Cross-Post: Embodiment and Iteration in Work Process: Listening, Learning, Leading and Following

From March 20, 2018 via

I am often asked to explain the Hub to people at MSU and beyond. I love when this happens. In sharing, we build connections, and in building connections we build a Hub. Every conversation is an opportunity to collaborate, either immediately or on future endeavors. As our focus is on functions rather than structures – meaning, what functions are needed within the MSU community to facilitate the transformation of teaching, learning, and institutional practice – we strive for a brainstorming and planning culture that focuses on accountability while embracing creativity and catalyzing change. Put another way, we look to engage in verbs instead of create nouns. Process is an action to us, not a product. Process is a practice. Process is a way of being. And process is constantly evolving. For us, the full adoption of standard project management processes is not always effective in helping structure and guide the projects in our portfolio and collaborations which are fast-paced, fluid, iterative, and lived.

To combine  this function-versus-structure philosophy with resource management, we have developed a process that draws from a number of project management practices like  Agile, waterfall, and lean.. Early on in the development of the Hub, we shared a post about our project boards and how they worked. Later, we discussed the Hub stand-up meetings and process.Those posts aren’t old,  but the content within them is. By that I mean that Hub processes and practices are in a constant state of reflection, iteration, and improvement. Sometimes we realize that the things we’re doing are only being done because a publication or “best practice” told us to do them. When we make these discoveries, we see valuable opportunities to reflect and improve.

First, we performed focus groups, asking Hub workers and project partners about the Hub’s process and how they understood it. From this data we were able to make some immediate changes while digging more deeply into the complex questions revealed via conversation with these focus groups. As a part of our analysis and inquiry, we had the opportunity to collaborate with a talented team from KPMG. They were a valuable external voice, helping us consider our processes and practices through an entirely new lens, and via a series of design exercises intended to clarify intent, gather perspectives, and challenge how we understand what we do and why. Here are some things we learned:

  • We had all the right tools and were using them – but we needed to focus more on practices and intentionality than on the tools and artifacts facilitating them.
  • As living documents and communication tools, project charters can be tricky. Really tricky. For each project, we write charters that map out and scope the work of the project and garner agreement amongst stakeholders as to what will be done. To get them right and keep them updated and useful takes practice, planning, and intentionality.
  • While we had a culture of planning and practices that reinforced that culture, we struggled to make that planning culture as visible and transparent as we wanted it to be.
  • The practice of reflection is important throughout the entire project, not simply at its conclusion. Further, it’s important to make this reflection visible so we can not only identify changes and additional learning needs, but also share that learning with others and invite feedback.

"Our culture is one of learning, sharing and challenging. Of analysis and inquiry. Of seeking spaces of discomfort, and challenging the norm." - Jess Knott

Since the stand-up post was written in March 2017, and as a result of the reflections KPMG helped facilitate, we have made some updates to our processes and practices, listed below. Click the links to make a copy of the documents mentioned (using a Google account):

  • A monthly journal club where we read, share, discuss, and analyze articles related to the work of MSU and discuss our possible roles in furthering that work
  • A heightened focus on internal and external professional development featuring a series of workshops on the topics of giving feedback, communication in both conversation and writing, and cutting edge learning design methods and models
  • A list of standard project roles that accompanies each project. What roles are needed? What is each role responsible for within the scope of the project? Who is responsible for each role?
  • An updated weekly reporting slide that focuses on not only tasks, but also reflection, needs, and celebration
  • A guiding template for weekly project meetings that asks meaningful questions about the previous week’s work, while facilitating planning for the next week
Weekly Report template with categories: recently accomplished tasks; new tasks added; huzzah; help/resources needed; and reflection pieces about what went well, what didn't go well, and how we'll use what we learned this coming week.

The updated project reporting template.

We’re currently assessing how our recent changes work to close some of the gaps we perceived early on such as opaque planning practices and fewer reflective opportunities, and are identifying the next steps we may wish to take in refining this work. Our culture is one of learning, sharing and challenging. Of analysis and inquiry. Of seeking spaces of discomfort, and challenging the norm.

Cross-Post: On Thought Leadership and Impermanence

Cross-posted from the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology Blog, posted December 19, 2017

Today, I find myself reeling. The New Media Consortium (NMC), one of my most valued professional development organizations and networks declared itself financially insolvent yesterday. Treasured colleagues and role models now find themselves on the job market. And, the Horizon Report (which I am linking to here, but may no longer be available online at any time), one of the longest-held, most valuable tools in my design manager toolkit, which I had spent six exhilarating months contributing to, is in limbo. What’s the big deal, right? It’s just a professional development organization – how does this affect Michigan State University (MSU)? It surprises me how deeply I feel the answers I’m about to share with you. This is a very different 2017 reflection than I would have written last week, and I hope it reads as a love letter of sorts to those who inspired me toward thought leadership in the past year, and will continue to inspire even if they’re under a different organizational identifier.

As a learning design manager for both MSU IT and the MSU Hub, my team is challenged daily to meet the IT and academic needs of a large, vibrant, global campus and all of its unique stakeholders. To be a learning designer means to be a lifelong learner – to analyze changing needs, to identify gaps in support, to translate between the technical and the ephemeral, and to bring tangibility to the unknown. It is not uncommon for our jobs to evolve so much from year to year that we find ourselves in entirely new disciplines and spheres of expertise. Learning designers embody the very essence of the T-shaped professional, with deep expertise in areas like cognitive and learning science, design, and media creation and a working knowledge of soft and hard skills spanning institutional and disciplinary boundaries. In my role, 2017 has been one of learning to navigate complex systems with a growing team of designers, and shifting institutional roles. We’ve begun to resemble Ms more than Ts, and my hope is that we can become an agile, responsive, institutional “alphabet soup” in the years to come.

