Grokking the case method of business education

The Case Method. HBS teaches exclusively by case method- which goes well beyond just the teaching method at the school, but down to… [I have a brain cloud]

Adam does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the case method at HBS. I didn’t figure it out as quickly as he did, although I also chose to go there because of it. I didn’t really begin to grasp the case method until I began writing cases for use in the classroom while I was doing my doctoral work. Actually, I had to spend a year writing cases before they would even let me into the doctoral program. Something to do with some courses I managed to fail while I was getting my MBA–some people seemed to think this raised a question about whether I was qualified for the program.

Anyway, the key to the case method is that the goal is to help students develop a lasting skill, not pass an exam at the end of the semester. That skill is about finding and defining a problem, deciding on an appropriate goal, and then building a plan for moving from the problem toward the goal.

On paper that looks like a trivial process. Certainly not something clever enough to build a lot of fancy theory around that can get published in the right academic journals. But it does focus on the place where a manager or leader can have the greatest potential impact – defining the agenda. Moreover, because it is seen as a skill, it’s also clear that it needs to be developed and internalized with a lot of practice.

Sure, the place can seem like a collection of arrogant SOBs, especially from the outside. But it is one of the few places I know of that is absolutely clear that it’s central mission is to create an environment where the learner, not the teached, is the center of attention.

Getting better at supporting informal learning

Informal Learning – The Other 80%. I don't know how to emphasize more that this – rather than classroom-based learning – is where we should be focussing our efforts. As Cross writes, “Informal learning has always played a larger role than most people imagined, but it’s becoming increasingly important as workers take responsibility for their own destinies. Formal learning consists of instruction and events imposed by others. When a worker chooses his path to learning independent of others, by definition, that’s informal.” This is an outstanding article, clearly documenting the importance of informal learning, defining it, and showing how organizations can make the most of it. By Jay Cross, Internet Time Group, May 8, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

This is just one of many pointers to Jay Cross's excellent piece on why we should be focusing on informal learning. Accomplishing this boils down to an issue of leadership over management. From a management perspective it's easy to see why formal learning dominates, especially in organizational settings. There's stuff you can point to, there's stuff you can measure, and you can put someone in charge. The only problem is that all this activitiy doesn't make much of a difference.

It takes a huge act of leadership to acknowledge where the real learning takes place and to start figuring out how to better support that learning. First, it takes a huge act of trust in believing that your people can figure out on their own what they need to learn. Second, you need to start helping them get better at doing that figuring out. They may still be under the illusion, perpetuated by your training systems, that they should be looking for classroom courses or looking for their slick e-learning equivalents.

Most of us are products of educational systems that leave us confused about how and when we learn best, partly because those systems are dedicated to preserving themselves. It takes time to develop skill at self-managed learning. It also takes time to learn how to tap into the informal systems that are out there to support you (another of the huge advantages of weblogs, BTW). Some resources I would recommend here would be Ron Gross's books, The Independent Scholar's Handbook and Peak Learning, Peter Vaill's Learning As a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water, and Roger Schank's Coloring Outside the Lines : Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking All the Rules.

My stop is up next, so I'll pick this up in another post later.

Weblogs in Learning Settings

Good series of recent posts on weblogs as a learning tool both for individuals and organizations. Here are ones I consider worth visiting and revisiting.

Stephen Downes – More Than Personal: The Impact of Weblogs. Good overview with a learning perspective.

Sebastian Fiedler on the use of weblogs as personal webpublishing systems to support self-directed learning:

I want supportive technologies with a high degree of freedom. Technologies that can be twisted and tweaked, that can adapt to my changing purposes and interests, that can grow with me over time. Personal Webpublishing systems are a big and important step into that direction. After all, I own that freaking publishing space and I can experiment as much (or as little) as I want.

James Farmer offers two interesting posts on how to use weblogs to create a learning management system (and Part Two)

Sebastian Fielder had a interesting post last month about the general idea of Learning Webs that builds on this observation by Ivan Ilich:

The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional educator, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It must not start with the question, 'What should someone learn?' but with the question, 'What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?'

When you start to think about learning as plugging into a network of resources and people, it's pretty clear how weblogs have a critical role to play.

