Archives for April 2012

Backchannel Best Practices for Learning

Backchannel conversations are being brought into the foreground as a formal part of learning and interaction as speakers actively encourage participants to join in with questions or comments, sharing their feedback with one another without disrupting the speaker. When speakers integrate backchannel discussion into their lectures, it can help guide the presentation.

Whether the backchannel exists as a spontaneous element to the learning experience or is displayed for common participation, the allure is its immediacy as a real-time conversation in parallel with the formal presentation.

The essential challenge raised by the backchannel is how to use it most constructively to support learning. It has the potential to foster engagement and participation, especially in large venues. Because the backchannel enables a smaller group to be connected to the broader community via Twitter or some other publicly accessed service, facilitators, instructors, and participants must learn how to use these services responsibly.

In his Agile Learning blog, Derek Buff, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, highlights how using the backchannel can aid learning.

Note-taking: Participants can take their notes during a class in the backchannel. This provides an electronic (and thus searchable) set of notes for learners. A presenter might even select two or three known participants to be official note-takers, freeing others for more engagement in class.

Sharing Resources: It’s easy to share links in the backchannel thanks to all the URL shortening services, and learners can be very good at finding useful and relevant information online. More important, if a shared resource isn’t useful or relevant, it creates an opportunity to discuss how to find and evaluate online information resources.

Commenting: Participants can comment on the ideas being shared or discussed by the facilitator. Providing a visible venue for comments is likely to encourage others to reflect actively. Plus, participants can read and respond to each others’ reflections.

Amplifying: It’s difficult for a facilitator to always follow and make sense of the backchannel during an event given the open-ended nature of the comments. Amplifying tools enable the instructor or presenter to see what topics are bubbling to the top. On Twitter, this happens via retweeting: If a comment is retweeted frequently, then many people find it interesting enough to share.

Google Moderator is a free service that works similarly–participants can post questions and others can vote them up or down. Or, Purdue University’s Hotseat feature allows students to vote up peer comments they find important.

Asking questions: Backchannel provides people an additional way to ask questions. Participants are frequently hesitant to ask questions publicly for a variety of mostly social reasons. Anonymous backchannel discussions make it extremely easy for these folks to surface their questions. Even when people are identified on the backchannel, having a venue where questions are encouraged is likely to make it easier for them to share questions. And if the backchannel includes an amplification tool, then students can support each others’ question-asking very directly.

Helping one another: Keep in mind that there are several types of backchannel conversations, including learner-to-learner conversations. When one person poses a question on the backchannel, another might very well answer it before the instructor or facilitator can get to it. This kind of peer-to-peer instruction is a common use of clickers (instructional technologies that enable teachers to rapidly collect and analyze students responses to multiple-choice and free-response questions during an event), and it can work well in the backchannel, too.

Offering suggestions: The backchannel can give participants a voice in where the discussion goes by suggesting topics or questions. They also can recommend useful readings, activities, or topics for subsequent groups. They can provide feedback on what’s working and what’s not from their perspective. Many events have participants complete a review at the end of each session; the backchannel allows facilitators to gather this kind of feedback whenever people are ready to share it.

Building community: Backchannel discussions can help participants get to know each other in a variety of ways. Although some backchannels are private, many are public, allowing those outside the event to participate in the discussion. This provides an opportunity to open the discussion and build community. These external people have the potential to learn from and contribute to the backchannel discussion.

While instructors and facilitators must forgo some control for the backchannel to function as an effective learning tool, many questions remain regarding the best way to resolve attribution, privacy issues, and rules of order for productive or constructive discourse in an electronic environment.

With the increasing use of smart phones, some have seen the rise of the backchannel as inevitable, emerging as a legitimate learning avenue even where instructors are not engaged. Accordingly, many presenters may find it useful to familiarize themselves with the applications and techniques of backchannel conversations as these tools become an increasingly common part of the standard presentation toolset.

Choosing a Backchannel Tool

The Midcourse Corrections Blog offers the following criteria to consider when choosing a backchannel communication tool so that it becomes as popular as Twitter with participants.

1. Popular. What online communication tools are the most popular today?

2. Setup. Is it easy or hard to setup? Can a new user sign on and setup an account quickly?

3. User-friendly. How easy is it for your attendees to use? What level of technical knowledge or skill do your attendees need to have to use it? Is it intuitive or do your attendees need training on it?

