Doing better things

Dyfrig Williams

This year I found the Conferences That Work blog by Adrian Segar, which contains some really helpful resources around events and wider learning. This post on whether we have an unhealthy relationship with work really struck a chord with me. Since writing my end of year review I've been consciously thinking about this. Over the last few months I have been considering how I take time time out, and how that fits with the way that I live my life.

Break Al Pacino saying “relax... take it easy!!!”

Earlier in my career I went all in on social media and learnt a tonne from interesting people from a variety of sectors. In the last few years I have really embraced podcasts – they've enabled me to dive into long conversations and debates on lots of niche issues. Radio has to appeal to the masses, but podcasts are a much more democratic medium.

Using social media to learn beyond the 9-5

I've been reflecting on just how much of my learning has been taking place in my own time – this very act of writing and reflecting will have been done outside my working hours. A binary work/home setup has never really existed for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have a career that genuinely interests me, so that interest has never really ended at 5pm.

However I've recently found myself needing opportunities to switch off in a way that I haven't done before. I've noticed that I'm not able to completely relax when listening to a podcast or scrolling through social media.

I left Medium last year and I continue to struggle with LinkedIn (although it seems to be having a post-Twitter renaissance amongst my work colleagues) because of the hustle culture. There's so much fetishisation of work on there, as Paul Taylor has brilliantly captured in this post:

“Just as your friends lives and relationships on Facebook look vastly more exciting than your own, on LinkedIn everyone’s employer is better than yours, and everybody goes to bed on a Sunday literally teeming with excitement for the week ahead.”

Blurring the boundaries between work and leisure

At the start of my career I'd belong to a variety of networks and I'd be working and sharing openly on social media alongside my day to day job. These days, I'm doing a fraction of what I was doing then.

What's interesting is that in this age of austerity, this issue of human resource isn’t confined to public service. Turns out that Google's much vaunted 20% Time (where they get to focus on personal interests in work time) is nothing more than a propaganda exercise (as noted in this excellent newsletter from Eat Sleep Work Repeat). I love this quote:

“20% time? We call it Saturday.”

Amateur hour 4 life

What's positive is that all this reflection has led to me thinking differently around how I spend time outside of work. It turns out that there are some advantages to having a dead end music career – it means that picking up a guitar is an opportunity to step away from work, professionalism and its stresses. Likewise, being a bog standard cyclist means that time on a bike can be about escaping to another place, both literally and metaphorically.

We’re so often taught to lionise professional excellence and the protestant work ethic. But there’s so much joy and creativity to be found in activities where we don’t excel. I’m reconnecting with being distincly average at the moment, and my life is all the better for it.

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Failure was a big topic of discussion a few years ago, which worked out pretty well for me as I was working for an audit body at the time.

Break Bart Simpson throwing a cake with “At least you tried” written on it in the bin

The connection between learning and doing

Sometimes there are models that just help things click into place for you, and when it came to failure, Prof. Amy C. Edmondson's Spectrum of Reasons for Failure really helped to crystallise things for me. The graphic of the spectrum itself within this Harvard Business Review article on strategies for learning from failure is pretty low res, but its simplicity is super helpful to understand when failure is blameworthy, and when it’s simply as a result of wider system issues (spoiler: unless someone is setting out to mess things up on purpose, a lot of thought is needed around how we work with people who are involved in any failure).

The Squiggly Careers podcast with Prof. Edmondson is well worth a listen. There are elements in there that weren't talked about a couple of years ago. The key takeaway for me was around who has the privilege of being able to fail. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but it never occurred to me that my perspective around healthy attitudes to failure had been shaped by my privilege as a straight white man. It's a lot safer to fail if you're given the space and emotional support to do so.

The other aspect that I found particularly interesting was the discussion around choosing learning over knowing. As I've undertaken my work over the last couple of years there have been occasions where I have become frustrated that people have not been able to see learning from a perspective where training and information dissemination isn't the default answer. The truth is that we all see the world through the prism of our own experiences and biases, and I have been fortunate enough to be rewarded for my work in facilitating networks and creating different kind of learning spaces. The behaviours and activities that I have been rewarded for are usually different to those displayed in other roles. This reflection has prompted me to be more generous (and much less judgey) in seeing things from other people's perspectives.

It takes time and perseverance for us all to un-learn what we previously thought good looks like – that we have to know everything about everything, and that failure is shameful (something that I've touched on in a post on trauma-informed regulation). It takes lots of hard work to build inclusive learning cultures. But if we're going to create public services that are fit for the twenty first century, it's something that we are going to need to do.

