ID: I’d been doing a lot of research on the future of learning, and thinking about how we need to be responsive to changes in the way people learn, and changes in organizations. Today we know that people largely learn through social learning, using technology, social media, their networks, and their peers. The way we’ve always done workplace learning is that HR/TOP are the content experts: we create the content, and you come to us and we deliver it to you. That model doesn’t fit today’s reality. So I started thinking about creating an online social learning website.
TH What did you need to do to get the project started?
ID: There were many steps to that process. I wrote a proposal and ran it by my boss, who was very supportive, and sent it up the chain to my director. She wanted to see a more formal business case, with a financial model and budget. That took several iterations over a few months.
TH: At that point, how did you approach getting things going? You didn’t have a lot of technical help internally.
ID: I had a pretty clear vision of what the site could be, but none of the skills to create it. I’d never built a web site in my life. The department didn’t really have internal resources to build something like this, so I found you and Totally Doable Consulting (shameless plug).
TH: Could you walk the Wisdom Cafe readers through the project? What steps did you have to go through to design and build the site?
ID: It was a fascinating process, and I learned something every step of the way. You really helped me to understand that you need to start with the user requirements; what content are you going to have, and how are you going to organize it? The site has to fulfill the functionality you want to have; the visual design comes later.
We interviewed a lot of potential users of the site, got some ideas about what they might use the site for, how they would respond to different labels that we’d use, what content would fit into which category. After that, we brought in a visual designer (José Fernandez).
For the visual design, I sent José a list of sites that I liked, and he worked on figuring out what elements I was responding to, and how we could use them in our design. We went through several rounds and we ended up with a fabulous design that I’m really happy with.
Then we worked on branding, trying to figure out what to call it; that was fun. We played around with different concepts for a name, then tested them out with a bunch of different people, checking how they’d react to them, what associations they’d have with different words. They came up with things I never would have thought of. Eventually we narrowed it down to “Wisdom Café”
TH: What led you to that choice? What were you trying to communicate?
ID: “Wisdom” was trying to get across that the site is about learning, anything related to knowledge, and “Café” was trying to get across that it’s informal, it’s fun, it’s a place you’d want to keep visiting. Just like you have your favorite café that you might hang out at, we want people to keep coming back to the Wisdom Café, as a place they feel comfortable in and want to be.
TH: As you started to develop the content, what are some of the issues that came up?
ID: There are a lot of options for the kinds of things that could be on the site, so coming up with a system that could fit lots of different content was important. Then we had to figure out what content we could reasonably get up on the site in time for launch. It was a “the perfect is the enemy of the good” situation; if we tried to make the site contain everything it could possibly have, we never would have launched it. We wanted to start with just enough content that most users would find something of value, that they’d have enough reason to come back, and then we’d keep adding to and working on the site.
TH: One of the things that’s kind of unique about it is that all of the content is attributed, has a specific author; what’s the purpose for that?
ID: It really is a community site, so the content is intended to come from two different places. One is curated content from internal and external subject matter experts or thought leaders, on a variety of different topics. The other is community content, where the staff themselves are the experts, sharing their own knowledge and experiences with their colleagues. For example, on campus it’s difficult to find out about best practices, so departments wind up reinventing the wheel because they don’t know who else has already solved something. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy and money repeating things.
TH: What was the biggest challenge you had in getting the project completed?
ID: We had some challenges making sure we would get the kinds of contributions that would be appropriate. We wanted to keep the site positive and learning-oriented, so we developed community guidelines to highlight what would fit the intention and spirit of the site.
The other primary challenge was to figure out how to solicit the content we want from users, to get them engaged with the site, and that’s an ongoing challenge. People see the site and they love it, and that’s very gratifying, but they’re not automatically thinking about how they can contribute or participate on a regular basis. We’re still working on how to best do that.
TH: What are your goals for the site, what would you like it to be for the campus?
ID: I’d like it to be the go-to place for all staff when they have a learning-related question, to get involved in discussions with their colleagues, to find information about professional and career development. I’d like it to be useful enough that people go to Wisdom Café before they go to Google to find information about staff learning, because the content will be specific to Berkeley. I’d like it to be almost like email, that it becomes part of their daily workflow.
TH: Having been through the process now, what are the most important things you’ve learned personally?
ID: The whole project has been about learning for me. I took something that I had curiosity about and took that into a vision I was passionate about, and took that into creating a project, and then went through the process of designing and building it, and now I’m the Community Manager of the site, trying to keep maintaining and enhancing it. Every step of the way I’ve learned a lot.
I’ve also learned about collaboration. The process of working with you and José has been a really positive experience. Work everywhere is becoming more collaborative, so we need to have people work together more, to share their wisdom and expertise. For me, this was a fantastic example of actually doing it – each person bringing their best to the table.
TH: [Blushing] Aww, gee, thanks. I really enjoyed our collaboration, too.
What advice would you give to someone who has their own idea they’d like to see implemented?
ID: I love that question, because I’ve gotten feedback from people that this project is inspiring to them, that I took an idea that I was passionate about, and made it happen. Passion can drive you past obstacles, past disappointments, past a lack of knowledge and experience and skill. Passion can be a fantastic driver. So if you have an idea you really believe in, that you think can make a positive impact, go for it! We’re trying to encourage risk taking and innovation in the organization, and we still have to work on helping people feel comfortable with that, and to reward it. There can be enormous payoff. To be willing to be a learner while making something happen that you believe in, that’s worth trying.
TH: If people want to contribute to the Wisdom Café, what should they do?
ID: There are lots of different ways we encourage that. They can become a subscriber by logging into the site; that will get them on the list to receive our newsletter. Going to the site often, and seeing what’s new there and how they can participate. You can comment on any post on the site, you can “like” posts, you can retweet us on Twitter, or share photos of learning events to our Instagram account. You can interview colleagues for their career stories and send them in. You can share tips, tools, best practices; anything that you think can contribute to staff learning and high performance. Fill out the form on our site, or email email@example.com