Bubbles, filters, fakery and social limits

I need some help. This filter bubble idea is really eating away at me.

The promise of open and direct communication with everyone or anyone at any moment gripped me with some excitement for many years. Having worked in digital advertising and in broadcasting for large portions of my professional life, I found the revolution of personal media to be genuinely thrilling.  Finally, the ramparts of corporate communications would be breached. The imperial editors and commissioners would be dethroned. We, the blogging people, would transform the production and access of information. It would be ours. Mine. To do with as we wished.

I think, for a while, this was true. Twitter really fueled this change. Everyone had a broadcast voice. Truth was spoken to power and intermediaries were dissed. For me, Stephen Fry, reaching one million followers on Twitter was a seminal moment. Here was someone who could now reach his global audience without the need of an agent, a distributor or a schedule. An inversion of the old ways. He became storyteller, agent, publisher, producer, distributor and promoter. All from one keyboard.

Those were the good old days of Twitter. That was before the trolls infected the blood of the organism. Before the anger and bitterness broke – wave after wave. That ability to create and communicate directly also produced the ability to shout, abuse and hate directly.  Many of us may have experienced a glancing blow from this force over the years. I imagine many of us are luckier than someone like Leslie Jones, however. She dared to be female and black and in a sci-fi movie. Twitter was violently unhappy.

Meanwhile, in media and learning circles, Facebook was not taken so seriously. Few of the journalists I worked with were much bothered by it. (They were entranced by Twitter, however). Belatedly, most of us now stand in awe at the power of the business. Facebook is more than a window on the world. It is the world. The liberty from the editorial barons has been replaced by a tyranny of filter bubbles and an emerging fake news industry. The wonderful ability for the internet to connect us with like minds has become fly paper, sticking those like minds together.

The Facebook alchemy that creates the glue binding us to our bubbles is obscure. We know it reacts to likes and shares. To attention. Bringing us more of what we seem to enjoy. How it is done is hard to discern. The fraction we see of our feeds is both pleasing to us and profitable for Facebook. It is no more true of all the content created than the editors slice was of the news available in the broadcast model.

I did think that social media offered us the chance to learn directly from all. That seemed so natural to me. The poverty of deep interaction never really worried me. Most of us are pretty happy with pictures of our kids, our food and holidays. Profundity is rare for a reason. This never stopped social media from being interesting and useful though. I could and still can learn simply and quickly from an array of experts at the swipe of a screen.

A number of calls have been made to strengthen the role of the ‘curator’ in the social world. A class of folk who can verify the data and warn the unguarded against fakery, abuse and howling anger. This is a worthy aim but no better than the editorial fiefdoms of old, I fear. This is an expensive solution too – these are new roles. Educators and learning professionals see a role here – mediating, trimming and cleaning the social world of their learners. This feels like grasping hold of the past a little too tightly in search of a relevant role. It also seems very difficult to achieve. How do we qualify for these roles? How do we know best or better?

I would rather we found means of raising the social tide above the effluent line and finding new sources of value in that always-on, direct access world. This probably means educating each other, supporting constructive behaviour and sharing beyond our bubbles. (That last one is really hard to sustain). Will we be rewarded for good social citizenship?

I can’t tell now whether I am jaded or optimistic. What do you think? Is there a problem to fix or do I just need a bit of a rest?

 

Listening makes it personal

I am now a pretty well embedded Spotify user. As a keen music fan (with excellent taste), I probably listen to more music than I have ever done. Much of this music is new to me. Combined with the seemingly endless trove of tunes on YouTube, I am experiencing a renaissance in my music education. The digital revolution is troubling the industry but for listeners, there has never been a better time. For curious listeners there has never been a better chance to strike out in new directions  – some of them in glorious South London.

Spotify is not unique in the use of data to offer a listener a ‘better’ discovery experience. It is very good at it though and has worked hard to understand what we like in a playlist. The Daily Mix is their most recent step to keep ahead of the growing competition. This is what big data can do when clearly focused on user needs and acting in constant response to them.

As Spotify grows, it is becoming interesting to ancillary businesses (a little like Twitter was before it lost it’s commercial way). Songkick is a really smart example of this. As a ticket vendor, the business needs to recommend shows and gigs that meet members demands and tastes. In my personal experience as a subscriber to many email lists of concerts and tickets, I have tired of the poor matching and spammy recommendations. “Customers who liked this also liked that…”. Very often I am not one of the customers in that first premise. The conclusion is therefore clumsy and unhelpful. The bad matching makes it worse.

Songkick overcomes this with a simple inference. “You have listened to that band. Would like to go and see their show?”. My Spotify habits make it clear what I like. Very clear. I may have listened by accident or my playlist may have been hijacked by a family member. Even in this case, it’s a fair punt on their behalf and someone I live with may want to go.