Finally, from the Distance Education Online Symposium mailing list comes a nice post on weblogs in education (courtesy of David Carter-Tod)

Alan Kay and Emerging Technology

I’ve been a fan of Alan Kay’s for a long time. It’s nice to see that he’s starting to develop some recent visibility in the blog world. The first thing that popped up in my aggregator a while back was this comment:

Clueful markets yield good products.

Here’s an “aha” quote from this interview with computing pioneer Alan Kay:

After complaining about the current state of software targeting children, I ask Kay how we encourage the production of better educational software for kids. He answers, “don’t buy bad stuff.”

As simple as that sounds, he points out that “the market needs to reject what is bad. The stuff that got put out wasn’t rejected. It’s a certain kind of laziness. […] On the other hand, you have to make sure people are aware of their alternatives. A popular fast food restaurant might be across the street. Meanwhile, a mile a way is a better restaurant where a good meal costs just a little more than at the place across the street. We need to help get the word out for the alternative. [Seb’s Open Research ]

Then he shows up as a keynote at etech which was heavily blogged. Lisa Rein provides a wonderfully rich collection of audio and video clips plus links to major resources. Cory Doctorow provides detailed notes from Alan’s talk including follow up corrections and elaborations from Alan. So do Phil Windley and Jon Lebkowsky.

If you’re so inclined I would definitely recommend you spend some time with Squeak and Croquet. Unfortunately, between other time demands and the lingering effects of first learning to program using Fortran and Cobol, I’ve only made the slowest progress. Alan tells me that the problem is that I just have more to unlearn.

Learning to learn

Changed approach.

I changed my strategy for advocating weblogs in my local educational setting: Each member of the group is supposed to run his own weblog and the group weblogs aggregate and form intersections.

The immediate response from one student: »I don't see a need for that.«. Why is it that some people see the immediate appeal of it while others think it is pure overhead? There seems to be conflicting mental models about the whole weblogging hype. [Oliver Wrede]

I don't think this only about “conflicting models about the whole weblogging hype.” This issue runs much deeper.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many people are disabled by their fundamental epistomological believes. It's the way they think about learning, knowledge, skill, growth, teaching, knowing, change, evaluation, truth, … which is preventing them to take an active role of a designer, constructor, producer, tinkerer, scientist (in the more general sense it was used by the psychologist George Kelly). Let me throw in a citation from the writing of the British psychologists Thomas & Harri-Augstein:

In constructing and validating their views, people develop their own 'personal myths'. We introduce this term to designate the 'personal knowing' that results from enduring long-term conversational encounters. The term 'myth' is meant to carry all its positive, negative, allegorical and transcendental implications. There is a vast range of viable personal myths that can be developed around any topic.

If people believe that “real learning” is only taking place when an educational authority is telling them about established truths you could put all kinds of polished technological and conceptual tools in front of them and they would still come up with good excuses why things are not working for them. You will hear stuff like: “This takes too long. I don't have the time to carry this out on a regular basis,” “the interface is too difficult,” “I don't feel comfortable sharing my ongoing work with others,” “just tell me what I need to know”… and so forth. While some people (mostly enablers, facilitators, …) then continue to search for the holy grail of tools we would probably require interventions and support techniques that are closer to counselling and therapy than much, much better interfaces and tool performance.

Again, Harri-Augstein & Thomas remind us

We cannot change our personal myths overnight, nor should we; but we accepting the relativity of personal meaning, we can purposefully and self-critically bring these myths into greater awareness.

I believe that most (experimental) educational research fails to acknowledge this important issue into account. Talking about a similar topic Brian Lamb summed this up in the following words:

But the gentle introduction has its own practical pitfall: it doesn’t deliver particularly impressive results in the short term, potentially undermining the prospects of securing sustained project funding.

Needless to say that the same dilemma can be found in countless corporate environments, too. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

This is a spot on analysis. And yes, it certainly occurs in corporate environments as well. I don't know what it is that leaves so many passive when it comes to the question of taking control of learning. I'd like to hope that that is not the intent of most real teachers, although there are certainly plenty who can be more concerned about demonstrating their expertise rather than enabling others to learn for themselves.