4. Learning curve. What’s the learning curve for using it? Is it easy or steep?

5. Mobility. Can people use it on their mobile devices in addition to laptops?

6. Costs. What are the costs of using this tool? Is it free or fee-based? If free, will users be bombarded by advertisements and spam if used?

7. Archived. Do you want the communication to be archived or temporary? If you use Twitter, the information is typically kept for about two weeks. You can visit immediately following the event and print the transcript for the event. This is great data to understand the adoption rate, value and ROI of the conference backchannel.

8. Displayed publicly. Will displaying the backchannel publicly extend the conference’s messages to a broader audience? Does a public backchannel increase the ROI and/or any potential risks?

9. History/references. What backchannel tools have other conferences used? Does the backchannel tool have any references or case studies?

10. Customized. Can you customize the look of the tool with an event logo? Can you change the settings for font size, color, style, etc?

11. Character limit. Does the tool limit the number of characters per comment or can attendees write their thoughts in long form? Is a character limit good for your audience?

12. Identified or anonymous. Can the users be anonymous or do they have to identify themselves with a name, photo or other means in order to comment? There is a higher risk of negative or inappropriate comments from anonymous users.

13. Standalone. Do you want the backchannel to be a standalone, private communication tool or do you want it part of a public service like Twitter that can reach far beyond your conference walls?

14. Software or web-enabled. Does it require a download of special software or is it web-enabled?

15. Monitored or real-time. Do you want the ability to monitor and approve comments before they enter the backchannel? Or are you open to real-time comments.

16. Attachments. Can users attach pictures and links to additional sources easily? Or is it rich text enabled only?

About the Author:

Ryann Ellis is an associate editor for ASTD, and one of the founding editors of Learning Circuits, ASTD’s website covering e-learning.

Reprinted from Learning Circuits

How to Develop Mental Toughness in Leaders

Of all the competencies sought after by today’s budding business leaders — critical thinking, emotional intelligence, the ability to influence and inspire a team, to name a few — perhaps the most valuable is one that isn’t learned in a boardroom but on a baseball or soccer field as children.

Mental toughness is a term commonly used in sports — a term many begin to hear from coaches in youth athletics. Tuning out the noise or pressure and performing to potential in an otherwise difficult situation is what makes fans admire the most astute professional athlete.

It’s not that the quarterback was able to throw the winning touchdown, but the fact that he or she was able to do so under the tight and uncomfortable circumstances of the situation.

While sports stars grab the majority of headlines in the mental toughness arena, this trait has become essential for leaders to be successful in business as well, according to Christine M. Riordan, dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

Global business leaders, facing the complexity of an uncertain working environment, need to have the same psychological readiness as an athlete. It’s not just a matter of leaders’ knowledge, ability or skill that sets them up for success, but also an ability to deal with the pressure and stress of competition, fatigue and failure, Riordan wrote in a 2010 Forbes article, “Six Elements of Mental Toughness.”

Riordan’s six elements of mental toughness are:

Flexibility. “Just like a quarterback faced with a broken play, a leader must [be able] to decide quickly on a different way to get the ball down the field.”

Responsiveness. “Game-ready leaders are able to remain engaged, alive and connected with a situation when under pressure. They are constantly identifying the opportunities, challenges and threats in the environment.”

Strength. Mentally tough leaders “find the strength to dig deep and garner the resolve to keep going, even when in a seemingly losing game.”

Courage and ethics. Leaders have to have the ability “to make hard but right decisions for the organization.”

Resiliency. Leaders need to be able to rebound from disappointments.

Sportsmanship. Have a “Bring it on!” mentality.

“Part of leadership and mental toughness is having the resiliency to bounce back from mistakes and situations that you [as a leader] really haven’t seen before,” Riordan said.

Developing mental toughness, however, is no small task. More than anything, teaching mental toughness in others demands commitment and dedication — both from the teacher and the student, said Bill Cole, CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a Silicon Valley business coaching consultancy.

Leaders seeking to acquire mental toughness can start by finding a mentor or coach who is willing to help guide them, according to Cole. While classroom and group settings are sufficient to lay the groundwork for developing the skill, one-on-one mentoring is best to provide for individuals’ situations and learning needs.

Classroom teaching is “just kind of the starting point,” he said. “You can get a discussion going [in a classroom], but then the deep learning has to happen after that initial talk is given.”

