Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.

Virtual Education

Over a period of time, I have written about how virtual education can be used to address some of the problems facing education today, namely, shortage of good faculty, and the high cost of getting high-quality education to a large number of students. Few days back (which is when I had made a note to write this, but didnt quite get round to it, maybe because of the New Year holidays, but then, that would be just an excuse) I read about virtual courses offered by IITs being attended by students from other colleges (please help with a link if you could find … have been searching, but not to much avail). In this, the college from which the participating students come from decides whether they want to give credit to students for the courses they attend virtually, but if they do, then this is a step in the direction I have written about. For the participating colleges, there is, of course, the additional aspect of building the infrastructure to support the learning around these courses, in the form of labs, Q&A sessions, tests, and so on, but there is a benefit too. This would arise in the form of the content being made available to students, around which the learning then takes place.

Taking this one step further, is the possibility of building Centres of Excellence, hosted by one or two colleges, and have courses around these topics being delivered virtually by Professors from these colleges. For instance, these centres could be like Material Science, Thermodynamics, Engines and Turbo-Machines, Operations Research, and so on. Based on mutual agreement, specific colleges could be identified as CoEs for each of these, and courses delivered on these areas by Professors from these colleges, with students participating from all participating colleges. This would give the benefit of standard, high-quality education being delivered to students across the country, without necessarily replicating faculty skills at multiple locations, and enhance access as well as address cost issues.

From here, the individual colleges could take over, in supporting the learning process around these courses. This would be in the form of Q&A, homework assignments, labs, case studies, projects, exams, and facilitating cross faculty-student collaboration. In this way, the participating colleges get access to world-class content, delivering colleges build a source of revenue, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The participating colleges give credits for these courses, manage the learning process, and give degrees based on their own criteria.

Blended Education

blog post I had written recently was what I was reminded of when I read this one about the Blossoms program, reason being that this was quite the type of delivery mechanism that I was talking about.

The idea here is simple … video recordings of lectures by a panel of expert teachers which form the backbone of education delivery across schools. This enables standard education delivery, while at the time making sure the best teachers are available to deliver classes to students across cities and villages, including in places where these top teachers would typically not want to go. Follow up this lecture with interactions at the classroom level, where the teacher running the class builds up on the video, and takes the students into interactions to discuss the content delivered, and ensure understanding of this content to all the students.

This logic of interactions can be extended to lab exercises too, as well as project reports, where the theoretical concepts are delivered in an electronic way, while the application of these concepts, including lab experiments, and the discussions among students are conducted face-to-face.

Needless to say, this method can also be extended to the L&D domain. The idea here being that with this mechanism, the L&D team can bring experts from across the world to the desktop of the learner, but the learning interaction doesnt necessarily end there (which it would in the classical e-learning method, which is still a dominant method in most organizations), and is extended with the learning interaction being extended to face-to-face (now face-to-face here could either be an actual face-to-face session, or a virtual face-to-face session), where learner interactions can happen, and learners can be presented with illustrations, case studies, and more detailed inputs, including, very importantly, inputs which are company-specific. These, of course, could be applicable both in traditional one-to-many training interventions, or in one-to-one coaching methods.

Social Eminence

A discussion I was having the other day with colleagues about eminence and the role of social media in creating the persona of people who are experts at things brought out some rather interesting thoughts. One of the ideas that came out was that social reputation is based on one’s willingness to share knowledge. While I completely agree with that, this viewpoint confuses knowledge with the act of sharing. One can actually share things on social media without really knowing much about them. One of the things I see, for instance, on twitter, is that the rate at which people share links must mean they are reading like probably a thousand words per minute. Quite a few people I know just glance through an article or blog, and share it on social media. This is why I say hat sometime knowledge can be confused with the act of sharing.

