An Evening with Danish Bloggers

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/62/218801606_2d3d0e5417_m.jpg?w=700    (L3I)

You can’t truly know another country until you know its food and its people. Thanks to Thomas Madsen Mygdal, I had a chance to do both last Friday in Copenhagen. Many thanks to all of you who came (14 in all!) and shared your stories and good vibes (and restaurant recommendations). Evan Prodromou teased me later about having a Danish posse. Well, you all can consider me part of your American posse.    (L3J)

I arrived in Denmark two weeks ago knowing almost nothing about the country, much less the goings-on there related to my professional world (other than Reboot). I left a week later, not only personally and culturally enriched, but also professionally enriched. There is a lot of interesting thinking going on in Denmark, and while the startup culture is not as active as it is in San Francisco or even other European countries, the desire to do with the group I met was very strong. That’s not always the case at these blogger meetups (which is why I generally avoid them, at least here at home.)    (L3K)

The evening began casually (other than a minor mixup over the meeting place) with drinks at the Barbar Bar in Vesterbro. We then walked over to Carlton for an excellent dinner. I had told myself beforehand that I wasn’t going to stay out too late, but I was enjoying myself too much. The whole group shifted to Joachim Oschlag‘s place (which was conveniently just upstairs from the restaurant) for more beer and conversation. It was hyggeligt!    (L3L)

Ah yes, hyggeligt. Hygge is a Danish word for… well, apparently, it’s hard to translate, and I’m not sure I fully grasp it. According to the English Wikipedia, hygge is equivalent to the German word, Gemuetlichkeit. Hygge denotes a sense of intimacy and closeness, and is often used to describe gatherings of people, where you share a sense of familiarity and fun with those around you. Think “hug,” but not as wishy-washy. It’s a sense of wholeness that comes from being around others, and there’s a strong association with the space that helps create this wholeness. You can see why I like this word. The notion of hygge resonates strongly with community, and I would argue that it’s a common pattern in High-Performance Collaboration as well as another aspect of Quality Without A Name.    (L3M)

I’ve got pictures of the gathering buried in my Copenhagen Flickr set. Michael Andersen also posted some pictures as well as a blog entry.    (L3N)

I can’t possibly do justice to all of the conversations I had that night, but here are some highlights:    (L3O)

Reboot and Open Space    (L3P)

A lot of these folks were intimately familiar with Open Space. A few of them knew Gerard Muller, founder of the Danish Open Space Institute and co-facilitator of the Open Space at WikiSym with Ted Ernst. Thomas had tried incorporating Open Space into Reboot a few years back, and it apparently did not work well. We talked a lot about success patterns in group process, especially hybrid processes.    (L3Q)

One of the biggest challenges with network as opposed to organizational events, where your participants feel compelled rather than obligated to attend, is getting people there in the first place. Most people interpret “emergent agenda” as “no agenda,” and they treat such events as networking rather than learning events. This is exacerbated by the length of the event, which is optimally three days for emergent group processes. (See Michael Herman‘s Two Night Rule. I’m starting to realize that many people — even those who are very good at group process — are unaware of the forces underlying the Two Night Rule, and it affects the design process.)    (L3R)

Framing the invitation is a critical component for circumventing this challenge, but it’s not easy. I urged Thomas and the others not to give up on more interactive processes, and suggested as a possible framing question for an event, “What could we accomplish together in three days?” I proposed linking such a Danish event with a similar one here in the States, perhaps associated with our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops.    (L3S)

Semco SA    (L3T)

Several people told me the story of the Brazilian company, Semco SA, and its CEO, Ricardo Semler. Semco is a remarkable study in decentralized, emergent organization. It’s a relatively large company, with over $200 million in revenue and 3,000 employees, and it’s aggressively decentralized and transparent. Employees set their own hours and salaries. Workers evaluate their bosses, and they regularly mix with others, regardless of projects, thus developing multiple skills as well as a greater appreciation for the many roles that are required to make an organization tick. It’s really an amazing story. Semler has written two books, Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend, both of which I plan to read.    (L3U)

I did some followup research, and I was surprised to see how widely known the Semco story seems to be. I follow this space closely, and I also did a considerable amount of research on Brazil for my Brazilian Open Source adoption study published in May 2005, but this was the first I had heard of the company or of its CEO. It’s yet another example of the group being smarter than the individual.    (L3V)

Knowing What We Should Know    (L3W)

Speaking of which, I chatted quite a bit with Raymond Kristiansen, a vlogger, about how to get more people aware of the stories they should be aware of. It’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, the notion of Collective Wisdom does not mean that every individual needs to know everything. On the other hand, it does imply that we should be able to quickly learn what we need to know when we need to know it.    (L3X)

We talked about the Featured Content pattern as a way of trickling up useful content. It’s an especially important pattern with blogs, which are great for tracking conversations, but — like Mailing Lists and forums — tend to obscure older, but still relevant content.    (L3Y)

