Friday, 19 June 2009

On Conches and Conversation

The change of time zone that comes with my current business travels in the US allowed me to take part in the Twitter Book Club discussion (#tbc) on Monday 15th June 9pm EST. Although there is nothing to stop me taking part from the UK, I’m not entirely sure in normal circumstances I’d want it to be visible to my friends, family & colleagues that I’d been wide awake tweeting between 2-3am GMT. Insomnia is public in Twitter.

Monday’s #tbc was a fascinating hour (anyone on Twitter can see the exchanges posted by searching on #tbc). The discussion was of Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr Pip, first published in 2006 – so a book that has been doing the rounds for some time. (I embarrassed myself by enthusing about it at home last week whereupon Ellie (15) rolled her eyes and replied “I read it last year and told you it’s great….”)

Mr Pip was a smart choice for #tbc. Short, compelling, well-paced, full of ambiguities and unanswered questions, redolent with literary references (which while they can enhance enjoyment of the book, don’t detract if the reader is unfamiliar with them). The hour-long session produced some intriguing posts (not least the revelation that @MissLiberty has her mother up for sale on Craig’s List). But I’m not sure I’d call it a “conversation” in any conventional sense. Was it a book group? Well – in one sense, yes – we were a group of people focussing on the same book at the same time. And yes I’ve taken away some new ideas and thoughts that have increased my enjoyment of a great book that were not derived from my own individual reading.

Yet discussing a book with others in Twitter in a compressed time frame presents a number of challenges, the first of which is simply remembering to include the hashtag in each post. Forget the hashtag and no-one in the group will see your comments unless they happen to be following your tweets anyway. Using Tweetdeck helps as it enables the participant to create a separate #tbc column. Furthermore it seems to me there are four simultaneous and sometimes counteractive pressures in play when participating in such an event in Twitter: listening (reading), posting, chronology and speed. As the tweet stream emerges, framing an intelligent response in a 140-character bite quickly enough for it to arrive in anything like a logical juxtaposition to the tweet that prompted it is extremely challenging. Indeed it could be seen as an interactive art form all of its own. Forget Haiku: 140 character posts under speed in response to others are more difficult than 3-5-3 or even 5-7-5 syllables. The result is almost like the transcript of an intriguing discussion that someone has taken a pair of scissors to and randomly reorganised.

For those who haven’t read Mr Pip, I don’t want to give the plot away. However I will say that it is set on an island torn by civil-war and includes a violent scene including butchery and pigs. At one point I tweeted that both islands and pigs are freighted in literary terms because of the reference to Lord of the Flies. Since then, re-reading the #tbc tweetstream, I have realised that the whole #tbc concept has another fundamental parallel with Golding’s novel. Whilst I enjoyed participating, and will certainly do so again, insomnia permitting, at no point was it clear who was “holding the conch”. In a face-to-face group there is a joint focus on each person as they speak that simply is not possible in Twitter. So as things stand I’m divided over whether I’m frustrated by the limitations of or excited by the possibilities for using Twitter to encourage engagement with books. Why not join in and let me know what you think…?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On Roadmapping the Future

Yesterday's Huffington Post included a blogpost by Don Tapscott on the impending demise of universities. It is a subject of some interest given that I work in academic publishing and my eldest child is almost 16, so the university years lie ahead for her and her siblings. As ever the comments following the post are as interesting as Tapscott's typically iconoclastic piece, divided as they are into some voices of support and a number wondering where Mr Tapscott has been for the past couple of decades. For me neither blogpost nor comments ask the crucial questions which focus around how we facilitate change management conducted in an economically viable manner within long established businesses and organisations. And I mean viable for the individual institutions that need to change - and viable for our society which requires an educated and enabled population.

The post was placed on the Huffington Post specifically to solicit feedback, as Edge, where it was originally placed, does not publish reader comments. True to form I read and I commented. Only to find (infuriatingly) that what I had written had exceeded Huffington's maximum comment word count (by 311 words). So I have decided to place it here instead...

Dear Don
I read your post with interest as it addresses what are currently two of my most pressing (and parallel) personal and professional concerns, viz
(i) what sort of university education should I be envisaging for my (currently young teen) children, and,
(ii) where will academic publishing be in five years time.
Regarding education I am torn between a sense of excitement about how much more interesting and purposeful learning is becoming, and, watching my children, a despair that although they know how to source, interact with and dissect information intellectually, they find it very difficult to write and structure a sustained analysis. As an employer I still value the skill of written analysis.

I find it useful to think about publishing and education together because both are businesses (often long-established, frequently old-fashioned businesses). Yes, educational establishments are often semi-public sector businesses but nonetheless they have budgets to meet - and it helps to remind ourselves of this when considering their future. Universities and academic publishers are faced with markets that are evolving by the hour in their demands for new delivery channels and methodologies. Both are being rapidly pulled into a world where they are increasingly driven by the requirement to respond to the ways in which changing and emerging technologies are modulating what students and employers want and how they want, it rather than being driven by traditional pedagogy and academic values.

So far, so good - and nothing wrong with this. I am all for dragging academe into the real world. The crux is how to effect such change at the same time as remaining a viable business. The problem is that educational establishments (like publishing companies) are restricted by their histories, their funding models, their obligations as employers, and multiple other pre-existing social and commercial contracts. It is all very well to comment that they have to change - but they have to be enabled to change - and at the moment the impedimenta of their histories (and their business models) is making that difficult.

Seeing where they need to go is not that hard. There are plenty of visionaries and change evangelists out there - yourself included - who are thinking, writing and speaking about what needs to happen. However what we are remarkably short of is people with the skills, the insight and commercial acumen needed to chart the roadmap from "here" to "there". How does an institution or business with a model built around a pedagogical approach remain a viable enterprise whilst rapidly adapting to deliver - or rather enable - learning in a completely different style, channel and model (subject to rapid change and therefore ongoing cost to adapt and develop)? Just because the future of education could be significantly Internet-based, that does not for one moment mean that it will necessarily be cheaper.

The interesting question for me is not - "do we have to change?" That we do seems axiomatic. Much more important is how we free up institutions and businesses to be able to adapt quickly in a way that does not destroy what is still inherently valuable in them. The education and publishing establishments urgently need advanced change management skills of the most pragmatic and enabling sort. In both publishing and education if we don't find ways of roadmapping and structuring the change that is required within viable business models, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.