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How I Created a System to Transform Communities into Economies and Ecosystems
Evolving them from being places to connect and engage around shared interests to country-like economies and ecosystems
Learning is central to how a country or an economy grows and what it can create. Barack Obama once said:
"The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow."
The same can be said for communities.
If this is so, how can this be recreated and reapplied to the communities we partake in?
It can be applied to our communities by enabling the community to:
Engage in and around their learnings, and
Share the creations of their learnings.
This sharing brings about innovation, which brings about new products, new services and new value systems. These new systems in turn create new markets, and these markets create shared wealth or economy. This economy enables the community to become an ecosystem.
All of this can be done through certain processes which make up a system I call the Growth and Innovation System.
I stumbled on this while I was working on a completely different project.
In 2016 I was working as a Community Manager for Devcenter.co managing their community of developers, designers and other tech enthusiasts.
Within the community, I noticed members were learning as they contributed to open source projects. Within short periods, individuals who would ask simple questions were now helping others in the community.
It was amazing to me! I wondered how these individuals learned so much so quickly and whether it could be replicated.
Replicating this learning was important because I had noticed a skill gap in the community. Some were skilled, some were beginners, and there was no way in between to help the beginners grow. We needed a way to bridge this gap. This led me to do some research.
Researching for answers
As I dug in, I learned there were different forms of learning like Project-based Learning, Task-based Learning, Apprenticeships and a host of other concepts. With all these theories in mind, I decided to create something that allowed me to test them and so I created Learn by Doing.
This process helped people learn by working on projects. The projects had small size tasks that carried in them bite-sized explainers which were meant to improve one's understanding of the tasks and thus increase their willingness to complete them. The projects also had mentors who worked one-on-one with the learners on their tasks. With this setup, I had successfully combined all the theories of learning I had found; project-based, task-based, apprenticeships and a host of other learning principles.
Learners were starting the projects and seemed enthusiastic about it, but after 2 weeks or so, they dropped off. Even trying to incentivise their contributions did not work. So I went back to the drawing board and decided to look at how successful learning systems had gone about solving this problem.
In 2015, Seth Godin founded the altMBA. It’s an online leadership and management workshop with a 96% completion rate. 96% is key because studies show the average completion rate of online courses is 4%.
The program uses digital tools like Slack, WordPress and Zoom to engage more than 100 students at a time in an intense four-week course. In 2016, students from 27 countries and 85 industries worldwide participated.
Learn anything in 20 hours
He broke the learning process into 4 steps:
Deconstruct the Skill
Learn enough to self-correct
Remove barriers to practice
Practice for at least 20 hours
As we can see from this tweet dated October 2018, Josh Kaufman’s process is still in use, it works.
These 2 processes were the ones I saw as the most convincing through my research. I had gone through quite a lot of material (some of them can be seen here) and I kept seeing similarities through them all, so I settled for those 2 processes.
Next, I tried to combine the insights I had gleaned to create something that reduces the time to learn a skill (TTLS) so that before learners dropped off, they would have gained enough to be valuable.
For this, I used Josh Kaufman's process as a mould to create this new learning process that reduced the TTLS. Josh's process had set the TTLS to be 20 hours, so I believed that by building on it, the TTLS could be reduced.
I used this new process to create a new product or startup I called Frintern; Freelance Interns (now defunct). The next part of this explainer is written in the way we used the process to build Frintern.
Deconstructing the skill
First, we started by deconstructing various work skills. For this, we used the first principle. Along with insights from interviews with skilled professionals in various work fields.
The first principle is a way to break down scenarios into basic elements. And then reassemble them from the ground up [via fs.blog].
This helped us create mental models of these work skills. Mental models are your thought processes about how things work in the real world. They are the most basic form of any skill.
Platforms like Farnam Street help people learn complex topics fast using mental models. This reduced the Time To Learn A Skill (TTLS) by some amount. Let us call that amount X.
Learning enough to self-correct
To help people learn enough to self-correct, we curated free learning resources and arranged them in a way that let people learn the mental models of various work skills and frameworks. These resources were then broken down into bite sizes and hosted on our microlearning management system. This made learning and assimilation easier.
Learning tools like Duolingo use microlearning principles to help people learn fast. This also reduced the Time To Learn A Skill (TTLS) by some amount. Let us call that amount Y.
