Thinking out my 2 steps for building early stage forums

Get specific help fast on the internet

Ask specific questions on Linkedin

A long time ago, I asked a very specific question on Linkedin.  “How do we find a ship at sea?”

Through the weekend, insurance professionals and ship’s captains coached me on how to deal with Lloyds, how to track the vessel’s responders, and even how to detect illegal changes in a ship’s registration number.  It was great.  Real experts stepped up and coached me on important details.

Present the pertinent facts to fellow experts on Stackoverflow

Other examples of great information exchange also take place on the internet.  Stackoverflow is a forum where computer professionals also pose specific questions usually as a short paragraph stating what happened and what they have already tried.   Members give each other advice and rate both the answers and the questions.

Stackoverflow platform and other communties

Stackoverflow is rather a famous forum because it works.  Late last year, they released their code as a white label so that other communities can use it as platform for their specialist forums.

Stackoverflow rarely works as well though for other communities though.  This seems to be the reasons why forums “fail”.

3 reasons for “forum fail”

#1  People come to “chat” rather than to ask questions.   Their goal is to punt for clients or to gain some kind of nebulous networking status.

#2  The situations are not “important”.  The only person who benefits from the answer to the question is the asker (if they even asked a genuine question).

#3  The situations are not “hard”.  The situations are ambiguous and uncertain, to be sure.  But they ae not “hard”.  “Hard” situations involved double or treble loop.  The basic question in a “hard” situation is “Is it me or should it be this hard to do?”  Forums do not do so well on triple loop learning where we are asking how, how hard AND whether it is important.

3 guides for “winning forums”

To turn these problems around, forums might succeed when

#1 There are genuinely “important” problems.  That is, there is something I must do to to help a customer.

When I am in IT and I am trying to get IT running to support an entire organization, that is important.  Figuring out how to please my professor, on the other hand  is not “important”.  It has not importance outside of itself.

#2  The situations are “hard”.   That is, it is hard to tell if we are making a mistake or if the solution is not possible.  In these conditions, a expert coach helps our learning curve enormously.

Stackoveflow asks its members to ask questions that can be answered rather than “discussed”.  Most forums are dominated by questions that are broad and vague, or, they are not specific about what the asked is trying to achieve and what they have tried so far.

#3  A community of expertise already in exists.  A community of people have very similar problems to solve and shared ways of attempting solutions.

Far too often, questions on forums require a thorough audit of context, resources and skills.  That is, they require intervention of a professional to ask what is required here, what resources do we have and what skills do we have.  On Stackoverflow, professionals are speaking to each other, and the learning task is to cope with double loop learning (and render it single loop by providing help, coaching and support).

Thought experiments about forums that work and forums that don’t work

To test this trio of criteria, I’ve thought up a two forums and used the criteria to think about when and how the forums would work

A cooking forum

# 1 Importance

I am cooking for someone else.  I want to them to enjoy their meal.

#2  Hard

I can search endlessly for the “right” recipe with locally available ingredients.  Or, I can take directions from someone who has already located available ingredients and isolated what can be done with them.

#3  Community

There are other people who cook for similar social situations with similar ingredients.  I have lived in communities who don’t put a high premium on cooking well.  Cooking has a limited range of ingredients and skill, and quantity is more important than quality.   In these communities, there is no call for a cooking forum.  Equally, in a large city with many single people, there may be call for a community interested in the best places to get good food.   It is simply not cost effective (or pleasurable) to cook pizza, English breakfast, dim sum, and so on for one person in a tiny apartment.

A forum for professional psychologists

#1 Importance

Do we have a common understanding of our customers?  Clincial and educational psychologists might have a common understanding, but do we in work & organizational psychology?  Do HR managers have a common understanding of their customers?  Hmm . .

#2 Hard

In my experience of small groups of work & organizational psychologists who trust each other, “hard” questions usually hinge on engaging the customer.   In groups who do not trust each other, technical questions are usually a proxy for the question – how do I frame the issues for these customers (who I shall not name either because I don’t trust you or because I am embarrassed by my lack of know how.)

