Can you curate?

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Written by Elizabeth Eyre on 1 September 2013 in Interviews

Sam Burrough talks to Elizabeth Eyre about the latest critical competency for L&D professionals

Learning and development is a constantly evolving sector: new approaches, tools and theories are always surfacing. Some of them take hold and become part of the main stream, while others remain no more than passing fads.

It is also susceptible to changes or developments that are taking place within wider society. For example, the rise of social internet sites over the past decade has made people more open to the idea of creating their own content and sharing it. This has been mirrored within L&D by an increasing emphasis on social learning and the learner being actively in charge of his own learning journey, rather than simply a passive recipient of pre-packaged learning events.

These moves to put the learner at the centre of the L&D universe, rather the trainer, have had a number of repercussions for L&D professionals – their role is changing and they have to change along with it. I often hear the phrase “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage” used to describe how the focus is shifting away from the trainer and onto the learner.

One new way that L&D professionals are being asked to support learners is by becoming curators – using their skills, experience, knowledge, familiarity with their organisations and the business objectives to sift through the enormous amounts of information that are now available, making connections and thinking laterally in order to find information that many not be immediately obvious, evaluate that information’s relevance and importance, put it in context for a specific set of learners and make it easily accessible.

Early adopters include David Kelly of the E-learning Guild who, at a seminar on curation at ASTD2013 earlier this year, described it as “taking all the information available digitally and making sense of it for people”.

He thinks curation is now a “critical competency” for L&D professionals.

Here in the UK, one of those responding to the challenge is Sam Burrough (pictured below), online learning consultant at insurance company Unum. He began exploring curation two years ago and will be passing on his experience and knowledge to delegates at this year’s World of Learning conference, being held next month in Birmingham.

“I’m quite curious normally,” he says, explaining why he became interested in curation in the first place. “I’m quite plugged in to stuff that’s happening through Twitter. I like to experiment with things and see if there’s something of value in there, something useful.

“I started out just with curiosity about these new tools.”

Burrough had already been using an online social and collaboration tool called Diigo1 at work for some time, investigating how it could be used to share content internally that was useful for learning. He discovered that it had some limitations and then began to look at other, similar tools such as pearltrees2 and!3.

Sam! was released two years ago and “really ticked our boxes” – it enables users to curate content by setting up ‘topics’ that are very like magazines containing information about specific subjects. Burrough created some topics about learning and technology – “things I would read about or share on Twitter” – and began his curation journey in earnest.

“As I got more confident using the tool, I saw how it could be applied at work,” he says. “My interest was general, initially – how can you support learning less formally and make people more aware of the content that’s out there on the internet and find useful stuff – and then the organisation had more specific expectations. Our leadership core competences changed and, when the new ones came out, [curation] felt like a good way to support people’s understanding of what they really meant.”

The competences, although “good values and ideas”, had been written in the USA for the entire multinational company and were “quite broad and not necessarily fleshed out in ways people could practically grasp”.

So Unum looked at! as a way to collate information that would clarify and reinforce the competences. Burrough took eight different competences, created topics in! for each of them and began searching the internet for relevant information.

He says: “People see a digital magazine. It’s about more than just the content. If you just had the content, it would be aggregating. That’s where the grey area is around curation – it sometimes gets a bad name because people are just aggregating, not curating.”

There’s a definite distinction between aggregation, which is simply getting together as much information as you can about a subject, and curation, which requires the curator to be discriminating, judgmental, able to make connections between seemingly unrelated things and to know enough about his organisation and its objectives to be able to identify relevant information.

In other words, the curator has to be able to put information in context for his audience, not just find it.

Kelly identifies three different types of curation. At the very basic level there are aggregation (getting all the information there is) and filtering (making the information more specific to a particular audience); machines can easily do both these things. The higher level is elevation (putting the information in context and deciding on its importance), which only human curators can achieve.

