Friday, June 20, 2014

Sue Llewellyn (et al) on the psychology of social media

On Monday, as part of  at the FT digital learning week, Sue Llewellyn delivered a session about the psychology of social media. This is a topic that is of great interest to me. Much of what Llewellyn shared was pretty much common sense to those of us who have been active in the social media space for a while, but I've been ruminating over it for a while, because...

Attending the session were people from the FT and the wider Pearson group, looking at how to use social media to benefit the business. We're talking about large corporate endeavours here. And yet, most of what Llewellyn had to share seemed aimed at people who were looking to promote their personal brands. And this is what I found quite telling. Nearly 15 years after the publication of the cluetrain manifesto, and about eight years since the publication of naked conversations, this is the core message coming through. Many companies I've spoken to over the years have had a social media presence, but they haven't really set the world on fire. Largely because it has been seen as part of the traditional marketing/comms programme. Running a social media 'campaign' like a mailshot distribution just doesn't cut it. In this social age - and this has been one of the themes running through the whole week for me - people want to engage with people with skin on, not some faceless corporate monolith.

Social media have seen us move into a space where individuals have a voice, and aren't afraid to use it - for better or for worse. The digital era has shifted gear. We're no longer in a space where it's all about writing code and publishing stuff online. We've moved into the engagement space. So 'people people' can be tech-geeks too. In fact, they had better be! And they had better be well informed, too. Many is the brand that has suffered damage at the hands of someone delegated to do the job because they have the technical skills, but who have not done the brand any favours as they have revealed their own lack of insight or have been dragged into exchanges of personal insults and potential libel (one example: Gillian McKeith).

Which brings me back to Llewellyn's presentation. All the rules that apply to promoting your personal brand through social media, apply to building your business brand.

Turning the traditional 'what's in if for me?' question on its head, Llewellyn suggested considering what's in it for them (your followers)? She talked about finding the behavioural trigger than makes people want to engage with the content you put out there. She used the term 'psychographic' - don't just think about the demographic of your follower group, but their psychographic: what matters to them? What do they want to hear about?

She provided some useful guidelines as to what made people share your content with their own follower audience and talked about how to trigger those responses. I'm not going to go give away all her suggestions and observations free of charge, but - in addition to the practical suggestions she made - it boiled down to being 'neighbourly': if you ask people for feedback, thank them for it and put it to use, share the link love, give credit where it's due... all that stuff.

This was the biggest take-away for me. From a business perspective, it is important to track what works and what doesn't. Think about why that might be and what you can do to influence that. I suspect this is where a lot of corporate social media campaigns fall down.

You're allowed to be funny (and even silly)
One of the points Llewellyn made strongly was to show how much response there is to 'silly' posts. A picture of a bear in a hammock, shared by BBC News World Edition on their twitter account racked up scores or retweets. A corporate 'entity' is allowed to have a lighter side. In fact, it had better have a lighter side. It's part of the whole personable thing. We like to laugh. We like say 'awww'. So using emotive triggers is not only acceptable, it's advisable and possibly even imperative.

Areas for neutrality
While an individual can have a strong political/religious stance, a corporate image needs to keep neutral on these topics. So while it may be acceptable to share the news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls, it probably isn't wise to use that as a platform for religious prejudice.

Llewellyn summarised her advice as keeping content relevant, interesting, timely, engaging, and to ensure that it added value.

What she didn't explicitly mention, but it was the inherent thread throughout her presentation - and many of the others during the week - was that even a corporate twitter account needs to be personable and relatable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

FT Digital Learning Week: Women in digital leadership

As part of the Financial Times digital learning week, I attended an early session today on women in digital leadership. Chaired by Megan Murphy head of Fast FT, the panel consisted of Molly Flatt from 1000 Heads (among other things), Anne Marie Imafidon from Deutschebank and Stemettes, Claire Koryczan from Decoded and Karla Geci from Facebook.
Molly Flatt, Anne Marie Imafidon, Megan Murphy, Claire Koryczan, Karla Geci
For me, it is a frustration that we even still have to have sessions like this. When they are no longer needed, we will have arrived. Maybe.

What came out of today's session is that the number of women in tech has actually declined over the last 30 years - in the US, at any rate. This saddens me. You see, when I was in high school in South Africa (far more than 30 years ago!), local industries were so desperate for computing staff (the term 'IT' wasn't being used, yet) that they were recruiting straight out of schools off the back of an aptitude test offered to kids with maths skills. Starting salaries were really good, and there was the promise of being able to work towards a degree while working. Right in the thick of the patriarchal, apartheid era it was the first profession in which gender and race were shoved aside and demand became the sole driver. So the declining numbers being reported today are disappointing - all more so since the skills around the field of tech have become more blurred. It's not just a case of writing code any more - there is a need for community management skills, social engagement skills... all those 'soft' skills have found their way into tech. And those are areas which have traditionally attracted a large percentage of women.