Another important thing to understand is that it is very easy to manufacture things on social media. You might have seen a number of quotes from Albert Einstein on the web, and I don’t know how many of them are attributable to him. Taking an instance of a talk show I was watching, the analyst on the show was quoting a long-departed leader as having said something. This didn’t quite sound logical to me, so I started searching. After much searching, I found a blog which told how a lie was fabricated and why, and how it was circulated all over the world over social media. The “fact” may find it’s way twice around the world before folks start finding out. Also, there will be a number of folks on social media who will have spread the word, and very few who would take the effort to validate. What this means is that social eminence can be manufactured, and while there are self-correcting mechanisms which are there in the social ecosystem, these methods may not always be effective in a world with a very short memory. By the time you figure out something is wrong, nobody’s really interested, and setting the record straight is a moot point.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to be selective in the sources we subscribe to, and that we need to do our research before publishing something, a thing which is seldom done.

Online Education

This post comes from this post that i read on linkedin today. The post is about a young girl doing courses through MOOC providers. These courses are offered by some of the leading faculty in the field, from some of the top universities in the world, but by the inherent structure of these courses, its not really expensive to do these courses. The cost of running the course can, in fact, be lower because, with the MOOC paradigm, the cost of the course can be shared by participants across the world, instead of only those in a particular physical classroom. However, as you will read from the comments on the post, the main thought people have is, does this collection of courses, and the credits these would represent in a traditional university system, represent a MBA?

Lets consider this closely.

What are the components of education?

1. The right content covering all the topics which a student is required to know to be able to say that he or she has attained a particular level of proficiency in a particular topic.

2. Teaching by a faculty who can teach the concepts covered in the course, answer questions from the students, give them homework, evaluate their homework, and make them do projects or case studies, and evaluate their performance in these.

3. Collaboration between students which helps them to learn together, from each other, and to contribute to the learning on the group as a whole.

4. An exam which can test the knowledge of the student and be able to say with a certain amount of confidence that the student has attained a certain level of proficiency in specific subjects or courses.

Apart from 4, all the other three are available in the structure of MOOC. Here are courses delivered by some of the best faculty in the world, with some of the best courseware, and students have a multitude of options for collaborating with each other. What is lacking is the assessment of the performance of students with some form of standard testing, to signal to prospective employers the suitability of the student for a particular job (this is the economic function of test scores, isnt it?). And what is lacking is the attaching of credentials to these courses.

I feel this is something that is going to change over a period of time. With more participation from leading universities in MOOC programs, what is required now is a structure which can bring courses together into a single framework, regardless of which university is teaching those courses, and aligning this framework with a standard testing model, and we have all the ingredients of a completely new paradigm of education.

The question that arises is why universities would want to do that. With the rising costs of education and delicning subsidies or grants, as universities are finding it harder to recruit students, this is a model which can help universities recruit students from across the world, without those students having to travel to the university location (which is a large cost), and each university getting funding based on the number of units taught, case studies developed or delivered and assessments run by them, this could be a viable financial model for universities.

Anyone aware of studies done which might be able to define the sensitivity of student enrollment towards cost? In other words, are we able to quantify how student enrollments would increase as costs reduce? With this information, it may be easier to find out the feasibility of this model. Anyone aware of any such studies? Please do leave a comment.

Social Marketing & Games

If you think social media is only for technology companies, think again. Heres a look at how Danone use social media to change the image of the Activia brand.

As you can see, its all about engagement. Now, i am not a marketing person, so i wont even try to look at that aspect of things, but another interesting aspect of this is the fact that the campaign was played out as a game. Users would go through a series of Activia challenges designed to create more engagement of users with the brand. One of the aspects which probably would help to create a buzz around the campaign would be the component of the challenge which would give users a sense of achievement have having crossed different levels of the challenge.

Now, this campaign could also have been run as a series of activities, probably the same set of activities, seemingly unconnected to each other (think activity of the week). The series of challenges, like the levels in a game, leading to the final event creates the level of excitement among users at crossing levels, at reaching the next level. This creation of a continuum of levels into “higher” levels brings with it the engagement which the brand needs, and gives a good illustration of the effect of gamification on activities, whether they be marketing or learning.