This is a simple and obvious point, I know. It is a simple and obvious lesson (I know that too). It does seem very hard for corporate product owners to take it in though. We struggle to overcome the belief that we know best. That we have a more valuable view of what a personal experience should be and manage it accordingly. This is the stakeholder view. It is a foggy view because it is not the users view. As we struggle with creating valuable personal products and services, we need to focus on where the personal value lies. We also need to recognise at what height the benchmark of comparison is set.

 

Chief Digital Learning Officer. Is that a thing yet?

Another dose of shameless self-promotion here. I do think there is a purpose though, so bear with me…

In a few weeks I am presenting at the CDO Forum on the topic of “Developing a Digital Learning Service for the New Workplace”. As you can see from the agenda, this is not an eLearning or L&D event. It is a cross-industry forum creating a space to share stories about digital challenges and developments from a wide range of organisations. The central theme is digital transformation (however this is interpreted, it the central theme of almost everything these days). It is an event for Chief Digital Officers – now a frequently used, if not common, job title and another symptom of the shifting landscape.

In preparing for and promoting the event, I was invited, along with other speakers, to answer some interview questions by way of introduction to the themes of the conference. Answering these questions required some careful thought. They are simple enough in their articulation but need a broader consideration than a typical eLearning treatment. They deal with the structural and cultural change of businesses and their customers, so L&D is only one lens through which to address the puzzle. The thrust is to compare L&D with other professions and services. This might be a little uncomfortable as the digital revolution plays out and a lot of catching up is taking place, or needs to in my humble opinion.

Here are those questions and my answers. See what you think and maybe take a pass at your own answers. I wonder if you find it as testing as I did?

the Chief Digital Learning Officer

On reflection today, there is a perspective required for these questions which may not be available in most organisations. Something like a view from the Chief Digital Learning Officer. This would be an equivalent role to that of the CDO but focused on learning activity and outcomes. A role with command of technology, products, and services and with a strong grasp of learning content and activity in and around the workplace. In the main, I think these two views are separated into two roles, leaving digital development and delivery as a specialism rather than the mainstream offer of a whole team or department. That is not the typical remit and span of control of the CDO which beings all those strands into one point in the business.

If a digital transformation of a learning service is to succeed I think that separation needs to be become redundant. Are there any CDLOs out there?

 

 

 

The LMS market – bigger and better or just bigger?

In a bid to keep pace with developments, I have been reading a few research reports and papers on various themes of the eLearning industry. The visit to Learning Technologies is still running through my mind as I continue an attempt to complete my mental sketch of the status of the market. It is clear that the industry is growing – getting bigger. Bigger trade shows, bigger stands, more exhibitors. The existing players are consolidating and that acquisition activity indicates a confidence from sources of funding. The current industry is growing. I wonder though, that it is an existing shape getting larger rather than changing shape or developing in new ways?

As providers grow, they are adding features and functions to their systems but are the customers (to say nothing of learners) doing new work with them?

Maybe.  A bit.

One of my self-study texts has been the Saffron Interactive report by Edward White, “The LMS: Are we experiencing a sea-change?”  (To read the whole report, I think you need to get in touch with Saffron and request the PDF). It is the fruit of an extensive survey it aims to dig beneath the headline growth of the LMS market from $2.65bn in 2013 to (a forecast) $7.8bn in 2017 (hence the acquisition funding). Whatever the definition of an LMS in those figures, there are a lot more of them and they are a lot bigger. So, all good then?

Not so. The survey asked that nagging satisfaction question about recommendation: “How likely are you to recommend your LMS to a friend?”*  It seems that only 15% answered positively, 57% said they were unlikely to. Yes. That’s right. An industry sector growing by almost 200% in four years (really?) has a satisfied customer base of 15%. As the youngsters say, “what’s up with that?”

Whether there is a sea change on the horizon or not, the providers need to find one. Edward points to user expectations now being set by social media tools and content discovery experiences.  This is an area in which all corporate technologies suffer by comparison with personal tools. There is also an anxiety about the adaptability of these platforms to future needs. This is where the industry growth looks really interesting. Existing services are selling more but, according my highly unscientific scanning of the exhibition floor and other news, the start-up and new entrant scene is still quite modest.

There was no start up zone or innovations space at the Learning Technologies exhibition. That may be a flaw of the organisers or an indication of an immature market. Either way, that looks like it could and should change. There are plenty of dissatisfied customers out there and there seems to be investment funding around too. Smart new players picking off areas of poor performance in incumbent businesses at lower cost and higher quality should be queueing up very soon if they are not already.  That is the familiar pattern of industry evolution in the digital sphere.

Now, where is that drawing board…

 

* In my world, this would be a most unusual question to ask a friend but I think we get the point.