Once a coach or mentor is in place, leaders should then find a role model — someone who exhibits admirable mental toughness who they can reach out to.

Having a role model who embodies mental toughness, someone who can be personally connected to the learner, can give leaders a more engaging, visceral learning experience, Cole said.

Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, said he sets up players with a “mental workout,” or a series of mental exercises that are performed daily.

Included in this workout are things like controlled breathing and visualizing a personal “highlight reel” — “Imagine three successes that [are] going to happen in the next game,” Selk said.

While mental workouts for players and business leaders might differ in scope, the principles and concepts are largely the same, Selk said. He lays out his framework to develop mental toughness in five steps that play off phrases typically used by baseball coaches.

“Pay attention to your swing, and forget the home run.” Focusing too much on the target — or end goal — might diminish leaders’ chances for success. Instead, Selk said, focus on the process of what needs to get done to get there. “You cannot accomplish a goal without first having a sound process in place,” he said. “Identify those daily goals that have the greatest influence on your performance and, therefore, your success.”

“Don’t take your eye off the ball.” Control the tendency to be distracted and stay on the task at hand. “Many high-performing businesspeople believe they can multitask and still maintain focus,” Selk said. Too much multitasking, however, can hamper leaders in the end.

“Be your own ref.” Business leaders need to establish limits to be productive. Walling off time for family and work is essentially for leaders to maintain and develop mental toughness, Selk said.

“Get R&R between workouts.” Getting proper rest and relaxation is important for mentally tough leaders. Fatigue will only lead to lost productivity and engagement, and serve as a distraction, Selk said.

“Listen to your body.” “In sports, when athletes try to push through the pain, they end up on the [disabled list] with injuries,” Selk said. Business leaders who participate in “extreme working” — or working too many hours — run the risk of reduced productivity and possibly even diminished health.

“Most of these workers can’t sustain this level of performance; [they] end up burning out,” Selk said, “just like promising athletes who have to sit on the bench all season or retire early because of injuries.”

About the Author:

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

Take This Job and Love It: HR Leaders Rank in Top 5 Jobs

Financial planners have the fifth-best career in a ranking of 200 jobs released this week by Internet job-hunting site, run by online classified advertising company Adicio Inc. Human resources managers ranked third, topped only by software engineers and actuaries; dental hygienists ranked fourth.

According to the experts, financial planners have less stress, a better working environment and fewer physical demands than most other jobs. Same goes for HR managers. Hardly anyone makes more than you, too. At an average midcareer salary of $104,000, financial planners out-earn the rest of the top 10 professions. Those in HR leadership positions average just over $99,000.

Hardly anyone has better job prospects.

Expected employment growth, income potential and unemployment figures look better for financial planners than for

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most other professions.

Contrast that to the woes of those at the bottom, job-wise. Newspaper reporters, to pick one dismal example, ranked 195th out of the 200 rated, scoring just below waitresses, who have less stress, and better employment prospects.

According to the report, newspaper reporters have jobs that are twice as stressful, more physically demanding, and have much worse physical and emotional environments than financial planners. Job prospects and unemployment rates are dismal, with negative growth figures. Pay of $35,000 is just over a third of what planners make.

Rounding out the bottom five are lumberjacks, dairy farmers, enlisted military personnel and oil rig workers. That makes newspaper reporters the most likely in the bottom five to have big college loans to pay off.

Keep all that in mind the next time you run into one. The least you can do is buy ’em a drink.

About the Author:

Lavonne Kuykendall writes for Investment News. Reprinted from Workforce Management

How to Cultivate An Effective Virtual Culture

To understand how corporate culture can work in near virtual companies, come to the talent show that Emma Inc. holds every year.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based email marketing firm has 100 employees, including many who work from home or offices in Austin, Texas; Denver; New York; and Portland, Oregon. But come spring, everyone heads to Tennessee for a week, a trip that culminates in employees taking the stage at a local club on a Thursday night to juggle, play the saxophone, belly dance or perform some other talent.

Stir in Your Own Ingredients

It’s just one way the 10-year-old business ensures that no matter where an employee opens their laptop computer, they get what makes Emma unique, says Clint Smith, chief executive and co-founder. “We’ve defined our culture well and in a way that allows other people to get it right away,” Smith says. “When you’re tiny you pass it on through osmosis. We’ve done a lot” since then to continue that.

