KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for July 2014

To blog or to microblog? – that is the question

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People who are “on the brink” of trying out social media at my work often ask me “should I blog or use twitter, or something else? – I’m too busy to do more than one so which is best?”

The answer to this question is of course “it depends”, so I’ll start out by explaining my own path.

A few years ago I decided I wanted to get active on social media to investigate first hand its potential to support my work and that of the organization I work in. The problem was, how would I find the time to do it?

We were able to get a rough blogging platform up on our intranet using  Lotus Notes (back in 2005/2006), so a few colleagues and I started blogging about interesting developments in aid for an internal audience. But blogging regularly is a challenge – and doing it externally is even more daunting (see how infrequently I’ve been posting these days!), while my experience with blogging internally made me wonder if I was mostly talking to myself.

So my first foray with externally facing social media was with Twitter at the web4dev conference in 2009. I was initially very skeptical thinking, like many skeptics, that is was all about what I had for breakfast. But I quickly saw that you could use Twitter to follow a meeting or reach out to participants and even speakers very quickly, and in the early days there was a natural camaraderie among tweeters who were keen to meet and interact with one another.  I’ve been hooked on it ever since. But in the end while 140 characters was quick and easy, it was never enough to really get into the meat of an issue, and so I eventually decided to set up my own blog to allow me to express my own options and share my knowledge rather than to link to others or share using only soundbites.

So how do blogging and microblogging (i.e. tools like Twitter) compare? – what are the advantages for each?

For me the strengths of Twitter (or microblogging in general) are:

– It’s quick and easy get started, and there isn’t any programming to learn or complex interface to use
– It’s real-time – you can immediately share or respond to an event and you can hold a close to real time conversation with multiple people
– It’s a good quick way to share resources such as articles, news etc.
– It’s a shared platform so it’s easier to find and connect with others
– It has a rich network of plug-in applications and tools
– You don’t have to spend ages agonizing over saying exactly the right thing or checking your spelling and grammar

So if you want to dip your toes into social media then microblogging (and particularly Twitter) is a good place to start. But while it is quick and easy there are a few things that microblogging alone can’t do for you, and  blogging is complementary in a number of ways including:

– Blogging is much better suited to exploring topics in more depth, both in terms of word count and explanation, and also in terms of being able to share more of your personality and story.
– You can also interact much more deeply in the comments on a blog because you have more space to do so
– A blog is also more customizable – it’s your space so you can (depending on platform) customize the design and organization and make it personal to you. You might also be able to add widgets and features and other tools that twitter can’t such as rich media content.
– Blogs are less ephemeral. Microblogs may work on a shared platform with search but it’s really hard to find a conversation or like you posted if it’s from more than a few weeks ago – they thrive on the now, but are not a great place to capture and organize your knowledge or the “outcomes” of your conversations.

Basically a blog is better for a more in-depth, personalized interaction. A blog is technically harder technically harder to set up and maintain (although with free tools like and blogger. It’s not that hard – but still perhaps more than some are willing to do) and you have to work harder to keep producing content – so it represents more of an investment than microblogging. It’s more infrequent, it’s more effort to do usually reaches a narrower audience (I probably have over 10 the number of twitter followers than I have blog subscribers) but its worth it when you want more depth and you want to be able to capture things for reference and reuse.

If you have the time (and that might be a big if), I’d argue that to get the best out of online interaction it’s better to expoit the synergies between the two and have both rather than pick one. In fact there are lots of synergies between the two. Microblogging is a good way of promoting your blog and also to quickly share and respond to other people’s blogs. It allows you to do your quick sharing leaving the meatier stuff for your blog, or the comments section of others’.