Defining digital or what it isn’t. Not easy…

 

 

First an admission. Around 18 months ago I was tasked by my boss to offer a smart and easy answer to the question “what do we mean by digital”? The question was asked in the context of creating a digital learning service. I admit that I have, as yet, not completed this task. This is not because I have not tried, I just haven’t quite offered a satisfactory answer. In my defence, I think this is because the D word is used as shorthand for many different priorities, possibilities, technologies and tools. It is tactical and strategic by a simple turn of phrase.

Here is one example of the beguiling nature of what digital can offer. It is in answer to what General Electric now sell to their customers:

They’re essentially selling what customers want—which is speed, time, and performance, rather than just buying a thing, a jet engine.

I now see that I am in good company in struggling to land the digital fish to the shore. These, highly qualified, folks from McKinsey have failed to offer a pithy response as well. There are some really nice ideas and examples in the article if your boots are high enough to wade through the buzzwords and business speak. One advantage consultants have in this arena is experience across many sectors and contexts. They reflect on the new imperatives for customer communications and channels, the new business value that can be created (new products and services for new needs and to scratch new digital itches) and fundamentally new ways of organising, working and producing.

There is a lot a stake here and some big bets to place in managing digital changes. I wonder though whether trying to define digital is the right challenge to chose. Perhaps we should focus on distilling the organisation and business challenges into one succinct phrase without mentioning technology and digital at all. That detail can come in when we describe the strategy and steps in response. So, defining a digital learning service, perhaps, should focus on useful relevant sources of support, expertise and experience to immediately meet the needs of a connected workforce.

Or something like that. Digitally too. Of course.

What no Slack? A (brief) thought from Learning Technologies 2016

As many thousands of us are, I am pondering what I made of Learning Technologies 2016. Aside from the fact that it was great to meet some excellent people and have some great conversations, I was struck by two things: size and familiarity. The exhibition was bigger yet again than the previous year. The stands seemed grander and the sheen was brighter. It was also, perhaps, quite familiar. There was a lot of formal learning on show – management systems, a bewildering array of formats to populate them and tools to empower their users with social, analytics and engagement (that was the word of the show for me). 70:20:10 was everywhere too, and somehow, integrated in those systems.

I thought I could discern a difference in the pitch of these offers from learning in the work place and learning in the work. The mechanisms and tools outlined above are for the workplace. They are for me as a working learner (if there is a difference from any other kind of learner). Perhaps for learning in work time if mobile. They are learning tools and are at a distance from the activity of work. It may well be that my scanning of the show was too superficial and I missed the offers that help me to learn with my work. In my work tools.

One of the most interesting discussions, in a corridor of course, I was part of was around the idea of creating learning content for distribution. So, rather then herding learners to a portal (boy, I dislike that word) or perhaps, in addition to that, we should produce content for placement and pulling into work tools. This is closer to the way news publishers are approaching social tools, writing stories for the ecosystem of social finding and consuming as well as for the news destination. News consumers spend more time in social products than anywhere else and anticipate finding relevant stories there. So, publishers are targeting those spaces with appropriate content.

The communication and collaboration tool Slack looks like it could develop in this direction, if it hasn’t already. I think it is a really interesting indication of how things may start to change for team members. It is a simple tool, with elegant UI and built around messaging (everyone’s favourite communication mode). It also supports sharing of content and material simply and quickly – images, video, audio etc. – and naturally offers the ability to comment and discuss. Users can easily invite each other to groups and channels and to private or invitation only IM chat groups. It is an obvious place to inject learning comments and content amongst the content of the work at hand. This gives it a huge relevance advantage. It’s inherently social too as we are all becoming.

It is not a silver bullet but…it’s free to use, unless you want the analytics and integration power of the commercial product. Free to try anyway. Worth a try too.

Who am I? Where am I? – Is social media confusing?

I have been away from the blog for a while and feel I need to earn my seat with some existential offerings. Everything is changing. Everything. It makes me wonder. (And continued thanks to Julian Stodd for provoking these thoughts).  So…

 

Not so long ago, well not too long ago, my digital identity resided in a word document. A document I had pored over, crafted, recrafted and saved carefully on a hard disc (latterly on a USB drive). When the time arrived, I would post this to people (in a postbox) in the hope that it would illuminate my potential and highlight the singular trajectory of my career (latterly it would go via email). This document was, still is, my CV. This is where my professional history and experience resided. It was me in a succinct and authentic nutshell. I still have a version of this nutshell stashed away, as we all do.

A CV now has limited application and is reserved only to tell a somewhat narrow and formal version of my professional self.  That self is now merging with my other selves as work patterns and relationships change, prodding even harder at the value of a single nutshell in which to carry all of me. This story is also only told at certain formal moments – job applications in the main. Even then it requires other narrators to validate it, referees and the currency of the qualifications it describes. There is not enough context to contain very much meaning. It is only one heftily authored perspective. A CV seems now like a museum piece, curated and displayed for inspection in a formal context alone. It has very limited application in the world I now inhabit.

