Ollie Nørsterud Gardener: an entrepreneur’s vision of peer-to-peer learning in organisations

Ollie Norsterud Gardener

Can social networks be environments for real learning? What would happen if you tried to mash up social networking and knowledge management with a human-centred approach to how people learn and develop in organisations?

Up until now, the interviews that I’ve been doing under the Agile Learning banner have been outside my “home territory” of workplace learning supported by technology. There were a couple of reasons for that, but this interview with Olaug (Ollie) Nørsterud Gardener brings it all back home with an account of a start-up technology that uses the connection-centric focus, familiar from social networking, to help people share material that’s relevant to what they’re doing at any moment.

Fittingly, I came across Ollie via the ambient awareness provided by Twitter. I can’t remember whether I started following @olliegardener from my @agilelearn account, or the other way round, but I noticed she was going to be in London for the Connecting HR unconference. I was too late to get a ticket, but during her visit Ollie was kind enough to spare me 45 minute in my regular haunt, looking over the Thames from the Royal Festival Hall.

Ollie is co-founder of the Oslo-based NoddleSoft. Their first offering, as a start-up company, is a platform called NoddlePod, offered on the Software as a Service (SaaS) model with a monthly subscription. One of the things that really got me interested was the thinking and attitude behind NoddlePod. As Ollie put it in her blog last month, ‘I just simply don’t believe that people can “be developed”.’ So goodbye to that what an old colleague used to call the sheep-dip approach to Human Resource Development, where everyone gets to jump through similar hoops or gets similar stuff thrown at them.

Noddlesoft’s approach assumes that learners want to find things out. It helps them do this by sharing resources and connecting with each other. Even if learners are undertaking the same range of activities — Ollie uses the example of corporate Graduate Programmes — this approach opens out a space for participants to self-organise. They bring their own motivation to bear, based on the challenges in the context they share, and what they learn is then more salient and meaningful than if it were just fed to them in some abstract or remote setting.

Are you in or near London on 15th December? Ollie is going to be in town again then, and we’re considering inviting her to one of our weekly learning discussions in the Royal Festival Hall. With it being close to Christmas, we’re not sure whether people will have other things on their minds. So, if we’re pledging to run this discussion with Ollie only if at least ten people register to attend. Please do this here if you’d like to talk more with Ollie.

How did you come to found NoddleSoft and where have you got to with it?

Olaug Gardener (OG): I founded NoddleSoft out of frustration — frustration that I was in a role where my role was to enable learning, yet I came to feel that what I was doing was more about managing and controlling learning. I felt more of a bottleneck then an enabler.

I was in charge of implementing wikis and forums to enable knowledge-sharing across companies and within companies. I loved the idea of it, but I also came across all of the obstacles to making it work. It’s fabulous once you get the ball rolling: there’s a snowball effect with people contributing and everything. But at the start, it can be a heavy process. There are a lot of culture issues, like, “Why should I give away my knowledge that is making me valuable in a company?”

So I thought it would be better to enable more everyday learning, to allow the individual to organise the material the way they want to do. Because, in a wiki, obviously someone has to set a structure and that doesn’t necessarily reflect our individual mental models of how things are linked and what’s relevant to me. That was the first thing: I wanted the individual to be able to create a structure that reflected how they thought and what they actually needed of content and information.

What I was doing was more about managing and controlling learning — I felt more of a bottleneck then an enabler

The idea of NoddlePod sprung from there… You could make the platform social, in that I can actually share what information is relevant to me now. If we’re going through a similar development or learning process, then I might find valuable resources that I can add to a certain part of the process. You might also find them valuable, so you can watch that content and see what I’m up to. That way we can learn from each other even when we work towards different goals. It’s not like we’re working together in a team towards one goal; it’s not like a project management, delegation type of thing… But we can work towards individual things and still benefit from each others learning along the way.

So that was how the idea for NoddlePod emerged.

So how does NoddlePod help with that problem?

OG: It’s a marriage between a project management tool and a social network like Facebook. But it’s very learner-centric.

The coordinator is encouraged to create a structure, a learning process. For a [corporate] graduate programme, for example, there’s certain events, reading material and activities that are central — like orientation with company values etcetera — that you build the structure on.