If you are sitting on the fence there are also now a number of hybrid tools that attempt to get the best of both or at least the middle ground. A notable example is Tumblr which allows you to very quickly share photos, quotes, links and short updates in a simple blog like format. It’s easy to share or reshare content and so it has the immediacy and ease of microblogging while allowing greater length and interaction and better incorporation of rich media – although it still feels a little siloed to follow people compared to twitter.
Another notable example is Google plus which is a twitter/facebook like social networking tool but which allows longer contributions and better incorporation of rich media as well as tools such as chat and video hangouts while still being in one place and having a quick sharing feel.
Inside UNICEF we are also using Yammer which was originally conceived as a microblogging tool for inside the enterprise, but which has now incorporated a number of additional features for adding attachments, longer contributions and collaborative features which go beyond what tools like Twitter can do. Last year Yammer was bought by Microsoft and is now part of Office365 and is being gradually technically integrated too. This means there is great potential to combine the immediacy of Yammer with the document and workflow capabilities of SharePoint and everyday office tools such as Word, Excel and Outlook to get the best of both worlds for interaction inside the organization (we are working with our IT colleagues on how best to do this which will no doubt be the topic of many future blog posts). That said – Yammer isn’t a great format for a fully fledged blog, and so we will need to think about how to allow for longer contributions from those who want to do this.
In the end while I love Twitter and it is a great place to start interacting and sharing – I think there is still a place for the blog for those who want to get into more depth. Not everyone will want to write blogs, but I think most people will want to read them and online knowledge exchange would be much poorer without them, so if you have something to say or some knowledge to share then you should try blogging.
Note: I started this blog a long time ago but it has been stuck in the draft folder – showing how much more deliberative it is than a tweet. In the meantime the UNICEF digital team has launched a public blog where staff can share their work – a great step forwards. We now need to more people to use it to share what they know!

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

Why should we work out loud and how to get started

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I recently rejoined UNICEF to head up a small team with the “modest” aim of developing an approach and systems and tools to support more effective knowledge exchange within the organization and with partners. 

One of the biggest challenges is that there is not a strong culture of sharing knowledge and experience within the organization – and most exchanges are either through hierarchical and official channels or are informal through personal networks (and largely invisible). 

As decentralized organization working globally there are often many similar parallel projects taking place in different parts of the organization – but the people working on them are often unaware of each other, or at least unaware of the opportunities for collaboration and experience sharing.

One element we want to try to introduce is the idea of “Working out Loud”.

Bryce Williams coined this term some years ago (and here is an early blog where he elaborated on the idea), Basically:

Working Out Loud   =   Observable Work   +   Narrating Your Work

I.E. i) sharing your work as go it while it is still in preparation (rather than when it is close to being finalized or already final) and inviting people to comment or contribute throughout the process and ii) talking about your work, your observations and experiences as you do it through blogging, yammer posts, twitter etc. 

The aim of this is to allow people to see and and provide inputs on what you are doing before it is fully cooked. That way you can see earlier if it will really meet the needs of those you are doing it for, and if other colleagues can strengthen your work by providing inputs and suggestions – and can help you to avoid pitfalls they can see but you can’t. Another benefit is finding other people who are working on similar projects with whom you might collaborate with (instead of duplicating their work) or learn from – or who you might be able to influence in how they go about their work. A third benefit is that it helps publicize your work and engage and interest people in it and thus make it more likely that it will be used (plus potential personal fame and fortune)

The big challenge with this is getting people started in doing this when it is not the usual way we do business. People are often reluctant to share early work when it may still be rough in terms of quality, presentation and also political correctness. There is particular resistance to doing this with external partners as there is a fear that showing anything less than thoroughly polished and fact checked material might damage our credibility and brand. 

I personally think these fears are overblown, and the benefits of engagement outweigh the risks of not appearing polished enough – especially when we are clear that this is work in progress and we are seeking feedback to make it better. Greater openness in our work also goes along with the move towards greater transparency – i.e. explaining what we are doing while we work to accompany/narrate our open data and financial information, not only in a nice glossy edited end of project donor report. 

