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

March 19, 2018

This is the second part 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

In a world where employers encourage employees to be available around the clock via the use of mobile devices, is the old rule of thumb “don’t talk politics at work” even a realistic approach anymore, given that lines between personal and professional activities are being inadvertently erased–through actions rather than by design?

Ah. There’s the $1,000,000,000 question.

Look, for me, it starts and ends with the organizational culture. I would not attempt to have “let’s talk social issues” discussions on a large scale if my company or organization did not do that naturally, in other forms. I am going back to my blog post rant a bit here, but I think some things like #MeToo, news around things like Charlottesville, can inspire some short-term discussions of topics within an organization’s online spaces. Maybe it allows people to—in a tiny way—share something that they’ve wanted to say. I’ve heard examples of this. But, for longer term impact, I think organizations need to think about how they “talk” about these issues routinely, in hybrid ways, where the online conversations are extensions or variations of what happens in other ways.

If your organizational culture isn’t strong enough to handle that, or your organizational philosophy does not incorporate some strong element of social impact, then you are not going to get very far.

It’s. Not. About. Social media.

Thanks. That’s really helping me to clarify something I’ve been exploring through these interviews: the impact that social activism through efforts including #MeToo have in settings far beyond what those involved may have originally thought would occur. I’m finding that few people are looking at the professional social media tools, e.g., LinkedIn, Slack, and Yammer, as means to foster social change. Thoughts on how those might fit in to what you just said in terms of conversations among our professional colleagues onsite as well as online?

Well, let’s start with LinkedIn. LinkedIn is about your “brand.” So right there, you are screwed unless you as an individual are seeking to be branded as social activist. But I would suspect—maybe I am wrong—that someone with that mindset would find LinkedIn just not a fit. It’s about people trying to create professional brand in the traditional corporate model.

Slack and Yammer, and similar, allow more co-construction of “space.” A group of social activists, within an organization, could easily start up a Slack community of trusted peers etc., set norms for participation, and maybe have a go of it.

But again, if the organizational culture is not accepting, respecting of that kind of conversation, then it will likely just be some dark secret thread. Where there is hope is when these spaces become places where people might be able to explore difficult topics and the organization is OK with that.

About halfway through the “There is hope in pushing a conversation” section of your “Revisiting: A critical pedagogy for organizational learning?” post, you talk about a “kind of collision between the ‘outside’ social world and internal organizational world…” Have you seen positive change result among those with whom you work as a result of the interactions taking place in the layered communities you mentioned earlier in this conversation?

Let me start over with a couple of examples.

Two of the most powerful “open” discussions we’ve had within our community (so…open to the entire community, but not open to the public) have been about 1) Being a Muslim—visiting student—in the U.S. and 2) the challenges of being a female in tech.

In both cases, these are very strong, female leaders who opened these discussions. And each was spurred by some outside event. Each also said—they would not write what they wrote anywhere else than within the community we created. And each, also, were very savvy social media users—blogging, on Twitter, etc.

And the discussion threads—and related conversations outside of the online space—I found productive for the community as a whole. That was also the general sense of the leaders in this program, and from what I could gather, the community itself,

Positive change coming from it? Not sure I can point to the lives of Muslim students being any “safer” or that women in tech are better off now. But there is a history here that now proves and demonstrates that our [learning] community—MSLOC—can take on these topics and explore them and learn from them.

That sort of takes us into the area of the same blog post that discusses “intentionally subverting the norm” as a way of fostering change. Any additional guidance you would offer readers in terms of the impacts that approach can have within organizations as well as onsite and online communities?

Yes, this is an interesting question. I recognize that there is some “power” at play here in what I am about to write, but I think a key is calling out (in a positive way) when “subverting the norm” happens. So, say I am a community manager or a leader and recognize that some set of voices are challenging our assumptions, but the challenge is productive in some way. For me, a key is just calling that out: Hey, this is great! We may not agree on all of it, but we love the critical thinking. And maybe engage in some true active listening—online or off—that results in some change in practices or routines.

I see those moments in facilitating classes. So, my perspective comes from that. If I am doing my job well, I am recognizing and encouraging multiple voices to be heard and to challenge assumptions.

How can you foster trust and safety in online environments when incivility is rampant?