NoddlePod screenshot - click for larger version

Today, you often get that information on the folder on the first day, but the problem is that folder is out of date pretty much the day after you get it. And with a folder you can’t see what others are doing, or adding to it. On your first day, your manager may tell you to read an article that really encapsulates what’s happening in the construction industry — or whatever is relevant in that context and time. Then you go out and you find that valuable article, and slot it into your own folder. But it’s only you that benefits from it, and every single other graduate needs to get the same advice or come across that some other way — even though the information is already “there”.

Content-focused tools like blogs and wikis leave out additional cues, like “When do I need this information? In what context is this relevant?”

So what we’ve done is allowed each individual to build on the formal structure that’s created by the coordinator, and elaborate on it as they need to. They create and develop their own structure, based on their own need and preferred way of learning. Because they have a core structure, you can also refocus, and see all of the other learners’ expansions on the structure.

David Jennings (DJ): So how does the experience differ from, say, putting WordPress on your Intranet?

OG: WordPress is content-focused. With a wiki, for example, or an Intranet, someone still has to create the structure. You share knowledge, which is potentially really valuable, but you’re missing out the additional cues, like “When do I need this information? In what context is this relevant?” And that’s going to be different for each individual learner. So it’s a matter of connecting the content with the context that’s valuable to the individual.

DJ: And how does NoddlePod achieve that, then?

OG: By sharing the structure that the individual is creating themselves. As you elaborate on the structure, you’re creating your own world and your own learning. If you wish, you can work solely on your own project and not look at anyone else’s, connecting things that you find valuable. But you can also ask questions if you get stuck on a certain point. That encourages other learners to contribute to the learning process, in a way that’s individual to you.

As you share and elaborate on the structure, you’re creating your own world and your own learning

You can also browse others’ items, which means that — let’s say I’m an entrepreneur — I could say, “OK, at my particular phase of development, I’d like to connect with every other entrepreneur at a similar stage…” In my case, Noddlesoft has just been through a Dragon’s-Den-type experience, and in preparation for that I was looking for advice on presentations: what questions might come up et cetera. I’m sure every single person going to that event was doing the same kind of research, and finding similar articles… Instead of us all doing that search separately, wouldn’t it be good to see what other people found, what they thought was useful, in what context, relating to the industry they work in and the phase they’re at in their business? That’s what NoddlePod allows them to do.

Tell me about the social networking capabilities

OG: You get the same kind of profiles, status updates and things like that that people are familiar with from Facebook. But we go further than that: most virtual learning environment systems have just added profiles as another element of functionality, as though that somehow magically creates social learning, but I think that’s a load of rubbish…

DJ: I haven’t seen these intra-enterprise social networks — do you have the same sort of friend model as, say, Facebook? From my long-gone days in a large organisation, I can imagine there being a kind of organisational politics of friendship and displays of friendship. I was in the Psychology Branch of a government department: what would my bosses have thought if they spotted I had “too many” friends who weren’t psychologists?

OG: [Laughing] Well, NoddlePod doesn’t quite work like that. In Facebook you are linking individual with individual, but what we’re doing is linking process with people. The connection between individuals is that they’re going through the same, or a similar, process.

In Facebook you are linking individual with individual, but what we’re doing is linking process with people — the connection between individuals is that they’re going through the same, or a similar, process

So it’s an issue of what you’re working on, and who else is contributing to it.

Is there any particular areas of enterprise activity you think NoddlePod is best suited for? Is induction the main thing?

OG: When we built it from scratch, we referred to the graduate programme a lot, because that’s the world I am most familiar with — graduate programmes, knowledge programmes, talent programmes of various types.

We’ve made a point of involving the customer all the way through. We’ve talked about our concept to a lot of people, to understand what they actually need, whether the concept rings any bells, and to get their feedback on how we can make it even better. In doing that we found that, yes, it could be valuable for graduates, and people were willing to go out and try that. We’ve got a lot of pilots wanting to use it on graduate programmes.

However, we’ve actually found that NoddlePod is just as valuable for an enterprise that deploys it as part of an organisational development process. They use it to connect change agents across the organisation who have different roles in implementing an organisational strategy. So these agents working on different bits of the process, but they have an interest in seeing what the others are doing. They connect and discuss to see if people are experiencing the same kind of resistance or issues along the way.

