Survey: Online Meeting Woes

My now ex-colleague Ira Bolychevsky is doing some investigation into online meetings with the intention of building an app that makes online meetings more bearable. She would really appreciate people’s input!

In our experience meetings can suck a lot. Online virtual meetings often introduce their own unique level of pain and frustration, but also the opportunity to make meetings better with technology … so we are working on a new application to ensure better meetings.

To help us figure out which cause of frustrations to focus on first – we’d love your feedback and input. Please fill in this 2 minute survey. If you totally love meetings and never have any problems, then go ping @shevski on twitter. If you leave your name and email address at the end, we’ll send you an invite for priority access to try out our app when it’s ready.</blockquote>

You can access the survey here!

online meeting woes

Open Knowledge Summit: Maximising Work not Done

I’ve just been lucky enough to spend another 3 days with my wonderful work colleagues! As a dispersed organisation Open Knowledge are really taking the need for F2F meet-ups seriously, and so it was decided that time together in London would move us much further forward than a series of online chats.

Open Knowledge staff

Open Knowledge staff

While our previous summit of the year focused on personal development this time we were given the opportunity to think about the future of our organisation and contribute to areas including strategy and approaches to interaction with the community. Quite a lot of our focused discussions probably won’t be of too much interest here but I’d like to share some of the more general meat from the 3 days!

Training

During the 3 days we covered two main training areas: Constructive feedback and Performance Management Processes. The key advice in the feedback session was that when giving feedback you should focus on the Situation (time, place, circumstances), the Behavour (what the person did) and the Impact (how it made me feel or the how I saw it effect others). Using this SBI approach allows us to be both honest and kind – so passing on a clear message with no beating about the bush! Giving feedback isn’t always easy as it involves competing values in honesty and kindness, but it is necessary and we should think of it as being a gift (receivers should be grateful but don’t have to chose to use it!). We should be aiming to give about five pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative feedback (this aligned well with my own criticism sandwich approach) and the main aim is to reinforce good behavior and redirect bad ones. Feedback So to sum up feedback should focus on acts not attitude, be goal-orientated and directed to the future, be multidirectional, continual, timely and should support proper action. It all made positive sense though isn’t necessarily so easy to do in the real world. One thing I took away from the session is the need to be specific (talk about about real actions rather than just general things “you messed up”) – I intend to take more notes straight after things happen so that I have details of these specific behaviours. One activity that I really enjoyed here was looking at our own communication styles. The 4 styles on offer were driver, animated, amiable and analytical (A fuller explanation of the styles is given here – though animated is referred to as expressive). In a work environment when communicating I’d see myself as animated (talkative, friendly, enthusiastic, approachable, sometimes unclear in my line of thought, subjective in decision making, a tendency to be a little haphazard). The important thing to remember is that you might not always see eye-to-eye with people who communicate in a different way. The performance management training ran through the new processes we will be using internally and their timeline. There was then a call for SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-based and Time- bound). All useful stuff – and a good effort to make our approaches more professional.

Agile Methodology

Alongside our staff development session we also slotted in some staff choice sessions. One of these (led by the truly wonderful Tryggvi Björgvinsson) took a look at agile methodology (a series of related methods and techniques normally used in the software development world) and how these could be used more generally in our working environment. The agile principles are well documented in the agile manifesto and when originally written were a radical change for those working in software development. In the software world a chosen methodology is usually driven by team values: the bigger the team the bigger the methodology and the more critical the project the more dense the methodology. Although not all agile principles could be applied in my working life (for example I often work alone or in teams primarily consisting of external people) there were some ideas that I already buy in to. So I’m a big believer in sharing work early and getting feedback at points along the way – this allows me to follow an interactive process with change going on throughout a project. I’m also keen on creating things that are ‘good enough’ and getting them out there – though I also like to support with significant documentation (this blog is a good example of that). To me it seams that agile is really a way of thinking, it’s about being reactive and open-minded, a great working method to aspire to. Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 13.35.32 One concept I really like that agile supports is “the art of maximizing work not done”. There is a general suggestion that we write a list of all the things that could be done and and then chuck a whole lot of these (probably the ones that are time-consuming and have little impact) out – think about how much time you just saved yourself! It is about simplicity, decluttering and flexibility. It reminded me of George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing which I often refer to and try to follow – which argues for the use of simple plain English in order to be clear and inclusive. Of course simplicity isn’t always appropriate but there are many moments in our life when it makes sense for us to take a step back and focus on what really matters.

We just can't stop playing board games...

We just can’t stop playing board games… (thanks to Christian Villum for the photo)

The summit was a great opportunity to realign ourselves as an organisation and I think there was very much a feeling of ‘onwards and upwards’ from now on.

Hunting for Remote Working Jobs

When I was made redundant from my previous job I discovered that finding a new remote working job wasn’t going to be an easy task. Back in 2012 I did a scout of remote Working policies at universities – most had little to offer. The future looked bleak! Luckily I started work for Open Knowledge!

