Changing the World With Jeff Merrell (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first of a two-part interview conducted with Jeff Merrell, Associate Director of Northwestern University’s Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; projected publication date is autumn 2018). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.

 

Jeff Merrell

Let’s start with an attempt to set context: can you provide a brief summary of the enterprise technology and organizational learning course you’re currently facilitating or simply cut and paste the course description into this document here?

Let me do both.

http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/masters-learning-and-organizational-change/designing-for-organizational-effectiveness-certification/creating-and-sharing-knowledge.html

This course explores enterprise social networking technology and its impact on organizational knowledge and organizational learning in the workplace. The course will introduce theory, concepts and frameworks to help you understand knowledge sharing and learning within communities and networks of practitioners, the unique attributes of social networking technology as it applies to organizations, and current uses of network technology to change the way people work or learn (i.e., crowdsourcing and personal learning networks). Finally, you will learn to apply course concepts through prototyping, class projects and business cases.

Topics

  1. Social-practice perspectives of organizational knowledge and learning
  2. Enterprise social networking technologies
  3. Communities and networks in organizations
  4. Innovative models (MOOCs, communities, personal learning networks, crowdsourcing, narrating-your-work)
  5. Prototyping new models
  6. Assessing opportunities for new digital solutions to organizational challenges
  7. Aligning digital solutions to strategic organizational challenges

My own words here:

Our M.S. program, for the past 6+ years, has used Jive as our “learning” platform. We intentionally tried to create more of a workplace feel for our program, rather than using an academic LMS [learning management system]. Jive is an enterprise social network platform that allow us to have dialogue and interactions within courses—privately—and across our entire community of learners, faculty, staff, and alumni. All within one space—and it very much looks like a corporate social intranet.

So, in my course, I have the advantage of leveraging our platform to talk about the issues of enterprise social media. But we also look at things like Yammer, Slack, and, sometimes, other platforms—Chatter—to get a sense of what the field looks like.

But at the end of the day, the course focuses on how enterprise social media and people co-construct/co-constitute the environment. We’re not techno-determinists.

A phrase you just used—“across our entire community of learners, faculty, staff and alum”–perfectly captures what has been so attractive to me in all the work I’ve seen you do since we first met in a MOOC several years ago. Is there a strong sense in your course community that the classroom is the entire world since you so frequently engage participation that encourages collaboration between those enrolled in a course and those who are practitioners, participating with you and your learners through social media?

I think what student come away with, appreciating—I hope!!—are the “layers” of community and networks created by different levels of privacy. So, our class group—community—of maybe 25 to 30 people is only visible to those enrolled in the course. We work hard to create a safe learning space there. The next layer above that is the MS Learning and Organizational Change “community”—some 250 to 300 people. And then, finally, the outside world—Twitter, etc.

What we look at is: What does it feel like to exist across those communities? And why is that important to understand?

The conversation tend to get at safety, trust—“knowing people,” as in close social ties. Keep in mind that all of our students meet face to face as well, so they do know each other.

But for anyone leading in today’s organizations, my bias is that it is important to understand these layers of privacy and community and how that impacts experience.

Remembering that readers of this book are people interested in better understanding how to use social media to foster social change, what specific guidance would you offer them in the following areas: What does it feel like to exist across those communities? And why is that important to understand?

Persistence and visibility—two of the affordances of enterprise social media—scare people, especially in a professional setting. In smaller-scale communities, with a community manager or facilitator who maybe speaks the professional language of the community, you can begin to create a safe place to share. You can create norms that—hopefully—prevent and mitigate the risk of unproductive comments.

But that does not mean that the culture you create in that smaller community necessarily translates to something more public. The more visibility, the more people just freak out, or self-monitor what they do or do not say.

So, if my goal is to have open discussions about critical, tough issues—and I want a variety of voices to be truly heard—don’t assume that because people are open in one tight community that they would be willing to say the same elsewhere. We have amazing, sensitive conversations in our class groups. They rarely “leak out” to the larger community, even when we nudge students to do so. It’s a difficult trick.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the tenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.

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