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The role of discovery in learning

Lately I've been considering how and why learning is so often seen as a formal activity. I've been working with different teams and people in work and I've been given so many new things to learn in a short space of time. It feels like a bit of a contrast to the planned version of learning that we all face in our day to day jobs, where we go on training next month to learn about a concept we want to apply at some point.

After Facebook had done something terrible again (I forget which one, there have been so many), I came across this really excellent blogpost about the reality of their motto to “Move fast and break things” by Glyph. What I really took from it was the importance of developing work and making learning a part of the day job.

Break A GIF of a crab smashing a laptop

The connection between learning and doing

The discovery of knowledge to understand the right problem to solve feels like a big contrast to how we learn (and aim to improve) in public services, where people undertake training alongside the work. It feels much more aligned with the thinking behind Human Learning Systems. In the software world, this means moving away from Waterfall into Agile project management. In our public service world, it means moving away from learning as if we are in a controlled environment (PRINCE 2 style), into a space where we embrace complexity and emergent learning.

The sense that people access their learning as they need it has informed our approach to our multimedia resources. We've moved away from putting whole recorded webinars online, into cutting them into short, bite-sized clips. We've also used the web text to outline the key learning points of the clips and also added some reflective questions to help people to think about what they want to get out of the resource. We know how under-resourced public services are at the moment – staff don't have time to do do the digging themselves. If we can make it easy for people to access the learning that they need when they need it (as outlined in this post on lean learning), they are much more likely to apply it in their work.

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Time for the annual retrospective and a look forward to the year ahead (belatedly, near the end of January…)

How was 2023?

In my previous review I talked about online changes. A year on and social media still feels in flux. At its best, Twitter was a one stop shop for communities of interest and emerging news. Mastodon has been cool, but it hasn't had that critical mass of people embrace it on the work side, which is the only downside as it's been a great platform for everything else. Lots of people who were part of my work network are now using Bluesky, so it will be interesting to see how that develops.

Once I got on Bluesky to check it out (diolch Jaz for sharing the invite – you know your Mastodon instance admins are good when they're unafraid to get you on alternative platforms, so join Toot.Wales!), I couldn't motivate myself to do anything with it for a long while. That was for a couple of reasons…

  1. I get a lot of value from Mastodon. Whilst it's not perfect, it's focus on user owned communities still feels like a tonic after the megalomania of Twitter.

  2. Setting up a social media account takes so much time and investment. This year was the year that the penny dropped – I don't have the space to put as much time into developing my social networks as I did in the early days of Twitter. I still want to use the platforms to learn from others (and to share my own learning when it's valuable), but I don't have the time to commit to the level of networking that I once did.

My colleagues in work are using LinkedIn to fill the void, but I still can't really get on board with it. Whilst people are starting to share their whole selves on there, it still feels like a very curated platform.

LinkedIn A GIF with two people looking at a computer screen titled “Yet another think piece about working from home? Yes pls!”

What does this mean for 2024?

I will be thinking more holistically about my wellbeing when I use social media in 2024. This year I twigged that I'm using podcasts as social media too, and they are not giving me space to switch off and relax. I want to give myself more opportunities to properly chillax and reflect this year.


In terms of features I have loved using Write.As this year. The text editor is great for copying hyperlinks and embeds across my bilingual blog posts.

I left Medium because of all the bluster and hustle culture on there. I had big intentions for how I would integrate Feedly into my use of social media. That never really happened – it was an add on, so I haven't really been checking content from sources that I value.

What does this mean for 2024?

In 2023 I posted 11 blogs, which is above the target I set myself. I felt pressure at times to achieve that, which wasn't really what I needed, and I'm not sure that it aided my reflection. A target in this space is no longer helpful, so what will be will be.

I'm fortunate that Research in Practice have encouraged us to put time aside for personal development. This started off well, but I've gone off the boil. I've put a reminder in my calendar to check feeds that correlate to my areas for development every Friday. I hope that this will help me to make better use of Feedly and to better share and reflect on learning resources.

How did I do against my aims?

I feel like I have been braver this year, and have had helpful and constructive conversations along the way. Less stress at home has helped with that, as we are getting back to where we want to be after a sleep deprived 18 months. We do have some challenges coming up this year though. I've talked about some of these in supervision and I am very grateful to have support in work as well as in my home life.

I am still knee deep in guidance, but lots of the stuff that I had to take on is done. This coming year I'd like to inform the design of some of our resources a little more, getting a bit deeper into the UX side of things. I've been aiming to develop my knowledge of UX, and adding UX hashtags to my home feed on Mastodon has been helpful (which directly led to and inspired this post on learning and strengths).