To maintain this expectation for constant learning, change, evolution, and iteration in higher education, we in MSU IT and the MSU Hub rely heavily on our networks and professional organizations — our communities of practice. “Communities of practice develop around things that matter to people. As a result, their practices reflect the members’ own understanding of what is important. Obviously, outside constraints or directives can influence this understanding, but even then, members develop practices that are their own response to these external influences (Wenger, 1998).” As professionals, learning designers, faculty, and technology support staff rely on these communities as a means of support, as an avenue for learning, as an idea generator, and as the very foundation upon which we identify the theories and frameworks that will carry us and the institutions we serve into the future of online and technology-enhanced learning. Thus, to hear the news about NMC yesterday can be likened to hearing that the graduate program that is my career development had been cancelled, suddenly and irrevocably.

These networks are platforms and facilitators for thought leadership – offering nationally connected workspaces that amplify voices and, to use a Dr. Jeff Grabill term, to engineer the collisions that allow a field of divergent ideas and philosophies to generate new and evolving learning design methods that help us support our learners and faculty. They force us from our campus bubbles, and expose us to new people and ideas, allowing for cross-pollination, as well as resource-saving collaboration and teamwork. This is an important challenge for me, as I am learning to put more of my intellectual work into the public sphere, as opposed to letting it all remain behind the curtains of institutional initiatives. This is very hard for me. I tend to dislike the spotlight, and prefer to deflect any attention to the larger team. As a developing professional, I am learning to find balance – to own that which I do well (and don’t do well) and to share what I have learned.

This year, the NMC provided me opportunities to serve as a subject matter expert on the previously-mentioned Horizon Report, as well as contribute to a webinar series focused on specific, community-selected challenges in higher education. In Scaling Evidence-Based Methods Across Disciplines, I had the opportunity to connect with not only other people doing work in this realm and share what we are doing at MSU, but also with nationally recognized centers of expertise in the field, such as the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements. Colleagues at NMC facilitated these discussions, opened the doors, and built the connections that allowed me not only to share the work of MSU, but to amplify and enhance it with the benefit of input from colleagues around the globe. Learning they have been removed from my professional spheres so suddenly leaves a hole in not only my personal practice, but in my ability to share the life-changing work we’re doing at MSU.

As the conference co-chair for the 2018 Online Learning Consortium Innovate conference, my eyes are open to the ripple effect those in our field are feeling and likely to feel further in the coming weeks. Will our attendees be feeling this loss and looking for us to help fill the gap? As the manager of a team, what exists to fill the development gap for my learning designers, who relied on the Horizon Report each year as a means of identifying and starting to develop the skills they were likely to need in the next two to five years? I find myself considering what I have to offer: as a practitioner, as a Spartan, as a member of the Online Learning Consortium, and as a collaborator.

In essence, this reflection is an acknowledgement of impermanence, and a call to the field for support. We are lucky to have access to the professional organizations we do, but to see them as permanent fixtures is dangerous. In the ecosystem of communities of practice, we must give what we want to receive, and support each other as we would like to be supported. Academia is a network of endless possibility – a web of hubs, where anything is possible. The work we do together, as individuals, as collaboratives and consortiums, as scholars, as practitioners, and as a field of study, is the thread tying these hubs together. This is the web that supports the innovative initiatives that are preparing our students to build their own webs and find their own supports. In the face of the impermanence we face everyday in our field, I end this reflection with one of my favorite quotes, from one of my earliest heroes. In work, as in life, remember the gentle kindness of Mister Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Thank you for helping, NMC.

Women Who Innovate – #3Wedu OLC Innovate Recap

On April 5, the women of #3Wedu traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to facilitate a round table discussion on ways to re-define education to support women in innovative contexts.

News, blogs, and panels are filled with horror stories from Silicon Valley, reflecting pay gaps, gender bias, and more. In our roundtable, we first asked “what does it mean to be a woman in innovative education environments?” Next, we thought about how we might re-imagine the organizational structures of universities to be more supportive of women. Click here if you would like to review the discussion notes.

In this episode of the #3Wedu podcast, we’ll reflect on the roundtable: who we met, what we heard, and ways we might move forward. Join us, April 26, at 6 PM EST/5 PM CDT/4 PM MST/3 PM PDT. Click here to review the show notes.

You can listen to past episodes of the #3Wedu podcast in the following locations:

On Overcommitment

My calendar looks like someone threw up on it.

This is not a complaint. It’s not a humble brag. It is a fact. I am an overcommitter. I’m even somewhat unrepentant about it.

My calendar, with its amalgam of colored blocks, color coding, electronics, paper, and bright-eyed hopefulness that each entry will be accomplished looks… scary. For whatever reason, my brain likens it to those mysterious, multi-colored surprises on the sidewalk you’d rather walk around than step on.

A screencap of my calendar, indicating that almost all of my free time is taken up. The only real open time is on Tuesday afternoon.
This is a pretty light week, meeting-wise.


Continue reading “On Overcommitment”

Is This Thing On?



I’m Jess. I am a 39-year-old socially awkward White CIS female. I live in Michigan with my husband and two dogs, and love my flannel pants more than I love most people. I am a middle-manager in an academic and IT context, which can, from time to time, run counter to nearly everything I’ve just told you. That’s why I’m here.

Here’s the dish. A quick, super-scientific Google image search for the term “leader” (of COURSE safe search was activated… this time) that I just did returned the following delightful and holistic representation of my field.

the images that are returned when a google image search is done on leadership is completely male dominated
Seriously? Seriously. Thanks, dude-Google.

Continue reading “Is This Thing On?”