“Curation is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he told his audience at ASTD2013. “And it’s not just about aggregating and filtering, it’s about adding context and value. It’s about providing resources that help people to grow.”

And Burrough agrees with Kelly’s evaluation of curation: “In a lot of ways it’s about knowing your audience. It’s not building a straight-line path from A to B but giving people an option, a variety of paths they can take that will help them understand the topic.”

So what skills does the successful L&D curator need? Apart from curiosity and an ability to find your way around the internet, plus the technical skills needed to use the tools, the more traditional L&D skills of understanding your audience’s needs, understanding the business objectives and being able to make learning engaging all come into play.

Burrough says: “Most of the stuff we learned [about curating] was from blogs. You can learn pretty much anything from the internet if you’re willing.”

He used RSS feeds to keep abreast of the writing of people such as Clive Shepherd4, Harold Jarche5 and the Internet Time Alliance team6, learning as much as he could about curation. He recommends RSS feeds as “really powerful tools for learning and also a really good foundation building block for getting involved in curation”. They satisfy the first part of Jarche’s ‘seek, sense, share’ model for effective curation, enabling you to keep up to date with reputable sources of information once you find them without having to spend time searching the internet that you could be using more profitably.

Making sense of the information once you have it is another vital skill. “This is all about critical thinking,” says Burrough. “Thinking about what your topic is, who your audience is, trying to add value to it, looking at different things, seeing a pattern and linking it all together.

“Talk to people to understand what they need, what situations they are in. Also, find out about the business side of things, the strategy – what are the challenges? When you have a good understanding of both those things, bells start to ring when you see articles or content. You have the context.”

Digital literacy and knowing how to use the internet effectively is also pinpointed by Burrough as an important curating skill. He urges fellow L&D professionals to use tools such as!, which automatically trawls the internet for information based on key words and presents it to users with opportunities to explore further, take the time to read blogs and other content, comment on it and “work out where it fits”.

He cautions: “[Being a curator] is not something you can suddenly become. You can’t go on a course and become a curator. You have to be passionate about the topic and become a curator over time. It can be a laborious job and seeing the value in the information you’re uncovering is what gives you the energy to do it.”

But, although a curator is in effect creating a corporate library that is dynamic and always growing, intelligent use of tools such as!, Twitter and RSS feeds means that he doesn’t have to spend “hours and hours” searching for information or become overwhelmed and unfocused in the face of the sheer amount of it that’s out there and available.

“Once you get it set up, the better you get at it, the more focused your search can be and the better your tools become,” says Burrough. “Now almost all our! stuff runs off RSS feeds – we have almost 200 of them – which makes it easier for us.”

Burrough’s curating takes the form of blog posts containing links and putting “the best things you find on the internet” into context for his organisation. This year Unum has been taking “a campaign approach” to learning, addressing a different theme each month, so he has written a blog post each month, linking to the best content available on the internet on that theme.

“I hope it’s had a positive effect,” he says. “You can measure how people have engaged with it: you can see the number of hits, the comments people are leaving, that they are creating their own! accounts. We’ve had some evidence of it changing people’s behaviour – people are starting to blog about their own learning experiences.”

Burrough’s curating continues to evolve. He has just created a presentation skills course that is mostly curated content, bringing together different resources that enables Unum employees to learn from “the best people in the business”, and is looking at applying instructional design to curated content by trialling a tool called curatr7, which takes a social learning approach to creating e-learning.

“Instructional design hasn’t had its day. You still need those skills to sequence and structure content, but curation is becoming more important,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have the skills for independent learning so they need our support. In many ways, you don’t need L&D anymore because everything you need to know is out there, but not everyone is willing or capable of going out there and finding it. That’s where we really add value – being the people who help people find the really good stuff.

“Aggregation is really easy. If you want to add value, you have to put the time and effort in to put the information into context. Don’t try to do too much too quickly – take your time over it. If you only end up curating a couple of different things a week, if you do it well it’s better than curating a
lot badly.

“It’s quality, not quantity, that counts.”










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