I suppose, in addition to the CV, I have also left an imprint on various HR, Training and Finance systems of my employers over the years.  I don’t know what to do with these though and never really have. They are not created for me and are of little use.

As so many do, I now live out the story of my experience in many places, each with their own context, community and utility. In no particular order I have:

  • A Facebook profile
  • A Facebook page
  • A Twitter account
  • A LinkedIn profile
  • A blog (and a WordPress account to go with it)
  • A Tumblr (and a Disqus account to accompany it)
  • A Pinterest account
  • A Goolge+ profile
  • More than one ‘corporate social network’ account
  • An internal blog
  • A Sharepoint profile (probably)
  • A Periscope presence (profile maybe?)
  • An Instagram account
  • A Skype account (does that count?)
  • A WhatsApp account
  • Facebook messenger account
  • A profile on Medium
  • A YouTube account or channel
  • A FutureLearn profile/account

[I haven’t listed email accounts. They seem like ways of communicating for me rather than where I reside. There is not an identity in an email account itself. But that also seems like a false distinction. Communication is pretty much what all this is about after all. Should they be on the list too? If so, there are a few of those too.]

I could, arguably, strike a few from the list on the basis that they are ‘personal’ and not worky. That is less conclusive now though. My Facebook profile is private in the main but many contacts in there are through work or are existing colleagues and it is used for work stuff too now as a result. I think this has added utility to my use of the service whilst muddying that distinction. They should remain then.

Now. I am comfortable with all of these tools (if expert with none of them). Some are barely used, admittedly. Some have seriously lapsed. Some are overused. I am also, however, thoroughly bewildered now that I have listed them and am peering at them in this form. I can understand why many folks pine for the limited certainties of only a CV and a private email account. Where am I amongst all this? Who am I amongst all this? What do people make of me? How will they find me? And then…who are they? Etc. Etc.

Whilst this can seem complicated and confusing (and it is complicated and confusing) I don’t feel any crisis or real problem at present. Many people have much longer lists and are perfectly happy with them as well. I am in the company of literally billions of people figuring out how, why and when to use these tools. I am learning how they work for me and how they are limited. I am learning what other people do with them and how to respond when I do and don’t like what they do and when they do and don’t like what I do.

In the grand scheme of social and cultural history, these tools have been around for a very short time. It is very hard to tell how they will evolve and which will expire. Even harder to discern what else will come along. I’m not sure we even know well what we will want to do with them. It is quite conceivable that we will look back at a 140 character limit on communication as quaint and bizarre. It seems to be creaking already. I suspect (and hope) that protocols will emerge to help us manage the spasms of abuse that infect much social media activity. I also suspect that we will settle on patterns of use that we find most useful for ourselves. Constant, restless exploration is quite tiring and not always productive. We will start to figure out where and who we are to greater satisfaction.

Some of our current expectations will endure, however. They will continue to be the baseline of expectations that successful products and uses of those products need to meet. We want to find people and ideas that resonate with us (on our terms), we want clear signals of who those people are and what they are about. We increasingly want authenticity from those signals and in the interactions we have – spam is just nasty and will always be nasty. We want to find people who know stuff we are interested in and can help us do things we value doing. We also want to be found for those reasons. We want pieces of that knowledge to be available and usable. We want to share and be shared (sometimes). We want an audience for our ideas and our work – bearing in mind that others want this to be meaningful as well. (I sincerely hope that the current narcissism will reduce. I hope. A lot). We want to know what’s new from people who’s judgement we value. We want shortcuts straight to the source and clear signals that the source is genuine.

We want all of this to be ours. Actually we want it, in the main, to be mine. We want personal relevance and resonance. The good products all feel like mine. Like they are personal to me. (Look out for those T’s and C’s tough – they are not ours in all ways).

If we want all this from our own use, we need to make sure that our contributions are supportive of these desires. We need to look after how we present ourselves – we need to tend to our landscape as we make it. We need our offers to these spaces to be relevant and resonant. Or, at least, make the sincere attempt that they are. Yes, cat gifs will abound and pictures of our dinners at sunset too. That’s OK and is authentic in a way. It is also thin and disposable and probably valued as such. I believe that we get what we give and that our new social worlds work this way too. The enduring value we find is richer than that and rarer too.

So, whilst a sense of confusion is never far away in this landscape, there is a real opportunity to explore where and who we are. Expecting one fixed answer in a singular context is unwise. This is not a CV landscape. One document will not nearly suffice. It is fluid and shifts as we all shift it. None of us want to believe we are only one person anyway.

As a modest case in point. At the start of this post, I was pretty sure of the shape of my thoughts on this topic. Now I am less sure. What do you think?