Follower guidance: concept and rationale

The idea that I am calling “follower guidance” is about how to relate with chosen others to promote good work, well being, personal growth and development, in an essentially peer-to-peer manner — it’s an alternative to “mentoring”.

Detailing this vision will prepare the ground for thinking about technology to support the relationships and the learning that results from them, which will fill the space left when traditional control hierarchies no longer work well.

The motivation for the idea

Where do people get their direction from? What or who guides someone, and how? How do people find their way, in life, in education, in a work career, etc.? How do people find a way to live a good and worthwhile life, with satisfying, fulfilling work and relationships? All big questions, addressed, as circumstances allow, by others involved in those people’s education, in their personal and professional development, in advice and guidance, coaching and mentoring; as well as by their family and friends.

In my previous post I set out some related challenges. Since then, I was reminded of these kinds of question by a blog post I saw via Venessa Miemis.

To put possible answers in context: in traditionalist societies I would expect people’s life paths to have relatively few options, and the task of orientation and navigation therefore to be relatively straightforward. People know their allotted place in society, and if they are happy with that, fine. But the appropriate place for this attitude is progressively shrinking back into the childhood years, as the world has ever more variety — and ever less certainty — available to adults. Experts often have more options to hand than their own internal decision making can easily process. Perhaps I can illustrate this from my own situation.

Take CETIS, where I currently have a 0.6 FTE contract. It’s a brilliant place to work, within the University of Bolton’s IEC, with so many people who seem somehow to combine expertise and generosity with passion for their own interesting areas or work. It has never felt like a hierarchical workplace, and staff there are expected to be largely self-determining as well as self-motivated. While some CETIS people work closely together, I do so less, because other staff at Bolton are not so interested in the learner-centred side of learning technology and interoperability. Working largely by myself, it is not so easy to decide on priorities for my own effort, and it would be hard for anyone else to give an informed opinion on where I would best devote my time. Happily, the norm is for things to work out, with what I sense as priorities being accepted by others as worthwhile. But what if … ? It’s not the norm in CETIS culture for anyone to be told that they must stop doing what they think is most worthwhile and instead do something less appealing.

Or take Unlike Minds (“UM”), with whom I am currently investigating collaboration, both for myself and for CETIS. UM is a “capability network” — essentially a non-hierarchical grouping of people with fascinatingly rich and diverse backgrounds and approaches, but similarities of situation and motivation. Here, the starting point is that everyone is assumed to be independent and professional (though some, like me, have some employment). It is a challenge to arrange for very busy independent associates to spend significant amounts of their own time “following” the work of other UMs. But if they did so, they might well be able to contribute to filling any orientation deficit of others, as they would in turn be helped if they wanted. I would expect that the more colleagues know about each other’s work, the more they can help focus motivation; the richer will be the collective UM culture; and the more effective UM will become as a capability network.

I mention just these two, because I have personal knowledge, but surely this must apply to so many new-style organisations and networks that shun being governed ultimately by the necessity to maximise profit. Often no one is in a position to direct work from “the top”, either because the management simply don’t have the deep specialist knowledge to work out what people should be doing, or because there is no governance that provides a “top” at all. The risk in all of these cases is of a lack of coordination and coherence. There is also a risk that individuals perform below their potential, because they are not getting enough informed and trusted feedback on their current activities. How many independent workers these days, no matter how supposedly expert, really have the knowledge to ensure even their own optimum decisions? Very few indeed, I guess, if for no other reason that there is too much relevant available knowledge to be on top of it all.

Then there is the danger of over-independent experts falling into the trap of false guru-hood. Without proper feedback, where followers gather largely in admiration, a talented person may have the illusion of being more correct than he or she really is. Conversely, without dedicated and trusted feedback, the highly talented who lack confidence can easily undervalue what they have to offer. The starting point of my previous post was the observation that people are not reliable judges of their own abilities or personality, and the mistakes can be made in either direction.

That is my broad-brush picture of the motivation, the rationale, or the requirement. So how can we address these needs?

The essence of follower guidance

I will refer to the person who is followed, and who receives the guidance, as the “mover”; the other person I will call the “follower guide”. Here are some suggestions about how such a system could work, and they all seem to me to fit together.

