Building a new learning environment around social tools

Tony O’Driscoll aligns social technology’s strengths with the way people learn today.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison, Bo Parker, and Bud Mathaisel
Photo: Tony O’Driscoll

Tony O’Driscoll is executive director, Center for Technology, Entertainment and Media, Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. His business background includes previous leadership positions in the strategy and change consulting practice at IBM Global Services and at Nortel Networks. His most recent book, Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration, which he co-authored with Karl M. Kapp, was published in 2010.

PwC: Are you teaching currently?

TO: Yes. I’m teaching in the Cross Continent MBA program, which is one of the places we’re using social technology. It’s a 16-month MBA program where we travel en masse to six different areas of the world and spend 10 days on the ground embedding ourselves in the region. Afterward we try to make sense of what just happened, before we do it again in another area. It’s an intense kind of immersion and reflection, where our students are embedded in the region first, and then through distance-based introspection they try and make sense of the experience they just went through.

More than 25 countries are represented in the 160 students enrolled in the program. They bring with them that international experience as well as at least three years of business experience.

PwC: How do you use social technology in that program?

TO: We use a peer learning approach that relies on socially enabled technologies. For example, after we arrive in a place, I send the students on what I call a Culture Dash. Each team has a video camera, and they are given that afternoon to go around to predefined landmarks that have historical significance. They interview people about the societal, political, and economic transitions in those places.

They take that four hours of video and jointly edit it down to a five-minute movie. The final product gets posted, and the teams review each others’ videos. This way, we try to extract the experiential wisdom of all these people and share it with others, so they too can be leaders. We encourage the students to tune in quicker, to understand whatever city they go into by really understanding the culture, and to see how institutions work there and how markets function there.

The future of learning is shifting from pouring knowledge into individuals’ heads to enabling them to tune their networks to solve unanticipated problems as they confront them. My job is to get the network of students to use social tools to tap into each others’ experiences around the key objectives. That’s what the younger generation is doing; they are tuning their network to the problem at hand. The classroom paradigm is increasingly being pushed into a corner, and the place where learning has to happen is increasingly emerging at the moment of need in the workflow context of an increasingly complex and uncertain business world.

Tony O’Driscoll

PwC: So you don’t rely much on traditional classroom methods?

TO: Around the edges I do, but not at the core. I decided to get rid of the prereads, the “box of doom” as the students called it, that we sent the students two weeks before they had to show up. That translates into hundreds and hundreds of pages of dead trees. I decided to do away with all that, and instead I use the technological affordance called a blog. The students read the blog beforehand.

You need to motivate students up front. I use public domain sources such as YouTube, Big Think, TED, or, and I find material to seed serious conversation about the issues that the world faces today. I post a link to two and a half minutes of Fadi Ghandour [CEO of Aramex] talking about the Arab Spring, for example, and that prompts a whole bunch of questions. As the blog administrator, I can track activity and monitor the comments. And I do a lot of polling. I can see who is having what kinds of conversations, know where people are getting stuck or not, and get ideas for class discussions.

So when I go into class on Monday morning in India or wherever we are, I’m not going in cold. With the social platform and presence and identity baked in, I can track all of the activity, I know what’s going on, and I am clearly much better prepared to add value to their learning experience.

PwC: What lessons can enterprises take from this sort of example?

TO: They can introduce alternatives that are better suited to specific tasks in a very similar way. When I was an IBM researcher at Lotus 15 years ago, we did this big project called reinventing e-mail. E-mail was killing the humans, and it was killing the networks. It was killing the humans, reducing them to information workers playing Whac-A-Mole with digital data. Workers are just essentially prolonging the inevitable by drinking more coffee and whacking more e-mail moles.

We’re going to lose that battle. No doubt about it. If you look at how information is expanding and proliferating, and you put that into your inbox, you can see that’s not going to work. To deal with the volume, you organize all your e-mails into folders. Moving bits around on a screen this way might help you feel better, but I don’t know how much that sort of activity contributes to anything.

I’m both frustrated and proud of the fact that last year there were 7,000 e-mails that I just did not respond to. I have literally started to give it up as a medium. Everything outlives its usefulness. Even back when we introduced Sametime, there was a 20 to 25 percent drop in e-mail. Instead, people were using Sametime to ask each other, “When can you meet?” You could respond with, “I can meet at this time.” That was it.

