a funny thing happened

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the PSU Web Conference. The topic was “Using Social Media for Collaboration” and the particular lens explored was how an organization or department could leverage the affordances of social media to foster collaboration and communication both internally and externally. Presenting along with me was a colleague well versed in all things social media, Robin Smail. Our presentation was really a talk. You see, we tried to capture the spirit of online collaboration in an in-person environment. We went into the talk cold with barely an outline of where we wanted things to to go.  We also did not use any slides. This was to be an interactive chat session with some scribblings on a whiteboard…musings that emerged from the conversation. We wanted it to be awkward. We wanted, and we wanted our audience to feel anxious, uncomfortable, and maybe for even a few bored or disinterested. We wanted people to feel what it is like to interact in this environment.

About ten minutes in I needed to come up with an example of how our department uses social media and all I could come up with was probably the most volatile of things both Robin & I are part of at the moment, the annual Learning Design Summer Camp.  I  could not believe the words coming out of my mouth. I heard the dread in my voice as I said them.  I saw the dread in Robin from across the room in her bowed head and deep breaths. Ostensibly, camp is supposed to be about teaching & learning from the perspective of those of us who help to create these events & experiences. While our annual symposium focuses on the instructors, the focus of camp is on instructional designers, librarians, technologists, and multi-media folks who help make scholarship happen. We advertise it on our wiki page as “an informal space for people involved with education technology and course design to get together to show, tell, share, and create.” Robin and I approach the event from very different perspectives. She has been there from the beginning. Due to conference travel, I’ve been there once. Now I am the chair. I have ideas about how I’d like to shape the event. Robin has ideas about how she’s like the event to stay the way it is. We disagree on the most basic of points, such as the definition of what is fun. Most of the old guard agrees with Robin. The folks new to the event like my direction. This isn’t happening behind closed doors. This is happening out in the open, on the wiki page, on Twitter, in discussions. In other words, it made it the perfect illustration for our talk.

You see, that is collaboration done in the open. It requires risk. It takes frank communication. You have to be willing, as an individual and as an entity, to be out there, warts and all. You will end up with some egg on your face. You will need a thick skin. You will struggle both with yourself and with others. It requires us to be a lot of things we are not comfortable being, like being wrong on some things and right on others. Like having to disagree with someone and being able to articulate it. Like being direct while maintaining empathy.  Like focusing on doing what’s best for the whole all the while knowing what is best isn’t always what’s popular.

I think the audience felt the tension between us. But it wasn’t negative tension; it was creative tension. Suddenly Robin and I found ourselves simultaneously presenting to an audience and working through our own issues. A lot of folks in the room played along and a lot of folks opted not to get involved.  Some liked the session and I’m sure others hated it because it did not meet their expectations. Some waled away from the session changed, even in the smallest way. Others have already forgotten it and moved on to the next thing.

    • btopro
    • June 15th, 2011

    Very interesting concept. I completely agree about the notion of open collaboration requires risk. It was very embarrassing the first year or so in the Drupal community having people openly bash some of my projects as well as point out how poorly developed they were. But from that public gawking you learn how to be better at what you do.

    I see every day people telling me I know what I’m doing online or in various social communities but I think what they don’t realize is that the only difference between us is that I took the plunge. It’s very scary to live out in the open about your ideas or planning but it’s also completely freeing. Great post, wish I could have been there!

    • Thanks Brian. I think one of the reasons we click is our willingness to discuss, banter about, and work through ideas. Have you ever read Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”?. Great read. One of the things I learned was how Lincoln set up his cabinet to contain people that did not agree, or thought differently than he did, and each other. The idea was they would push each other and Lincoln to make the best decision possible. As I get older I find that that’s the kind of people that I most enjoy being around when I’m in my professional skin. People who will push me and hopefully I can push them because we want to become better.

  1. Very nicely conceived Jeff. I think there’s always doubt around concepts like this in the minds of attendees: “Are they pulling a fast one? Did they really just not prepare?” and “if I say this is cool am I gonna look ridiculous when the truth comes out?” or even “what the hell just happened?”.
    I know there’s doubts in the minds of creators, too; a glimmer flashed, a realization was teased out, not fully understood but deeply felt. This was absolutely brilliant.
    Very much like Brian’s ‘talk’ at his recent conference, the topic wouldn’t have attracted me; the method would. I wonder if something like this could happen in the break area instead of behind closed doors?

    • Thanks Dave. I know what you mean. I’ve sat in too many sessions where you knew the presenters were unprepared and not being experimental. What Brian did took a tremendous amount of courage. Sometimes in your gut you know what’s right. You just got to trust yourself. Easier said than done.

    • ejpyatt
    • June 17th, 2011

    Great post. Having been more involved with camp this year, I can see that it is a struggle to strike a balance between the rigid conventions and the looser seat-of-your-pants event planning. This does remind me that collaboration can give us the best of both worlds though.

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