New York: Separation

The Highline“I left him“, she said, walking slowly in the brilliant sunshine, “last month“, as she passed by where i was sitting, on one of the benches on the Highline, sipping my coffee. “But i’ve met someone“, slightly breathless, the cable of the white headphones from her iPhone interlaced with her scarf, wrapped tight against the cold, “and i’ve fallen for him!“.

Spring is in the air: my coffee is bitter, taken from the indoor market at Gansevoort, which i just discovered this trip. A converted space, repurposed, bare brick walls and a variety of artisanal food outlets. Here, within a stones throw of Google’s HQ in the Meatpacking District, there is no shortage of clientele, willing to splash out for cuban, Italian or african delights from the eclectic stalls. One whole corner set aside for tables, surrounded by a kind of natural gazebo made from carefully trained wisteria, wrapped around the urban ironwork holding up the roof. A trained embrace of wood and iron.

The Highline has been extended at it’s northern end. You used to join at 10th Avenue and 30th, climbing up the steel staircase to the elevated slice of nature. The Highline, one of my favourite places in the world, is a repurposed raised railway, supported on a vast lattice of girders and pillars, abstracted by height from the surrounding towers and alleys. But now it’s connected in a new way, a wide arc that sweeps around the end of the Penn rail depot, past serried ranks of parked and resting silvered trains, finally reaching ground level at 34th Street.

The HighlineThe new stretch is ambiguous. No stairs, instead it follows, i assume, the gradient and sweep of the original line, launching off from the railyard and climbing in a shallow curve: to the right, the Hudson River, languorously reaching down to the Statue of Liberty, to the left, the yard, bounded by reflective glass. It starts as tarmac: deliberately temporary. The signs explain that this section will be reimagined as the rest of the area is developed, to remain in keeping, to remain contemporary.

It’s a new way of arriving: the stairs were deliberate. You climbed out of your reality and into this abstract space, but now the entrance is analogue, an incremental distancing of your feet from the sidewalk. A slow elevation into space. I’m not sure i like it: for me, this space was always separate, reclaimed, re-loved. The entrance was not supposed to be easy: after it’s abandonment in the 80’s i imagined urban explorers scaling fences and discovering it’s plateau, sans dinosaurs, but adrift with seed heads, fallen leaves and remnants of rails.

If the massive girders are the bones, the rails are the sinews, visible perhaps through disturbances in the grass. Connecting old to new: their lines reflected through concrete and wood. In one place old sets of points have been set on end as art, a strangely cruel twist of fate for such purposeful artefacts.

The Highline

The Highline is transience epitomised: standing at a station watching trains go by, they form part of the view, but never the vista. As i sat there, watching people stroll by, fragments of conversations pass, less distorted by doppler than the carriages of old, but still fragments, distorted by context.

French, German, maybe Spanish, and the plethora tones of America. Stories running past, clipped and clattering on heels, chugging past, heading Downtown.

Periodically, the steps descend to street level: latter day stations where we disgorge people back to their reality and collect new passengers.

But this space is no longer lost: at first purpose personified, it’s original life was one of movement, of motion. Collecting, delivering, transit. Then a long sleep, a rest, dereliction and peace. Until one day the fencing rattled, disturbed, rediscovery. Repurposed. As it woke from slumber, the world had changed: the districts it crossed no longer noisy and lousy with trucks and meat, but rather reimagined, reclaimed. Renewal in action: painting over the graffiti.

New YorkEven in the few short years it’s been open, the Highline has changed it’s landscape: in it’s new form it’s driven development of cafes, apartments, shops and galleries. Today the cargo it hauls is gentrification and hope. Scaffolding surrounds, abounds.

The city is ever reinventing: hoardings surround deep holes and pile drivers, clawing into the ground to gain foothold in the city that never sleeps.

But i still don’t like the new slope, the gradient of connection: sometimes we need separation to contextualise. Doorways between spaces. Separation from one relationship before we fall in love again.

You can find my book, “New York: Community, Spaces and Performance” here.

Posted in Exploration | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sparks

It’s everywhere. Inspiration: sparks falling in the dry leaves, flames curling and spitting, ideas burning brightly, fanned by the winds of conversation and fed by the fuel of sharing. After two days at the Learning Solutions Conference, my head is buzzing more than usual, sparked by people, technology, stories.

Sparks

Curiosity is a driving force: but it needs spaces, permissions, time. The revelations we have can be swamped for lack of oxygen or amplification. Insights give us a freedom to act, to co-create, if our community is strong. The connections we forge are global, strong social ties that breach geographical boundaries. As well as questions of trust and identify, the notion of fairness and equality is high in my mind. Without fairness, without equality, we cannot be truly agile, lacking a diversity of perspective and thought.

Technology, lightweight and agile, democratised and prevalent, permits the sparks to spread. There is a fluidity of action when we can share so easily: capture, interpret, share and learn. Hacking old knowledge into something new, something purposeful. Design itself ceases to be something done once then built, but rather a continuous and iterative event, providing scaffolding for learning and tempo to communities. The stories we co-create are authentic from their grounding in application in the real world.