On a related note, Raymond also kicked my butt about not creating screencasts. I promised Raymond that I’d have my first screencast up before the end of September. There, it’s in writing now.    (L3Z)

Alexander Kjerulf    (L40)

I’m a little reluctant to single Alexander out, because I walked away profoundly affected and impressed by many people. Nevertheless, he and his blog, The Chief Happiness Officer, get special mention (not that he needs it; his blog is far more popular than mine!) and soon, a blog post devoted entirely to our conversations for two very important reasons. First, he recommended a number of excellent restaurants in Copenhagen, and we ended up eating at two of those together.    (L41)

Second, every time we chatted, I found myself scurrying for my pen and notecards. It will take me three freakin’ years to follow-up with all of his stories and ideas, generated over maybe 12 hours of conversation. I plan on trying anyway, because there was a very high degree of relevance and profundity in everything he said. He is a plethora of ideas, knowledge, and — as his title implies — positive energy. I urge all of you to check out his blog, and to make an effort to meet him if you’re ever in Denmark.    (L42)

Wikis And Face-To-Face Events

Face-to-face gatherings are very good at generating a large amount of enthusiasm and momentum. Unfortunately, that energy usually dissipates soon afterwards.    (204)

Here’s what generally happens: Folks leave the event exhilirated, but exhausted, and return only to discover a daunting pile of work. By the time they’ve made their pile manageable, the only artifact of their gathering is a lingering feeling of, “Oh yeah, that was fun.” The work that was done and the work that was to be done is mostly forgotten.    (205)

For the past two years, I’ve been designing a set of processes that use online tools to maintain and even increase that energy after an event. I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with bits and pieces of the methodology at the past two Planetwork conferences and the recent AdvocacyDev convergence to varying degrees of success. At the MGTaylor 7-Domains Workshop last month, I finally had a chance to test the methodology in its purest form, and I was extremely pleased with the results.    (206)

The Process    (207)

The process is based on two principles:    (208)

  • The event itself must result in a living Group Memory, not just an event memory.    (209)
  • Participants must be literate in the tools used to collaborate afterwards. Otherwise, the tools become an impediment.    (20A)

The process addresses both of these principles simultaneously by using the online tools for developing that Group Memory during the event itself. This gives people — especially non-techies — the opportunity to orient themselves around the tool in a comfortable environment. The better integrated the tool is into the event process, the more accelerated the learning.    (20B)

What makes a Group Memory alive?    (20C)

  • Group ownership. The problem with after-the-fact proceedings or journals is that participants aren’t necessarily invested in the results. Hence, they’re likely to ignore them. How many participants read event proceedings after the fact? One corrollary to this is that Group Memory does not have to be polished. A rough diagram developed by the group as it worked is more valuable than an edited summary of the event written by a third-party observer and published several days afterwards.    (20D)
  • Dynamic. You have to be able to add to a repository and refactor existing content.    (20E)

Tools    (20F)

Wikis are an outstanding tool for Group Memory. However, simply making the tool available during an event will not automatically result in Group Memory. The end product of Wikis at most conferences is not usually representative of the attendees at large. The main reason for this is that the percentage of participants who use them is usually fairly low.    (20G)

Wikis also tend to be underutilized because they are advertised as conference space and not community space. Organizers don’t expect them to be living spaces for continuous discussion and collaboration, and hence, they aren’t.    (20H)

(A quick aside on Mailing Lists and Group Memory. Contrary to what one might think, Mailing Lists can be very effective as a Group Memory. It’s possible to refactor existing discussions by posting summaries, a common practice in many effective online communities. However, Mailing Lists alone tend to be much more useful for participants as a Knowledge Repository than for outsiders. I think Mailing Lists are far more powerful as a complement to other tools, such as Wikis.)    (20I)

7-Domains Workshop    (20J)

I always felt that the best people with which to do this experiment were the good folks at MGTaylor, because their events:    (20K)

  • Are action-oriented and highly interactive.    (20L)
  • Consist of large, eclectic crowds, often technological newbies.    (20M)
  • Emphasize face-to-face, multimodal interaction. This presents interesting design challenges, because they usually discourage laptops at their events.    (20N)
  • Place great importance in documentation and assembling knowledge.    (20O)

How did this differ from some of the previous events Blue Oxen Associates has worked?    (20P)

  • There were many non-techies at Planetwork, and the Inter Active sessions took center stage. However, despite Jim Fournier and Elizabeth Thompson‘s best efforts, Planetwork was still a talking-heads conference (and a good one at that). Planetwork gets a special mention, though, because that’s where I first met and worked with Gail Taylor.    (20Q)
  • AdvocacyDev was highly interactive, it was fairly large (40 people), and the Wiki played a central role in the design. However, the group was already very familiar with Wikis, and those who weren’t were technical enough and motivated enough to figure them out quickly.    (20R)