Anything else?

One of my highlights of last year was an off-road bike ride around Mid-Wales. I've got a couple of ideas in mind for this year – the Trans-Cambrian and Traws Eryri in particular really appeal to me. They'll give me a good focal point for maintaining my health and wellbeing. In the meantime, it's the turbo trainer and hill climbs til we get a bit more daylight.

Here's to 2024!

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When people outside the social care sector ask me what Research in Practice do, I tend to describe us as a membership service that works to help social care organisations improve their work. I often consider the priviliged position that this puts us in, and what it means for organisational change – as we are outside the organisation we can be critical friends, but we can't be fully clued up around what it looks and feels like to work in that particular organisational context.


As an external provider there are a couple of pitfalls to be avoided. As a not for profit organisation we avoid the ethical dilemma faced by big private providers – we don't have a conflict of interest around our approach to solving problems. We aren't incentivised to maintain an unbalanced relationship where our partners need to spend more money to access our time and expertise.

We're not in a space where we need to maintain a hierarchy. In fact, we're looking at how we can leverage more of our strengths as a network. Our flagship events and the work of our partner engagement team are around connecting people across organisational siloes so that people can share their learning and experiences with each other. We're not centering expertise and value within ourselves, but in the wider network. This provides a space where people can co-create and develop knowledge.

An illustration from Fiona Katauskas for The Guardian a farmer sells a service to hens for safe henhouses and to foxes for breaking into henhouses

The other dilemma is around responses to knowledge gaps within the organisation. A perceived lack of expertise can lead to a vacuum where knowledge needs to be accessed via training or similar means. This clashes with the strengths-based approaches that we often talk about in social care. Our approach to learning too often mirrors deficit based services – participants have nothing to offer, trainers have everything to share. But when we consider that it's participants who have the knowledge of the context that they're working in, there's much less of a division of knowledge between trainer/facilitator and attendee than we would expect.

An image taken from a blogpost by Andrew Duckworth where a chicken shares slides that say “Everything you do is stupid and what I do is smart. Hire more of us!”

When we model effective learning relationships, we're also modelling good working relationships to our partner organisations. Showing that we respect their knowledge and expertise means that they are better able to reflect a similar dynamic when facilitating or running exercises with people that they work with. Reflecting back to Andrew Duckworth's post where the above image is taken, it's really about showing, not telling what good work looks like.

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Since the hype around Chat GPT first emerged there has been lots of discussion around the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace and if/when we will get replaced by our robot overlords.

robot A robot army

We've recently been auditing our videos to see which transcriptions have slipped the net and reviewing our processes to be and do better in future. It's given us the opportunity to look at the gap between automated transcriptions and the efforts of transcription companies. The standards of automated transcription have got a lot better over the last couple of years, but they still need a human eye to check them.

Tech colonialism

One of the issues with automated transcription is how it perceives non-English names. AI is currently providing an anglocentric view of the world because of the data it's working with. It generally works for our videos because they're produced in the English language. But whilst having my name changed to Derek is quite funny initially, the novelty definitely wears off. I'm regularly reminded of this flaw whenever I use mapping systems back home – they butcher Welsh placenames as a matter of course. Projects like Mapio Cymru and Common Voice are so important in addressing this.

There are also issues with how AI Algorithms are seeing and representing the world as stereotypes. AI might be able to augment human outputs, but if we're not triangulating those outputs with other sources, we're letting the biases beneath them go unchecked.

Taking a different perspective

Lots of the proposed cases I've seen for AI have been as a labour saver, but that labour is just displaced somewhere else. This article on how people in Nairobi are processing data to train AI is depressing – our exploitative use of AI in the West is in turn leading to the exploitation of people in the Global South.

If we take an extractive perspective where we contribute nothing and take value, we are in trouble. But if we look at how we can work in partnership with technology, then that opens up a whole world of possibilities. This article by Janet Vertesi delves into what a healthier approach would look like and why it's more likely to succeed. For example Spotify and other streaming services are cannibalising the music industry, but if we looked at algorithms as a source of creativity instead, then the system feels a lot healthier:

“Artists could write or curate their own algorithms to fuel creativity and retain credit for their work. Of course, rejecting replacement does not eliminate all ethical concerns with AI. But many problems associated with human livelihood, agency and bias shift when replacement is no longer the goal.”

This reminded me of Vanguard's work on public service, where they talk about the importance of starting with changing our mindsets before tinkering with systems and performance. If our thinking dictates that AI is solely a means of saving money, then our defacto purpose becomes delivering a cheap service, not a good one. Technology isn't an answer to the questions that we face, it is a tool that can help us to do better things. And if we approach AI with that perspective, then we will be much better placed to deliver human-centred services and support.

