August 12, 2007

BLC07 McIntosh No.3: We're adopting! A strategy for social media in education

Part three out of three parts.

Social media, and whether or not it's adopted in any organisation, is almost entirely down to the culture of the organisation. But having a culture that doesn't match the aspirations of openness and sharing that would make social media a natural progression for the organisation does not mean that all is lost.

East Lothian Council does have a culture of openness in its Education Department senior management. The Head of Education, for example, has had a blog for a couple of years, progressively moving away from "here's what I did today" to asking some really hard questions about his job, they way he and his colleagues operate and where education should go next. To expect that this culture of public self-questioning and planning is shared by all teachers and managers would be naïve, though.

So how has the Authority, in one year, moved from a steady band of about 20 people sharing their views and thoughts on the web, to over 350 educators? The answer from one person will never be complete, so I'm going to fill in part of the story with some of what I reckon has contributed to social media being adopted on such a relatively large scale. There are other great places to go to read more about the preparations that went into the beginnings of cultural change in the Authority, and I'd encourage colleagues working on the eduBuzz project to give their takes, too.

Kind of strategy, kind not of

It's easy to do the following things:

  • The Pilot Project
    As Don would say, "I've never seen a pilot project fail". It's true. That's because pilots, small scale short-term exploitations are easy to make successes of. They come with budgets, staffing and time, they are written up as the successes they ought to be, and then usually fail to get buy-in from the staffers who do not have the budgets, the extra staffing and time. They are good for proving a point before making a bigger expenditure on the project, but when the project needn't come with any cost at all (like in social media) a pilot project really loses its point.

    Pilot Projects are good for one thing: they give implicit permission to fail, which releases people to try things that wouldn't normally get past the User Group  or senior management. However, when your culture already accepts that failure is healthy then, once again, we've lost the need for the pilot.
  • The Focus Group
    A pilot project by any other name, this allows a smaller group of people to play around, try things out, and make decisions for the majority by virtue of being "representative" of that majority. It's easy to get this kind of group together but, when social media allows you to involve any number of people (there's no limit on meeting space, time to comment, finance to get people there or pay for their time off) the focus group seems overly hierarchical, even though three years ago it would have seemed incredibly democratic.
  • Democratic or "Open Source" Management
    This means that we ask everyone their opinion and opt for the option that most like, or opt for a mix of the options to compromise. Again, prior to the days of social media this seems logical. In an age, however, where every niche, every desire can be met at little or no cost of time or money, is there any need for compromise? We can offer a blank canvass and let the member of the organisation or community choose how they want to interact.

All strategies, you see, have flaws or miss something out in the detail. The problem with the generic term of "social media adoption" is that for each tool or way of working there is a different set of details to communicate. We've all done it: "You could use a blog to do this, or a wiki to do that. Why not add some audio and make a podcast..." If you're dealing with a dozen new tools that's an awful lot of detail to try to include, and a lot of implicit goodness to miss out.

To avoid the detail, I personally liked Suw Charman's strategy and last summer as part of the conference set about educationalising it. And, more or less, the ICT Team in East Lothian has used this strategy directly or indirectly to help encourage more educators to take up sharing their expertise through social media of one sort or another. It's what you might call 'common sense' planning.

The Strategy

1. Identify key user groups
The first step is to identify which potential user groups within the Local Authority could most benefit from using social software.

  • What are the different groups of people in the authority? Go crazy. Find as many as you think are out there.
  • What needs do these people share? Group them together, find common ground.
  • What are their day-to-day aims? This is not aspirational stuff, just what people are trying to get done for their day job.
  • What projects are they working on together?
  • What information flows between them, and how?  Why do they choose to do things this way? Lack of choice or because a chinese meal is a nice way to do things?
  • If they're using some social media tools, which one or two tools are they already using to make things possible?

2. Identify and understand key users
Once you have identified key user groups, you need to know which users within that group are both influential and likely to be enthusiastic. Then consider how social software fits in to the context of their job, their daily working processes and the wider context of their group's goals.

  • What specific problems might social software solve?
  • What are the benefits for this person?
  • How can the software be simply integrated into their existing working processes?
  • How does social software lower their work load, or the cognitive load associated with doing specific tasks?

Ideally, key users will be 'supernodes' - highly connected, in contact with a lot of people on a daily basis, and heavily involved with the function of their department and the transfer of information within the group and between groups. This may not be the group executive, but could well be his PA or a direct report. Frequently, people's supernode status is not reflected by official hierarchy.

In education there are already strong links to explore: look at bringing on board alliances that are already in existence.