We shouldn’t being trying to create copies; we should be creating originals and encouraging individuals to make a unique contribution to the company

DJ: What other kind of feedback did you get when you went round talking to these people? You are changing the way that people think about doing these kind of graduate programmes — did you get reservations to that? Were people optimistic or positive about it?

OG: I’ve targeted employee-engagement-aware companies. I think that’s a growing sector, and people are starting to value the individual in all of this. They’re recognising that we shouldn’t being trying to create copies; we should be creating originals and encouraging individuals to make a unique contribution to the company.

So I felt our feedback from each company reflected the impression I had of how employee engagement was embedded into their culture. I think it’s probably harder for bigger companies to be truly committed to employee engagement. They often have the right values, and want to do it, but feel it requires too much administration, or they have reservations because they are dealing with so many people. Consequently they buy virtual learning environment platforms, based on their administration features, rather then what’s effective for the learner. But I think that’s changing.

DJ: I’ve heard people talking about Human Resources being like a sausage machine in their treatment of people. That’s very much something that came across in your blog when you were talking about people “being developed” as though they’re objects, rather than subjects. You hear it time and again: managers think they’re being really positive when they say “People are our most important asset.” But I always think,”You’re still talking about me like I’m something on a balance sheet to be moved about from one ledger to another”. What you’re doing is trying to change that, isn’t it?

You will get a lot more value from each individual employee if you connect with their reason for being — if you focus solely on productivity and control, a lot gets lost

OG: It’s trying to create originals, yes. Because, I mean even when you hire graduates, they’re going to have completely different aspirations and interests and passions. Yet companies treat them as a graduate that’s been hired into this role, it’s as if they’re just a jigsaw puzzle piece.

People aren’t like that. I think you’ll get a lot more value from each individual employee, whether graduates or not, if you connect with their reason for being. Whether it’s being an employee or being a human, if you can connect with what drives them, you can get a much better organisational culture — you’ll have more innovation, much more initiative and engagement and productivity, ultimately.

I think, in the past, we’ve focused too narrowly on on productivity and control. I think productivity is a side effect of doing all the other things right. If you focus solely on that, all the other stuff gets thrown out with the bath water.

We’re relying on people seeing the connection between giving people freedom and empowering people to be who they are, and the long-term potential for productivity improvements and organisational development.

DJ: Nick Shackleton-Jones did a blog a few weeks ago about something called The Affective Context Model of learning. He argues that people learn when they’ve got a reason to and not when something’s been thrown at them. I think you’d like it, because that’s what it sounds like you’re providing through NoddlePod.

So you’re giving learners the reason to learn, but how does the actual learning take place?? Is there some teaching going on, or instructional material? What’s the actual dynamic of that learning?

OG: We want NoddlePod to be a catalyst, but not an additional ingredient — if you see the difference. I think formal learning definitely has its place.

Companies will still produce content and I think that’s valuable. I just think that that needs to be put in the context of the individual — the interest they have and where they are, where their interest in learning lies.

We want NoddlePod to be the hanger for the individual to make sense out of their content, whether that content is a training programme or a website they’ve found, or discussions with colleagues, or to-do items for their own work. Whatever it happens to be, NoddlePod just allows people to build the structure and the process that makes sense for them.

So learning may involve a training event that they attend, from which you might upload the PowerPoint slides, and you have a more traditional discussion around what was happening, maybe online after the event. But then that might trigger ideas and associations with some of the participants, so they could upload information. I can see that then because I’m working in the same context, but it might also be really valuable for me in a different context, so I can follow that item that’s been uploaded — let’s say it’s a video — in the context that makes sense for me. Then other people, who share that context with me, will also hear about it.

DJ: But you’re not another content management system.

OG: No, we just put content in context.

We want NoddlePod to be the hanger for the individual to make sense out of their content, whether that content is a training programme or a website they’ve found, or discussions with colleagues

OG: We’re not trying to replace platforms like Moodle, which I think is brilliant, but still centres on content rather than process and relationships. For individuals who are interested in organising their learning and taking more responsibility in their learning process, they can do so using NoddlePod and then that can…

DJ: Still, from the point of view of somebody whose job is to manage these systems in the corporate environment, they must think, “Right, how many systems do I want to be responsible for? I’ve already got Moodle. Do I want to add something else, or can I achieve this goal with the systems I’ve already got…?”