Came across a piece about an organization banning email. Now, that might sound a bit radical, but there you are. You can find the article here. The CEO believes that only 10% of the emails people get are useful. Even if thats a trifle too little, the idea still remains that email may not be the productivity tool that we think it is. Lets look at why this may be.

To begin with, the purpose of email is to communicate, collaborate. Looking at the basic concept of email, we find that email is not a tool for conversation. Most of us would agree that the best way to communicate and collaborate is through discussions, conversations. And email, by its very nature is not meant to be a tool for that. though, quite a few of us do use email in that way. How many mail chains have you seen which run into pages? Sometimes, it seems like an email ping-pong which goes on. At times, you might get included in the email at a very late stage of the mail chain, and its rather a task to be going through the entire mail chain to figure out what its all about. This is because email is being used for conversing when thats something it is not meant to be for.

So, if the essence of communicating is conversation, which is also the tool required for collaboration, then wouldnt it be easier to collaborate if we use tools which are available to us, which are meant for collaboration and conversations?

Social Networks, Communities of Practice

There is a discussion at the Gurteen Knowledge Community on linkedin by Tony Pedley about the dividing line between social networks and communities of practice. Juha-Matti Sario mentions that social networking is about online communities, and that communities of practice have an objective. Tim Wieringa mentions that social networks are generic and communities of practice are more specific.

At a basic level, i feel that that social networks are social, they are about connections between people. These connections are people-centric and not necessarily objective-centric, as Juha and Tim mention, and that communities of practice are around a practice or around a topic of interest. As such, social networks are people-centric, while communities of practice are objective centric. At the same time, one could also look at a social network as a tool for developing communities of practice. For example, facebook would be the social network, while groups that you are a member of would be communities of practice or communities of interest. In other words, people have a network, and they belong to a community.

Why Knowledge Sharing

The other day, I couldn’t find my laptop charger. As someone who believes that a laptop breaking down isn’t altogether as lousy as folks make it out to be, was a little worried about some stuff I had to complete. Well, the question was, how does one find a charger.

Step 1 … Start thinking about where you last saw it. As it happened, the last time I remembered seeing it was two days before, at a meeting. Hmm … So maybe I left it there? Called them up, no charger. Suddenly, there was a brainwave. Me and a colleague were wrapping up around the same time, and we were carrying similar looking bags. Maybe I put my charger in her bag? Improbable, but just to make sure, called and woke up a colleague who actually happened to be on leave that day. Ouch. Tried to find at a few other places I had been to, but no charger.

Step 2 … Try to find out how to get another charger. Having found that out, also found that the charger would take five days.

Step 3 … Tell colleagues that I have misplaced the laptop charger. By now its been two hours.

And that’s when a colleague tells me the charger is with security.

As it turns out, had left my charger at the office, and didn’t remember it. But the point is, by asking, I would have not have those two hours looking for the charger. And this is where knowledge sharing is so important. Need something? Reach out to people, not necessarily only the ones you think can help you, but to a larger audience. Never know where you might find the solution.

About Google+ …

I recently posted a poll about whether you would like to move to google+ from the social network you are existing using. The two responses which are getting the maximum support seem to be:

1. People would move to google+ if their friends moved to google+ … something which is expected. What i have heard from some friends is that since they dont have many friends on google+, they really dont know what to do there. After all, a social network is about connections, so if you dont have connections, whats the point. In other words, its still early days yet to see acceptance.

2. People would probably start using google+ along with their existing social network. This would seem to mean that its not either/or, which is what we see today as well, people using a number of social networks. What this means is that there would be a need for apps to publish updated to google+ from other social networks. Or, a need for a social network aggregator, maybe?

The poll apart, the feedback i am seeing about google+ seems to be varying from one end of the spectrum to another. On the one hand, people are raving about it, on the other people are saying its not worth it. There are plenty of comparisons being made with facebook, but i feel maybe the thing folks need to look at is whether google+ could be used as an alternative to twitter, which is something which seems to be getting missed out in the discussion.