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I recently had my annual review, which gave me a chance to reflect on the year gone by, so I trawled through my posts and caught up with my line manager on my work this year and also the developments in the role.

Feedback and reflection

Generally things have gone well, but there's still lots of potential to further embed learning into the core products of the business. We've previously tested new products which we've called Learning Pathways, where people are taken on a learning journey through a variety of resources. Our website held us back a bit, but we've just shifted from Umbraco 7 to Umbraco 10, which gives us the opportunity to further develop these resources. These will require a different way of working, with increased collaboration across different departments. It will be interesting to see what procedural and cultural shifts will be required.

As an organisation we're at an interesting point in our development – we've outgrown some of our simple processes, which don't help us keep each other accountable. I've been pushing back against some things that increase bureaucracy, but I've struggled to understand when it's useful to be the grit in the oyster and when I should let things go. There are occasions when it feels like it’s expected that I will disagree, and that doesn't feel like a helpful space to be in.

What do I want to be saying at my next annual review?

This time next year I hope to be saying that it both looks and feels like I am a supportive member of our middle manager group, and that our resources are better designed to implement and facilitate change.


I'm now managing our UX Officer. We're currently prototyping an approach to UX that is based on our internal experience of hybrid working. We will use the learning from that work to look at how we can bring UX into the development of wider work streams.

I have some knowledge around UX, but I'm by no means an expert. The limitations in my knowledge can limit the support that I’m able to offer, but as a counterpoint, I'm able to give a good steer around the nature of our work and resources, as well as knowledge around how our partners work.

I'm also really interested in testing how we can change the way that our multimedia resources feel. We're looking at how we can better design them to make it easier for people to emotionally connect with them and put the learning into practice, as per the Elephant and the Rider analogy.

What do I want to be saying at my next annual review?

This time next year I hope to be saying that the relational nature of our resources makes it easier for people to apply them in practice. I also want to increase my knowledge around UX so that I can better support and challenge my colleague.

Growth and Development

I've learnt so much from being on Twitter over the years, but X is no longer a helpful space. Helen Lewis' description of it as “bobbing for apples in a bowl full of amateur race scientists” feels about right to me. Moving away from X means that I need to develop new online networks. Whilst imperfect, the Fediverse seems like a good place to do that.

What do I want to be saying at my next annual review?

I hope to develop my learning from new sources and networks over the coming year.


This year hasn't been super easy as I've overloaded myself a bit.

I'm getting to grips with the rhythm of a four day working week. Basically, Tuesday is hectic, and I lighten my load as the week progresses until I have the time and space to crack on on Friday. I learnt a tonne from Happy on productivity, and I want to more consistently put some of those tools into practice.

Cycling has been my go to activity to take a break and look after myself both mentally and physically. When I started cycling a decade ago, I didn't know how much work bike maintenance would be. I've learnt a tonne from it, but building up a gravel bike has taken a lot of effort. Annoyingly, the forks on my fixed gear bike broke as I started working on my gravel bike. Getting both bikes on the road has been a real effort when I really could have done with some spare time. The early morning bike rides have been incredible though, and exploring back home on my gravel bike made it all worthwhile this summer.

A photo from the top of a hill over a green valley, taken whilst exploring Wales on my gravel bike

My blogging has taken a bit of a hit with the squeeze on my spare time. I've not been as productive as I would like, but I also want to be generous with myself. I don't feel like any of my time has been wasted, and I hope to get back on it during the last part of the year.

What do I want to be saying at my next annual review?

That I'm not starting my day with emails on Wednesday-Friday, having identified the key tasks for me to focus on the day before.

With the winter nights bearing in, it's important that I hold my “no meetings over lunchtime” boundaries so that I can get out for exercise when I might not otherwise be able to.

As ever, it will be interesting to reflect on this post at the end of this year and see what I've put into practice and what I haven't. Something to reflect on at next year's annual review too!

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Twitter used to be the one stop shop for microblogging, but it seems that we're all now spread between a variety of platforms.

Image description

It's been a good half a year since I wrote a post pitching that people get involved with Mastodon. We had a fascinating chat in work around the platform, what our initial experiences were and what we had learnt. Of everybody there, I was probably the person who was most excited about it, and also the person least confused by it.

This post by Erin Kissane suggests that of the many reasons people have left Mastodon, some found it to be too confusing, too much work and too intimidating.