Since then finding a remote working job has become a little easier. There is now quite a few websites dedicated to employing people

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  • Remotive – apparently “remote + productive = remotive”. This search site contains mainly developer type stuff (with partners from InVision, Zapier, iDoneThis, Sqwiggle, HelpScout, Ghost, Formstack, Blossom, Customer.io & CloudPeeps) but there are some other jobs on there.
  • We Work Remotely is a site 37Signals on the back of their excellent ‘Remote’ book. You can also follow them on Twitter.
  • Working Nomads – “A curated list of remote jobs, for the modern working nomad.” Mainly tech jobs.
  • Remote Employment – Flexible home based jobs working from home. This used to be pretty good for more general types of job but seems to be suffering from a tumbleweed moment :-( These were the guys I won my award off back in 2009!
  • Skip the drive – US focused but has a cute Telecommuting Savings Calculator on the site
  • The Guardian Jobs – They aren’t that clear on whether remote means from home or the middle of the outback but there are some interesting jobs here!
  • Remote Jobs – Lots of jobs listed besides tech!

Other ideas

Most of these are shamelessly stolen from colleagues (thanks to people who will remain unnamed):

  • Check out this Skillcrush post on the 25 best sites for finding remote work.
  • Look for tech startups and non-profit-sector / open source tech organisations – they are leading the way in remote working
  • Some general careers sites will let you do searches (and setup saved searches and notifications) and will have an “allows remote working” filter (or if not you can just put keyword “remote” in your query).
  • Good sites to look at include Hypothesis, MySociety, Mozilla, Ushahidi, Akvo, Automattic, Canonical (although check out Glassdoor.com, lots of dodgy reviews). Wikimedia. Not edX itself but some third-party consultancies based around edX. RedHat claim that 25% of their employees are remote if you feel like going corporate.
  • If you’re happy to work for a commercial company then Flexjobs have recently released their “Top 100 Companies Offering Telecommuting Jobs In 2015

So happy hunting!

Time team

Time zones can be a bit of a nightmare for distributed teams. At Open Knowledge our staff stretch from the US to India with quite a few places in between. Sometimes when an all-staff meeting isn’t going that well it’s worth reflecting that someone might have got out of bed early for it while another person is ready for a good night’s rest.

Our fantastic systems guy Nigel Babu has put together a useful app for us all to use. He found it via a blog post from Doug Belshaw – a fellow remotie!

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The app lets us see what time everyone else is on and where they live, you can also use arrow keys to try out different times – very useful for meeting organising! All the code is available on Github.

Just as an aside I use Worldtimebuddy to help me work out more general time zone queries. There is nothing so frustrating as missing an important meeting because you were working in the wrong time zone!

Teachers, Children and Technology

The week before last I presented at the OER Schools conference in Leicester. The event was organised to support a landmark decision by Leicester Council to give blanket permission to teachers in the Leicester area employed by the council to share their learning and teaching resources under an open licence. All slides and videos from the day are now online.

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One of the workshops I attended (led by Miles Berry, Principal Lecturer, Subject Leader for Computing Education at University of Roehampton) was looking at OER resource building in the area of computing – the idea behind it was to get students and teachers thinking about attribution and licensing). Some of the tools we looked at during the session made me reflect on a post I wrote about Children and technology back in January 2014.

The new UK Computing curriculum was published in September 2013 and aims to teach children “children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code, and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.

This is a significant rethinking and requires work beyond Powerpoint and spreadsheets! In the workshop I attended we were looking at KS1 and KS2 – for a full description of what is required to be taught at those levels see this PDF. At the start of the session Miles pointed out the curriculum clearly states that the should be time in the day for non-national curriculum activities. While many teachers laughed out loud at statement Miles suggested that they should use reference to justify work that they felt was appropriate – such as teaching about open content and licensing.

So here are some of the tools that we looked at or were mentioned during the session:

Coding tools

I mentioned Scratch in my previous post but here are a few tools that build on it:

  • Enchanting is a free and open-source cross-platform educational programming language designed to program Lego Mindstorms NXT robots. It is powered by leJOS NXJ (Java for the NXT).
  • Scratch Junior is from the MIT who’ve worked on Scratch. They’ve redesigned the Scratch interface and programming language to make it developmentally appropriate for younger children and released it as an app to be used on ipads and phones.
  • Snap (formerly BYOB) is a visual, drag-and-drop programming language. It is an extended reimplementation of Scratch (a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab) that allows you to Build Your Own Blocks.

