Learning in community at conferences

Legendary Apple designer Jony Ive explains how learning in community helped Apple make the iPhone:

“When we genuinely look at a problem it’s an opportunity to learn together, and we discover something together. We know that learning in community is powerful. It feeds and supports momentum which in turn encourages a familiarity and an acceptance of challenges associated with doing difficult things. And I’ve come to learn that I think a desire to learn makes doing something new just a little less scary.”
——Jony Ive, Apple designer Jony Ive explains how ‘teetering towards the absurd’ helped him make the iPhone

At conferences we also learn better when we learn in community. At traditional events, expert speakers broadcast content at attendees. But today our minds are increasingly outside our brains. Our ability to learn effectively now depends mostly on the quality and connectedness of our networks, rather than what’s inside our heads.

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Four tools for communities of practice

HT Harold Jarche

Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.

Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.

Peer Conferences
In my post Conferences as Communities of Practice I explain how peer conferences can support communities of practice. (In 1992, the first peer conference I ever designed created a community of practice that has endured to this day.)

Listservs
Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology that manages a list of subscribers and allows any member to send one email to the list, which then transparently sends it to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. While numerous commercial alternatives like Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups exist, there’s something to be said for self-hosted technology that doesn’t rely on third party providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.

Slack
Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform, which, because of the cost is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.

Zoom
The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Since any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference, this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.

Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!

The interpersonal dynamics of silent retreats

Can meetings where no one says a word exhibit significantly different interpersonal dynamics? After completing my third Vipassana silent meditation retreat (this one at the headquarters of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts), I’m gonna say: yes they can!

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Associations exist only in the mind

Professional, trade, and public interest associations are significant businesses. In the United States alone, associations employ more than 1.6 million people, and generate an annual payroll of ~$50 billion.

Yet, ultimately, associations exist only in the mind.

Stay with me, and I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business that wanted to offer credit to its customers had to have its own independent system to do so. Individual banks were trying to encourage merchants and customers to adopt newfangled things called “credit cards”, but they failed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used.

Then in 1966, a man named Dee Hock had the vision, determination, resources, and a little luck to break this logjam. Dee described his journey in a fascinating book he wrote after his retirement in 1984, intriguingly titled: Birth of The Chaordic AgeDee was the first CEO of what became the mammoth multinational financial services corporation VISA, a company with a current market capitalization of over $200B.

What has this to do with associations? Well, you may be surprised to learn that VISA has never issued cards, extended credit or set rates and fees for consumers. The company is, in structure if not in capitalist terms, an association of tens of thousands of member banks who offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. These banks, while competing with each other for customers, agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.

At its core, VISA is a set of agreements between its members. The company’s value to its owners and customers is created from the mutual agreements its members have made. Without those agreements, VISA would not exist and we would return to the pre-VISA world when every financial entity had to have its own independent system of offering credit to its customers.

Although VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization, its core purpose is essentially identical to that of trade and professional associations. Associations are society’s instantiations of communities of practice, groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and agree to actively engage around what they have in common. That leads us to Dee Hock’s (and my) view of organizations like VISA and associations:

“…organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than the conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.”
—Dee Hock, Birth of The Chaordic Age

This perspective is extremely important because it’s easy for associations to forget their initial and continued reasons for existence. Every association is created when at some moment in time a group of people with something in common wants to further a particular profession and/or the interests of those engaged in a profession and/or the public interest. Typically, the community already exists informally, and its “members” want to create a formal, legal structure to support, deepen, and widen its reach.

Associations can, however, lose sight of this primal and ongoing purpose. When this happens, they concentrate on self-perpetuation and/or expansion at the expense of supporting the community of practice for which they were created. Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about the instantiation of a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves.

Dear Adrian—A Consultant’s Dilemma and The Thirty Minute Rule

30 minutes free
Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Last week I met Tony P. Burgess, the recently retired Director of West Point’s Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning, who, amongst other achievements, helped develop the U.S. Army’s premier community of practice, CompanyCommand. During an enjoyable, wide-ranging conversation at 1369 Coffee House Tony asked my opinion on a Consultant’s Dilemma:

How much “free” consulting should a consultant offer during initial discussions with a client before requesting pay for services?

When consultant and client meet for the first time there’s naturally a certain amount of sizing-up going on.

A potential client is looking for a solution to a problem, and is wondering if the consultant can help him, whether he can trust what she says, how much she will cost, how soon she will be available—and all these considerations and more will be taken into account before a decision is made whether to engage her services.

A client is hoping to find the help he needs as quickly as possible, but wants to feel confident that the chosen consultant can help effectively for an acceptable price. He may believe that his problem can be fixed easily by someone with the right expertise, and be hoping (or expecting) to get his problem solved quickly, perhaps at no charge.

consultant is wondering what she needs to learn about the client, what the client thinks the problem is, what the problem might actually be, whether she’s capable of helping the client, whether she can get paid what she’d like to get paid, whether she’s going to have the time, resources, and inclination to work with the client in a timely fashion, and so on.

From a consultant’s point of view, time spent working to get an initial sense of a client’s needs, determine that he is a fit for her expertise and abilities, and convey enough of her capabilities to reassure the client that she is the right person for the work is non-billable. Too much non-billable time, and a consultant starts to have problems paying her own bills.

Naturally, these client and consultant concerns take time to resolve, leading to the above-mentioned Dilemma.

I have been consulting for over thirty years and have participated in hundreds of initial client-consultant dances. (I like to think of them as dances: mysterious, exciting, full of the possibility of creating something great together, sometimes disappointing.) In my experience, a contracting minuet can take as little as ten minutes or…well, let’s just say far too long. Client or consultant can trip over any of the obstacles I’ve already listed and decide to walk away.

So, what’s a consultant to do?

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, coined the Two Minute Rule to determine whether a task that interrupts current activity should be handled on the spot—answer: yes, but only, if it can be completed in less than two minutes—or captured to be performed later. I doubt he chose 120 seconds based on some deep scientific analysis, it’s his rule of thumb (which I’ve found to be useful), presumably based on years of experience.

In a similar vein I offer my Thirty Minute Rule for resolving the Consultant’s Dilemma.

I told Tony that I’ll talk to any potential paying client for up to thirty minutes for free. At that point, if the client is still looking for free advice I’ll gently explore options for transitioning to a paid consultation. Sometimes, of course, it’s clear that we’re not going to move forward. No blame need be assigned, it just happens. Otherwise I’ll generally have enough information to propose next steps. And if my client doesn’t have sufficient trust in me after thirty minutes, then I’ve found it’s unlikely I’m going to change his mind by staying on the call.

The Thirty Minute Rule doesn’t include the time required for creating a contracting agreement or proposal. If I judge that we’ve a good chance of creating a win-win consulting arrangement I’ll create a short document and send it to the client for approval. This rarely takes more than an additional thirty minutes. If the document requires significant client-specific research I’ll ask for appropriate compensation to create it.

The Thirty Minute Rule is my reasonable compromise between the competing needs of consultant and client. If you’re a consultant reading this, what do you think? Do you have your own “free consulting time” rule? Feel free to share yours in the comments!

Image courtesy of Atom Smasher