“Learning Community” Words

Deborah Meehan led the Leadership Learning Community‘s board through a quick exercise today that was partially inspired by Gail Taylor‘s “love” experiment. She read us a quote from last year’s Creating Space conference, then asked us to write down five words we think of when we hear the words “Learning Community.” We each wrote our word phrases on Post-It notes, then proceeded to cluster our words on a large surface.    (M6L)

https://i1.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/176/454816833_a28778125d_m.jpg?w=700    (M6M)

There were 12 of us participating, which resulted in a total of 62 word phrases. (I split two Post-It notes into two word phrases. One was separated by a slash, the other by “and.”) Out of those 62 word phrases, 10 were used more than once. They were (in order of frequency):    (M6N)

You can see a cloud visualization of the words we chose.    (M6Y)

Some observations:    (M6Z)

  • Only one person (me) wrote, “learning.” Only two people wrote “community.” That could have been because people assumed that they could not use those two words.    (M70)
  • No one wrote “teaching.”    (M71)
  • The value of the clustering versus the cloud visualization is interesting. The clustering exercise (which is similar to an Affinity Diagram in the usability world) is an exercise in semantic convergence. All the cloud view does is match words, character-by-character. Both tell you different things. Both are valuable.    (M72)

If we were to do this exercise again, it would be interesting to do 10 rather than five words. I think there would be more overlap in that case, although the beauty of this exercise is, one never knows. And it would be interesting to do this exercise again with the same group of people six months from now to see if the results are different.    (M73)

The Banana Hoarding Problem

I spent a good portion of this weekend listening to (and laughing at) my friends, Andrew and Elene, who are having a little problem at work. They both work at a large Silicon Valley company that has fresh fruit delivered each week — apples, oranges, and green bananas. Each week, the bananas disappear right away. Why? Because people hoard a week’s worth of bananas at their cubicles, rather than taking only what they’re going to eat right away.    (LXI)

What should my friends do? Here were some answers I and others came up with:    (LXJ)

  • They should hoard bananas for themselves.    (LXK)
  • They should take bananas from one of the hoarders.    (LXL)
  • They should bring their own bananas.    (LXM)
  • The company should order more bananas.    (LXN)
  • The company should appoint a banana distribution manager.    (LXO)
  • They should hoard all the bananas themselves, and become the de facto banana distribution managers.    (LXP)
  • The company should hire an old person to stand in the kitchen at all times, a la Wal-Mart. This will shame people from hoarding.    (LXQ)
  • They should poison one bunch of bananas, then put up a sign saying that one bunch is poisoned without indicating which one.    (LXR)

What would you do? Blog (and link here) or tell me your answers.    (LXS)

Not only was it incredibly funny to see how dismayed my friends were (what can I say, I’m a sadist?), but it was actually interesting to think through the problem. It’s a real-life instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic cooperation (but not necessarily collaboration) problem.    (LXT)

At the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop last October, we spent the day working on the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma, appropriate since the workshop was held in a former police station. It was fascinating to watch people work through the problem. I’ve been sitting on a pile of notes about it for months now, and this latest real-world dilemma may motivate me to sort through them and blog about it.    (LXU)

Update    (LY4)

Clearly, the Banana Hoarding Problem is more widespread than I originally thought, as the empathy and some possible solutions are already starting to come in. Once again, we see the Wisdom of Crowds at work (or not).    (LY5)

Keep your answers coming!    (LY8)

Talking Technology

Todd Johnston posted an outstanding summary of our informal session this past Saturday. He mentioned our first exercise, which was to have Todd, Gail Taylor, and Tiffany Von Emmel explain how email worked to Matthew O’Connor and myself, who had had sudden bouts of amnesia. Todd wrote, “This exercise, as you may imagine, did a lot to uncover assumptions, vantage points and metaphors we use to shape our understanding.”    (LX9)

The point of the exercise was two-fold. First, we wanted the group to have a better understanding of how the Internet worked. Second, rather than tell them how it worked, we wanted them to figure it out by thinking through the problem. Most of us have the mental tools to understand technology; we just choose not to use them. We wanted to get them to use them.    (LXA)

What was interesting about the exercise was that they did an excellent job of drawing a basic conceptual picture. However, when Matthew and I started asking probing questions to help fill in the gaps, they abandoned their mental models and started reverting to buzzwords. They mentioned things like packets and algorithms and server farms, all of which demonstrated knowledge of Internet lingo, but none of which was necessary to explain how email worked.    (LXB)

Matthew pointed out that techies often do the same thing. When confronted with basic questions about technology, they often start throwing around concepts and language that aren’t critical to the core question. In these cases, they do this because they’re unaware of the other party’s mental models and are feeling around for context.    (LXC)