#3 Community

Is there a community of work & organizational psychologists who are commited to this project of understanding their customers.  Or are we, like my cooking community, who only worried about eating more?    Are we competing with each other rather than collaborating on the common project of solving problems that are important and hard?

How to develop a community before we launch a forum

So what do we do when it seems that our forum sucks because we don’t have a community?

# [Hard] Answer our own questions.  Write a blog?  Writing clarifies thinking – it does for me, anyway.  That is what I am doing now.

# [Important] Clarify the social situation of our question, at least for ourselves.  For example, single well-off people in a big city don’t want to cook.  But they do want to eat well.  We can write about what they want to know, which is where reasonably priced food is exquisite. Work & organizational psychologists don’t know much about their customers.  So write about customers and concerns from the customers’ point of view being quite clear which elements of psychology were useful to them (and which were not)?

# [Community] In a previous incarnation, I was able to use institutional means to develop a professional community.  We developed programmes.  We developed alliances.  We arrange mutual continuing education by doing a ‘stretch’ project together each year.  We collaborated to create face-to-face sessions that linked noobes to experts, noobes to noobes, and experts to experts.

When we don’t have institutional resources at our disposal, we can use the internet to put ourselves out there.  Web2.0 facilties like blogs, Slideshare Linkedin, Twitter, Yahoo Upcoming and Dopplr help people find us.  So do contact forms on our websites and blog technologies that allow people to comment directly onto our website pages.  The apex of “2.0”, I think, is aranging meetups and hackdays to bring people together to develop mutual projects.  Well that was our mutual annual CPD project – those were fun days.

I haven’t seen many stories of people who have developed communities from scratch.  It is improbable anyway.  Because we must share an “important” concern and believe it is so “important” that we will help each other to navigate “hard”.  So we are looking at latent communities.

  • Step 1.  Begin with the customer who we don’t serve well, perhaps.  Not the customer who is a cash cow.  But the customer who needs something done and whose lives would be so much better if it were done.
  • Step 2. Then use Web2.0 technologies to allow people who are searching for answers to find you.

And document it!  We need more stories.

Comments?

Build the roads to bring people to you.  Host the conversation, in other words, but don’t expect the success of Stackoverflow at the outset.

Shift gears before Christmas with Inpowr

New beginnings and getting going

I’m shifting gear a little with projects. Some tasks are moving to the perfunctory box ~ get them done and get them done fast.  And I have new tasks that aren’t hard but they aren’t habits yet.  I could easily founder simply because I haven’t done them often enough to slide into them without thinking.

Getting over dithering

As I dithered, just a little, in the normal way we do when we settle to something big, I came across a post that I wrote about Inpowr, the Montreal based web2.0 platform where you rate areas of  your life and set goals.

A digital reminder

Inpowr has some good looking interfaces.  Moreover, it pings you every day at your chosen (Montreal) time and reminds you to review your goals.  That makes it great.  To develop some good habits, it helps to have someone to nudge you!

Choose between your positive and negative versions of events

A tip though: Inpowr will ask you to rate your achievement of each goal on a 1-5 scale.  Don’t just rate and move along.  Expand the task a little. Describe how the day went.  Rate 1 and answer the question.  Change your rating to 3 and answer your question.  And then change your rating to 5 and answer the question again.

Answering all three questions helps you to see your negative and positive thinking and choose between them.  Which is most useful to you?  The negative or the positive version?

Privacy

Oh, and do watch the privacy settings.  It is possible to make your goal setting open to the world.  Maybe you would prefer your exercise to be private.  Check your settings!

21 days on Inpower

Inpowr runs on 21 day cycles.  What can you accomplish by Christmas?

 

The secret of an un-junked life is your own filter

Do you remember the days when you needed a ‘big man’ to present you to the world?

I barely remember, yet it was not so long ago that we had to find a patron, if we wanted to be heard.

  • If we wrote a book, we needed a publisher.
  • If we were into politics, we joined a political party.
  • If we kept counted the beans in business, we found ourselves an employer.

Some of these ‘big men’ were indeed patrons of quality

When we wanted information and advice of quality, we went to the same ‘big men’.  People of quality gathered around them.  We could randomly pick anyone of them. They would probably be OK.