  • Follower guidance is not hierarchical. The norm is for everyone to play both roles: mover and guide. Otherwise the numbers don’t add up.
  • Each mover has more than one follower guide. In my own experience, it is much more persuasive to have two or three people tell you something than one alone. The optimal number for a balance between effort and quality (in each situation and for each person) may vary, but I think three might be about right in many cases. The follower guidance idea differs from co-counselling.
  • The mentor role is different. There is a role for someone like a mentor, but in a follower guidance culture they would not be delivering the guidance, but rather trying to arrange the best matching of movers with follower guides.
  • Arrangements are by mutual agreement. It is essential that the mover and follower guide both want to play their roles with each other. Reluctant participants are unlikely to work. Good matches may be helped through mentoring.
  • Follower guides start by following. Central to the idea is that follower guides know the movers well, at least in the area which they are following. Guidance suggestions will then be well-informed and more likely to be well received, growing trust.
  • Follower guides may select areas to follow. The mover needs to spell out the areas of work or life that may be followed; but follower guides cannot be expected to be interested in all of someone’s life and work — nor can a mover be expected to trust people equally in different areas.
  • Follower guides offer questions, suggestions and feedback naturally. Dialogue may be invited through questions or personal suggestions, whenever it seems best. Movers may or may not accept suggestions or address questions; but they are more likely to respond to ideas that come from more than one follower guide.
  • The medium of dialogue needs to be chosen. Positive reinforcement is naturally given openly, e.g. as a comment on a blog post, or a tweet. The media for questions and critical feedback needs to be judged more carefully, to maintain trust. This is one way in which follower guidance may differ from simple following.
  • Follower guides are committed. Movers should be able to rely on their follower guides for feedback and opinion when they need it. That means the follower guides have to stay up to date with the mover’s actions or outputs. This is only likely if they have a genuine interest in the area of the mover’s work they are following. This also will help build trust.
  • Time spent should not be burdensome. If following comes from genuine interest, the time spent should be a natural part of the follower guide’s work. In any case, one can follow quite a lot in, say, half an hour a week. If guidance is natural, spontaneous and gentle, it may be delivered very briefly.
  • Follower guides should not all be older or wiser. This may be appropriate for mentors, but there is value in ideas from all quarters, as recognised in the idea of 360° feedback. Anyway the numbers would not work out.
  • Values fit needs care. Trust will be more easily established the better the values fit. The more secure and confident a mover is, the more they may be able to benefit from feedback from follower guides outside their value set.
  • Trust needs to be built up over time and maintained. Mentoring may help people to trust and to be trustworthy. If trust is nevertheless lost, it is unlikely that a follower guidance relationship would continue.
  • The follower guidance practices should be followed and guided. How could this best be done? Perhaps a question for the cyberneticians?

What do you think about the importance of each one of these points? I’d like to know. And could you imagine practising either side of this kind of relationship? Who with? What would come easily, what would you enjoy, and what would be challenging?

Where does this take us?

This concept is too large to be easily digested at one sitting. I hope I have given enough motivation and outline of the general idea that readers get the sense of what I am trying to get at. I’ve outlined above the way I could see it working, but there is so much more detail to work out. Depending on the response to this post, I will take the ideas forward here or elsewhere.

I do think that this kind of envisioning plays a useful part in the life of CETIS and the IEC. Colleagues are most welcome to criticise the ideas, and link them up to other research. If there already is related practice somewhere, that would be good to know. If people see what I am getting at, they can offer alternative solutions to the challenges addressed. Then, we might think about the kinds of (learning or educational) technology that might support such practices, and the information that might be managed and communicated. We might be able to see links with existing technologies and practices.

In the terms of Robert Kegan, I’m pointing towards a challenge of “modern” life, not, as Kegan focuses more on, in the transition between traditionalist and modern, but rather a challenge inherent in the individualistic nature of current modernism. As Brian said (in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This advice can help people grow to a maturity of individualism, but can also hold people back from further growth, through what Kegan calls “deconstructive postmodernism” towards
“reconstructive postmodernism”.

Most significant to me would be the attempt to implement a system such as this that I could participate in myself. This would include my trusted follower guides coming back to me with comments on this post, of course … At the time of writing, thanks to Neil and Alan for commenting on the preceding post, and I very much appreciate those kinds of comment.

Anti-social software

Social software is good for learning if, and only if, the society of learners is, or can be persuaded to be, positive towards learning. But what if you’re a teenager in a peer group in which learning is uncool? Perhaps we need software that expressly excludes the peer group?

I was at a meeting in Birkbeck, London, November 18th, called “Workshop on Personalised Technologies for Lifelong Learning”, which included outcomes (I missed) from the MyPlan project – generally to do with e-portfolio systems, lifelong learning, etc. In the general discussion, “Next Generation Environments for Lifelong Learning”, it was Andrew Ravenscroft (who manages the fascinating InterLoc) who came out with the phrase “antisocial software”, but I thought is was so apt, even though a bit extreme, that it needs popularising.

