Nancy White Interview

Nancy White is an invited speaker at ED-MEDIA 2009 (now only a few weeks away!). After a bit of a challenge trying to synchronize our schedules for an interview, she kindly agreed to respond to a few questions in advance of the conference…

GS: You’ve been actively involved in facilitation, communities, networks, and, more recently visual thinking. Could you provide a bit of background on how your thinking in these areas has developed over the last decade?

NW: The flippant answer is “the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know and the hungrier I am to explore.” But on a more serious note, I’ve reached a point where some of the disparate threads of my working life seem to be weaving back together around the themes of learning, collaboration and communication. The reweaving is getting myself to a point where I can both see the diversity in a situation, and better discern how to productively act/design/participate. I think what I contribute now is the perspective of diverse experience and perhaps finally getting better at asking questions than simply answering them. I love to be useful, but there is a trap in always answering.

This is where my fascination with the “Me, we and everyone” topic emerges along with my interest in group processes. We are offered so many choices these days, that it is a survival skill to be able to sit back, observe, reflect, DISCERN possible courses of action, and then act. Few things are black and white, but if everything is a shade of gray, we can become paralyzed and not able to act. Effectiveness comes through looking for patterns and outliers (sources of innovation) and using those to design.

The increased role of graphics and visual thinking has been a lens to help me – crudely put – shut up and listen  better. When I move out of my dominant oral mode to listen and reflect what I hear through graphic recording, I listen in a new way. I am not processing my next response – I’m REALLY listening. It probably should not have taken me 51 years to figure this out, but it has been enormously liberating and I feel like my personal learning curve just took a  huge leap forward. The other side benefits of the visual practice include the fact that visuals seem to be more negotiable than text or words, creating more openings for meaningful conversation and interaction. Plus, helping other people do their own graphic work has given me joy beyond words.

GS: You are co-author of an upcoming book (with Etienne Wenger and John D. Smith) titled Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities. How did this collaboration come about?

NW: I’ve known Etienne and John since 1998 when we were all involved in an online community called the “Knowledge Ecology University.” Etienne was leading a workshop on communities of practice (CoP), John was taking the workshop and I was co-facilitating a workshop on online facilitation with Michele Paradise. We started sharing practices across the workshops. John eventually went on to co-facilitate with Etienne so we became our own little ongoing CoP. After Etienne got tired of being bombarded with requests to update his report to the US Federal CIOs on software platforms for CoPs, he decided he wanted some companions for the rewrite. Once we started working on revising the “report” it became pretty clear that no longer could you create any sort of software review that had a decent shelf life, so we refocused on the practice of stewarding that technology. Through a lot of resistance (most of it mine) it became a book. But it took nearly 5 years. We wrote mostly at a distance, iteratively and with critical feedback from our peers. What started out as “review” became our own self-motivated research. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun and I learned SO MUCH that has deeply informed both my practice as a consultant and as a member of many CoPs.

GS: Could you provide an overview of the key message in the book?

NW: In today’s world, technology has fundamentally changed what it means to “be together” transforming how we work and learn together in communities and networks. The  useful, practical application of those technologies asks us to pay attention to the interaction between communities and their technologies, to choose, install, configure and steward useful practices of those technologies with both enough knowledge of the tech (not necessarily a geek) and enough knowledge of the community. IT support is not sufficient. Nor do we need to rely on formal IT systems in all cases. We have a lot more freedom, but we need to attend to the practice so we make the most of technology and in the end, focus on the domain of the community, not futzing with the latest tool! You can read more about it here

GS: We are excited to have you as an invited speaker for ED-MEDIA 2009. I know you are a frequent traveler and conference presenter. For those attending your session at ED-MEDIA, what can they expect in terms of the method and content of your presentation.

Method: Hm, well, if you ask me today, the answer may be one thing. Come the conference, it may have shifted. In my heart of hearts I’d love it if you, George,  and I sat up there and you asked me questions, facilitated questions from the group and we had a conversation. I can talk for hours, but the magic happens when what we are saying relates to people’s real work and lives. What I have to say is not really that earth-shaking. What meaning we could make of it in the service of learning could be.

Fears: I’ll admit too, that sometimes I worry about “presenting” at a more academic gathering, as I’m not an academic and I tend to  work on an “intuition then figure it out” basis. By the time I figure something out and it has been grounded with research and all that good stuff, I’m already interested in something else I’m discovering. Those emergent are the things I like to talk about with others. So while I can put on a good “dog and pony” show about the things I know well, I love presenting about the things I’m learning. That feels a bit risky. Luckily I like to take learning risks.

Content: What I want to talk about is how we pay attention to our options across the continuum of individual learning (Me), bounded group learning (We) and the network (everyone). Our institutions tend to push us into me and we – but there is a power in the network. That comes with a cost to our personal and institutional comfort zones as well. My line of inquiry is to ask, how do I discern where to aim along that continuum for deep, meaningful learning. How do I weave the strands of network learning while in a constrained group setting so learning lives on past a course or training? What are the technological and practice implications?

Tech: I have been playing with Prezi as a presentation alternative to PowerPoint. I have toyed with the idea of no technology, just a bunch of white paper on the wall and my pens. I’ve done that once for a keynote. It was both scary and really liberating.

Dream: Most of all, I wish I had ESP so I could know y’all in advance and craft whatever we do to meet your needs. What do you want me to do? Leave a comment! ! I’m always ready to improvise up to the last minute.  If you give me a little slack, I’m willing to go to the mat for you!


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