Can paragogy help technology production?

A sticky idea…

Howard Rheingold has thrown up a new idea – Peeragogy – which has found a sticky resting place in my brain.

In a blog post written as a pre-cursor to his 2011 Regents’ Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley he reflects on his experience to date with collaborative learning, and sets out the stall for his next project – to collaboratively create a guide to collaborative peer-to-peer learning:

I’m calling it “peeragogy.” While “paragogy” is more etymologically correct, “peeragogy” is self-explanatory. In my lecture, I’ll explain the evolution of my own pedagogy and reveal some of what I’ve discovered in the world of online self-organized learning. Then I will invite volunteers to join me in a two week hybrid of face-to-face seminars and online discussion. Can we self-organize our research, discover, summarize, and prioritize what is known through theory and practice, then propose, argue, and share a tentative resource guide for peeragogical groups? In theory, those who use our guide to pursue their own explorations can edit the guide to reflect new learning.

This idea has definitely struck a chord with me – and slightly tongue in cheek I tweeted:

Is it me, or is #peeragogy about doing learning in the way a lot of “real” work is done?

More going on

As is so often the way, I then read further to discover that someone else had not only spotted the connection but grounded it with references. Rheingold acknowledges the work of Joe Corneli and Charles Danoff, who have termed this area of study Paragogy, have co-authored a paper on it, and are writing a book. In their paper Corneli and Danoff make an explicit link between Paragogy and Peer Production.

Relating this to technology production

When I tweeted, what I had in mind were the complex loops of idea exchange implicit in any kind of technical product development (either for external customers or internal company users):


Most, if not all, of these conversations imply some sort of mutual learning:

  • what sorts of things might surprise, delight or downright disappoint the customer/user
  • what sort of product and business model might work
  • what are the technical options
  • what does the industry provide
  • how can we adapt the current technology to meet the needs
  • what would we like the industry to develop next
  • and so on…..

If the future of work is learning, or more bluntly work is learning- so what, how can we exploit the developments in paragogical theory and practice to make such work work better?

My questions

it’s turtles all the way down, but a few starter questions that spring to mind are:

  • does treating these processes as learning exercises lead to better performance? (and how might we measure that?)
  • what support do teams need to surface learning goals around their work?
  • what team and organisation culture will best support rapid learning?
  • how beneficial is it to make the learning explicit?

Right now this is mostly a “lightbulb” – I need to do more thinking and have some dialogue to explore further.

if any of this strikes a chord with you, please comment.

More about conversations and processes

I’ve a hunch that the conceptual models discussed in  Jeremy Aarons’ new paper, (as I summarised here) could be a useful lever for unpicking the dilemma I found when I wrote that I prefer conversation, but you need process.

In that post I was drawing on conversations with (amongst others) Earl, Taka, Jon  and Ton about the apparent conflict between the desire we all feel as empowered, “wierarchical” knowledge-workers to have systems that support a collaborative and improvisational working style, compared with the rigid, dehumanised processes that many companies see as a necessary corollary of delivering consistent service.

The particular paradox is that some of us (ok, me!) have on many occasions required companies (typically suppliers of services) to demonstrate those sorts of processes in order to satisfy our demands for clarity and measurability, even though we recognise that we may at the same time be preventing them from delivering the sorts of innovation that would truly delight us.

I find that the Davenport model helps me understand what is going on here – the underlying assumption of companies that apply prescriptive processes seems likely to be that the work involved is on the left-hand side of Davenport’s diagram – the Transaction and Integration models.


The underlying assumption has to be that the nature of the problems that are faced in these areas do not require interpretation, rather the application of rules and standards, possibly requiring multiple areas to work together but always within a set of rules. This is almost exactly the model under-pinning frameworks such as ITIL.

The other thing that strikes me as I read the contents of the boxes in the model are that they match closely with some of the criteria that are used in job grading systems. The boxes at the left of the model contain descriptions which are usually associated with lower-graded roles. This would seem to support my assertion from experience that companies which base their core competency around deployment of such rigid processes are primarily concerned with containing costs and at the same time guaranteeing minimum levels of service from a transient workforce.

Work that can be described by the right-hand side of the model (e.g. Collaboration and Expert models) is typically well-rewarded by job-grading schemes, pragmatic evidence that such skills are in relatively short supply. Professional services firms typically focus on reserving the efforts of these people for critical projects of areas requiring significant interaction. Such firms often also have (or desperately need) a core competence in taking the intellectual products of the right-hand side and “operationalising” them, i.e. turning them into formal processes and standards that can be scaled up and applied by the more numerous group of people paid lower wages to work “in the left-hand side”.

So far, so good – perhaps not a comfortable conclusion, but it would seem that the model works at least acceptably in certain situations. There is a certain basic business logic in reserving your most highly-skilled people for problems that need their attributes, whilst at the same time finding ways to manage the routine at a lower cost.

So where does the paradigm break?

I think there are at least two areas worthy of further exploration:

  • There is an assumption that the market such firms supply will largely pose routine problems which are amenable to a rules-and-standards approach – where does this break down?
  • Secondly, underlying the concerns that were expressed in the earlier conversation is a belief or hope that by finding a more integrative approach to knowledge work then there is the potential of finding ways that are more rewarding in either a commercial or human sense.

