Four tools for communities of practice

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. They manage a list of subscribers and allows any member to send email to the list. The listserv then sends the message 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. Yes, it’s true that numerous commercial alternatives exist. But self-hosted listservs don’t rely on commercial 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. Because of its cost, Slack 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). Any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference. So 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!

To build connection and engagement at events — give up control!

build connection and engagementHow can we build connection and engagement with people with whom we work?

My wise consultant friend Naomi Karten tells a short story about a client’s unexpected reaction. Frank had a bad experience with an earlier information technology project, so Naomi’s team gave him three possible approaches to a major system design and a list of the pluses and minuses of each.

“The plan was to let him select the approach he preferred in hopes that he’d gain more trust in us as a result…”

“…Frank jumped up, shouted, ‘How dare you develop options without my input!’ and marched out of the room…”

“…Instead of his seeing the options as giving him a say in our efforts, he may have seen us as preventing his input into the very idea of options. We saw ourselves giving him some control. He may have seen us as taking it away.”
—Naomi Karten, The Importance of Giving Others a Sense of Control

At traditional conferences, attendees choose from predetermined sets of sessions chosen by conference organizers. Think about your experience of such events. Have you found that much of the time, none of the choices supply what you actually need and/or want? Sadly, we’re so used to this state of affairs, we accept it as normal.

An alternative

Conferences don’t have to be designed this way. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that peer conferences, where participants determine the choices, provide a much better fit between the wants/needs of the attendees and the conference program they construct on-the-fly. This leads to significantly greater connection, engagement, and satisfaction.

Sometimes, giving people a limited number of options is not enough. Giving up control over the choices at your conferences by handing it over to the participants — using proven process, of course —is one of the best ways to build trust, connection, and engagement at your events.

Photo attribution: Flickr user kt

Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

traditional conferences are obsoleteSorry folks, but traditional conferences are obsolete.

Previously, I’ve described three major trends that make traditional conference formats obsolete:

Here’s a fourth.

Job obsolescence caused by increasing computer automation

Every adoption of new technology has led to a shift in the world of work. Books and the industrial age fundamentally remade human society. Now the exponentially increasing power of computing is making rapid inroads into professions that have been the safe purview of well-paid workers for centuries.

It’s likely, for example, that in my children’s lifetime (and perhaps mine) we’ll transition to a world where most vehicles drive themselves. In the United States alone, there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers who stand to lose their livelihood. Other threatened professions, according to Martin Ford in his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, include warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and programmers.

Software and machines will clearly take over some work, which large numbers of humans will never perform again. But recent history also suggests that adding technology to the workplace is likely to transform, rather than eliminate, many jobs. In addition, new jobs will appear that offer alternative work opportunities.

How do we prepare workers for these changes?

“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.
James Bessen, Why automation doesn’t mean a robot is going to take your job

During the last two or three decades, learning from our peers—on the job, via our social networks, and at conferences— has become far more important than classroom learning. Non-interactive, broadcast-style learning modalities are restricted to standardized knowledge; knowledge that one person believes is valuable for many to know. Peer process allows us to explore and share precisely the kinds of group-resourced knowledge and understanding that is not standardized; knowledge that is uniquely responsive to the just-in-time wants and needs of the group.

Peer conferences, therefore, are what we need to prepare workers for the continuing and accelerating transformation of the work marketplace. As Niels Pflaeging recently put it (paraphrased by Harold Marche):

´Machines can solve complicated problems. They cannot solve complex, surprising problems’. Valued work is no longer standardized. Therefore a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.

I’ll repeat that: “…a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.” That means traditional conferences are obsolete. Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!

Photo attribution: Flickr user astrid

If you want passion and engagement, don’t lecture or test

passion and engagement
Magical events change peoples’ lives. Great events foster passion by providing well-designed opportunities for significant engagement with peers. For passion and engagement, you need a tribe—be it two or a hundred other people—with whom you relate and connect while you’re together at the event, and, hopefully, afterwards too.

For passion and engagement to be possible, what should we avoid?

“If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.”
—Seth Godin, “Will this be on the test?”

Hmm…don’t test, or lecture, or force people to do what they really don’t want to do.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, seventy years ago:

“Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Citadel”, 1948, translated from the French

Giving people the opportunity and support for meaningful emotional experiences gives them the gift of potentially changing in positive ways.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 98810885@N07

Why traditional conferences are dying like music albums

conferences are dying like music albums 8447794421_fdfda28f9f_kTraditional conferences are dying like music albums.

Remember the Compact Disc [CD]? Or, if you’re old enough, like me, the long playing record [LP], aka “vinyl” records?

For many years, the music industry primarily sold “popular” (i.e. short form) music as rigid collections of individual tracks. If you liked something you heard on the radio and wanted to buy it, you were forced to buy the artist’s “album”, which often contained many other pieces of music you didn’t care for. Unless the track you liked was released as a “single” (for which you paid a premium) you couldn’t buy it by itself.

We all know what happened. CD ripping, and later the internet, made it possible for the music lover to pick and choose her music purchases one track at a time. Adore four tracks on a Manu Chao album? Just buy those four!

Why did this happen? Because great music albums that tell a compelling musical story from one track to the next are the exception rather than the rule. Most albums are disembodied collections that, apart from perhaps the artist’s and producer’s minds, have no perceivable flow from one track to the next.

Traditional meetings are also collections of disembodied sessions. But they have not changed in the same way.

With rare exceptions, we still buy a conference album: a rigid set of predetermined sessions and speakers. Yes, you can skip a session you don’t like, but you still have to pay for the whole thing. Attendees are interested in, at most, the content of less than half the sessions offered, and often the worthwhile percentage is much lower.

I don’t know how to increase the proportion of great sessions at traditional events, because it turns out that asking attendees and/or program committees the conference sessions they want to attend before the event doesn’t work.

But I and thousands of other meeting organizers do know how to create a conference program that maximizes the match between what their attendees want and need, and what is offered. And the steady rise in popularity of participant-driven conference designs like Conferences That Work continues all over the world.

Just as the album has been replaced as the unit of music consumption by the customized playlists created by each listener, participant-driven events build on-the-fly, crowd-created sessions that maximize learning and connection.

In addition, most participant-driven event designs includes a story structure, a conference arc, that turns the entire attendee experience into something coherent with an intimate beginning, middle, and end. So you can get the conference music you like in a framework that supports discovery and delivery of: a) relevant important learning, b) in-depth connection with relevant peers, and c) time to reflect and connect about what has been learned and what the community wants to do next.

LPs and CDs came from a time when the music industry ruled the roost. The industry was the gatekeeper of who made it onto plastic media; the underlying message was “we know what’s best for you—and you don’t have any choice anyway.” The music industry has been doing everything possible to hold on to this profitable message and delivery model for many years, and yet, as the world changed and it became possible for individual artists to get their music out without the industry’s help, the power of the music biz has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was.

The parallel holds for every meeting organizer. With rare exceptions, the traditional conference album is dying. Peer conferences offer anyone the opportunity to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs. The good news is that they still need all the logistical support of traditional meetings, together with a few new requirements: competent facilitation, different room sets, and new marketing approaches. So there are still just as many opportunities for meeting business; only the rules have changed.

You may want to familiarize yourself with the new rules. Otherwise, you’re in danger of trying to sell conference CDs when your market is buying playlists.

Photo attribution: Flickr user mariacasa