The question was asked  whether women have a problem with tech or the tech industry has a problem with women, and the general consensus was that it must be the latter, because the former was simply not true, based on the experience and research of the panel members.

So having these women as role models for women starting out in tech is important. Having organisations like Stemettes giving girls confidence to operate in the science/tech space perhaps even more so, since this addresses the matter at grass roots level (because, let's be real - few kids will have heard of these women, yet - they don't really blip on the average young person's radar).

I'm not sure that I came away with a fistful of answers, but I would suggest that perseverance in raising awareness is at the very least a start.

However, I would be loathe to see women pressured to move into senior management roles or risk being seen to be letting the side down. Leadership is not the same thing as management or seniority (for example, I would contend that Malala Yousafzai's achievements make her a leader), and we need to take care not to conflate the two concepts. I would also like to see women in the role of specialist practitioner, becoming leaders in their field by dint of the sheer quality of their work and the level of expertise they gain, and being afforded the same level of respect, support and mentoring as captains of industry.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Talking frankly about mental illness

For the past few years in the UK, there has been a campaign to try to de-stigmatise the concept of mental illness. I guess this is my contribution. I'm not an expert. I have no training in psychiatry. My understanding of psychology and the human mind is rudimentary at best - mostly acquired as a result of working in the field of learning and development. Marginally enhanced by a personal, strictly amateur interest in the subject.

When I was growing up, and even into my adulthood, terms like 'mental illness' were just euphemisms for other, less kind words, like 'mad' or 'insane'. I used terms like 'insane asylum' and 'mental hospital' without giving them a second thought. Mental illness was something that happened to other people. Abnormal people. Scary people.

Then, in the early 90s, the wife of one of my husband's colleagues had what is still usually referred to as a nervous breakdown. She was placed in a facility that we referred to in hushed tones as a mental hospital. I had no problems asking her husband after her health and progress and offering him help and support - all in that exaggeratedly self-congratulatory sympathetic way, with the slightly tilted head. But I was less brave when it came to speaking to her - it was the elephant in the room that we didn't talk about. So I sort of avoided her altogether, which was unspeakably cruel.

I knew that people like Spike Milligan had had what used to be called manic depression, and I saw the evidence of it in his brilliant work. I began to wonder about people like Mozart and van Gogh.

It took a long time before I was prepared to admit to myself that I, too, experience mental illness from time to time. And I don't mean in that "my kids drive me nuts" kind of way. Nor am I 'insane'. My battle is with depression.

I had always had a tendency to 'get a bit down' from time to time. Something which got no sympathy at boarding school. At other times, the smallest thing would send me off into a towering rage from which I struggled to return. The towering rages were shrugged off as PMS. I wonder how often women with mental illness are misdiagnosed with PMS.

For me, the 'getting a bit down' thing became a bit more problematic. I was eventually diagnosed as having depression and given anti-depressants. The first lot gave me the raging munchies and caused me to gain weight, which made me more depressed. So I was switched to that miracle drug of the 90s: Prozac.

I decided I didn't want to be dependent on chemicals to deal with the day-to-day reality that is my life, and I weaned myself off them - cold turkey is not advised.

I have had repeat bouts of depression over the years - some of them so deep and so dark that I have not expected - or even wanted - to emerge from the other side. Calm, rational (or so they seem to me) thoughts of suicide have been very much the order of the day at times. During my studies in 2007-2010, an unexpected setback pushed me over the edge, and I suspect I had a nervous breakdown. It was a year before I was able to return to my studies without having a full-blown panic attack. I really should have sought professional help. As it was, my poor dissertation supervisor had to deal with tears and tantrums befitting a child, even after I got back to my studies.

I have learned to distinguish between being unhappy and being depressed, for the most part. It took a while, and I still don't always get it right. I have managed to avoid drugs as a long-term solution, but I don't rule out the possibility that I might have to go that route at some point in the future. I know the view at the bottom of that dark pit, and it's not one I am keen to see again, but the odds are against me.

