Friday, July 24, 2009

Reflection on a twittering chairperson

In his most recent (Dutch) blogpost, Theo Bovens - the chairman of the board of the Open University of The Netherlands - notes that he is getting more and more reactions on the fact that he is using Twitter actively. He wonders how he should interpret and use this new channel of communication: "Who needs this, and why?" He is also considering whether he should continue using it. Here's my two-cents worth contribution to his question:

Theo started using Twitter during his heroic opening of the OUNL's 25th academic year, where he completed a marathon across The Netherlands and Flanders and opened the academic year for 25 people in just 36 hours, but has continued using it since then. During the same marathon, Theo acted as an exemplary mobile citizen by uploading photos and writing blogposts in the car on the road. This feat in itself deserves international attention in my view. This is "Teach as you preach" in its purest form.Now what makes Theo's tweets interesting from my perspective as an employee of the OUNL?
  • Firstly, it is interesting to see the different circles that he moves in, politically, economically and regionally. It provides a degree of insight into the workings of the contexts that surround a small - somewhat rebellious and nontraditional - university. It shows what it takes to keep the mission and goals of our university on the agendas of the decision makers at the different levels of gouvernment and funding in The Netherlands and Flanders. In other words, it augments my understanding of the university, its strategy and tactics and as such his tweets are an important professional asset for me, as I contribute to the digital environment of our organisation, and need to take a wide contextual perspective.
  • Secondly, Theo's tweets also cover his more private interests and activities. Now, you may wonder why this should be important for me as an employee. In my view, these tweets add a degree of 'familiarity', which make Theo into a real person, and not just a hierarchical entity. This insight into his personal life helps build a level of trust that surpasses the brief chance face-to-face encounters in the hallways of the University. This does not, however, deduce from the distance that -in my view- needs to remain between an employer and an employee.

This brings me to what I see as the added value of microblogging in a professional knowledge-intensive environment, something I have labelled 'virtual familiarity'. Let me illustrate this with an example. I have been following a number of colleagues from the British Open University on Twitter, such as @mweller, @gconole, @sclater and others. I have briefly met Martin (Weller) and Niall (Sclater) on occasion, but I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Grainne (Conole) in person. Due to the fact that I follow her on Twitter, she has become more than just a colleague who writes good papers and does interesting research; she has become a person whom I have had online communications with (more similar to a real communication than through blogging and commenting), whom I have shared the occasional joke with, etc. When I now meet her at a future conference or workshop, it will be like meeting a close colleague whom I have worked with for years.

This happened to me in June at the ICDE World Conference in Maastricht, when I met Maarten @maasbrenn, a Norwegian colleague that I had been following for some time. It felt like bumping into an old acquaintance, even though we had not formally met before, and we were able to start sharing insights and opinions about the conference immediately. We started our own little backchannel at the conference, and met for coffees in between sessions, just as I did with my OUNL colleagues, and with a similar degree of familiarity.

Now, is it important to be 'virtually familiar' with the people in your professional knowledge network? From my personal perspective, it is extremely important, especially in a context characterised by increasing distance. A large group of students at the Open University have problems with the impersonal and distant aspect of distance learning (note that another group actually appreciates those aspects). In my view, microblogging can help make distance education and knowledge sharing/creation more personal and more social.