There’s enough of a serious point there to be well worth thinking about carefully. The general assumption that social software is a potential positive force for learning (among those keen on social software) needs challenging, not because is isn’t often true, but because it isn’t true always. Rather, you have to start by thinking about what the social group norms and values are. It has been said that in some school environments, achievement is a serious handicap to social success in the peer group. Surely, in these environments, it is not a good idea to use social software for learning, in the sense of doing learning in a group which involves all the peer group by default.

Instead, learning ideally needs to be done out of the view of the peer group, or in a setting where the peer group social norms and values do not apply. One way of doing this for traditional classroom learning is to introduce strong behaviour rules that are very different from behaviour outside the classroom. This approach would be the one proposed by various “old school” teachers, and there are books which I remember from teacher training days where these approaches are promulgated. Another way of doing this, which could also now be thought of as traditional, is through a more personalised approach, where learners work on their own worksheets. But for e-learning in these environments, what is needed is to separate the learning experience from the social group, not link it.

Of course, learning software that works that way would not really be “antisocial”, and this for two reasons. Firstly, one could have social software with varying degrees of privacy. Learners could use the more openly social facilities with the peer group, and private ones with teachers. Indeed, learners actually interested in learning might benefit from support in their interactions in the peer group. Secondly, social software with these capabilities could help learners find those other minority individuals who also want to learn, and smaller groups could be formed, outside the view of the majority.

A wider point relates to other things of interest to me, particularly about the multiplicity of personality. Teenagers in particular have different “personas”, or whatever you want to call this phenomenon of behaving in different ways in different contexts, and being embarrassed if behaviour displaying the values from one context slips through into the other. E-portfolio tools, as I will be describing in my book, could be used to help young learners to recognise the differences between the different contexts they find themselves in, and to adapt their personality differently in those different contexts.

To end with a much wider-reaching question, could we use anti-social software, not only in schools, to subvert social norms which do not value learning, but also perhaps as an aid to subversion in an organisation where the peer culture has turned against really effective work, or a country being ruled by a force which is fundamentally against democratic and accountable government?

Forum overkill

You’ve probably noticed for quite a while that many of us now apply considerable caution at being invited to join a new list, a new forum, a new network, a new way of interacting, or anything similar. Not surprising, I agree. But until now I didn’t have a good formulation of why. I’ve just read a message from a colleague, bemoaning – well that would be too strong a word, but you can guess what I mean and he meant – the lack of activity on a forum that he set up for us a while back. Even when it was being set up, as well as wishing him well, I had a sneaking feeling that there were already too many.

If you know my ideas at all, you will probably know that I’ve been developing ideas on multiplicity of personality/persona/whatever-you-like-to-call-it. Particularly the idea that a set of values attaches to a particular context of value, and in each one of these we usually manage to achieve one or more clear roles, a certain consistency of behaviour, and of personal values. This is the sort of context like “family”, “work”, “club”, except that each person has their own, probably different, list of the value contexts which they distinguish.

And you may have read about another related key idea for the future: that portfolio-like tools could well help us both recognise and manage the information and values relevant to these contexts, contributing to a process of ethical development, to the benefit of individuals and society.

But you are less likely to know about my PhD work, which was more about the cognitive contexts of complex tasks. We can manage a complex task by dividing it up into a set of contexts, in each of which we have a certain appropriate set of rules for action (small-scale behaviour), prompted and fed by a corresponding set of information that is relevant to those rule.

If we think back to the very old days before the Web, when Usenet News seemed to be mainly for technical folk, it was apparent that one newsgroup seemed appropriate for each distinct and separate topic; or maybe task. It was when life on the Net became a little more complex and less easily separable, that I started to think that it would be nicer if we could have fewer newsgroups, but more choices to filter within them. That kind of system still hasn’t become widespread – or at least not that I can tell. I’m still expected to join many different lists, many of which overlap.

Or at least, it has come to pass in a strange way: through blogs. A blog is no longer written in a particular group, but available to anyone, who then filter it: usually only on the person of the writer, but sometimes on the tags which are associated with each post. And I’ll stick with the idea that it is strange, because when writing a blog, I feel disconnected; I cannot be sure of who the audience is. Thus, I am not sure of the values that I want to display or put forward. Perhaps blogs only really work for people with complete integrity?

I’m going around this the long way, but I feel the need for the circuit. If we want to be comfortable with a non-universal value set, we need the security of a known group, where values can be observed, sensed, and acted on. Where those who don’t share the values stand out, and preferably get out. But on the other hand, we want to separate discussions where the topic is of interest to different sets of people.

So, please, someone out there who is writing code, here is a request for the kind of forum where I can join with other people who share my values in a large group, but where everyone only gets to see posts on the topics that interest them.