Why would non-techies do the same thing? In this particular case, it was for the exact same reason. Even though Matthew and I were playing dumb, they knew that we knew the answers. When we started asking questions, they abandoned their model and started feeling around for the answers we might be looking for, hence the lingo.    (LXD)

When one person has knowledge that the other person doesn’t have, that often results in a power relationship, and power relationships affect how people behave. What makes this relationship dangerous is when people assume that this knowledge is somehow sacred and unattainable. Many non-technical people are guilty of this. It’s evident when people preface their statements, “I’m not a techie,” as if that makes them incapable of understanding technology. It’s an attitude problem that stems from fear.    (LXE)

The important thing is that everyone is capable of understanding technology. Don’t let those supposedly in the know bully you away from being confident in what you understand and what you don’t understand.    (LXF)

On a separate note, Todd also describes Finding Your Hey, an exercise that the band, Phish often performs. Todd first told me this story two years ago, and I dutifully blogged about it, but I didn’t know what it was called, and I didn’t know the exact quote. It’s a wonderful story.    (LXG)

Relay Racing Synergy

The informal gathering this past Saturday was the result of conversations that Gail Taylor and I have been having for some time about the synergies between process and digital technology. (The “digital” distinction is important. “Process,” in our world, is just another “technology.”)    (LX6)

Gail recently posted her vision of what we’re trying to do. I especially liked this story:    (LX7)

As a relay racer in a much earlier life, I studied the passing of the baton. When we were “magic” we neither passed or received as separate events. Rather, something more happened… a synergy that I cannot describe.    (LX8)

Being Ambushed by Terrell Russell

Gail Taylor told me an excellent story last Saturday that reminded me of an incident at the Internet Identity Workshop this past December. I was doing something that I am deeply opposed to — participating in a face-to-face conference without being fully present. Basically, I was sitting in the middle of the space doing work on my laptop while everyone else was participating in the conference. I felt guilty about it, but I wanted to talk to some people while they were in town, and I had a ton of work to do at the same time.    (LWP)

So I gave a talk on Identity Commons, attended a few presentations, talked to a few people, and spent the rest of my time doing my work and ignoring everyone else. It was actually quite nice. I was sitting in the middle of the large conference room at the Computer History Museum, visible to everyone, with people constantly milling around me. People who knew me stopped by to chat for a few minutes; people who didn’t just ignored me.    (LWQ)

Towards the end of the second day, I was basking in my productive anti-socialness, when a fellow who was sitting at my table started making small talk. It was harmless chatter, stuff that I could respond to while remaining focused on my work, but at some point, it felt wrong continuing to talk without introducing myself. Turns out the guy was Terrell Russell of claimID fame. I knew about claimID, but I knew nothing about Terrell. The same could not be said of him, who had known all along who I was, and who apparently follows this blog. (Hi, Terrell!)    (LWR)

That bastard must have used that knowledge against me, sharing ideas that he must have known would suck me into conversation. Either that, or he was just a nice guy who was passionate about his work. Either way, it worked. I ended up closing my laptop and having a great conversation with him.    (LWS)

What was he doing that I found so compelling? It was his Ph.D. research on Contextual Authority Tagging. The basis of the idea is simple: The best way to identify an authority on a topic is not to ask people to self-identify themselves as such, but to ask others to identify the people they consider to be the authorities. We can leverage this principle to locate expertise by building tagging systems where users tag other users with information about their expertise.    (LWT)

Terrell has thought really deeply about this, and several of his ideas are documented at his website and on his blog. Phil Windley and David Weinberger have also commented on his work.    (LWU)

I heard more original ideas about tagging in that 20 minutes of conversation than I’ve ever heard from anyone else. The one that really struck me was the notion of tag disparities: comparing what people say about you to what you say about yourself as a way of measuring reputation. Sound familiar? It’s a real-life instantiation of the Squirm Test!    (LWV)

I think there are some interesting tools that can be built on these ideas, and I have no doubt that Terrell will build them. There are also some face-to-face group exercises based on these same principles, and I’ve actually done one of them before (described below). You could also apply these ideas towards group evaluation.    (LWW)

I’ve been vividly reminded of our conversation on two occasions. The first happened later that week at the Blue Oxen Associates anniversary party. Peter Kaminski decided to do some social engineering of his own, and instead of asking people what they did, he asked them to tell him about someone else attending the party. Real-life, face-to-face, Contextual Authority Tagging! We actually did this for real at the 2005 anniversary party, where we had people literally stick name tags on other people’s back. It was an idea I stole from Chris Messina, who in turn had stolen it from a previous SuperHappyDevHouse gathering.    (LWX)

The second occasion happened this past Saturday. Gail recounted a story about a group exercise with five people, where each person was asked to write ten words that have to do with “love.” Out of the 50 total words, only three were the same! It was a stark lesson on how challenging it is to achieve Shared Understanding and how critically important Shared Language is.    (LWY)