see what they find worth noting when reading a particular book. One can imagine publishing houses wanting experts and celebrities to annotate their books, perhaps even paying them a fee so as to add value to the text. Which e-book do you think would be a better seller, the one with no celebrity annotations or the one marked up by Oprah?
A networked book seems like a powerful, unobtrusive way to increase depth and quality of book-based learning. Classroom settings could benefit immensely. Students and teachers could easily see each others notes. Conversations could continue or develop outside of the classroom, free from the confines of time, place, or group. The ability to peer into other readers’ minds–especially experts’–will be enlightening. Imagine reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and switching the reader notes between a prominent ethicist, politician, economist, and agronomist… Imagine the insights and innovative thinking that this type of cross-polination could fuel.
Aggregated book data
The possibility to look at aggregated book data has immense potential. We will be able to analyze a text in ways never before possible. Imagine reading Tipping Point on your e-reader and being able to see a list of the top 20 most-highlighted passages. I’d be curious to know what they are and what they say about the book and the people reading it. Each reader’s anonymized profile information could provide for some very interesting analysis. A word cloud could show the most common words being used to annotate a book. Clicking on one of the words in the cloud could take you to the comments and the phrases they refer to, sorted or filtered by gender, age, race, political orientation, or whatever other information people care to add to their public profiles. We could study Sarah Palin’s book using a variety of demographic variables and tags. Which passages did women highlight most often? Which ones did they disagree with most frequently? What do people in Alaska think of Chapter Five, Drill, Baby Drill? Captcha style features could be sprinkled throughout the book to see where people quit reading or which sections were skipped. Maybe we’ll know who’s more likely to have finished Palin’s book: a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.
With the right tools (think Google Analytics) the possibilities for literary analysis are mind-boggling. It will be interesting to see which combination of company (Amazon, B&N…), platform (Kindle, Sony…), standards, license types (open-source, proprietary…) will create the most lively community and build critical mass.
Participatory Learning helps foster personal, educational, and professional growth by coaching organizations to:
+Move from closed, top-down models, to more open, conversant, divergent, social ones.
+Develop learning environments that benefit from decentralized organization.
+Organize for learner-driven inquiry.
+Leverage new media and social technologies for group forming, information sharing, collaboration and the creation of rich, authentic feedback.