Self organising systems of adults

We’re getting ready to upgrade our desktop and server environments. Its about time, actually, since we’re still running on Windows XP with a backend that is really pretty antiquated. The upgrade will be to Windows 7, the latest versions of Office, and all the rest.

One of the key things we’re concerned about is training our users. The look and feel of everything will be quite different to that they’re used to. We have the usual concerns about productivity and so forth, and the issue is taking people out of their day to day jobs for long enough to give them what they need, whilst not shutting down the day to day business. A typical challenge for any business, whether it be public or private.
The other day, though, I came across this wonderful talk by Sugata Mitra at TED. As a teacher, he’d been experimenting with the idea of allowing children – supported by a computer – to learn things themselves. The key result here was groups of children can work as self organising systems – with the capability of learning things surprising in scope. His main experiment is one I’d already heard of: go to a developing nation, put an internet computer in a wall, turn it on, and see what happens. Children using the computer teach themselves to browse, without any intervention at all.
Later on in the talk, he explains how he had children learn molecular biology to exam pass level without any teachers. 
Now, of course, there is a difference between adults and children because the older you are, apparently, the harder it is to break old habits and learn new things.
But all this got me to wondering whether we’re really barking up the wrong tree thinking we have to spoon feed everyone because we’re about to roll out a new desktop environment. What would happen, I wonder, if we put people in groups and told them to explore?
As you know, it is a big hobby horse of mine that self organising systems of people can do miraculous things if you allow them to do so.  When those systems are comprised of children, it is apparently possible to learn science and biology. What might self organising systems of adults achieve?
I think I may try to get an experiment started to see.

11 Responses to“Self organising systems of adults”

  1. Mark Higgins
    September 15, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    I brought a Windows 7 PC earlier this year, and didn't find the experience much different from Windows XP. Now of course I am a reasonably IT-saavy person, but I do think you're worrying unnecessarily. I'd be tempted to run a pilot with a small group of users and just leave them with the new O/S and see how they get on. I reckon you'll barely notice any disruption.

  2. September 15, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Correct, and that is my thought precisely. The problem, though, is that not everyone agrees with me…

  3. Andrew Rouse
    September 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    It isn't as though we haven't done this before – I remember windows 3.1 in Departement and all iterations since (I miss 3.11 as it did what you asked not what it thought you wanted but that isn't innovative is it).
    People will get used to it and use it when it comes in. Provide we do some work with the FLSM community so they can offer support and ensure that all apps support backward compatability we'll be fine.Far better to get this done as a single entity and have everyone back on same version of stuff the better.
    The only bit we need to be careful about is whether the desktop hardware is up to it – there is some pretty dodgy stuff out there and the laptop refresh isn't complete yet – Hardware capability is more of a concern than people. Also need to ensure new version of outlook can still read the archived stuff we have on servers under – outlook data files as some pretty important stuff could get lost.

  4. September 15, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    James, I don't think it's so much the aptitude of adults, more the attitude. Ask someone to change the way they work when they can't see a big enough benefit to themselves and you can encounter resistance and an unwillingness to explore. Were that same person to have instead secured a promotion at a new company which used a different system I would expect that person to be far more receptive and actively seek to improve their understanding.
    There will always be people who are comfortable exploring new systems and figuring out how to save, print etc. But also expect large numbers of people who don't have the motivation to 'click and see'.

  5. October 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Here's an interesting take on this:
    The Office Labs guys have created a game called Ribbon Hero designed to help help people boost their office skills and knowledge.
    "If you feel Office can do a lot more than you have time to figure out, then Ribbon Hero is for you. Play games (aka "challenges"), score points, and compete with your friends while improving your productivity with Office. As a concept test, this is an opportunity for you to try out an idea we are working on and let us know what you think"

  6. October 4, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    That's excellent – it illustrates exactly my point.

  7. October 6, 2010 at 12:01 am #

    James, the point above re attitude rather than aptitude is exactly the issue that we have in the department.
    Our staff will need motivating to learn anything for themselves and frankly there doesn't appear any gain for them. A move to a new computer system which just replaces what they had already is a barrier to their productivity at a time when they're feeling pressure to perform. Those that can see the benefits of improved technology or that could improve productivity by learning for themselves are few and far between. Is there a question in the IT survey about knowledge of the current suite? I'm guessing you'd find that the vat majority of users would tell you that their knowledge is inadequate, but what's the take up rate of training courses? It would appear that many users are happy in their ignorance particularly in a work environment where they can blame the 'system' for their lack of productivity?

  8. October 6, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    I suspect you are unfortuntately correct, but there are obvious consequences if they really do take that attitude at a time when the public sector is shrinking. Your point is well made, though, and we need to find ways to encourage them.

  9. October 6, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Thanks for the reply James. You're also right, that kind of attitude isn't helpful. but your post about Games tech. got me thinking on my way into work this morning.
    Firstly as an organisation it'd be wrong to take the lowest common denominator route to training staff, which is what I suspect might happen, despite the fact that it'll feed into the negative spiral I alluded to.
    How about some facilitated learning with teams of champions from within the business (help from the FLSM community) and league tables for knowledge spread. Include positive messages within the training about how the new systems can help productivity too. We could use test results to gather data for the tables. I'd like to see proper Lean input to ensure we were getting it right, (anecdotal evidence suggests that people learn better from facilitated learning and that mostly they hate on-line learning) but we should ask!
    I think the competitive element would encourage take up as most parts of the business have a little rivalry with their colleagues, whether within districts, towards other districts or even across directorates.
    So if we give people the choice of learning environment, targets and a degree of competition, the new tech could be seen as a positive move.

  10. October 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    Oh and I like the ribbon stuff too Nick

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