Hierarchical conversations

Imagine a conference room in a convention centre in some metropolitan area [I’m sure you can]. It’s just after lunch and you’re stuffed on hotel food and wired from half a dozen cups of barely drinkable coffee. This morning you survived three presentations, each consisting of PowerPoint slides (at least Keynote slides have better default fonts) and the dreaded bullet points. Three presentations, 20-30 slides each and 5 to 20 bullet points per slide.

Quick Aside: Elliott Masie wrote a book, The Computer Training Handbook and discussed VCP  analysis. When teaching, he recommended: Vocabulary: limit new words to 6-8 per hour. Concepts: no more than 3 per hour. Procedures: More, but make memorization unnecessary.

Anyway, you’ve already been inundated with dozens of new words, while concepts are just dropped like buzzwords and there is obviously no common understanding of concepts. For example, my idea of a network is quite different from someone who has never experienced being a member of an online professional network.

The presenter [facilitator, director, cheerleader or whatever name is used] has now told everyone that it’s time for conversation. Let’s open things up!

Here’s a bird’s eye view:

This is how the conversation goes. A participant raises their hand, the presenter recognizes it and nods approval and then the participant asks a question or makes a comment. The presenter almost always makes a comment or a response, no matter the experience of the other participants. If the presenter disagrees with a statement or a perspective, he or she is able to shoot it down or deflect it before it gains any momentum.

It looks like this:

Meanwhile, the communication and understanding of the folks distributed about round conference tables (so very conducive for collaboration) remains in question. However, the presenter remains in charge, just like the school teachers who set the example so many times.

After some time listening to the same sub-group of extroverts in the audience, the presenter runs out of time and sums up with some statement of how productive this has all been.

Imagine trying to add a comment on the nature of networks in this setting. How can you imagine a learning network when all you’ve experienced are hierarchical conversations?

Now here’s the transcript of the last #lrnchat conversation on Thursday evening, where I jumped in as “asker of questions” when the regulars weren’t able to show up. In this type of conversation, everybody can talk at once and each person reads what they want. If you like a comment you add something to it, or “retweet” it to show you agree. People on the sidelines get brought into the conversation and there is no middle or gatekeeper, other than those who initiate questions. We ran out of prepared questions and participants just added more.

Many people say, “it’s not about the technology”, but the technology of the conference room with screen & presenter at the front has a significantly different effect on conversation than does the micro-blogging virtual “tweetchat”.

I always recommend that we choose our technologies with care but we have to have experienced the options in order to see the differences. That was my great challenge. How do you explain networks and networked learning to people who have never experienced them?

8 Responses to “Hierarchical conversations”

  1. Alan Levine

    You don’t. I cannot imagine why anyone thinks this is a reasonable approach.

    How do you explain the taste of chocolate to some one who has never tasted it? How do you explain snow to someone who gas never left their south pacific island home? How did Annie Sullivan teach Helen Keller the word for water?

    You don’t understand networks and learning from hearing words or seeing diagrams; you understand it via first hand experience.

  2. Jon Husband

    It goes deeper than this, as I am sure you know. The same or similar logical constructs are in place when and where the work is designed and how it is to be managed, measured, rewarded, re-oriented, etc. The core design assumptions underneath all of this have been in place long enough to spawn its own sociology and clear examples, found in every organization, of what is politically acceptable, or not to say and do.

    It’s the same thing David Weinberger was getting at when he once said “you can never have a real conversation with someone who is your boss” except that it’s a larger phenomenon and informs much of western societies’ organized activities.

    The effects and impacts of networked people and information (and how that interplay behaves) aren’t going away, and are likely to intensify, but the concrete in the walls of the dykes, moats etc. is of good quality and will take some time to dissolve, remove and / or crumble.

  3. Holly MacDonald

    Hi Harold

    I have a few reactions to your post:

    1. Change management types (I’m sure Jon can add his perspective here as well), might take the Kotter model and say that the first step has to be create a sense of urgency. If there is no urgency (problem) then your change will fail. They have to feel the urgency (as you put it, see the problem) or think the opportunity is so large that they can’t ignore it. I think the problem/opportunity will be different for everyone.

    2. It took me quite a while to get the value of Twitter, quite honestly and hearing someone explain it compared to doing it yourself is night/day. They need to learn by doing, just as we did and experience our own epiphanies.

    3. All I ever needed to learn, I learned in Kindergarten – we are conditioned EARLY that this is the model that we use to participate in group conversations. Hard to erase decades (centuries?) of hierarchical conversations. I’ve been a presenter who has tried to start conversation and the participants almost force this (I’ve paid to hear you the expert…)

    Anyway, those are my two/three bits,

    • Harold Jarche

      My main issues are that 1) we have set up our collaboration venues in a way that dooms real conversation and 2) many people don’t even realize it because they have known nothing else. On an individual or organizational basis I have some good ideas how to promote new work methods. This week confirmed that the problem is much bigger than any individual organization. Talking about networks to someone who has never really actively participated in one is very much a one-way conversation. Many organizations, like newspapers, are going to wake up one morning and wonder what happened, as their business model is no longer relevant.

    • Harold Jarche

      Yes, I remember reading Roger’s Engines for Education when it came out in the mid-nineties. I really liked his charter of student rights:

      For the use of students and teachers everywhere, and by way of summing up the real issues in education, I [Roger Schank] present the Student’s Bill of Rights:

      1. Testing : No student should have to take a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test.

      2. Real-Life Skills: No student should be have to learn something that fails to relate to a skill that is likely to be required in life after school.

      3. Memorization: No student should be required to memorize any information that is likely to be forgotten in six months.

      4. Clarity of Goals: No student should be required to take a course, the results of which are not directly related to a goal held by the student, nor to engage in an activity without knowing what he can expect to gain from that activity.

      5. Passivity: No student should be required to spend time passively watching or listening to anything unless there is a longer period of time devoted to allowing the student to participate in a corresponding active activity.

      6. Arbitrary Standards: No student should be required to prepare his work in ways that are rbitrary or to jump through arbitrary hoops defined only by a particular teacher and not by the society at large.

      7. Mastery: No student should be required to continue to study something he has already mastered.

      8. Discovery: No student should be asked to learn anything unless there is the possibility of his being able to experiment in school with what he has learned.

      9. Defined Curriculum: No student should be barred from engaging in activities that interest him within the framework of school because of breadth requirements imposed by the curriculum.

      10. Freedom Of Thought: No student should be placed in a position of having to air his views on a subject if the opposing point of view is not presented and equally represented.


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