Everybody is different. Each person will have their own experience of what works and what doesn't work. For me, it's as follows:
  • Telling me 'I'm there for you' doesn't do it for me. I have no idea what that means. They're just words, as far as I'm concerned.
  • Any sentence that starts with "At least..." isn't going anywhere helpful.
  • Do not EVER ask "What have you got to be depressed about?" and then proceed to enumerate all the wonderful things in my life. I know I have a well-paid job. I know my husband adores me. I know I have a lovely home - which is a tip right now, because I'm wallowing. I know my kids are wonderful. And now I also feel guilty that that 'isn't enough for me', as some people perceive it, and I sink lower into the mire.
  • Some people know exactly what the solution is, and they declare it with great confidence. When my depression continues, they either (a) feel helpless because they don't know what else to suggest or (b) get impatient because I should be over this by now.
  • Being 'given space' is not helpful. People often politely step back and leave me to get on with it, on the understanding that I will contact them when I once again feel ready for human contact. All that happens is that I feel abandoned. Politeness is over-rated. When I do emerge, I will probably just continue to respect the space that you have created between us.
    I've made a nest
  • Other people ask me what they can do for me and then disappear when I say I don't know or that there isn't anything they can do. When I am in that pit, I just want to relieve people of the burden of my company, and I'm useless at making decisions. I'm not going to ask for anything.
  • Someone who pitches up, sits me down on the sofa with a chick flick and then sets about cleaning my kitchen or my bathroom will make more difference to me than someone who tries to dispense wisdom. Having a clean kitchen and bathrooms give me an enormous boost, but when I'm depressed I can't motivate myself to do it, which makes me feel worse.
  • When I'm depressed, I can't bring myself to spend money on myself. I try to take up as little space in the world as possible, so I look a fright, which also makes me feel worse. Taking me to have my hair cut or giving me a home-spun makeover will also give me a boost.
  • Bringing a home-cooked meal and relieving me of the anguish of watching my husband have to shoulder more than his fair share of the household chores would also help.
  • Coming over with the makings for a day of crafting-and-making would get me up and busy, and the fact that we're not making direct eye contact might even enable me to talk more easily about what I'm going through. Don't feel under pressure to have answers.
  • Coming over with your dog, and taking me and my dog out for a long and strenuous walk would get me out of the house and the endorphin flowing.
  • On the subject of endorphin - an exercise session would help, too. So bring along your Davina McCall fitness DVD and do a workout with me.
  • Popping over for a day of bad movies and worse snacks would help, too.
  • When I start to emerge from the pit, don't avoid talking to me about it. Don't adopt falsely cheerful tones and ignore the elephant.
  • Don't be astonished if there's a relapse. Recovery isn't linear.
  • Don't patronise me. I might be acting like a petulant child at times, but I'm still an intelligent adult.
  • Talk to me about your own experience. Ask me what I find helps me. Have a rational conversation with me. 
  • Don't treat me like a victim and steer me away from treating myself as such. 
For the most part, I don't want someone to 'fix' me. I'm not looking for a problem-solver. I need people who will demonstrate that they aren't going to be driven away by me at my unlovely worst.

I have shared a cartoon, as you can see. I wish I could track down the original and give credit to the person who created it. If you recognise it, please let me know. It resonates with me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The future of university education in the UK

Yesterday, from several quarters, I found myself listening to statistics, reports and predictions on the subject of university education in the UK (and a little about the global situation). I'm not a futurologist. In fact, my stomach twists into a knot when I am asked to make any predictions about the future of learning. However, I can't help wondering whether universities are going to start disappearing or being 're-imagined' pretty soon. I have provided links wherever I have them. Please feel free to follow those for further information.

First, some background.

Up to 1998, there were no tuition fees for first degrees in the UK. In 1998, universities were required to pay up to £1,000 per year for tuition. In 2004, that increased to £3,000 (in England - other fee structures apply elsewhere). In 2010 that trebled to £9,000 a year. From a personal perspective, this was right at the time my sons would be looking at starting a university education. Neither of them went that route, and one made the decision based on cost.

The average predicted debt on leaving university in England, for those who started in 2012 is over £59,000. Graduates 'only' have to start paying back their study debts once they start earning at least £21,000 per year. Outstanding debt will be written off after 30 years. 30 years! By this time, these people will be in their early fifties. My age. By which point in their lives most of them will also have wanted to have had a wedding (£15,000+), take out a mortgage (£30,000 deposit and  a mortgage of £120,000), buy cars, do some travelling and generally live their lives. They will have needed to look into educating their own children. Many of them may, in fact be grandparents by then. The thought of still having a study loan hanging over my head at this stage of my life is just beyond depressing.

61% of graduates find work within six months of leaving university, and will earn an average of £18,000-£24,000 in their first job. So there might not be a lot of time between graduation and the beginning of loan repayment for that group. What of the 39% who take longer? (rhetorical question)

Organisations are finding that graduates don't leave university with skills that can be applied on the job. This might be due to a disconnect between what academia considers important and current practice within the corporate world. Whatever the reason, large investments often need to be made into the development of graduates before they begin to play a useful part in the achievement of the organisation's strategic objectives.

