Archive for October, 2007

Starting context vs starting conditions

This started as a comment on Dave Snowen’s Sassy Red blog post but it got a bit long and I wanted to expand on it a bit more (and save it in case Dave legitimately rejects the comment because of its length).
To put this in context Earl Mardle while mostly agreeing Dave’s post on IT education in school took issue with the statement that: In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions.

It got me wondering whether there’s a useful distinction here between ‘starting context’, and ‘starting conditions’. It’s of course nonsensical to try to replicate the starting context in any learning situation (or any other situation for that matter). There will be different people, a different physical environment, different weather, there might have been national media announcements since the last event that have affected people’s mood (or in the case of a school announcements by the principal).

Starting conditions you can replicate because they’re much simpler. I’m fairly sure that if I put a soccer ball on the ground near a group of 6 year old boys that some kind of ‘soccer-like’ behavior has a chance of emerging. It can be a different group of boys from last time I did it, different playing surface, different weather. I can also fairly easily set boundaries by saying things like “remember, no punching”. If some ‘soccer-like’ behavior does emerge, I can wait to see if other interventions to stablise a ‘soccer-like’ pattern might be necessary. I might encourage two of the kids to take of their jerseys and make goal posts. There might end up being two sets of goals or just one. I might decide to say “remember, no hands”, or I might wait to see if some form of rugby/soccer hybrid (or some other game entirely) emerges.

Now to Earl’s objection to “In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions”. I think he’s saying that you can’t replicate the ‘starting context’ for the teacher, because the teacher has already experienced the original outcome and process. The teacher is changed. They are no longer in exploratory/experimenter mode, they are well on the path to process entrainment and ritualisation (an important survival tactic for overworked teachers).

For me it comes down to outcomes again. If the desired outcome is ‘an exact replica of what happened last time’ then the change in the teacher’s starting context might lead them to impose structure to force the desired outcome. You might then end up with similar outwardly visible behavior as last time, but nothing like similar learning experiences taking place. I saw this often in my time at school, during my teacher training, and in the very brief time I actually spent teaching high school.

A good teacher (or parent, facilitator, manager) should however be able to let go of the exact, outwardly visible outcome, and focus on allowing the desired type of inward learning to take place. If the desired outcome was something like ‘the kids will learn some more physical coordination, how to interact with each other in a game, and how to negotiate and stablise adaptive boundaries themselves’ then as a teacher the fact that I’ve done something similar before shouldn’t be a hindrance. It should make it more likely that if I can identify what the important starting conditions were (as distinct from the irrelevant contextual elements), then I should be able to have something vaguely within the range of the learning experiences I’m after, occur.

It’s like good birthday party management. I’ve run 16 kids birthday parties and I’ve gotten fairly good at it. Not because I have a particular set of rituals or overt processes I follow, but because I know what to look for, when to intervene, and what kind of catalysts and boundaries to prepare in advance. The starting context is always different, but useful starting conditions can fairly easily be replicated.

I think we often have the same problem in organisational management, in particular poorly implement ‘management to outcomes’ approaches. In socially complex situations (which most workplaces are), managers try to achieve particular outcomes by replicating irrelevant aspects of starting context, or by having preconceived notions of how the process should work because that’s how they saw it unfold last time. They end up forcing behavior through extrinsic motivators or bullying, imposing arbitrary process, getting overt compliance with the process but tacit rejection of it, and in so doing miss enabling the creativity and myriad of interactions that led to successful results emerging in the past.

Email is for Old People

As a part of voluntary work that I do, I’ve just run a week long camp for twenty two 13-16 year olds. One of the sessions we ran was entitled “Does technology make your lives easier?”. Through that session, through subsequent discussions about what technologies they wanted to use to keep in touch after the camp, and through interacting with some of them online in the last few days, I’ve realised that email is for old people.

For these teenagers their preferred medium for messaging is 1. Txt, 2. Bebo, 3. Email. If you txt them you’ll normally get a response within a minute or two, if you send them a message through Bebo you’ll get a response within a day or two, and if you email you’ll get a response within a week, if at all.