And I’m still going to be reluctant to join new forums of any kind.

E-Systems and E-Portfolios

I went to this joint LLN meeting in Sheffield (2008-07-03) because there were several people, and several topics, that I wanted to keep up or catch up with. The meeting fulfilled that and more.

Roger Clark talked about current GMSA work (Pathways and Advance), and about the need for well defined standards and interfaces. Mark Stubbs talked about XCRI, and how the recently started European initiative, Metadata for Learning Opportunities (MLO) has adopted a basic structure reflecting XCRI. If I understood correctly, he is to join the DCSF Information Standards Board. Selwyn Lloyd reviewed ioNetworks. They are all doing important work which I want to keep up with, and as they are very busy, this kind of meeting is useful to keep track of the general picture. Kirstie Coolin, another valued portfolio interoperability colleague, talked about e-portfolio pilot work in the LEAP AHEAD LLN, covering Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, which was new to me.

I took the opportunity also to catch up with Lisa Gray and Stuart Wood (recently appointed developer at Nottingham) about our current portfolio interoperability prototyping work.

After a very pleasant and unhurried lunch, we split into workshop discussions, and I went to probably the largest, related to e-portfolios. A very interesting idea bubbled up here: that none of the e-portfolio tools are ideal for all the different purposes of e-portfolios ranging from assessment management to PDP, and that perhaps the way forward would be to use more than one tool. Of course, this lifts portfolio interoperability into the limelight – people seemed to concur on this.  Rather than being a nice-to-have optional extra, interoperability will become a vital enabler to reusing the same information across these different systems. Perhaps also now, interoperability with student record systems, other e-admin systems, and VLEs will become recognised as an equal part of this overall move toward allowing the learner-controlled sharing and reuse of all personal-related information. Sharing between e-portfolio systems and e-admin systems is not so different from sharing information between e-portfolio systems with different purposes. No one system will use the complete range of portfolio information, but in a Web 2.0 world where there are surprising new uses for old information, as much as reasonably possible should be made available for use by other systems.

The networking brought two new contacts with significant interests. Colin Wilkinson is the Employer Engagement Co-ordinator for the North East Higher Skills Network, and has a strongly overlapping interest in the represention of skills. He intends to work with GMSA, and also perhaps us in CETIS in this area, which could be very promising in several ways. Ann Hughes, Becta’s Head of Efficiency and Productivity, is interested in lowering the barriers for information between schools, HE and FE. She told me that in the UK the SIF is now thought of as the “Systems Interoperability Framework”. They need guidance towards positive and fruitful avenues of development, and I think we can help them.

ePortfolios, identity etc. Newcastle 2008-02-28

When we saw the initial announcement, it looked like a good thing to go to, as it overlaps areas of keen interest. So Helen, Scott and I had written the paper – Social portfolios supporting professional identity – and Helen and I went along to the one-day conference in Newcastle organised by Medev. It was a good day.

Why, then, have I been hesitating to write a blog entry about it? The usual good lot of people were there, including a pleasing number of those I didn’t know. The proceedings were printed admirably. The food, the arrangements, were all very good. Even our paper went down well (OK, actually it was the presentation, not the paper, which had some, what shall we say, interesting content). There was some very stimulating discussion around that.

And I’m sure it was very interesting and useful to many. But to me, the interest and use was in the networking, which one can’t really blog about so easily, as it is much more personal. The presentations were all worthy, but perhaps one may be forgiven for not remembering much that stood out as being different from the many other portfolio conferences that some of us have been to.

Google’s OpenSocial

I saw this article on the BBC and knew instantly that this would be significant for our Portfolio interoperability community. But how significant? The most helpful blogposts that I saw to begin with were

Then I was thinking who to else would be most in a position to comment, and I thought of

I hope these links are helpful to people.

The official API is here, along with much other information including a video.

More recently, our Scott Wilson has added his informed reflections.

Blended approach on CETIS site…

Well, lo and behold! While folks are discussing folksonomies on the METADATA list, the official conference wiki page has this


If you want to tag an item for a particular session, use one of these:


Very nice example, if I may say so, of, not quite a controlled vocabulary, but the best kind of sort-of “guidance” vocabulary. This is the kind of thing we need if folksonomic tags are going to work better than the critics of Clay Shirky fear.

Hello world!

Welcome to it says. Thanks to Sam for getting this working. I hope this will be my first serious venture into blogging. I’ve always had certain reservations about the blog as format and as tool. I think this is partly because I’ve never felt that writing something with a totally undefined audience really makes much sense. But here, we have the CETIS team as audience, at least. That’s good!