The ideas we share, the communities we make sense of things in, the ideas we have, they form sparks, sparks that turn to flame and spread, wherever anyone is open to listen.

Posted in Learning, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections from Learning Solutions Day 2: Responding to challenge

The second day of Learning Solutions and i’ve delivered my fourth and final session. Themes: how do we engage communities, how do we respond to challenge, how do we make it safe? I thought i’d capture some ideas around this aspect of community management: how do we deal with challenge, what do we do when the story moves somewhere we don’t like?

Response

We can engage directly: challenge what is said, respond to provocation, we can reply. It’s about understanding what the purpose is of conversation and who owns it. If we take the easy path and try to control the conversation, it will simply migrate elsewhere: sure, we can just moderate out answers we don’t like, but it’s the dissent and our response that really counts. So we should often seen to engage or even invite dissent: after all, if communities are truly ‘sense making‘ we should relish the intellectual challenge and see what answers we can co-create.

We can stand back and let the community moderate itself: leave it, defer to what the community thinks. This can be put within a timeframe: see if the community deals with dissent internally, or if we need to intervene. This can be a more sustainable model: after all, if we try to manage the community too tightly, we will never know if it can regulate itself. In issues of safeguarding or abuse, we may have to intervene faster, but often it’s worth letting the community work it through.

Another options is to approach the individual directly, to say ‘we want to moderate this, but would rather discuss it first‘: see if you can get into a conversation and reposition the disagreement together.

We can reframe conversations: reposition it into a private group to resolve or move it to a different space. Similarly we could take the dissent and turn it into a topic of conversation by itself: remember, the point of social approaches is that the story is co-created with the community: half the wisdom sits elsewhere.

Finally, we can reject and deploy the ultimate sanctions of disengagement, moderation or banning. Sometimes the conversation goes too far off track, and we have to reject it.

So these are not definitive, just reflections out of the conversation today: Ways that we can engage and respond without resorting to formal authority.

Posted in Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reflections from Learning Solutions Day 1: Trust and Inspiration

I flew into Florida last night, straight down from Denver, in time for dinner with friends in downtown Orlando. A great start. The thing about conferences is that they’re immersive, three days separated from your reality, dropped into this abstract space with some familiar faces and a sea of uncertainty. Especially as today i was delivering three sessions: one on communities, one on moderation and the main one on Scaffolded Social Learning.

Two themes came out strongly from the day for me: the first was about trust, the second about inspiration.

Through many conversations with people from different industries and sectors, i found myself talking widely about trust. Trust in individuals and trust in organisations. And how the two things differ.

Trust in the organisation is based on consistency of action over time: consistency of response. Many organisations are erratic in how they act in online spaces, the net effect of which is that we are reluctant to engage. Why would we? If the response is unpredictable, we would be naive to commit.

Trust must be earned over time: earned through fairness and consistency.

And inspiration: it’s the thing people are looking for. The permission granted by seeing others commit, seeing others succeed. There was a lot of interest in stories of success and in understanding how that success came around.

Searching for inspiration: seeking trust. Two factors of community that we shouldn’t underestimate.

Posted in Community | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Storytelling and Scaffolding

As i continue to develop the Scaffolded Social Learning model, i’m struck by the importance of the Storyteller role. Under a scaffolded approach, we use two elements: formal and co-created social. The formal elements are the organisational side of the story: it creates a series of frames that we operate within. The social is the co-created conversations and activities that take place within the scaffolding. By combining formal and social elements within the scaffolding, we get the sense of travel and parameters that the organisation needs, but we benefit from the sense making function and wisdom of the community.

Scaffolding and Storytelling

Done well, it’s a truly co-created experience. Done badly, it’s formal learning with a forum stuck on.

I’ve shared some components before: the model itself and, more recently, ten types of co-creative behaviours that we may utilise in design. I’ve also talked about levels of storytelling: personal, co-created and organisational.

Today though, let’s look at the Storyteller themselves: in full programmes, we may actively support the community by providing a storyteller with specific remit and functions.

At the personal narrative level, they are helping individuals understand about stance, tone of voice and amplification. It’s about helping people get off the starting blocks and it ties into some of the notions we’ve explored before in Social Leadership: curation, interpretation and storytelling. It’s about adding signal, not more noise. These are skills developed through practice and feedback, through rehearsal. The storyteller can be our coach and guide on this journey.

I’ve started bringing up a storyteller briefing session early in the programme, where they work one to one with the delegates on their first story. it’s important in this context to differentiate storytelling from Community Management or even moderation. The role is more akin to a coach: it’s not about helping people who have forgotten their password, or moderating. In fact, the stance is ‘alongside’, not ‘in control’. It’s facilitating and shared experience, not moderating or didactic.

At the co-creative level, the storyteller is working with the community as a whole: i describe this as a journalistic role, listening into the conversation and building a story of what is different and what is the same. In which areas of debate does the community agree, in which does it differ?

Unlike in much formal learning, the objective here isn’t to drive consensus in thought, word and deed: it’s to encourage diversity of thought and application, but within an agreed and common frame.