Within organizations, don’t hire people who are incivil. 🙂

I say that half-jokingly. But it gets to my culture bit. If you bring in people who want to be civil participants, and you create a culture that allows for all voices to be heard and respected, then you’ve got a chance. But if all you are about is brand, making as much profit as possible by taking advantage of employees or customers, and beating the competition by any means possible, you’re hosed.

 N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the eleventh in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.

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

March 19, 2018

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 Fall 2018. This is the tenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World Through LinkedIn and Collaborative Online Tools

March 18, 2018

Shortly before the devastating recession of 2008 began, I accepted invitations from two business associates to join LinkedIn—the social media tool designed to help business colleagues stay in touch with each other and with those who might be able to provide job and other business opportunities. As the recession deepened in 2009 and my work and flow of income diminished to a trickle, I became more committed to staying in touch with a variety of colleagues and potential clients through updates I posted on LinkedIn—which, at the time, was the only social media tool I was exploring and using.

My posts on that account—generally no more than five each week, and sometimes none at all because I didn’t post anything unless I thought it would be of interest or use to those in my slowly growing LinkedIn network—were always very focused. I would share links to articles and other resources my colleagues and prospective clients might not otherwise see. I posted brief (Twitter-length) updates documenting the efforts I was making with colleagues on a board of directors engaged in what was ultimately a successful effort to help a struggling chapter of what was then ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development) and later became ATD (the Association for Talent Development) survive and once again begin to thrive. I occasionally posted summaries of what I was learning and doing as a volunteer in the marketing department of the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco. There were also posts leading to articles and other resources I was devouring while completing work on my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree through an online program at the University of North Texas.

About halfway through 2009—a period of time when my income had dwindled to a trickle and prospects for new contract work were non-existent—I started hearing comments from friends and colleagues who, with the words “You seem to be everywhere these days,” made me realize I still very much had a presence in my business communities even though I wasn’t seeing much in the way of cash flow or new contract work. Curious about the disparity between the reality of my situation and the comments I was hearing, I started asking people to define what “being everywhere” meant to them. The unanticipated answer, of course, was that those LinkedIn posts about the volunteer work I was doing to support major local community groups and the consistent sharing of resources my friends and business colleagues valued left them with the (incorrect) impression that I was weathering the recession well.

Recognizing the value of being actively, positively present on LinkedIn and continuing to contribute to my various overlapping and increasingly well-integrated communities—business, volunteer, learning, and social—helped me to focus even more on remaining engaged at a time when engagement felt almost completely futile. I spent at least an hour each week looking for ways to make my own LinkedIn account a valuable resource to anyone who spent time looking at it—beefing up sections with links to articles I was writing; reviews of books of interest to those to whom I was connected in LinkedIn; and links to slide decks others could use or adapt in their own work.

The combination of remaining tremendously active as a community volunteer throughout 2009, completing work on that MLIS degree, and sharing highlights of what I was doing led, unexpectedly, to an entirely new (paid) business opportunity in early 2010: becoming part of a team of trainers who, for six months, traveled throughout Northern California helping hospice workers learn to use software on mobile devices to more efficiently serve their patients. This, in turn, led to projects that introduced me to collaborative social media tools including Yammer and, more recently, Slack (Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge) and Trello—tools designed to facilitate blended conversations that help bring projects to fruition.

In thinking about how LinkedIn can be an important, productive, and often-overlooked element in our toolkits to foster positive social change, I keep returning to the idea that LinkedIn as well as Yammer, Slack, and many other social media collaboration/project-management tools are seen primarily as business resources—tools that can be and occasionally are used by activists, but seldom seem to be to the full extent possible. A fabulous comprehensive paper written in 2012 by Andrew M. Calkins and published in 2013 as a Julie Belle White-Newman MAOL Leadership Award winner at St. Catherine University, “LinkedIn: Key Principles and Best Practices for Online Networking  Advocacy by Nonprofit Organizations,” leads me to believe that little has changed over the past six years in terms of LinkedIn making the transition from being a potentially rewarding resource to becoming a resource widely used by those committed to fostering positive change in their communities.

With a bit of creativity and effort, I suspect we can better take advantage of the potential of LinkedIn, combined with many other social media collaboration/project-management tools, to better reach and engage members of our professional/business communities into our efforts to help change the world.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the ninth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


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