At this stage, where you have around 20 key users who kind of know their stuff, it's brilliant (essential, even?) to get the technical support side hooked in. Bring the IT managers in on the meetings you have about pedagogy. Get some of the educators in on meetings the IT managers have about filtering and blocking. It doesn't matter if the IT managers say 'no' immediately, or if the educationalists can't find some convincing arguments to bring the IT guys around. This is about helping people understand how others work and what might need some thought later on. For the moment, we're just using third party tools outside the 'official' network.

3. Convert key users into evangelists

Training in the form of short informal sessions (face-to-face or online) and ongoing on-demand support are the basics for encouraging adoption. Too much training or too formal a setting will put users off, and is usually unnecessary.
More important is that the information gathered in steps 1 and 2 are communicated to key users. They need to understand:

  • What their own needs are
  • How those needs are going to be met by the software
  • What the benefits are of using the software
  • How they can integrate that software into their daily routines

This requires face-to-face, personalised sessions which won't happen unless this initial group of key users feel empowered and 'part' of something. That means it's a great help if more senior managers are part of this, too, and even better is when the IT managers, the 'corporate' people, are involved. This is the point where practical issues such as access might be considered. It might seem late on in the process, but with the understanding of how these technologies can help reduce workload and improve learning there is more 'ammunition' to help convince those blocking services, sites or technologies. If there are hardware or software procurement issues now might also be the time to show the benefits in relation to the cost.

The aim is to convert key users into evangelists who can then help spread usage through their own team, encouraging the people they work with to take the training and use the tool themselves. Evangelising works here because the key users are still working in an enthusiastic group of people, most of whom (s)he knows and by whom (s)he is respected. But no-one likes an evangelist - they talk a good game, but what people want is not motivation, but training. Making the switch to trainers as soon as possible will help keep things rolling along.

This is where concrete examples or good practice where success has been met by traditional (summative assessment) standards - convince the old guard that technology can serve their aims, even if the route is different.

As more people get skilled up it might be worth considering a support wiki allow everyone to participate and contribute – a network of involvement. It's not so much that everyone will contribute, but it's healthy for growth in the community if they know they can.

4. Turn evangelists into trainers
 The advantages of having evangelist-trainers are immense:

  • They understand the day-to-day needs and working processes of their colleagues far better than an external trainer can;
  • They can communicate with their colleagues more easily, in the same language;
  • They have the opportunity to provide effective training on a far more informal, ad hoc basis;
  • Given enough support themselves, they can then support their immediate colleagues;

5. Support bottom-up adoption and emergent behaviours
Training and support should not be limited to named groups, and should be made available to all users. 'Volunteers', especially, should be encouraged. The most influential people in a wiki or blog community are not those with official status but those who engage most enthusiastically. For example, wikipedia has about 90,000 registered users who have edited at least 10 times since they joined, but the majority of work is done by about 5% (4500) of these users. (Stats approx. for Nov 05.)

If people start to use social software in an unexpected, innovative, or informal manner, this should also be encouraged. If a user begins by putting their team's coffee rota on the wiki, for example, this will help them understand how the wiki works and what benefits it brings.

Management support
As well as supporting bottom-up adoption, it is beneficial for there to be top-down support, but that support has to be based on openness and transparency. Managers and team leaders must trust their staff to use the tools correctly, but they must also be forgiving if mistakes are made. There is always a learning curve associated with any new software, and some people find social software daunting because they are scared of what they perceive as a high risk of public humiliation.

All this helps avoid what has traditionally happened when the 'official' or paid-up member of staff responsible moves on - there is a grassroots appreciation of how the technology can work and benefit others, a whole set of helpers and enthusiasts to fill the gap left by the original organisers, for example. If something is imposed, then it is received differently from something that is chosen.

It is important that management do not see their role as 'managing' the technology but fostering and supporting it. The difference is subtle but vital - managing too closely has been seen in the past as micro-managing or meddling. Once grassroots adoption is apparent management should, indeed, take a backseat role.

Managers and team leaders could:

1. Lead by example
By using the tool themselves for team- and department-wide projects, managers can encourage their colleagues to also use social software. By being active, showing subordinates how the new tools can be used, and demonstrating the benefits, manages can play a valuable role in fostering adoption.

In the software industry, this is known as 'eating your own dogfood', and it is essential in order to build trust, interest and understanding.

2. Lead by mandate

If the manager makes clear that this new tool is to be used for a specific process or task, it can help foster adoption and encourage reluctant users to learn how to use the tools. For example, managers can mandate that all meetings be documented on a wiki, with agendas written through collaboration and minutes being published as soon as the meeting is over, or that monthly/weekly update reports be made on a blog or a wiki instead of in a Word document or by email.

Key to leading by mandate, however, is that the manager must also lead by example. If one of his team puts a document on the wiki, but the manager comments on it by email, that gives conflicting signals to the team. Managers must be clear about which tool they expect people to use, and must use that tool themselves.