Clay Shirky explains why we needed ‘big men’

Taking newspapers as an example – printing on paper was expensive.  Journalists couldn’t invest in the prohibitively expensive printing presses and distribution networks.  And newspapers proprietors wanted to be sure their printed papers would sell.  So newspaper owners had a vested interest in promoting quality and they become the arbiters and promoters of journalistic quality.

The internet has broken the ‘big man’ model

The internet has made publishing cheap and easy.  Working together has got cheaper and easier.  In short, the internet allows us to present ourselves to the world without going through a ‘big man’.

Every man and his dog has a story up on the internet and we feel drowned in a deluge of material – unfiltered and of indifferent quality. Junk food, junk mail, junk bonds, more junk.

The flip-side of everyone being their own ‘big man’ is that refereeing quality, and promoting quality, has become our job – perhaps our only job.

The secret of an un-junked life is our own filter.  And as the art of speaking is the art of being heard, for the first time we are faced with the task of truly understanding how other people filter.  We cannot rely entirely on ‘big men’ to do it for us.  Too much is going around and past them.

How do we filter the deluge of junk?

#1 Work with the ‘big men’ who remain

Political scientist, Matthew Hindman, reminds us that the old patronage systems are still up and running.

In so far as these systems provide a quality filter, there is no harm in using them.  We still go to university.  We read good books.  We even watch good TV programs!

What we have to get our heads-around is that as little as five years ago, the ‘big men’ provided the only channels, and the only filters. We lived with their definition of quality – like it or not.

Today, we do have a choice.  And we find ourselves having to judge the quality of the ‘big men’.  Do the filters that we’ve used for so long have the quality they promise?   Sadly, the alternatives, even the alternatives produced by amateurs, are exposing many ‘clay feet’.

#2 Actively reconstruct our filters on a regular basis

The power, and responsibility, for judging quality has shifted to us.  Our next step, fortunately seems to come quite easily.  We figure out what matters in the world.

Much of what happens is not worth reacting to.  I loved President Obama talking about racist responses to his initiatives.  Looking utterly relaxed on the Letterman show, he began, as if to make a serious point, then with good timing, reminded us he was black before the election.   It is true, he reminded the audience, with mock insistence.  How long have you been black? said Letterman.  Our mental models have become important. It doesn’t do any more to borrow from the great and the good.  We must have mental models of our own.

Julius Solaris, intrepid London networker, also wrote today of pruning his huge networks, much like my neighbors pruning their roses. A healthy network is free of dead wood and dead heads.  And for that matter, free of ‘dittoheads’ as they have become to be known on Twitter.

But do other people actively filter? Will they hear us among the deluge of junk arriving on their screens?

I count 5 ways to understand how information reaches, and doesn’t reach people.

#1 Old forms of patronage count

We shouldn’t dismiss the power of old establishments.  They might not fully comprehend the loss of their old monopoly, but they will defend their territory, and they will use the weight of their considerable resources to defend their position.

Be wise and take the back road to the high ground.

#2 Recommendations of friends still matter

Though many people are incredibly trusting of the old filters, they still trust their friends more.

Old fashioned communication systems remain influential.

Get close to the people who matter to you and be in touch – literally.

#3 Understand Google

How do we find information on the internet?  We can put up a website but does anyone ever look at it other than us?  Understanding the algorithm used by Google is part our our new literacy.

#4 Join social networks

Our lives are now lived virtually as well as on the street.  Join up to major social networking sites and take part.  To be off the network today would have been like refusing to read newspapers in the 1960’s.  Odd to say the least.

#5 Become a respected filter

Build your own web presence as a filter that other people can rely on.  Let people see the world through your eyes.

If you are a fan of junk food, then yay, the world can discover junk food in your wake.  If you have an understanding of the deep structure that underlies good food, like Daniel Young, then show that to the world.

Working consistently on our web presence helps us understand our own filters.

Using the many statistics packages available (like Google Analytics) helps us track what other people respond to and deepens our awareness of their filters.