 Ideas for later posts…

The Social Origin Of Good Ideas (again)

Although I first skimmed this paper back in May I’ve finally got around to reading it properly and writing some summary notes.

At an emotional level I feel pleased that a behaviour that I find natural (i.e. to dip into different work groups or areas of study and share ideas between them) and feel to be one of the more useful of my talents is shown to have measurable benefits. If anything it prompts the networker’s perennial question – “which groups haven’t I tapped into yet?”

In a similar vein, serendipitously this comes into view: Caves, Clusters, and Weak Ties: The Six Degrees World of Inventors on the way that researchers can bring in new ideas to a company through their weak ties with other technologists.

Blogwalk IV – developing the work

Over at Headshift Suw Charman has done a great job of capturing the 11 core themes from the BlogwalkWindow Wiki“. As people reflect on the event there is discussion about how to best develop the ideas from this session and how to ensure better learning next time. Here’s my three-ha’porth, modified slightly from my own comment to that discussion:

Reflection and Memory

Memory-wise I find the “little black book” with a few key phrases or bullet points essential to remember the flow of the day.

However I’m not keen to have a formal plenary “writing it down” session; partly so as to make best use of face-to-face time; partly because I find that writing a too-detailed set of notes tends to freeze the thinking at that point rather than allow the ideas to ferment and mature over time. Ian Glendinning strikes the right chord here for me.

I do think that a reflection period at the end of each session would be a good way to surface and anchor thoughts without over-formalising.

Developing the Ideas

The converse is also true – to continue the conversations amongst a geographically-dispersed group we are going to need to write it down on blogs, wikis, emails, IM etc. etc. – perhaps that is where we will begin to express a written emergence of our thinking?

I’m beginning to think that as well as having the “seed” themes (the 11 groupings from the window) to work with it would be very helpful to have some candidate “research questions” in each of those areas to focus our output. Each question should combine a focus for the thinking with a “how could we test this in real life?”. Food for a later set of posts?


Of course we already have one target output in terms of defining the right toolset (the [bliki]IntraBliki[/bliki]).

The overwhelming majority of issues discussed on the day were around people, interactions, emotions and the psychology of blogging in business – indeed as David Wilcox notes many of these issues are those that relate to any organisational change. However I think it would be dangerous to think that there are no technology challenges left at all. In my experience unless the technology hurdle is very very low then it becomes a great hook for people to hang their “resistance to change” issues on. Anu Gupta has picked up on this by referring to this Harvard Business School article

Don’t forget that we are, by definition, a self-selected group who have been prepared to deal with the technology to get our ideas “out there”. The use of social software in the workplace will only succeed (what’s more should only succeed) if it is successful in letting people do what they need to do more easily – a means not an end.

BlogWalk IV : IntraBliki

The theme of Blogwalk IV was the use of social software inside the firewall.

We noted that there were certain technological barriers to be overcome before the tools were sufficiently invisible to support a wide acceptance of corporate blogging / wiki etc.

I agreed to start some work to define the requirements of the ideal internal corporate blog / wiki tool so I’ve started writing some initial user requirements in the wiki. The root of the notes is at [wiki]IntraBliki[/wiki], please join in if you are interested.

Blogwalk IV

Yesterday was Blogwalk IV – a very enjoyable and mind-stretching day talking with other bloggers on the theme of “How will the world of work change as a result of social software use inside the firewall”.

Thanks to the excellent “light touch” facilitation from Lilia Efimova and Johnnie Moore we covered a range of topics technical, cultural, managerial, commercial and more… (there will be more posts over the next few days as I and others get on with our agreed actions!)

Some of the other people there: (apologies if I’ve left you off)

Lee Bryant dropped in for lunch
and Matt Mower joined for dinner…

Disappointed that George Por couldn’t make it but I’m sure we will catch up again soon George!

Coase’s Penguin

Context weblog quotes an extensive extract from Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm [PDF] by Yochai Benkler. Benkler explains the growth of commons-based peer production, with particular reference to the Open Source movement, and identifies why this mode of production has significant advantages over property or contract based methods of organising production when the object of production is information or culture, and where the physical capital necessary for that production— computers and communications capabilities—is widely distributed instead of concentrated.
Continue reading “Coase’s Penguin”

The Power of Difference

SynapShots cites Everyday Leaders: The Power of Difference by Debra Meyerson

“Nearly everyone feels at odds with the organizations they work for at one time or another. Managers who are also parents struggle to succeed — and be there for their families — in companies that don’t offer flextime. Women and people of color want to open doors for others like themselves — without limiting their own career paths. Teachers want to motivate students and make their material relevant in schools or school districts that require strict adherence to curriculum. Environmentally conscious workers seek to act on their values and climb the executive ladder at firms more concerned with profits than pollution … I have spent more than a decade studying people like these, men and women who want to succeed in their organizations, yet want to live by their values, ideals, and identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations. Rather than assimilate away their differences or leave because of them, the people I studied take a middle road, constantly balancing between the pulls of conformity and rebellion, and many opt to use their difference as a fulcrum of learning and change. I call these individuals ‘tempered radicals.’ In my book Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work [2001], I describe in detail how tempered radicals make organizational change. In this article, I focus on their importance as leaders.”