In a time of decreasing attention spans partially due to the flood of information many of us experience, it has become an important skill to encapsulate the main point of a complex idea in as few words as possible — especially if one is “tweeting” on Twitter.com, limited to 140 characters or less per tweet. Laura Horwitz not only excels in this regard, but has written an insightful guest post drawing connections between new technology and its implications for conference interaction and the foundations of OD. After reading her post, please share your reactions (in our comments section).
As organizational psychologists, we look at human interactions as comprised of content and process. The OD Network conference was certainly chock full of great content, sessions that re-explored foundational theories, highlighted innovations, and introduced new applications at the boundaries of the field. And, with 800 participants, including many of organizational development’s leading theorists and practitioners, the conference offered a rare chance to connect with others who share my interests and values. Yet, as I reflect on my time in Seattle, what stands out about my first OD Network conference is not so much what I learned or who I met, but how I engaged with the content and process… through Twitter.
Now, as a recent adopter of this technology, I can imagine the skepticism of some non-tweeters as to how Twitter might apply to the work of OD professionals and what if any place tweeting has at a conference, one of the few face-to-face forums left in our increasingly virtual workplaces. For me tweeting at the OD Network Conference underscored the theories and values that drew me to OD in the first place. We are in the business of enabling individuals, groups, and organizations to better connect with one another so as to more effectively meet their goals. Relationships – whether forming new ones, enhancing existing ones, or untangling dysfunctional ones – lie at the heart of our work and the belief that relationships are foundational to change is, to me, one of the central values of our field.
Twitter, a tool that allows users to share brief thoughts with others in real-time, can be used for nothing more than navel-gazing and minutiae, but can also be harnessed to build dynamic and meaningful relationships with likeminded and geographically dispersed individuals. Twitter and other web 2.0 tools expand information access by minimizing the role of “expert” gatekeepers and empowering users to collaborate in the creation and spread of information in a self-organized way. These technologies embody many values central to organizational development, such as collaboration, transparency, and bottom-up engagement, and seem aligned with several theories and practices highlighted at the 2009 OD Network Conference, including Marshak and Bushe’s dialogic approach to organizational development, and those practices, like Liberating Structures and Positive Deviance, that draw on complexity theory.
I started a Twitter account (@ODforNonprofits) a couple months ago at the urging of my brother, a 2nd grade teacher, who uses his account (@globalrams) to connect with other educators and classrooms worldwide and incorporates tweeting into his teaching. Soon thereafter, I attended the National Conference on Citizenship at which participants were asked to “turn their cell phones on” and encouraged to tweet throughout the day. The conference organizers went so far as to take questions from Twitter, an approach that powerfully displayed the potential of web 2.0 tools to expand participation.
So when I learned about Flocking to Seattle, an action research project that aimed to explore the value of and influence the conversation over Twitter at the OD Network Conference, I was excited to continue my experiment with Twitter. I had two questions I hoped to answer by actively tweeting throughout the conference. First, I wondered if Twitter would prove a distraction or an enhancement to my conference experience. Second, I was curious as to whether tweeting would isolate me from or help me connect with other conference goers.
Linda Stone’s work on continuous partial attention points out the opportunities and pitfalls of a hyper-connected, information rich world. Stone explains that “in our effort not to miss anything” we fail to be fully present in our here and now lives, and also suggests that we can make strategic choices as to when partial attention is useful and/or desirable.
In my use of Twitter at the conference, I wanted to benefit from the connective potential of Twitter while maintain a “here and now” presence. I tried to accomplish this by approaching Twitter as a tool for taking notes in the sessions I attended. Doing so allowed me to stay focused on the content of the keynote speeches and sessions and benefit from the memory enhancing effects of note-taking, but also meant that my Twitter persona was one of providing information rather than connecting to outside content or with or among other users. As I learned from Rachel Lyn Rumson (@CosmoGenisis), there are developmental stages of tweeting behavior: initially, users generate content by telling what they are doing or hearing; next, users begin to point to resources elsewhere that connect to what they are experiencing; then, users connect other users to one another and connect across streams of thoughts by re-tweeting content and asking questions.
As far as the use of Twitter as isolating or connective, I found that my experience was “both/and.” Conference goers who tweeted were a small subset of mostly young professionals. Tweeting was a great way to get to know this peer group and allowed me to attend the conference as an individual but gain the benefits group association, such as splitting up for sessions and reporting back, and reflecting with others on the conference as a whole. At the same time, the twittering-conference-goers illustrated existing generational divides in the OD Network, and provided a bridge between tweeters and non-tweeters and among generations. Twitter served as a conversation piece that gave me, as a young professional and first-time attendee, a unique role and entry to conversations with experience practitioners that may not have otherwise been possible. Moreover, tweeting allowed me to feel that I was provided an important service to people who couldn’t attend the conference but hoped to follow what was happening.
In all, my online participation enhanced my offline experience and visa versa. My Twitter experiment at the OD Network Conference reaffirms my sense that the power of Twitter and other web 2.0 technologies lie in identifying and leveraging the nexus between online and offline connections. As Edie Seashore reminded us, Twitter is just a new tool for developing the support systems we consider foundational to personal and organizational transformation.
Laura Horwitz is a nonprofit professional with an MA in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. She tweets @ODforNonprofits.