Arrive at a position where not using is more difficult than using!

3. Lead by reminding

Managers can also increase usage by reminding colleagues to use new technology instead of old, e.g. when a colleague emails with a document to be proof-read, the manager can reply with a request to put it on the wiki.

4. Ensure there is adequate support

Managers must accept that their staff may require support, and they must be willing to allow staff to take time out to do training. They must also ensure that they have access to ad hoc support, so that problem can be solved quickly - it is important that there is someone tasked with 'hand holding' through the initial adoption period.

5. Ensure personal and business benefits reflect each other
Management plays a key role identifying and communicating the business benefits of social software adoption. When users understand these benefits (e.g. reducing email volume, speeding up projects, improving productivity, encouraging innovation), and see that the business benefits are in line with the personal benefits, (everyone likes to get less email) they will have greater confidence that the software is worth their own investment.

In education, one of the biggest challenges is encouraging teachers and students that reading each other's work is beneficial and important for development and innovation. Unless we are 'doing' something (i.e. not reading) then it appears a 'waste of time'.

Understanding time-scales
In large companies with thousands of users, it is impossible to give everyone face-to-face training, but even with online screencasts and help documents, it takes a significant amount of time for adoption to take place.  Two years is about the length of time it takes to get a good scale of growth with a lot of hard work. Having a clear adoption strategy, and ensuring that the correct key players are identified and 'converted', helps to speed up the process, but it remains a fact of human nature that it takes time for people to become comfortable with new technology, new ways of doing things and, most importantly, new cultures.

The cultural aspect of implementing social software in enterprise cannot be underestimated, and it is the hardest aspect to overcome. It requires time, patience and understanding, but given those three, it too is a temporary obstacle.

Remember what your goals really are
Adoption of social media isn't a goal in and of itself. Think about what your ultimate aims are; make them discrete, measurable and attainable. Go for 'reducing occupational spam', for example, rather than 'improve communications'. Measure your email usage before you start, monitor it whilst you adopt, and report back regularly so that people can see the progress that they are collectively making.

In education, the goals are more likely to be related to the vagueness that teaching and learning policies often can be. Trying to cut to the core message so that everyone can get it is the key. It's a bit like giving a good quote to the press: cut to the chase and get to the core in 30 seconds flat.

It's something East Lothian has managed to do rather well (pdf), using blogs, wikis and video podcasts to spread the word and gain people's opinions on the final core messages. In turn, it has probably been the key element in relating why social media is such a key element in improving teaching and learning.


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I think you've managed to capture the emerging strategy perfectly. Thanks.

If there was one thing missing it might relate to your own vital contribution in your role as a Research Practitioner!!

Like Don I agree that you have captured and put into words the way to institute a Strategy for Adoption of new practices. It is also true that you need someone with the vision to identify the need and to do something about it - the Lead Evangelist role if you like :)

Yes... In my experience I have seen too many technology evangelists without the ability to bring the excitement and "potential" of a tool into the "trenches"... where the rubber meets the road. Teachers sit back in such crusade services and say, "Yeah, but you don't understand what we have to deal with here. You try it. You'll see... it won't work or you won't last..." Or, the other common problem I see is that the trainers are just that... techies that know how to use the tools, but are not part of the classroom's social network. They don't understand the needs of teachers or the curriculum. Hence, teachers lose patience with them and do not persist.

I'm not so sure about the point of "leading by mandate". Most things mandated in schools serve to get teachers to dig their heels in and resist. I suppose it has a much better chance of working when situated within the other venues of support and encouragement.

Great post...

@Don: one never likes to say 'I' in a post ;-)

@Steve: I didn't like the lead by mandate in the original Suw Charman post, but I do see it's potential as a kind of last resort. Also, I know that we've done it sometimes when we've just *known* it's the right thing to do and wanted to get some more urgent action taken on things.

@Ewan: Yes... I can see instances with the right group who are already somewhat invested or see the value in it. A mandate could be just the push that they need to become more fluent/comfortable... something necessary to truly experience the full impact. However, I would not want to be the one to mandate such a thing for those who are not already open or interested. Again, when situated within the other elements at the right time, the mandate can be much more palatable and effective, I think. And, folks tend to follow leaders who they respect... even when they mandate.

Thank goodness for some Scottish common sense, having just read and commented on Chris Lehmann's post on the same topic. Obviously it shows the divide ( Western Hemisphere!!!!) across the 'pond'. Here in Wales there is a desperate need for innovation to be encouraged from the top in addition to it growing form the grassroots up ( as a grassroots person!). Can't LTS do what large companies do and buy out Welsh Assembly Education Office ??? Please :)

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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