Image finding tools

We did quite a bit of work around finding usable images online. I attended a Jisc Digital Media workshop on this a while back, which gave me a good grounding. Other tools mentioned that I’d not come across include:

  • Photo pin which uses the Flickr API and searches creative commons photos, very user friendly
  • Pixabay which is great for Clipart
  • John Johnston image search which gives you the embed code and allows you to stamp an image (and add the attribution to the actual image)
    In

    Other stuff

    Other sites mention here are:

    Conclusions

    The OER Schools conference was an excellent event and for me is the first time I’ve really felt that open education and OERs is becoming mainstream and part of people’s everyday working practice. Open education, and open learning and teaching practices in particular, has a great deal to offer the distributed world that we live and work in. Young people need to learn about the brave new world we live in and be able to embrace the opportunities it brings. I’ll be looking out for any new work in this area!

    Miles has made his slides on how ‘to create a medium term plan to teach an aspect of IP or open licensing to primary pupils’ available from Google docs.

OK:FM – Connecting through music

We all know that being a remote worker gets a bit lonely – it’s great to be able to reach out to colleagues when you can. I’ve written before about our efforts at creating our own watercooler spaces at Open Knowledge. In that post I said:

One of our team is a DJ on the side and he shares Spotify playlists with us most Fridays. These playlists are great and get us talking.

The fab Christian Villum who creates our playlists has now taken things one step further! He, and his OK:FM posse, are beginning to pull together our own OKFM radio station – be it an online station that exists through crowdsourced playlists!!

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He began by asking the staff to suggest songs for the Open Knowledge “Songs About Change” playlist. I think the topic was chosen in response to our recent summit.

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Christian then compiled all the suggestions (see some of our suggestions below) into a playlist, so that we have a proper soundtrack for the weeks to come! Here’s the Spotify playlist for Changes.

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The plan is to collaborate on future playlists on areas we are interested in! And there may even be a Twitter account for OK:FM in the pipeline. Watch this space! Music really is the universal language!

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Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 14.05.12

Open Knowledge Summit: Working on our blindspots

Last week our internal Open Knowledge Summit took place at Downing College, Cambridge. The summit is a meetup of all Open Knowledge staff, where we put our laptops away and spend time working in groups on different key topics. As a dispersed organisation getting together physically at least once a year is essential to ensure we can function as a united and effective organisation.

Amazing work colleagues is what it's all about!

Amazing work colleagues is what it’s all about!

While the previous two summits I’ve attended (written about here: July 2013, January 2014) have focused on our mission and external face this year we spent 5 days looking at how we work internally. Our sessions were kindly facilitated by Penny Handscomb from Omidyah Network, Fiona Thompson (our interim CEO) and Dirk Slater, founder of Fabriders (who facilitated last year’s retreat).

OKchange

Open Knowledge is an usual organization, made up of a dispersed team and as such many issues that might not be so significant in other organisations get amplified. We also have to add into the mix that we are a non-profit with a core mission around openness and community building. Key issues for us are: building trust (of our management and of each other); internal communications; clarity around responsibility; rethinking of organisational structure; transparency of processes (including financial) and staff employment contracts.

You little RASCI!

One of the tools that we dedicated considerable time to during the week was RASCI, a form of responsibility alignment matrix. This is a way of ensuring clarity around strategically important decision-making. It can also be used for task implementation. RASCI stands for:

  • Responsible – The person responsible for the decision
  • Accountable – The person ultimately answerable for the quality of the decision (the buck stops here…)
  • Support – Those allocated to help complete the decision making process
  • Consulted – Those consulted about the decision (two-way communication)
  • Informed – Those informed about the decision once made (one-way communication)

In the past quite a lot of confusion in the organisation has resulted from failure to specify a responsible individual and from misunderstanding by staff around who would be consulted.

In the Hopbine pub for a board games night. We liked 'open data man' in the Dweebies card deck!

In the Hopbine pub for a board games night. We liked ‘open data man’ in the Dweebies card deck!

Personal and Organisational Values

We carried out a series of enlightening exercises looking at values (both personal and organizational) and seeing how conflict arises when we feel our values are compromised. Here we had a look at the ladder of inference which leads us to jump to conclusions. During the week there was some great sharing as we started to recognize when this was happening!

Although I won’t share our list or internal organisational values here are a couple of my favourite quotes from the session:

blindspots

Mistakes are your friends, learn from them

Integrity is to do as you say and say as you do

Pick your battles

Conclusions

I’d be lying if I said that the summit was easy, or even that enjoyable. It was hard work, complicated and at times extremely uncomfortable. In some ways it reminded me of the our Google Hangouts Christmas party – awkward but necessary. Asking difficult questions of yourself, or of your organization, is not a simple task but it can move you to a different, and hopefully better place. So by the end of the summit it felt as if we were all finally on the same page. The plan is now to take what we’ve learnt, sprinkle it with a little goodwill and move forward! Fingers crossed!

Our annual cheese competition. This year I won with a Wookey hole Cheddar!

Our annual cheese competition. This year I won with a Wookey Hole Cheddar!

More images from the summit are available on Flickr