A new project and some grounding principles

tl;dr: I was going to outline ‘Vodafone Create’, a project that I have been working on over the last couple of months but this post turned more into a compilation of my own ground rules of project design than into a project report.

I started out this year with the prospect of a couple of new developments. Professionally, the biggest step was that I quit my gig at the Hamburg University of Technology by the end of last year to shift my focus a bit. At that time, I was still hopeful that new beginnings at Leuphana University would occupy my worklife for most of the time. Those plans did not come through but I remain employed there with a 50 per cent position at the Digital School.

I always like to have one or two projects on the side (podcasting and occasional Virtually Connecting plus X) and it was by some lucky coincidence that another door opened while bigger visions and strategy at my university were being shredded.

I had been working as a freelance consultant / project manager earlier in my career and I never really shut that down completely even though my tax accountant – I am lazy and incompetent with my personal accounting, bookkeeping and the like, and giving this to someone for a fee might not be economically reasonable, but mind-soothing on many levels – hinted at the idea of shutting this down to save money and time at every occasion.

By the end of last year an acquaintance who now works for Vodafone Germany’s department for Learning and Capability Development got in touch. We started talking about my ideas and experience in the realm of connected learning, team and project based learning online, peer feedback and many other things. We talked about the ideas and concepts that were being developed at Vodafone Germany, latest achievements and some of the challenges they had. A consensus emerged that, by working together, we would both learn and move out of our comfort zones to some extent and we started to work on a concept for training and learning that would encompass technological developments, social and societal issues as well as ‘new’ management techniques, creativity techniques and team work. At some point we needed a project title: Vodafone Create.

Obviously, I cannot share every detail of what he have been working on. There’s learners’ data, there’s corporate strategy and possibly other relevant information that I won’t be able to share. I will still try and outline a few ground rules that we followed, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. I found that I try and apply these rules to all of the projects that I am involved in and they themselves might not seem cutting edge or avantgarde (I don’t think they are, either). But that’s what I like about them in some way. Looking at the ‘trends’ that so often focus on technology instead of anything else (we must be on the 5th wave of “VR/AR for learning”), inspecting the dominant infrastructures and platform solutions (LMS/VLE, MOOC, repositories) and listening to the mantra-like repeated statements around the importance of mobile learning, learner centricity and authenticity while comparing these statements to the reality we work in triggers ironic and sarcastic responses from me – on good days. Anyways, these guiding principles worked well for us, and sharing them here might help me to internalize them myself:

Don’t produce content when there’s already plenty to work with on the web.

This is not a new point at all and it has been made in some form or the other by many of the people I look to for guidance in the field of learning and teaching. Depending on the context you’re working in and the topics you aim to address, using available content can have several effects:

You can save significant costs for production. There are plenty of videos, animated graphics, info-tables, articles and journals available online. Producing stuff yourself just for the sake of branding it with your logo or your ‘look & feel’ ist expensive and can even be counterproductive as it might make the content seem less authentic.

You can rely on the expertise of others when you’re not an expert yourself, especially regarding more or less introductory material. Look for experts in the respective field and their views, cross-check these views with other leaders in that domain, try and poke holes in their ideas. Look for their critics or for views that are critical of these views. Actively look for the views of non-white / non-male / non-traditional ‘thought leaders’ regarding your topic. Even if you are really good at your job, if you have plenty of resources at hand, producing this kind of content yourself will not be an easy task.

In Vodafone Create we deal with the Internet of Things, Smart Cities, the technologies behind all of this, strategies as they are developed by telecommunications providers, cities and society, societal trends, as well as Agile Management, Design Thinking, collaborative work and creativity techniques. That’s plenty. And there’s plenty of stuff about this available on the web. The art is rather to curate content than to produce it. Also, it seemed to me that, especially with these more or less trending topics, it helps if you re-calibrate your bullshit detector every now and then.

Practice what you preach

A big part of Vodafone Create is to introduce and practice approaches like Design Thinking and Agile Management and it would have felt quite awkward to develop a concept over weeks and months without presenting first ideas, testing and refining them. I personally tried to never prematurely assume that I really knew what our participants wanted, what their motives and objectives are before actually speaking to them or examining their feedback to previous offerings.

We decided to build a first prototype that would mimic the overall concept we had developed until then. We aimed at building two first assignments, we approached our prospective participants (trainees, young professionals but also management level employees) and we did a test run that lasted over four weeks with about 30 participants, divided into 5 teams. We learned a lot by collecting their feedback, by following their struggles with both content- and assignment-related questions as well as technical issues. The participants were made aware that they were our ‘guinea pigs’ to some extent and they appreciated the openness. After a couple of days in it even seemed as if they were more focussed in building teams, tinkering with solutions, presenting ideas and feedback and it was nice to see how they were being sucked into the learning experience besides this being a prototype and besides them thrashing the original commitment in time that they were planning for in order to work on more sophisticated submissions. This prototype went on until the middle of August and we will incorporate what we learned during this first prototype in the next iteration. We will also try and engage with this community of early starters to test different ideas and approaches.