Sometimes this is deeply depressing – but hey, knowledge is power. If people come to this site to find out if they are good looking (told you it gets depressing), or at other extreme, how to do HR in the recession (deeply depressing), it tells me a lot about them. And it tells me a lot about how I manage my relationship with the world’s cybermediary, Google.

It is a brave new world. The deluge of junk can get overwhelming.

This is no time to be lazy.  Our job in this age is to define how the world works, to gather quality information around us, to digest it, and to put our understanding back out there for the next person to use.

Can you imagine doing anything less? If you can, I would like to know.

Because the quality of our filters seems both to preserve our sanity and be the basis of our earning power.

What psychologists can learn from social media

Still rapt

Image by bowbrick via Flickr

Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion

I was trained as a psychologist and I ultimately trained thousands more in the same tradition.

To qualify as a psychologist, in most jurisdictions, we are required to master the art of the “lab report”.  I had done A level Physics, so the format wasn’t unfamiliar to me.  Indeed, the whole rigmarole was based on 19th century physics which psychologists were copying madly.

I don’t think it is bad thing to learn to write a lab report.  I studied Latin too.  Disciplined methodical thinking is important and if you learn how to follow one method, you realize that you can learn to follow any method.  And it is much much easier for students to write up experiments and surveys than handle qualitative studies which are usually too demanding for the 20% 6 month load that most students have allotted to the task.

Holistic Thinking

That said, we have to unlearn a little too.  Psychology leaves us two unfortunate ways of thinking. We are analytical – we break people into parts.  And we are trained to believe that what we are studying is separate from us – a thing.  Most unfortunate when we are talking about people.

A few years after we qualify, we generally stumble over the insight that we have to retrain ourselves to look at a set of data, not as data, as but as a person with hopes and fears, history and future, and most of all a purpose and morality that is not a reflection of our purpose in the interaction.

Even harder to do, is to understand that we are not separate from the person we are “testing”, “counseling”, or “coaching”.  We have our own stories, yes.  But why should ours be sacrosanct or privileged and totally unaffected by the person with whom we are working?  And, can that ever be?  Can it ever be that two people in the same room, or reading a blog post written by another, don’t share some past and importantly some future?

What psychologists can learn from social media

We are affected by our clients.  In the realm of social media, marketers are struggling with the same idea.  I found this excellent quote:

“To succeed in Web 2.0, your site cannot be an optional layer added to people’s lives.  It must be inserted directly into the lives of the consumer.”

If we we are in their lives, how can it be that they are not in ours?

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Update on Inpowr: the importance of daily diaries

So why do we need web 2.0 applications when an ordinary pencil and supermarket notebook will serve quite adequately as a diary?

This is my experience.

1. By now anyone in the positive psychology world knows the Lorenz ratio. You need 3 positive thoughts to 1 negative thought to function. 5:1 is good. 11:1 is too much – think intoxicated.

2. If you have one major bad event in a day – something important to you does not work well and you are grieving the sense of lost opportunity – the ripple effect through the rest of the day can be significant. Who is it, is it Seligman, who talks of the three P’s : persistent, personal and pervasive. If a setback blocks off a sense of opportunity and hope, yes, it feels persistent, personal and pervasive. You feel very blue.

3. Now here is where diaries and web2.o come in. If you keep a pencil and paper diary, you are likely to rehearse the bad event and the feeling that everything is going wrong. When you use Inpowr, first it reminds you to log in and record your day which you might not do, wisely, if it means writing down what went wrong; second, it effectively runs you through a checklist of your goals. It is very likely that everything else is going quite well, and certainly that your inputs into the bad situation were quite sound.

4. So what do you gain?

  • A prompt to spend some time reviewing your wider life rather than wallowing in the misery of one negative (though important event) and an easy to follow format so it is not laborious
  • Acknowledgment of what has gone well so that so that is factored in to your decision making and is not swamped by what went badly
  • Less self-blame. You are able to distinguish what you put in from how things turned out. And as you blame yourself less, you blame others less, I suppose because the issue is no longer blame. You are back in action mode and thinking about what to do next.

We were built for action and much of our sense of dignity comes from our sense that we are able to act and act appropriately.

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