Removing barriers to practice and learning by making learning social
Marie Schacht, the Chief Learning Officer at altMBA says
“People add the learning time to their calendars and for them, it is time with other people, not just time to learn”
They had found that learning in communities made people want to engage more, they made them come back and be more attentive because it felt like fun, like time with friends and not an arduous task. This was insightful especially as altMBA has one of the highest completion rates in online education; 97%.
Marie also said:
“Members who completed courses 4 years ago still keep in touch and meet up with others they met in the week 1 groups”
This motivation to join and ongoing connection shows success because it is not just a ‘community’, but a welcoming place for like-minded individuals to connect and help each other grow.
Making the learning experience social removes a lot of learning barriers, and it reduced the Time To Learn A Skill (TTLS) by some amount. Let us call that amount C.
Practising for at least 20 hours
To allow individuals to practice fast, we designed thinking workshops. These are a combination of short tasks from real-world social impact projects designed within the learning process by the learners themselves, with simple instructions and easy to understand resources and a guide.
The guide shows the learners the way through the resources and gives prompts for them to follow. The learners then get a first-hand experience applying their learnings by completing the tasks and leveraging the shared resources.
The New Time To Learn A Skill (TTLS)
Based on the explanations above, the Time To Learn A Skill (TTLS) becomes:
TTLS = TTLS - (X + Y + C + D)
Such that whatever the new TTLS is, it is much shorter than 20 hours.
In our early pilot workshops that ran from March to May 2018 (see a link to a summary of one of these pilots), we found that people could learn a skill and use it to create something in 2 - 3 hours. That put our TTLS at 2 - 3 hours.
After spending months synthesising insights from all of these, and testing the process with different teams and individuals, I realised I had created something much more than a way to help people in a community learn fast. I realised we had created a way for people in a community to build shared learning and shared wealth.
After explaining it to Sean Burrowes, he called it The Innovation Engine. I call it the Growth and Innovation System.
The Growth and Innovation System
What is it?
How to apply the system
Members of a local community with a shared pain point go through various thinking workshops. These workshops help them understand different new thinking processes and frameworks. With these frameworks, they are better able to convert their problems into innovative solutions that allow one to create shared economies and ecosystems.
Another key part of this process is that it helps makes learning, researching, and ideation which happens on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis, happen on a many-to-many connection, which increases how these happen exponentially because of the multiple contributors.
Does it work?
Yes, it does! You can see a write-up of the most recent guided workshop here: Building Owmi To Improve Water Access and Learning and you can audit these DIY online thinking workshops that are currently up and running:
Thinking workshop to help anyone learn how to get a job: Start here job thinkers! - Workshops / Job Thinking - Growth Clinic
Thinking workshop to help anyone learn how to grow in a business or as a business: Start here business growth thinkers! - Workshops / Business Thinking - Growth Clinic.
If you want to better understand how learning happens within this process, please read How learning happens in Growth Clinic - Blog - Growth Clinic. If you want to dig some more into the Growth and Innovation System, see this presentation: Growth Clinic's Growth and Innovation System - Speaker Deck.
Taking it a step further: Automating the system
I tried to automate this process or system at frintern.com (now techstarta.com), but back then I couldn't properly explain it. Before I left Frintern to my cofounder Jide Owosakin, we were able to:
digitise the learning process using scripted programs allowing it to happen virtually via any channel, text, audio or video.
design, implement and test a basic personalisation system that leverages an individual’s affinities to create connections to skills they’ll naturally be good at.
design and implement a microlearning management system that enables the self-learning of work-based mental models.
And all of these systems were built distributedly and they worked interconnectedly. If you go on techstarta.com, you should still see this system in use.
The systems were proof they could be digitised, but we were missing a key part, a place for the many-to-many interactions to happen virtually.
How could we do what we had successfully done within a physical community in a virtual community? How could we enable the many-to-many interactions and engagements to happen in a virtual space such that the innovations and markets could be created virtually?
Doing this virtually was key because it would allow the learning process to scale exponentially.
This question led me to Discourse.org. The way Discourse is built allows extensibility through plugins and theme components. It is a community platform that is also able to do everything a content management system can do.
This meant I would be able to recreate the tools we had built at Frintern on top of Discourse using its plugin and theme component system while leveraging the community features of Discourse. I am currently testing this out at community.growthclinic.xyz.
It is still in its very very early stages, but it is the same idea (even if it doesn't seem this way) implemented in the most basic form that Discourse allows; coordinated learning and sharing between multiple individuals.
Doing it this way will allow me to learn from the users what they expect the system/tool to be, so I can build exactly what they need.