This is one of the reasons that I've always been more drawn to B students than A students. In most environments, A students get wrapped up in trying to figure out what the professor wants to hear. The right kind of B student is willing to trust their own interpretations.

The structural problem is educational settings modeled on industrial lines, which measure a peculiar kind of productivity. This creates and perpetuates an environment of experts with secret insights to be learned. Better to create an environment where all are experts and learners at the same time. As a learner, I want to have a way to tap into experts, who might be anyone who knows more than I do right now and is willing to provide some pointers. As an expert, I want to have other learners around who help me explicate my expertise by asking questions I've forgotten and seeing problems I no longer see.

Three people come to mind who've helped me in my journey as a learner. One was the late Donald Schon and his work on reflective practice (The Reflective Practitioner, Educating the Reflective Practitioner), Tim Gallwey and his work on the Inner Game (The Inner Game of Work), and Ellen Langer's work on mindfulness (Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning).

Investing in knowledge sharing – starting on the weblog learning curve

Very helpful discussions lately on weblogs in knowledge management contexts. Matt Mowers starts by taking me to task with the observation that:

I don’t think that weblogs do anything and I’m increasingly of the opinion that the benefits that we are seeing at the moment are simply those of tapping into a particular type of personality, i.e. the enthusiastic early adopters who will do something with anything you throw at them.

So far I’m not seeing the kind of evidence that weblogging (in whatever form you name it) offers a particularly unique solution to the KM problem generally. Those solutions are going to have to come from us, in how we apply what is, after all, just another technology. Otherwise I predict in 12-18 months time, articles about “how weblogging has failed us.”

In my opinion, we do have an opportunity to use the current wave of popularity for weblogging to get people to experiment with this new medium, try to change some working assumptions and the practices that go with them and move things on a little. [Curiouser and curiouser]

Stephen Downes, whose initial post started this round of discussion, continues by observing that:

I’ve been weblogging for the last five years. I’ve long since solved the input problem, the one Jim McGee talks about. But using this information is still a pain, despite a fair bit of thought and work around the problem of information retrieval from weblogs (what do you think my [Research] button is? Most weblog software hasn’t even addressed the problem, much less solved it). [OL Daily]

So Downes has already discovered what I’ve only started to suspect after a little over 18 months of weblogging. We’re still in the early, early stages of understanding how to help knowledge workers be more effective at doing knowledge work.

This is the essential perspective that I believe has been largely missing before the advent of the current round of tools, despite their limitations.

I’ve had a continuing conflicted opinion about the role of technology in making knowledge work more effective. I’m not as anti-technology as my friend and former colleague and co-author, Larry Prusak. There are times when he can sound like a total luddite and he’s certainly a proponent of the social dimensions of knowledge management.

Many of the challenges of knowledge management are either created or aggravated by the information and technology that comprise so much of our organizational context. As technologies like email let us operate organizations of much greater scale and scope, they also create a demand for knowledge sharing across timezones and oceans that we haven’t had to address before. And, as I’ve argued before, these technologies have also complicated our information and knowledge lives by making our work less visible. To the extent that technology has helped create our knowledge management problems, it also needs to be enlisted in solving those problems.

Weblogs by themselves don’t do anything more than any other tool. Someone has to pick up the tool and put it to use. What is it about this particular category of tool that has persuaded someone like Stephen Downes to maintain and evolve a weblog over the past five years? All innovations have early adopters. Successful innovations build on the lessons learned from those early adopters and evolve the innovation in ways to make it more suited to the needs of those who follow on the adoption curve.

I heard a story the other day about a computer science class that assumed that mainframe computer systems were developed by scaling up from the “first” computers, which were the PCs developed in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m old enough to know that it worked the other way and to remember the rhetoric around PCs as the “great equalizer” that was going to shift power from faceless corporate data centers into the hands of the individual. Apple’s marketing is still built around that myth.

Organizations took that general purpose, universal tool and shaped it toward their own specific needs. It’s my contention that those needs were rooted in industrial models of organization and information processing and largely ignored those aspects that make knowledge work different.

Weblogs are one technology component of an important shift in perspective from the organization to the individual knowledge worker. For production work and for much routine information work this shift is irrelevant. It is the increasing percentage of of knowledge work relative to the total work of the organization that is changing the discussion.