Events like talent shows aren’t just fun, they’re rituals that help define what a company it is, and that’s doubly important when most or all employees work from home, the road or branch offices, says Mary Sobon, a business consultant who works with Smith.

Startups operating as virtual enterprises from Day One, companies sending employees home to telecommute and businesses hiring more mobile workers are changing the conventional wisdom about how to create corporate culture.

Often the job of disseminating that culture falls to the human resources team—and that’s no small feat. “HR will be challenged to find ways to create an esprit de corps in the virtual world,” says Kate Lister, a telework expert with the San Diego-based Telework Research Network,

But try companies must, especially if they’re looking to grow quickly. “You have to go outside your four walls, literally. You won’t be able to do what you want to by bringing people into your building. It just doesn’t work,” says Sobon, an ex-McDonald’s marketing executive turned culture coach who assists startups and fast-growth companies.

That reasoning flies in the face of some evidence that geographically close collaboration is more effective than working together from a distance. In one of the studies that Jonah Lehrer cites in a recent New Yorker story called “Groupthink,” partnerships where researchers worked within 10 meters of each other were found to be more successful than those where co-authors were located a kilometer or more apart.

But that could be changing as videoconferencing, instant messaging and other technologies help employees navigate the barriers of remote work.

A Manifesto, Big Board and Company Apartment

At Emma, the talent show is one of the more visible things management does to make sure that wherever they are, employees “get” the culture of the company, whose products are used by tens of thousands of small and midsize companies and other creative agencies.

Here’s what else Smith does, and what he and Sobon suggest companies with all or nearly all virtual workforces do to spread their corporate culture:

Create a company manifesto. Once Emma hit 25 employees, Smith and co-founder Will Weaver wrote down the tenets they used to run the business in an Emma style guide. “It’s how we make decisions, collaborate and lead. It’s a tangible, living, breathing thing,” Smith says. Managers talk about it constantly, and are continually adding new things. In recent years they added an “Emma Lexicon” to cover unique terms and phrases used internally.

As more employees traveled for work, they included a section called “How Emma Travels.” “We’ve also tried to shrink the style guide in spots to keep it focused on high-level themes, letting details like how individual teams operate remain within those teams’ training and orientation,” Smith says.

Hire like-minded people. At Emma, anyone who applies for a job and seems like a good fit has to answer a list of 10 questions, some serious, some silly, including, “If you had a boat, what would you name it?”

“It’s our first attempt to understand how they think through what they write,” Smith says. If he likes what he reads, he follows up with an in-person or video interview. Screening doesn’t stop there: new employees are on probation for their first 30 days. In all, about 2 percent of people who apply are hired, he says.

Use multiple forms of communication and freely share info. Emma employees keep in touch via video chat, phone, email and instant messages, but face-to-face meetings trump everything for discussing the uber-important stuff, which is why Smith encourages staff to visit Nashville regularly. To keep employees apprised of how the company is doing, he installed an “Emma Big Board” patterned after a stock exchange ticker, in the lobby.

The screen displays a real-time, constant stream of high-level financials, new customer wins, information about ongoing projects plus updates from employees’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. A second board is located in the lobby of the company’s Portland office, and employees can also pull up data on their laptops.

Spend big on travel. “Once we started turning on satellite offices, we knew we had to turn up the travel budget,” Smith says. He doesn’t just talk the talk. Last summer, he rented an apartment in Portland for a month—and brought his wife and kids along—to spend more time with the dozen employees located there.

“As the CEO of a company that’s grown a lot, it’s nice to see him still be involved at that level,” says Matt Thackston, an engineering project manager who worked at Emma in Nashville before moving to the Portland office three years ago. “It’s another part of that commitment to the culture that he wants to foster.”

Make out-of-town employees feel welcome. Smith bought a condo across from Emma’s Nashville office that staff can use when they’re in town on business. The company is moving to a larger building this summer, and Smith has already rented a nearby apartment to keep visiting workers’ commute down to a short walk.

Choose space that fit the company’s vibe. Even virtual businesses have some office space, and Smith uses Emma’s to set the stylish and hip, yet quirky and creative, vibe he hopes infuses its entire operation. Emma’s first office was in a room inside a little house in one of Nashville’s mixed-use neighborhoods that he rented from another business. As it grew, the company moved into a succession of larger spaces, most of them in similar old houses that had been converted into offices.