Facets of Co-Creation

Co-Creation is something we do in communities: it’s a core skill of the Social Age

I’ve started including the publication of a co-created community narrative for each cohort within the learning design: literally each group producing a magazine or video in a common format (core narrative) but with different elements produced by different people.

At the organisational level, the storyteller is helping to relate the co-created output to the organisational strategy: grounding the organisation in the language of it’s teams. This can, in some ways, be the hardest part: the way we are bold enough, as an organisation, to change in response to what is said and done in the cohorts.

When implemented successfully, Scaffolded Social Learning provides a structure for development, over time, within community, to the benefit of both individual and organisation. Done badly, it’s another training programme where we pass or fail people on their performance in the room, not in their ability in the real world.

The storyteller role is not passive: it will not be successful by accident. Like so much in learning design, the excellence will come through careful design, not by accident. It’s all about choreography.

Scaffolded Social Learning - the overarching narrative

A scaffolded Social Learning solution will include both bubbles and boxes, a combination of formal and social spaces

Posted in Stories, Storytelling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Frontier

A long drive down through the mountains today: almost three hundred miles, through the passes, across the plains, down towards Denver. In modern cars, you’re insulated: isolated. Detached. But still some sense of the pioneers. Cruise control engaged, all i need do is steer and daydream.

Crested Butte

When you fly, you lose perspective: you walk on, you walk off. You watch a film. There is no sense of distance, except the humidity in the air when you land and may be some exotic smells. You are here: you are there, but the distance in between is abstract. Driving though, even in this sealed cabin, retains some sense of miles being eaten up, some sense of distance, i think through the vistas.

The vista evolves: opening up, closing in, shifting as the road winds. It is the ultimate emergent reason: journey without end. I travelled to the North Cape once, the northernmost point of Europe, just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. But the vista didn’t end: windswept and desolate, it swooped over the cliffs and onwards, on out to sea, into the blue.

I am returning from Crested Butte, a pioneer town that retains much of it’s raw charm and a degree of my heart. A community both old and new: artisan coffee shops and modern ski gear, but frontier buildings and an independent spirit. I was lucky enough to be there to work: not because my work was located there, but rather because paths crossed and opportunity arose. So i seized it.

Crested Butte

Rocky lives up there, in the mountains, within that community, so my entry was as a guest. People were introduced both by name and by story: this is who they are, this is where they came from. Ironically, I was there to work on community, working to develop an online community for a global organisation, but my experience was embedded within this real community, these people linked by place.

It was interesting that many people shared stories of immigration: not born there, but rather a place discovered, a place that felt right. I guess that’s what community is: a home, a space that feels right.

Later on, after my long drive down, i spoke to Todd about this: the notion of a biological need to be found, a sense of place. We seem to be born knowing not to be lost. We pepper our language with geographical analogy and metaphor: lost in the data, exploring the topic, walking it through. We lose meaning and go in search of ourselves, hoping to find out what it’s all about.

But sometimes it’s the loss that counts: getting lost. I spoke to my nephew about this once: to walk out in the dark, to get lost, to just stand and listen. Because what is the familiar except that which we have learnt? That which we are conditioned to call home? Everywhere is new the first time we see it, the first time we walk into the mountains.

I feel lucky: a guest as i move between communities. The recipient of wisdom: go here for coffee, go there for dinner, talk to this person. My path crosses communities, which is the peril and joy of travel: you leave your own community and share in others. But always transient, always moving.

Today i was up early for the drive: Monday morning and i walked into the corrugated coffee shed. Expecting to be the first, but instead at the back of a queue. Workers starting out, as they will tomorrow and the day after and every day after i’m gone. I felt my sense of connection break: a guest, but a transient one. Lucky to have been welcomed, but only a passing shadow through the season.

Community is complex: here in Downtown Denver we talked about architecture. The spaces we inhabit, but how it’s not the spaces that make community. Community is people: be it facilitated by technology or location, it’s always about the people, the familiar, the shared stories.

Posted in Community, Exploration | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When the Bell Tolls

RitualsThere’s a bell in the pizzeria: i’m sat at the bar, right across the counter from the team making the dough and assembling the pizzas. When a customer leaves, they ring the bell and drop a tip in the jar. Not always: many don’t. Some rings are quiet: some loud and flamboyant. But when the bell tolls, the guys give up a big cheer.

I ask them where the ritual came from: nobody knows. A ritual linked to the place.

The community is transient: constantly changing, as these things do in small towns and students come and go. It’s not a sight unique to America. But the rituals, the ambience, somehow they stay.

This relationship between place, people and ritual is fascinating: the ritual is not owned by one individual, but rather perpetuated through tribal wisdom and knowledge. Fragile, yet permanent. Not a feature of design, but rather emergence. And how many teams celebrate so visibly when their performance reviews come in? I guess maybe the bell is particularly authentic as tribute: both financial and also culinary. There’s a real pride here: i can see it in the way the guy stretches and tosses the dough. Silently competing. There’s nothing half hearted here.

Rituals are important: bonding, cohesive, persistent. What rituals do you see at work, and how many are celebrated so loudly?

Posted in Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment