How Mentored Open Online Conversations nurture 21st century skills

The power of connecting and chatting


I suggested in another post in this collection that MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — apply new social technologies to an old way of learning. I proposed an alternative view of MOOCs — Mentored Open Online Conversations. Here’s what my alternative looks like:

  1. Find something you know can be done better or differently at work
  2. Investigate and scope a project to do the thing you want to do better or differently. Doing the project provides the opportunity for connecting to others also trying to innovate — inside or outside of your organisation — to share and learn from your experiences
  3. Although important, content is certainly not the focus of this approach. Content is instead accessed when it is needed — to help you do something — and assessed for usefulness (or not).

The power of socialising …

People have always needed each other for fun, friendship, social support and learning from each other. What you might not appreciate is just how consistently these informal social relationships are to productivity.

We can find evidence of that way back in the 1920s and 1930s. Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger, two of the principle researchers of the The Hawthorne studies said that:

“Mental attitudes, proper supervision, and informal social relationships experienced in a group were key to productivity and job satisfaction.”

The Hawthorne studies led to the development of the Human Relations movement.

The link between informal social structures and performance continued into the 1950s. In 1951, Trist and Bamforth described how miners using an old method for extracting coal had autonomy in choosing what to do, when and with whom. Miners, whose lives depended on each other, were best placed to work things out for themselves. This study is seen as influential in the development of the Socio-Technical Systems movement.

In the last big shift in management methods, on-the-job learning, problem-solving and innovation as everyone’s business (through continuous improvement) were the basis of new approaches to manufacturing. Yet again, it was found that strong social relationships on the shop floor could make or break attempts to create new performance cultures.

And here we are bang up-to-date. Sandy Pentland from MIT reported in the Harvard Business Review how he and his team at MIT found that “the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings.” They discovered this by asking people to wear badges that produce ‘sociometric’ data, which were gathered and analysed — and the data confirmed what we ought to know already about how informal social relationships influence performance.

… and value of playful, ‘time-wasting’ chatting

What might appear to be time-wasting chatting is vital in trying to make sense of what is happening. Neil Usher notes that:

“The core working day was previously about doing stuff with others while the more social, creative conversations took place in the pub. Social technologies expand our opportunities for playful conversation with people outside our organisations.”

Far from being a distraction from ‘real work’, these online conversations via tweeting, blogging, and a host of other social tools can make us more effective. It is in these conversations that we discover insight and sources that help us make sense of new knowledge as it emerges.

The people we connect to online extend the possibilities open to us for learning — they expand our innovating and problem-solving capabilities to a huge degree. They also let us break away from institutionalised work and escape the confines of organisational structure.

And the bonds forged online can be strong. Anne McCrossan, CEO of Visceral Business, points out that the social connections and the support communities we forge online are made through choice. She observes that “affinity is stronger than structure.”

Open online conversations

So open online conversations nurture 21st century skills by:

  1. Extending the informal relationships that people have always needed for fun, social support and learning

2. Letting us discover who knows what

3. Enabling us to ask our network for recommendations

4. Providing opportunities to find serendipitous and timely information

5. Helping us to make make sense of and see patterns in flows of information

6. Helping us to practice disagreeing without being disagreeable

7. Helping us to practice asking questions, thinking critically and learning to challenge the status quo

8. Building our social capital — being known for our expertise, helpfulness and quality and influence of our network connections

9. Enabling us to self-organise

10. Letting us experiment

10. Letting us bounce ideas off each other

11. Giving us the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by others

12. Having playful conversations

13. Giving us courage and emotional support when we are fearful or overwhelmed by doing something new

And so on …

What about the mentored bit?

You can do all of the above with no help from anyone, so why mentored conversations?

In my experience, effective mentors or facilitators — whatever you prefer to call them — can play multiple valuable roles in helping people to see things differently.

I have already said elsewhere that regular progress monitoring meetings can become opportunities for dialogue among everyone involved to talk about challenges, problems and opportunities. One role the facilitator can play is making sure these meetings — short, focused, regular bursts of “where do we think we are now” conversations — happen at all. It is too easy for this to slide in the hurly-burly of frantic day-to-day activity.

Ability to make judgements in complex contexts — where data is incomplete, where opposing needs and trade-offs have to be considered and where decision contexts are like trying to hit moving targets — is a core 21st century skill.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, deliberately taking an opposing position, can be very effective in helping people to defend and justify a course of action, or perhaps change their minds. Speaking from experience, this is often not easy for either the facilitator or the person being challenged — the struggle for understanding can be emotionally fraught.

Colleagues can also play the Devil’s Advocate role but suppose you are trying to get a business off the ground or you have the heavy weight of making sure the business you work for remains viable — able to carry on paying wages — you might appreciate an informed and experienced but detached, outside perspective.

Facilitators can act as knowledge brokers, introducing things to try out and suggesting people who might be able to help. They act as sounding boards to bounce ideas off, for thinking through possibilities, for evaluating different scenarios and so on. They bring people together for playful, challenging and reflective conversations. Most importantly of course, they listen.

They also act as shoulders to cry on and above all are trusted to keep personal or sensitive information confidential. Of course colleagues and friends can do this as well.

To have a mentor or not? As Yoda the ultimate mentor might say “Up to you, it is.”