Eight years ago I read an article in Fast Company called How to Manage Geeks written by a CEO from Novell. At the time, I was a practicing geek, working as a programmer and web designer at a small company, and the CEO’s advice made so much sense to me. He said the success to managing a geek was to give her a goal and the tools to accomplish it and then get out of the way.
You can tell [a geek] what to do, but you can’t tell them how to do it. You might as well say to a great artist, “I’ll describe to you what a beautiful painting is. Then I’ll give you an idea for a particular painting. I’ll tell you which colors to use. I’ll tell you which angle to use. Now you just paint that painting.” You’d never get a great painting out of any artist that way — and you’ll never get great work out of your geeks if you try to talk to them like that. You need to give them a problem or a set of objectives, provide them with a large amount of hardware, and then ask them to solve the problem.
It strikes me that this is how a lot of digital natives learn. At heart, they’re geeks. If we really want to engage them in learning, we need to give them the goal, the tools and then get out of the way. Digital natives, like geeks, use technology to self-organize and co-create. Help them contribute and participate. Give them examples and resources but let them choose which ones they use. Don’t tell them how. Courses should look and act more like a barcamps, the World Cafe, a Great Teachers retreat or an unconference. Those are the places where geeks and other free range learners thrive. They have rigid minimal structure, as David Gottshall would say. Learn to facilitate in those places & you learn how to facilitate learning with technology.
By the way, that CEO from Novell? That was Eric Schmidt who went on to become the CEO of the geek mothership, Google. And if you really want to see how successful Schmidt’s ideas are in practice, look there. It’s the ultimate learning environment.
(Googleplex photo from Google’s media site)