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6 July 2007 / erikduval

Learning from Failure…

Boxesandarrows carries a nice series on what and how information architects learn from failures…

As they say:

We talked about our failures—individual, structural, institutional, societal—and not just “failure” in the abstract, but specific situations, specific projects, where we personally failed. We also strove to hold back from blaming stakeholders and clients for these disasters. We owned our catastrophes and spoke about what we learned and why we are doing better information architecture today because of these painful, harsh lessons.

Each panelist addressed a different level of failure: the project level, the organizational level, the institutional level, the global level, but we all talked about why and how we fail, to what extent failure can and cannot be prevented, and how failure is an inevitable byproduct of creativity and experimentation.

I couldn’t agree more with this idea. As readers of these pages know, i have tried to help organise a workshop on WWWrong: What Went Wrong? What Went Right? Exchanging Experiences in Technology Enhanced Learning. When people hear about this idea, they are oftentimes a bit puzzled. After a bit of explanation, the reaction is almost always very enthusiastic and supportive. Yet, this year again, the workshop is struggling to attract a sufficient number of contributions! It seems like everyone agrees this is a Good Idea, yet nobody wants to go public with his failures.

Hey, wait a minute: the WWWrong web site says:


Initial submission: 8th July 2007.

You can still get your proposal in! Please do seriously consider doing so! (And you can probably get a few days extra if you ask me nicely 🙂

To “lead by example”, I often mention during my keynotes that I spent years trying to evangelize on the merits of manually adding metadata to learning resources. I would explain how important it was that people would describe their resources in rich detail – a “small investment” that would help future generations to find and re-use the resources. After many years of doing this, I realised that this would never scale, that it is maybe a small effort but a tedious one, that the metadata were often of questionable quality, … in short, that this was not the right approach. That led me to the idea that “electronic forms must die”, which was the start of our work on automated metadata generation, an idea that now is proving very fruitful to us…

We really need to create a “culture of failure”, not to replace, but to complement our culture of success. I’ve suggested before that we should ask job applicants about their failures as well as their successes: if you have been creative and innovative, then, by definition, you risked failing. You can’t risk failure so often and never fail. So, if you haven’t failed anything, then you didn’t try enough innovative things! In the same vein, funding agencies should expect not only success, but should create an atmosphere in which projects feel comfortable reporting on what went wrong too!

In a way though, the workshop idea is a failure 😉 Well, …, not the workshop idea is a failure, but more how we’ve organised things in practice so far. I’d love to hear your suggestions on how to do this so that people feel less inhibited to contribute. And i’d love to hear your failure stories too! But most of all, I would love your contribution to the workshop 🙂



Leave a Comment
  1. Daniel Lemire / Jul 7 2007 3:18 am

    The idea of the workshop is good Erik. But maybe it shouldn’t be a workshop. Intuitively, it feels like the workshop format is wrong.

    Something like a bulletin might work better. Or even a journal.

  2. Gert-Jan / Jul 9 2007 9:59 am

    ….in addition: traditional corporate employees won’t feel safe to report on their “failures” openly. A pity but still reality.

  3. David Massart / Jul 9 2007 12:56 pm

    This reminds me a quote by Albert Einstein:

    “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”



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