If you think about it, it starts to make sense. These kids have never used a desktop email client. They’ve never ‘downloaded’ their email. They’ve only ever interacted with email through a browser, using Hotmail, YahooMail or Gmail. They never went through the ‘wow, this is brilliant, it’s way better than faxes’ epitome that made email the killer Internet app for our generation. Subsequently they’ve never formed the same emotional attachment to email that people over 20 have. Most of them got a mobile phone and started txting before they started using email.

Now look at Bebo (or Facebook, but most NZ teenagers I’ve met seem to use Bebo). I’d been trying to get a message through to one of the teenagers describing a post-camp task that needed to be done, with web links to some useful resources. I’d emailed it twice to her email address (Hotmail) and she hadn’t got it. She did manage to find another email from me in her spam folder. So I resorted to using the messaging system on Bebo. Once I started using it, it became obvious. Bebo has authentication, you have to mutually agree to be ‘friends’ before you can message each other. This means there’s no spam, and no false positives in spam filtering. Your messages and their replies are threaded together in one place. There’s a little picture of the sender beside each of the messages so you can quickly see which conversation was with who. It doesn’t have all the features email did, but it works really well.

It started to become clear to me that for these teenagers, email is just another messaging function that they access through a browser. They do some of their messaging in Bebo, and some in Hotmail/YahooMail/Gmail. For them, Bebo and txts are what they use to message their friends, and email is what they use begrudgingly when they have to message old people. When these young people start to come into the workplace the implications of this for corporate IT will be very interesting…

Identity Crisis

I have an identity crisis when it comes to Facebook. Bebo and LinkedIn are easy. The language I use to describe myself on my Bebo and LinkedIn profiles is quite different. LinkedIn is clearly for networking with professionals, in a work context. I do a lot of voluntary work with teenagers and Bebo is very clearly oriented to that age group. Almost everyone I’m connected to on Bebo is a teenager whom I’ve met through that real life voluntary work.

Facebook is different. People in a number of my different networks are talking about it. I’ve gotten friend requests from a number of different people from different communities I engage in. I don’t particularly want these different communities connected. A colleague of mine recently mentioned to me that her boss wanted to connect to her on Facebook, but she didn’t want to because her Facebook identity was for the community she engaged in for one of her hobbies.

Dave Snowden and a number of other theorists in the KM field have discussed the notion that people have multiple identities (backed up I’m sure by much underpinning research in philosophy and psychology). We have identities as a partner, as a member of a family, as a professional, as a member of a group of friends, the list goes on. We dynamically and effortlessly shift between these identities, using different language, different facial expressions and different behavior, as is appropriate to the community or relationship we’re engaged in at the time. I even consciously speak and act differently with different organisations that are my clients. To work effectively within the culture of an engineering firm you have to behave differently than when working with a government department.

Currently online social networks assume we have just one identity. They assume we either want people to see that identity (i.e. be our friend) or not see it (not be our friend). They don’t adequately represent the granularity and complexity of the way we manifest our multiple identities in the real world. Facebook is getting there. It has a concept of ‘networks’. You can join particular networks and choose to have parts of your contact information, and parts of your profile, viewable to only your friends, or only to particular networks.

To me this still isn’t right though. I don’t want to just hide and show particular details, I want different details based on different networks. I want to be able to define multiple profiles based on my multiple identities. It’s either that or set up multiple facebook profiles, which would be time consuming and confusing to maintain.

On their ‘In the Works’ section Facebook says they have coming:
“Sort out your friends.
We’ll let you organize that long list of friends into groups so you can decide more specifically who sees what.”

This might be enough, but not if they only do the same kind of granularity as they do with networks. I think they need multiple profiles on one account. Perhaps they should call them ‘faces’.

Footnote – I’ve just read this very intriguing article which discusses viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.

Well really, emotion is so much more easily accessed than reason isn't it?
Stephen Fry