When the company moves this summer it will be to another historic building. “We could have found something cheaper in the suburbs, but the suburbs doesn’t feel like us,” Smith says.

Get help. Smith belongs to two entrepreneurship groups he uses to hash out culture and other issues with fellow business owners. He also hired Sobon to spend 15 to 20 hours a week as his culture agent, working with both managers and employees.

Not everything’s perfect. Smith is still struggling to find a good calendaring system. The company uses Basecamp, Campfire, Jive, and Yammer for collaborating and internal communications because he hasn’t found the perfect all-in-one solution.

According to Smith, though, the overall effect of the culture on Emma’s growth and effectiveness has been positive. Employees working remotely are adding new accounts three times faster than their counterparts at Emma’s headquarters “and they’re outperforming themselves [in terms of customer wins] at a rate of more than 50 percent year over year so far in 2012,” he says.

While part of that’s because of a rebounding economy, it is also the result of remote staff having had time to settle in together as a team, he says.

It all comes back to helping employees bond, regardless of where they work. At the talent show, when Emma’s information systems guy “the one who takes care of our laptops and network, gets up on stage and drops the most impressive sax solo you’ve ever heard, that’s fantastic,” Smith says. “I’ll never look at that guy the same way.” He adds: “When you have that kind of night, it’s a tremendous bonding experience.”

About the Author:

Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce Management contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon.

Reprinted from Workforce Management

3 Tips to Create Effective Virtual Teams

In today’s virtual environment, airplanes, hotel rooms, coffee shops and practically anywhere along the way can instantly transform into a mobile office — making us more connected, more engaged and better able to collaborate and execute on the fly.

Virtual teams are on the rise, and in some cases can be even more productive than in-person teams, according to research by the American Productivity & Quality Center, a professional consulting organization. As a result, increasing numbers of companies are either migrating to these new types of teams, or creating a hybrid workforce augmenting on-site teams with virtual workers.

Some are tapping into familiar technology such as video conferencing and virtual document sharing, while others are leveraging more complex communication systems, such as online discussion groups and social media. But while technology plays a huge part in closing the distance between virtual teams, these tools alone are not enough to achieve collaboration.

While there are advantages to having virtual teams, talent managers must be aware of certain pitfalls when building and managing virtual teams. Here are the top three, along with ways to avoid them.

Don’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach. Hiring strategies for virtual team members are vastly different than for in-office positions. A virtual workplace requires far more self-reliance and self-motivation than needed for in-office employees. That’s why it’s important to identify the right individuals who demonstrate necessary skills — such as the ability to think independently, make clear decisions and take decisive action when called for, often without direction from higher-ups.

But a talent manager’s work isn’t done once the hire is made. Even if the employee possesses all the skills needed to be successful, additional training may be required to ensure communication across team members is happening, which can vary depending on the individual and the project.

Don’t assume collaboration will happen automatically. More than 60 percent of respondents in a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey on virtual teams reported that no specific training for online collaboration was provided — undoubtedly a hamper on team productivity.

Investing a small amount of time upfront ironing out strategies for proper communication and collaboration in a virtual setting as well as having regular check-ins on how these processes are working will pay big dividends down the road. Regularly setting measurable goals and deliverables, providing timely feedback and creating clear accountability for both virtual and on-site team members are essential building blocks for successful virtual teams.

Don’t think advanced tools will spell success. Many companies make the mistake of assuming the latest, most complex technology will foster the highest level of collaboration and productivity. While online technologies can make working together virtually as effective, or even more effective, than collaborating in-person, complex tools are not always the right ones for the job.

Take transactive memory systems (TMS), for instance, which offer a window into the technical, cultural and tactical knowledge of each team member to help employees solve complex problems by identifying who on the team has the expertise for a particular issue, or who can refer you to the appropriate resource.

While they can be immensely helpful, building a TMS requires a significant investment of time and money and may not be the best answer for a company’s needs. In some cases, a simple instant messaging system or Skype call could get you to the same place faster, with far less expense and training and better results.

Working in virtual teams is not without challenges, but can reap significant business benefit when correctly executed. With thoughtful planning, effective communication and an open mind, companies can take their teams to the next level.

About the Author:

Susan E. Cates is president and associate dean of executive development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and executive director of MBA@UNC.

Reprinted from Talent Management Magazine

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