The 7-Domains Workshop is a semiregular gathering of the folks in the MGTaylor network, practitioners of the process. There were about 60 participants representing a number of organizations, including Vanderbilt Center For Better Health (our host), Cap Gemini, and the VA. The purpose of the gathering was self-evaluation and collaboration on improving both individually and collectively.    (20S)

My primary role was to help integrate the Wiki into the design of the event and to support Wiki usage during the event. I also assisted in other Krew duties. In addition to being a somewhat ideal audience for my experiment, I had a few other advantages:    (20T)

  • By nature, the participants were interested in collaboration, experimentation, and learning.    (20U)
  • Most of the participants owned and brought (at the urging of the organizers) laptops. The center had wireless ethernet, ethernet jacks, and several kiosks for those who did not have computers.    (20V)
  • We had outstanding facilitators and a great Krew. These folks quickly oriented themselves to Wikis before the workshop and naturally assumed the roles of Wiki gardeners during.    (20W)

Workshop Design    (20X)

I played a very small role in the design of the event itself. Of the four facilitators — Matt Taylor, Gail Taylor, Rob Evans, and Bryan Coffman — Matt and Gail understood Wikis quite well. In fact, their conceptual understanding of Wikis was much more advanced than their proficiency with the tool, which I think is quite unusual and impressive. They had insights into the tool’s potential that many people who are quite skillful with the tool never see. Gail had also worked with me at both Planetwork conferences, so she had some experience with what did and did not work.    (20Y)

On Gail’s suggestion, the primary group exercise at the event was to write a book. The exact topic and format was not specified — that would evolve as the workshop unfolded. The only thing that was understood was that everybody would participate — participants, facilitators, and Krew.    (20Z)

The book exercise solved many problems. Like most MGTaylor events, it built knowledge assembly into the workshop process. More importantly, it made the participants responsible for that assembly, which kept them invested in the content. Traditionally, the Krew is responsible for documenting the event and assembling that knowledge afterwards into a journal. At this event, the participants documented the workshop themselves using the Wiki. This not only sliced two days off of the Krew‘s normal responsibilities, it also freed them up to take more of an assembler role, and it allowed both Krew and facilitators to contribute to the discussion in ways not previously possible.    (210)

There was no training. On the second day of the five day workshop, I spent about forty-five minutes talking to the entire group about the philosophical underpinnings of Wikis and about ten minutes demonstrating the Wiki itself. With other groups, I would have skipped the philosophical discussion entirely. Beyond that and a one-page Wiki formatting cheat-sheet, there was no training. I was on-hand to help, as were the Krew and facilitators, and participants were encouraged to help each other.    (211)

As an initial exercise, we precreated pages for every participant. We then asked people to add some information about themselves, then to go through the Wiki and comment on another page that interested them. Having people write in their own pages allowed us to avoid a massive edit conflict problem. It also gave people a fallback if they were unsure of where to add content, and it populated the Wiki with a lot of useful and interesting information. People are social animals. We like to read about other people.    (212)

The Results    (213)

As expected, a bunch of people were skeptical about the Wiki at first. By the end of the week, the Wiki had over 400 pages of rich and interesting content, and a month later, people are still using it. Several people gushed about the tool — Holly Meyers, one of the Krew, loved it so much, she wrote a manifesto entitled, “Wonderful Wiki.” Many asked me afterwards about setting up Wikis in their own organizations.    (214)

The “book” synthesized a lot of group knowledge, which not surprisingly centered mostly around the MGTaylor facilitation process. There were also several interesting thoughts and stories about collaboration in general. One group of participants chose to tell their story in murder mystery form, a surprisingly effective medium that ended up captivating quite a few people.    (215)

Throughout the week, Alicia Bramlett, another Krew member, evolved the Wiki site design, highlighting content we felt was important. (She also put together a very cool movie of the event, which we showed to the participants on the last day, and which appropriately received a standing ovation.) The other Krew members and the facilitators were actively engaged in contributing to and gardening the Wiki throughout the week. (It should be pretty obvious at this point what I thought about these folks — they were awesome.)    (216)

Watching people use the Wiki was a special treat for me. I learned tons about the tool’s usability, stuff I’ll report on eventually. Most people learned the tool quickly and easily. I had more trouble getting people connected to the wireless than getting people using the Wiki.    (217)

I ended up adding a new feature to PurpleWiki — visited pages — during the event. I realized that several people were having problems navigating the site after editing the pages, and I knew that having a list of recently visited pages would help resolve that. It was already on our list of things to do, and it was an easy feature to add, so I did it.    (218)

Shortly after the event, I was delighted to see a new function evolve from the Wiki. Because people were from all over the globe, one of the participants suggested that people post useful travel information on the Wiki, which several people did.    (219)

I’ll have more to say on all of this at some point, including a more formal report of the results.    (21A)