Black Swan Society

Yesterday I stated at the end of my lengthy ramble that “that there is enduring value in hub and spoke models of community building and organizational change, even without sponsorship from authoritative leaders.  Even when we fail in this model, we at least still learn…” I’d like to share a little post-mortem on one of my failed experiments: The Black Swan Society.


In 2009, on the last morning of the Innovations in eLearning conference, several people (some are frequent participants in @lrnchat) skipped out on a keynote and gathered in a coffee shop to address a problem Maria Andersen (@busynessgirl) raised to me about getting buy-in from peers for using Social Media for learning.  Standing next to us at the time were Mark Oehlert (@moehlet), Koreen Olbrish (@koreenolbrish), Peter Smith (@peterasmith), Marcus Hswe (@spydeesense) and two others.  If you’re going to go into an open ended conversation at a coffee shop about Social Media for learning, you could hardly spend a better hour than what was spent at this table. I taped the conversation and disseminated it amongst the participants. We walked away from this discussion with a shared sense that there was something to the challenges and the advances we each shared with social media adoption in our organizations.


In our coffeeshop discussion, Maria cited was the book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. That really got me noodling on the idea of a Black Swan Society — a group where a bunch of us could exchange ideas and lessons learned and challenges about social learning in a space where we could freely exchange and then, as a group, emerge with a rich philosophy and knowledge base about how to approach social learning and how to advance it. Acting on the moment and the energy, I bought the domain and found a social networking solution that wasn’t Ning and launched the site: my first mistake. I’ll apply my model of organizational social media needs to demonstrate how the failures cascaded.

#fail.1: No Explicated Goals

If you look around on the Black Swan Society site, it’s a hodgepodge that looks like a community. Ultimately, it’s not cohesive. This is because despite some very nice copy on the site, there’s no common mission or vision that was vetted by the community that would continue to hold the community’s gaze even if individuals would have a bad day or lose their way for a bit.  Because I just threw it together on a whim, I never took the time to really vet what the purpose was, what we were going to come together to actually do.  I simply threw a site together with a bunch of rules and decisions that I thought would work. This led to the next level of failure.

#fail.2: No Commonly Understood Governance

At first, I invited the people from the coffeeshop conversation into the group. I never made the community site a public site, as I felt there was a need to have a walled garden so that people could open up a bit and share more candidly with each other, across organizations.  Unfortunately, I branched out a little more and started inviting people in that I felt would be useful to the conversations. These decisions wouldn’t have been so bad if they were based on commonly held vision, mission or even stated ideas about what this site should be used for.  For example: if the site had the explicit goal of “uniting people at the discretion of Aaron Silvers for the purpose of knowledge exchange about social learning,” then me just inviting people at my whim might be okay — but that wasn’t the goal; there just wasn’t a very strong goal (certainly not an explicated one). The foundations were built on sand, and as a result, decisionmaking about who to let in, if we were a public or a private community, what we should be talking about or working on that wasn’t going to be discussed on our individual blog posts or Twitter, etc — all of this was prone to drift, which leads to the final failure in this case study.

#fail.3: It’s Not a Community

I look at the people I got to sign up for Black Swan Society, and it’s a fantastic “who’s who” in the professional learning community. But since there was no goal for us to work toward that we all understood AND no commonly accepted rules for how we should function as a group, we were never going to be able to come together in a way that was meaningful on this site.  We had administrative roles established, in terms of accepting new members or moderating forums, but that was about it.  Looking back, I just turned the power on and expected that everything would just “go according to plan” because I was able to get “the right people on the bus,” so I expected magic to just happen.

What I Learned

I now run two informational sites and I’m slowly shepherding communities around them. Both the SCORM Harmonization activity and the Learning Registry are currently static, informational “push” sites with a Twitter presence (@scormharmony and @learningreg) and associated hashtags and Google Groups for discussion lists (click here for [CMI-Harmonization] and [LearningRegistry] groups).  The hashtags and the discussion groups are where the community is being defined; when their needs become more evident, as a sherpa for these communities, I will support the efforts and connect the necessary dots to enable each group to work collaboratively with less obstacles. These groups will be pretty easy efforts to shepherd, because they’re looking to build stuff.

A Knowledge Community doesn’t always have such a focus.  It’s not necessarily about delivering something — the exchange and the learning fulfills its own purpose.  That said, if I were to shepherd a reboot of Black Swan Society based on commonly held goals, in the governance model, I might suggest distinct ways of reporting out what is learned.  Along with that governance, the community that would rally around the idea of even coming together would have to decide what the rules for membership, the balance of being open/closed, etc.  There are portal sites that are clearly acts of vanity; I don’t think that’s of interest to me (beyond the self-serving humor that comes from filling one’s Id).

I will close this post with another example of what I’ve learned. A few days ago, I responded to a Twitter thread about having a learning-related podcast.  Since then I set up a Google Moderator site with 10 people already participating. I hope to have at least 100 people participating and defining the stories, the needs and the results they expect out of a podcast.

One of the suggestions that came from Google Moderator? Do something with Black Swan Society.  Per yesterday’s blog post, the starfish replicates 🙂

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