But rather than simply making the case that this is so, I believe the only way to convince people that this is possible and highly valuable is to just do it and share what happens. Right now our team has taken the step that in our work on developing systems, tools and approaches for knowledge exchange we will practice what we preach i.e. we will do it all by working out loud ourselves – by sharing things at an early stage and sharing our reflections and learning as they happen. Apart from this we are identifying a few organizational processes (with willing process owners) that should be collaborative by nature but often aren’t (such as collecting inputs and comments on technical policy positions) to prove our point. To make this safe we are still doing this internally for the moment – but I’ll also be sharing what I can on this blog (rather than pontificating which was more frequently what I was doing on the blog before!).

Wish me luck and stay tuned as I let you know how it is going.


Written by Ian Thorpe

July 22, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Learning how to redesign a successful product

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[I know I’ve been terrible at posting lately, ever since I started back in UNICEF – I’m going to try to post more and shorter pieces, also within the idea of “working out loud” or sharing what I’m working on – whether or not it’s a complete piece of work to share – let’s see how it works]
On Monday I was asked to facilitate a workshop organized by the UN Millennium Campaign to help redesign MyWorld2015 (the global poll on what should be in the #post2015 development agenda). The aim of the workshop was take in lessons learned, but more importantly to figure out how Myworld2015 can become a citizen feedback and engagement tool for the #post2015 development agenda after the priorities and targets have been agreed (and so the current question no longer makes sense).

What I wanted to share here is not the insights from the discussion itself (which I hope the MyWorld team will share themselves), but the methodology for the meeting which I think could be a useful approach for other similar situations when you need to stop, reflect and redesign an existing product or process.

The workshop was titled as a collaboratory, but I think it’s more accurate to say it was a reflect and redesign session. Basically the workshop brought together all the different stakeholders that have an interest in the tool and in the process of mobilizing people to vote and to use the results (primarily civil society, parliamentarians/politicians, policy wonks/data nerds, UN staff and a few private sector).

We started with a couple of very brief (5 minute) presentations to set the context – what  MyWorld is, and how it sits in the broader post-2015 accountability discussion.

This was followed by group work to identify the key lessons learned – particularly i) what worked well, ii) what didn’t work well, and critically iii) what was the core essence or unique value of the project that needs to maintained.
In this and subsequent sessions participants were asked to think of the whole process not just the tool i.e. the technology and platform, the questions and methodology, the outreach and communication, the partnerships developed, the resources used and needed – the management and governance aspects as well as how the results were used, by whom and what their impact was on the political process.

The next session people were asked to work in their stakeholder groups to identify what the  specific needs were and how they could best benefit from a revised MyWorld2015, what their needs/requirements were and what they would be willing to offer to support it.

After that people were randomly assigned to cross disciplinary groups and were asked to  develop a “pitch” or design concept which was a 3 slide/page presentation, a headline of what they want to achieve a couple of years into the future and a visual representation of their idea (using play dough, model cars etc.). Kind of like a rapid prototyping but with the idea of creating a business pitch.

Each team then presented their ideas to a “shark tank”/”dragon’s den” i.e. a panel of senior experts who ask difficult questions and challenge their ideas. At the end of this the panelists were each asked to select their favourite proposal and we also did a “people’s choice” to identify the most promising concepts based on expert and crowd views. Finally everyone was invited to write down on a card one idea they heard the day that they think will either be critical to the success of the project or something they think would really add value in the project.

I really liked this approach because

i) it created a good reflection on the current process
ii) it clearly identified the different perspectives of different stakeholders including contradictions iii) it got different constituencies to work together to create solutions based on the reflections and lessons learned
iv) it created an element of friendly competition (gamification!)
v) it was fun and people were very engaged
vi) in the end we were able to identify some of the best ideas from each proposal which will be taken forward in a smaller redesign group. 

I intend to write this up more thoroughly as an approach to be part of a “Knowledge Exchange” methodology toolkit we are working on, but I wanted to share it now because it worked really well and I think this would have a lot of potential application as an approach to get stakeholder input and buy in when there is a need to redesign a project or approach.

Interested to hear your comments, and from anyone who has used similar approaches.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 16, 2014 at 10:48 am

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