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A Dialogue: Sharing, Trust, Collaboration

February 24, 2003

In a recent elearnspaceblog post, I explored centralization vs. decentralization, and the concept of standardization as an inhibitor to innovation. The post elicited a well-crafted response from a colleague, Guy Dugas...which resulted in an involved discussion on everything from standards, to trust, organizational behaviour, and life views. This article captures the conversation.

George's Post:

I've struggled (so it feels) with the issue of centralized vs. decentralized...enterprise-wide vs. Internet style. Today some thoughts gelled to clarify the issue.

I associate centralized data handling with enterprise-wide initiatives. These may be large elearning implementations, content management, etc. These initiatives have value based on the objectives they most often achieve: standardization, structured, organization, secure, complex...basically management/control tools.

I associate decentralized with Internet style. These are separate, but connected pockets of activity. Objectives of these initiatives are: foster creativity, interaction, knowledge sharing, community building...basically tools for end-users.

When I extend these characteristics to learning...I'm leery of enterprise-wide, standardized elearning...largely because life doesn't work that way...and because the model being used (centralized/enterprise wide) is best used for management and control - traits quite antithetical to learning.

Learning is more an environment than a process. Environments are fostered...processes are managed. As a result, when it comes to learning, I'm in favour of Internet-style, decentralized, simple, connected activities - these foster an ecosystem of innovation, creativity and learning.

Choice=diversity=ecosystem of innovation=longevity/relevance in a rapidly changing environment. Enterprise-wide projects (which are great for accounting, managing customers, etc.), by nature, cut choice off at the knees...

Basically, when we over-standardize/organize elearning...we have selected the wrong tool for the task: we're managing when we should be fostering...which is why flexible tools like blogs, wikis, community-building software tools are better for learning...as compared to Learning Management Systems.

Guy's Response

Well, George, I couldn't agree with you more, but I couldn't agree with you less. I'm afraid your struggles aren't over. Lets not confuse centralized with standardized. The Internet as model is a good one, but one that is out of sync with your arguments. The Internet's lynchpin is standards. Without a language (HTML), protocols (HTTP, TCP/IP, FTP), and browsers (IE, Netscape, Opera), that all conform to standards, you would not be blogging today. I'm with Plato. Conforming to laws is the road to true freedom. Without standards you have anarchy. The beauty of the Internet is that its founding standards are open, evolving, and democratic in the true sense. New Web standards continue to be developed (XML, WML, IMS, etc.), but new eLearning guidelines are also growing in acceptance in areas such as Instructional/Universal Design and accessibility. They are growing in response to real needs. I have yet to hear one of my students complain that any of my courses is too well organized or too accessible.

There's a difference between benevolent self-government and evil-empire. If we cannot foster broad communities that embrace common goals and standards, enterprising "providers" will quickly fill the void. We need to identify which values and standards are worthy of defending (or developing) for the common good. We can all slip into missionary mode when we stumble upon a tool that solves some of our problems and can too easily waste our energies championing a tool at the expense of an ideal, be it Blogging, SharePoint, WebCT, or whatever. These tools are in response to diverse needs that need not be competing.

I am not leery of enterprise-wide, standardized elearning, largely because life does work that way. We accept driving on the same side of the road, basic rules of etiquette, and other proper ways of doing stuff. The Internet has given us unprecedented access because it is anchored in globally adopted standards. Why should we strive for anything less in learning? The centralized/enterprise-wide model may be well suited to management and control, but I would argue that it is anything but antithetical to learning. For one thing, the Internet has shown us that enterprise-wide need not be centralized. Adopting is not the same as imposing. The question is more, "How do we implement a model that will improve the community, not threaten it?" So far, I have to sing along with Dylan. The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

The Ensuing Conversation

Very few perspectives and opinions are complete after first expression. Dialogue shapes (and hopefully spirals) the concepts to increase the applicability and inclusiveness of the ideas expressed. Additional dialogue on the above posts involved the following:

  1. People tend not to collaborate. Sometimes it's a time issue, sometimes it's a politics issue, and sometimes it's a misunderstanding of what it truly means to collaborate. Collaboration is a relatively new concept...and is unfamiliar to many people. Collaboration is easier to talk than to do. This may also be an issue of our work environments. If we are used to seeing knowledge as a scarce resource (and by owning it we have power), we are less inclined to engage in open idea exchange.
  2. Activities need to be aggregated to provide value to end-users. Multiple activities with similar focuses can confuse end users. The greatest competition to ideas are other ideas...and time. Aggregating similar ideas and concepts can foster involvement. The key to aggregation is dialogue with others...and the resulting potential for collaboration.
  3. Perception. How other's perceive us is their reality - outside of our own motives. If we are perceived as promoting our own agenda or trying to create our own "empire", others are reluctant to become involved and to share. This applies to organizations and individuals.
  4. Trust is built on perception and history. How our motives and activities are perceived determines if others will trust us. If we trust, we share. If not, we don't.
  5. Silo defence. New ideas, and particularly effective collaboration, are often seen as a threat. Good ideas can be "silenced" by people or organizations who have a silo to defend.
  6. Standards/centralization. Innovation needs to occur in an environment of experimentation. However, if innovative ideas are to be effective, they need some structure to allow for consistency and duplication.
  7. Environment should foster both innovation and standardization.
  8. Politics and bureaucracy. Good ideas aren't always the ones that are implemented. Ideas that are connected to the right people in the right positions gain acceptance.
  9. Who has power? Influence on key decisions sometimes rests outside of formal processes. Sometimes, people on the "outside" have profound impact on key decision makers. Ignoring "side players" can sink new ideas and innovations.
  10. World view. Trust, collaboration, sharing, freedom of ideas, are expressions of larger world views. When we debate the role of collaboration in an organization, we are debating our views of how societies should be organized, power distributed, diversity allowed, and decisions made.
  11. Pioneers need to fade to allow for growth. The mindset of pioneers/innovators is not always conducive to the sustainability of an idea. Pioneers need to step out of the lime light and allow others to take pride/ownership of concepts.
  12. Model of openness. Standards (at a basic, not-overly-structured level) are effective. The bigger challenge is how standards are set: are all voices heard? Is the process democratic? The W3C Process is a good example of open, public idea development. Various checkpoints and stages ensure that each idea receives varied input from interested parties.

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