PwC: How are different people responding to the same set of tools? The students in the Cross Continent program may have totally different frames of reference.

TO: I haven’t seen any variability in different regions in terms of their interest in using the tools. There’s an overriding motivation, one that says that I have made a decision to do this and I’m really excited to connect with people.

I take advantage of the fact that the students are enthusiastic and they haven’t become jaded yet. I wouldn’t suggest trying to change your technology platform to be socially based toward the back end of somebody’s MBA degree, because they are focused on getting their degree and getting the hell out. But you can take this unbridled enthusiasm and bring it into a social context that establishes the norm for how things are going to work.

Where it gets interesting is that everybody submits their deliverable to the commons and everybody else can see it. That’s different, because in the traditional world, everybody submits the work they’re assigned to the professor, and the professor makes a value judgment as to its utility and correctness. The students submit the work in a very secure environment, and they can choose to share it or not share it.

In this new context, by comparison, anybody who writes anything, whether it’s an individual or a team, is now exposed in the commons. Everybody is required to review three deliverables other than their own and rank and review them. That’s a little foreign, and there’s a fair amount of pushback on that. People say, “What do you mean, other people can see my stuff?” And I say, “Well, that’s how peer learning works.”

Tony O’Driscoll

PwC: In the broad generic world of Facebook and Twitter, there seems to be two kinds of people. Some people adapt very quickly to broadcasting their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Others sign up but rarely post, if ever. Do you run across that with your students? What’s your strategy?

TO: I have a contribution grade that amounts to 10 percent of the total grade. Essentially, the grade is designed to encourage them to contribute. Learning and adaptation are two sides of the same coin. The minute you stop learning, you stop adapting; when you stop adapting, you die.

That’s one of the really interesting things about human beings—if I ask you right now to stop learning, you can’t. You are a sense-making machine. That’s why we are here and dinosaurs aren’t. And we have the capacity to adapt faster than before. The clock speed of technology is jerk speed, and it’s jerking humanity around because it’s working at a different clock speed from what we are used to. Our clock speed is relatively constant over time.

What social technologies do is change the paradigm for attention management. In the old paradigm, I would parse through the 40 channels of TV or try to push through 700 e-mails a day. Now I can crowdsource attention by essentially having human beings I trust and value give some seal of approval to some piece of content that I think I might want to engage in.

Most important is the activity-based computing paradigm that allows an artifact within the ecosystem to be its own beacon. In this case, the project plan is the artifact—it’s broadcasting an activity stream to me. It tells me something just happened to it, such as when someone I know touches it. From that stream, I can pretty much figure out where and when I might want to pay attention.

That broadcasting increases the efficiency with which you manage your attention, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the inputs to those attention management systems are moving at jerk speed and our ability to process is not. So it’s buying us some time, but it’s insufficient to address the larger issue.

PwC: So are we just exchanging one nonscalable environment for another?

TO: It’s a digital divide of a different kind. Our ability to process information is constant, but the amount of information that requires processing is increasing exponentially. Collective sense making is one way to bridge this divide. By tapping into social networks and using more precise information parsing methods, we can certainly be more effective than we have in the past.


“Where it gets interesting is that everybody submits their deliverable to the commons and everybody else can see it. That’s different, because in the traditional world, everybody submits the work they’re assigned to the professor, and the professor makes a value judgment as to its utility and correctness.”


PwC: To get to that point will require more than just moving Twitter or Facebook inside the enterprise.

TO: It will. We have seen very productive activity on Twitter or Facebook, but the incentives are different. People raised money to send to Haiti, or to help with the tsunami in Japan, or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We saw all of these spontaneous aggregations of cognitive ability being put toward a common humanitarian purpose.

The motive in this kind of social context is altruism. It’s to help others. By contrast, the motive in a business context is all about profit.

Enterprise behavior is different. You can’t take the same social technologies and plop them into a profit-making context and expect that people will immediately engage. The question is, once the underlying motivation shifts from purpose to profit, will the motivation to engage persist?