Paolo Valdemarin has an excellent post today on the potential contribution of weblogs to building social capital inside (and across) organizations.

…Besides using “social capital” to measure countries’ economic power, I believe that the same concept can be applied to any community. Applied to the weblogs community, this concept help explain the huge power that has been unleashed by blogging.

Reading other people’s weblogs creates trust and efficiency, and it’s an excellent base to build businesses and relationships.

This is interesting also for k-logging (or “business journalling”): if a country with a better community is richer, then also a company with a better developed trust and efficiency amoung its workers is going to be better off than others.

So, no, we are not wasting time writing on our weblogs, we’re investing. [Paolo’s Weblog]

Right now, a relative handful of early adopters are playing with and experimenting with this new tool of weblogs. It’s a tool whose strengths are well matched to a changing shift in emphasis toward a greater role for knowledge workers in organizations.

There are always new tools and innovations promising to solve problems. I’ve been disapppointed by many and helped by a few. My intuitions and my experience tell me that weblogs fall in this second category. Those early adopters and leaders such as Stephen are already figuring out how to solve the next round of problems. But those are good problems to have. They are the problems that surface after you’ve decided to take personal responsibility for managing your own knowledge and learning. That may be an unnatural act for many inside organizations who would prefer that the world not change. I’m convinced it is changing and that most of us will have to start learning what Stephen has. It’s not something that you can wait until everything is already figured out. You’ll be better off the sooner you can get started.

Expanding the boundaries of my ignorance

Brockman on “The New Humanists”. Arts and Letters Daily features this essay from a forthcoming book by John Brockman that explores “New Humanism”: new ways of understanding physical systems, and new challenges to basic assumptions of who and what we are and what it means to be human:

“We live in an era in which pessimism has become the norm,” writes Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Herman, who coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues that the decline of the West, with its view of our “sick society,” has become the dominant theme in intellectual discourse, to the point where the very idea of civilization has changed… As a counternarrative to this cultural pessimism, consider the twofold optimism of science.

First, the more science you do, the more there is to do. Scientists are constantly acquiring and processing new information. This is the reality of Moore’s Law just as there has been a doubling of computer processing power every eighteen months for the past twenty years, so too do scientists acquire information exponentially. They can’t help but be optimistic. And second, much of the new information is either good news or news that can be made good thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques.

Link Discuss [Boing Boing Blog]

A worthy upbeat attitude in the midst of so much other negativity. Consistent with the Dorothy Parker observation that I use as my tag line.

I used to use a simple diagram in some of my presentations. It represented knowledge as an expanding circle. What was interesting to me is that if you looked at the interface between what you knew and what you didn’t know, the “boundary of your ignorance” grew as you learned more. The more you learned, the more things to be learned you became aware of. That’s a very energizing prospect and a humbling one at the same time. It means I will always have a list of things to learn.

Weblogs are for learners

tellio II : How I Teach and Why It Is So Hard. Quote: “I have tried to convince them that weblogs are the most protean tool for learning ever made. Like a furnace and anvil, a weblog can make most of its own learning tools. It is self-contained yet all-connected. It is portable yet it is rooted. It is an imaginative journal with a lock and key yet it is fearlessly open to modification and criticism. It is self-governing yet is subject to social control. I am almost afraid of what it will do to certain of my students. Tools transform us whether we will or no. What will this do to them? And more to the point, will it, on balance, do more for them?” [Serious Instructional Technology]

Really nice, reflective post on weblogs in teaching environments and the promise they hold for learning coupled with the fears they generate in those who value order over learning.

I’ve been blessed to be able to learn in some of the best academic environments that exist — ones that truly care about learning. Perhaps because of that it’s taken me a bit longer to grasp how tenous the relationship is between classrooms, teachers, and learning. As I’ve spent time now in front of the classroom, I’m much more sanguine about the role of teachers and overly formal curricula (after all ‘curriculum’ comes from the Latin for running around in circles). I like Terry’s advice:

My teaching is very good when I keep a simple pattern in mind: a question or a problem

And that has to start with a learner not a teacher. That’s why we, and so many others, are so keen on weblogs and learning. Weblogs put the responsibility where it is most effective, in the hands of a learner with a question or a problem.