Having paid a fortune for their university education, students are becoming more inclined to complain when their expectations aren't met. Universities are self-regulating, unlike schools. This, I learned yesterday, is a major issue for several graduates. There is no body they can go to, to escalate the situation when they are dissatisfied. And many of them are dissatisfied. More than 20,000 students complained to their universities in 2013. They have begun to see themselves as consumers and believe they have been sold a sub-standard product. According to a programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, students find that the reality of a module often doesn't match the description which formed the basis on which they chose it. They find that they are unable to enrol on the modules they want, and must accept less-preferred alternatives for the same price (you can't have this Porsche 911, but here is a Fiat Punto for the same price). One student's dissertation supervisor was unavailable to him for five months leading up to his submission date, and the poor grade he got for his dissertation pulled his overall degree down from a 2.1 to a 2.2. Students are finding that the degree they have paid so much for doesn't qualify them for anything in particular - one young lady I know has just left university with a degree in German and has discovered that it doesn't open any doors that weren't already open before she earned her degree.

When I was in my final year of school (a long time ago), the field of computing (IT wasn't a term yet) was exploding. It wasn't yet the time of the personal computer, but the computerisation of  organisations - both public and private - was rampant. In desperation, organisations approached schools. One day, some captains of local industry came into our  (higher grade) maths class and offered to test us all for the aptitude to work with computers. I declined, but that's another story. Those who showed aptitude were offered jobs straight out of school at decent starting salaries (more than my Mom was earning at the time) and the opportunity to gain a qualification on the job.

Might we be seeing a return to that?

We're certainly seeing an increase in apprenticeship programmes. Not just in number, but in disciplines. In my office alone, we have three apprentices: one in admin, one in HR and one in Finance.

Considering the cost of training up their graduates anyway, and they higher salary they can command. Organisations may start recruiting straight from school. Offering young people the opportunity to earn-while-you-learn and to obtain accredited qualifications on a personal portfolio basis which can eventually build up to the equivalent of a degree... and beyond.

Will universities become irrelevant and even disappear? Will they begin to partner with organisations and run programmes that meet the needs of the organisations, with a changed accreditation model?

I can see this approach being more feasible in some fields than others - the corporate world is one such example. Neuro-surgery, maybe not so much. But maybe over time, models can be developed for the most unexpected fields to be able to move to a learn-on-the-job approach.

I will be watching with interest.

To close, though - it is my observation that the recruitment industry is lagging behind. They're a little too wedded to the 'piece of paper' as an easy way to identify suitable candidates. The current situation must surely be a strong motivation for finding a different way. But perhaps that is a post for another day.

Monday, June 02, 2014

On becoming an instructional designer

A colleague of mine has identified that she would like to progress her career into instructional design, and I was called in to suggest ways in which she might achieve this goal. So I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Many companies are developing internal learning materials without recourse to an ID, with varying results. But if you're developing third party learning resources for someone else - particularly someone who's going to pay you for it, you'd probably be best advised to have some instructional design skill on your team.

I'm not going to reinvent the wheel, here. The subject has been covered by others, so I'm going to point at some of those.

There are formal qualifications out there that can be obtained: diplomasBachelor's degrees, Master's degrees and beyond.

But I'm not convinced that that's necessarily the best way to go. While I consider it more important to understand learning theories than some appear to do, and acquiring skills is always useful, I think the core of a good instructional designer is an ability to champion the learner/user. The one person who is seldom present in any of the conversations or planning meetings is the person who is going to use the resource after go-live. In my view, the ID's job is to represent that person. And this requires a level of empathy and insight which I don't think can be taught. A person who has this sort of empathy and insight will be able to learn the theory and acquire the skills as they go, and with a useful sense of context from the outset, in my opinion (with which you may differ, of course).

I would expect far more value out of a programme such as the one offered by the Ministry of Instructional Design. The contributors are genuine movers and shakers in the field. I'm not sure if they still run them, but it would be well worth finding out.

I would also suggest making yourself a virtual apprentice of some of the luminaries in the field. there are a few ways of doing this:
  • Participate in something like #lrnchat - a tweet chat for learning professionals
  • Read blog posts such as this one by Cathy Moore and this one by Christy Tucker. Both blog posts contain a fair amount of 'link love', so there's a wealth of information to be mined there.
  • Participate in MOOCs like this one
  • Attend conferences and choose seminars that will help you move towards your goal. There is such a long list of suitable ones, and I'm aware that you may live in a different part of the world from me, so I will resist the temptation to list all the ones that I try/would like to attend.
I hope you find this helpful. It's not meant to be exhaustive, but it should provide a useful 'starter for ten' as the saying goes.