OG: Definitely, I mean companies that already have elaborate learning and development systems, as well, are going to think, “Do I want an additional thing?” But really I’m hoping that they will ask the participants.

Our target audience is the individual participant, not making the administrator happy

That’s our problem as well. Our target audience is the individual. We want it to be intuitive and valuable for them to share with other people like them. We are not trying to provide all the administration features that other learning management tools offer. Their focus is on the administrator, so they focus on providing features for administration, control and pushing content. Simply providing a place for collaboration doesn’t make it a learner-centric tool.

It becomes company-focused, because the space is the company space. Alternatively, if you connect with what drives the individuals, they can still connect with exactly the same context, but it’s going to mean more to them. They’re going to be more passionate about it. So we are hoping to make a difference that way.

We’ve been talking about what goes on within the enterprise, and I’m interested as well about collaboration beyond that, between enterprises. Is that something that you’re exploring?

OG: Definitely. At the moment we’re targeting in-house development programmes and processes, but it can be used just as well in collaborative projects. One company we have spoken to are looking to use NoddlePod for the collaboration between the change champions of an organisational change process. If we do it right, it should be intuitive and valuable in multiple contexts.

In the longer term, we’re hoping companies will be able to create projects to promote to students, for example, who are on NoddlePod through a university network, as a way of engaging with them.

If you give trust, you’re going to get the trust and engagement back … NoddlePod really does challenge an organisation’s commitment and trust in their employees

DJ: But with communities of practice, there are often tensions. Twenty years ago, when I was working as a psychologist in the civil service, we were always interested in linking up with other psychologists, but you come up against the corporate attitude that says, “You can’t talk about the sorts of problems that we might be having to people outside the organisation…” Of course we carried on despite that, but we did it in ways that were unattributable — over a coffee at a seminar, not on the Net and certainly not searchable. You could be candid in a way that you possibly wouldn’t want to have copied, pasted and quoted back to you on somebody else’s blog.

OG: Sure. But I think individuals tend to be very aware of the network that they’re in, and I think generally companies would benefit from trusting the judgement and goodwill of their employees more. If you give trust you’re going to get the trust back, and you’re going to get engagement back.

But to answer your question about communities of practice, a NoddlePod account doesn’t have to be company, it can be the community of practice for psychology, or whatever it happens to be.

How does NoddlePod help bring about constructive organisational change, and what changes help an organisation get most value from it?

OG: When I was implementing wiki technology, it exposed a lot of cultural challenges and a lot of attitudes that weren’t productive for the individual or the organisation. NoddlePod takes a completely different approach and really does challenge an organisation’s commitment and trust in their employees. We are relying on there being enough organisations brave enough to tackle the cultural issues that this might expose.

DJ: Although it’s sometimes quite an irritation, isn’t it, when you’re trying to implement a system, and the process of implementation brings to the surface all these organisational cramps? Sometimes the whole project goes on hold for six months, and you’re left feeling, “Can’t you just sort yourselves out?!”

OG: When you’re implementing any software like this, it’s going to have an impact on the culture. If you’re a bit sensitive in that respect, you should start with a smaller pilot and really explore people’s attitudes, secure the top management’s support and commitment to making it a success, and address the issues that there are there. Because I think a lot of the barriers — as I was talking about in the blog, Don’t Blame the Lettuce — are to do with there being so many organisational structures that are there to control and to moderate and to steer the organisation. Those structures are there because of tradition, often, or because of status, because of fear.

We don’t trust our employees and, really, if that is the honest answer when you dig deep enough, you’ve got a problem. You’re not going to succeed as an organisation if you can’t trust the people that you’ve hired. If those people know that you don’t trust them, then what commitment will they have? How will they engage? Will they contribute their best ideas to the organisation, or will they keep them to themselves and do their own thing?

This is one of a series of interviews I’m doing on the theme of Agile Learning. See also interviews on agile learning and agile technology, hands-on alternatives to factory learning, learner-generated contexts, home schooling and creating the School of Everything. Please spare 10-15 minutes to tell us what else you’d like to see on this them via the Agile Learning survey.
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