It's a real shame that Mastodon wasn't able to capitalise on the decline of Twitter. Maria Antoniak nicely encapsulates the current state of play and how the community might move forward:

“It might be a good time for the Mastodon community to reflect on how it’s failed the average user — the kind of user who is most comfortable with easy-to-use apps like Facebook and Instagram. We need healthy social media alternatives so badly, and the way to win this war is by creating alternatives that are realistic and delightful to use.”

Listening to people from minoritised communities on Mastodon has been a learning experience too – some features and community members have made the platform an unwelcoming space. The lack of a quote post function has served to minimise the shaming aspect of Twitter, but without that call and response feature it hasn't felt like a viable alternative to Black Twitter for many.

Mastodon is definitely not a like for like replacement for Twitter. Whilst my interactions have been predominantly positive, the limitations with the search (which are thankfully changing) has meant that it has been hard to find specific information and communities. Terence Eden's post on the complexities of search is well worth a read.

Why stick with Mastodon?

It's easy to think about Mastodon in isolation. As it's part of the Fediverse, there's lots of scope for Mastodon to develop, or for other platforms to develop from it.

Whilst Mastodon isn't a perfect learning space right now, it has much more potential to develop into a workable (and pleasant) one than its alternatives. There are a lot of people from tech on the platform, which does make it feel like the early days of Twitter.

So what about the alternatives?

Having ditched the Meta ecosystem, I have no desire to get sucked back in via Threads.

I don't have much faith in Blue Sky either. There seems to be a collective amnesia around what Twitter was like before Elon Musk took over. I fell out of love with Twitter well before Musk bought it. To me it feels like he just hastened its demise. I'm waiting to see how Blue Sky functions on Jack Dorsey's watch, and whether it feels any different.

Whilst Mastodon has lots of room to develop and be better, the user (and instance)-centred moderation is incredibly refreshing when compared with Twitter. Different options around removing words and phrases from your timeline, as well as community content warnings all make it feel considerably less toxic than Twitter.

There are open discussions around participative models for the platform. Whilst it's not perfect right now, it is changing and developing at pace. In fact, it's taken me so long to write this post that lots of the issues that I had when I started writing have begun to be dealt with (search being a case in point).

Mastodon has shown me that social networks don't have to be toxic, and it gives me hope for finding effective learning spaces in the future.

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I've been looking at research around attention spans as I'm examining how Research in Practice might develop our online learning offer.

It's no surprise that people interact differently in an online space when compared to in-person spaces. But what does the evidence actually tell us?

Attention Span Somebody looking at a butterfly instead of doing work on a computer

Are our attention spans decreasing?

Contrary to popular belief, our attention spans aren't shrinking due to our increasing use of technology. This article on the BBC serves as a warning for how we use evidence without checking the sources. Facts and figures from dubious sources have been shared around the effect of technology without any actual evidence to support these claims.

So if our attention spans aren't shrinking, does this mean we can go back to death by PowerPoint again?

“How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is”

This quote from the article gave me plenty to think about. If there is no demand or exercise that requires people to listen, they are likely to switch off. Talking at people for an extended period of time, particularly in an online space where people have lots of competing demands for their attention, means that people will likely tune out. There isn't a perfect amount of time that will ensure that people maintain their focus – this is context and content specific. But if we involve people in the delivery and demonstrate that their input is both required and appreciated, then they are more likely to focus and feed in to the exercises that we run.

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One of the cool things about working in an organisation like Research in Practice is that we are able to take the learning from resources that we work on and put them into practice in our own work.

When I became a line manager again I checked in with my colleagues in the Business Development team around how I might start the relationships positively. They pointed me towards the supervision agreements that were put together for the Practice Supervisor Development Programme, which help to clarify expectations around how we might work together.


A close up of someone's hand as they sign a contract or agreement

Going through the back catalogue

Becoming a line manager again has made me delve through some old posts too. In a previous post, I wrote about wanting to have adult-adult relationships, and that's something that I think supervision agreements can help to establish. The rationale for agreements reminds me of a post that I wrote on groundrules – they can provide a shared statement for helpful interactions.

Reading back over that post on groundrules reminded me that I should check in on what the organisational values mean to us and what other values are important to us too. Do we have a shared understanding of these values? For example, what does it mean to be kind and how might that look in practice?

The clarity from the agreements reminds me of the manual of me approach, except the agreement goes beyond this into a shared commitment for how two people will work together.

Going beyond command and control

What I really like about the supervision agreement is that it places the responsibility for a healthy relationship at the door of both parties. In a command and control organisation it becomes the responsibility of the manager to shape the relationship as the buck stops with them. I'm looking forward to seeing how the agreements can help us to move beyond that point so that we have the basis for effective and supportive working relationships.

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