Engage the learners where they already are. Don’t build another silo for content.

This rule might be the most obvious one. There’s plenty of rhetoric around ideas and implementation of life long learning and especially young people are exposed to it all the time. Politicians claim it to be important, managers and consultants claim that the ability to learn is more important than ever [insert a random quote about how today’s (tech) knowledge will be completely overhauled within five years]. I believe that many of this is true and yet I struggle with the way it is being presented as a burden and tagged with a certain narrative, a certain idea of what education and Bildung is, what motivates people to learn and how we can personalize and automate all of that.

To get back to my point: a closed repository, a Learning Management System or any other kind of silo will not enable the learners to go back to the content, their solutions, thoughts or feedback that they have been working on, say 2 years ago – at least in most cases. It will stifle learning and it will prohibit the establishment of an essential part of ‘life long learning’: learning networks that you can work and engage with beyond the actual course or learning challenge. The chance of contributing to the formation of such networks will be higher if you engage with learners where they already are, in this case: in their social network and in their digital work environment.

Try to use technology that is already in use or that is easily accessible and understandable.

This ground rule has a couple of components and it relates a lot to the previous one.

First, we wanted to be where our participants already are. As with any corporation, employees already have some kind of digital environment that they use for communication, for data and file exchange, for collaboration, as administrative tool or as a news room. That is where we wanted to be with Vodafone Create as well so that it could be integrated into the day-to-day of employees.

Second, we wanted no additional software or hardware to be used. This would have certainly added to the complexity. Imagine distributing, let’s say, VR sets all across the company, imagine tutorings & workshops. Or imagine a software rollout in collaboration with a security-oriented IT department. But more importantly, we wanted to offer something that participants could come back to in a couple of weeks, months, or even years with low maintenance and from their everyday digital workspace.

Third, we wanted to be truly accessible from mobile and desktop devices alike. This might seem trivial nowadays but if you look at the app versions of any LMS, you will always find weak spots – be it in communication, mobile streaming or anything else in combination with a variety of devices. I am not saying that social network apps work flawlessly or intuitively but at least our learners were already used to their mobile app of Yammer, in this case.

All of these components led us to use the social networking software already in place for communication, presentation of drafts feedback and announcements. We added a WordPress site where we presented content, made it searchable, added tags and enabled ratings. We used a theme that looks nice on mobile and worked with plugins. No rocket science at all.

Tackle issues and problems that relate to the learners’ everyday work, introduce ideas and techniques that can be helpful in their everyday worklife.

With Vodafone Create, we introduced topics and themes that would hopefully prove helpful in our participants’ day-to-day. This is not to say that we did not present abstract ideas. The participants got their fair share of Saskia Sassen regarding the architecture of Smart Cities. But we always tried to offer techniques and ways how these rather abstract ideas could be broken down to the real worklife in a telecommunications company. Also, the few parts of content that we produced ourselves contained guidance that was general enough to be transferred to pretty much any other problem or challenge in everyday worklife.

Try to understand who you are working with, what their needs, problems and expectations are.

As I mentioned above, this part seems like an over-stretched metaphor to many (and I get that, none of the ground rules compiled here are ground-breaking new insights). Still, there are lots of offerings out there, especially in online learning, that seem to disregard this. Finding out more about the participants in any learning / teaching setting is essential but it can be messy. There’s not that one persona, but many, and their motivations and ideas about learning, training and work will always differ, even if you are working with a reasonably homogenous group of young talents and employees in central Europe. We tried not to lose touch by presenting our ideas regularly, by discussion our approaches with the people who we imagined to participate and we encouraged direct and sometimes anonymous feedback.

Be flexible, actively ask for feedback and try to respond to feedback transparently.

If I were to highlight one of these ground rules, this one would probably be it as it relates to many, if not all, of the above mentioned points. I am never inclined to give feedback if it does not go anywhere, if it is not transparently dealt with and if the one who asked for feedback seems like he could not care less about it actually. When coming up with a new project idea, I try and set pre-determined milestones or breaks, when I can incorporate feedback. Communicating why and how you are responding to feedback (or why not) is just as important as actually doing it. Brushing feedback off with a “well, we do it this way around here” or worse, with silence, only leads to a dynamic in which participants become recipients and you become the one feeding a system that will soon be gamed by the ones who you should be working with.

Apologies that this turned out to be a longer post than originally intended but it helped to write these few principles down somewhere to go back to. These rules will differ depending on the context I work in myself. Whether I work with a group of students, a classroom with refugees or a group of young professionals has a severe impact on how I look at privacy and security issues, content design and the tools I use.

Please let me know if you think I am missing something or if you would add another rule or principle to this list – any feedback is much appreciated.

Header Image by Andrew Branch via unsplash

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