29 November 2008

Big Ideas: No Educator Left Behind

It's a weird feeling, watching yourself giving a talk. I-the-watcher felt tremendously nervous since I was unprepared to give the talk I-the-lecturer was about to give. Strange, no? Fortunately, the guy on the TV was indeed well prepared, and didn't do that bad a job, if I do say so myself. TVO describes the talk like this:
"No Educator Left Behind" is the title of this lecture by Mark Federman. In it Federman contends that, as a result of the changes the internet has brought to the way students communicate and interact, universities, if they are to remain relevant, must move from the current model of education as skills centered to one that is more focused on connectivity.
. If you missed the live broadcast, you can download the video.

Update: If you'd like to pass the link around, here is a more manageable URL: http://snipurl.com/noeducator

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The Downfall of a BAH Leader

Repeat after me, boys and girls: In a UCaPP world, the most powerful form of power is referent power. The only sustainable form of leadership is referent leadership. A leader who might well have legitimacy because of a board-of-directors appointment, or say, the outcome of a first-past-the-post election, might not be considered a leader by those whom he is supposed to be leading. Attempting to assert power - especially through coercion wielded through BAH mechanisms - is a recipe for disaster.

And so, our ├╝ber-BAH Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is facing political disaster. Winning the election with a substantial minority of the popular vote means that he does not have a clear mandate from the people to implement his party's ideological agenda. And thus, when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rose in the House this week to deliver the ideological agenda wrapped around a Fiscal Update, Harper's narcissistic arrogance and political cynicism came shining through. Fuzzy sweaters or no, Harper's fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to cooperate - let alone collaborate - creates a wonderful parliamentary drama, worthy of any prime time series: we could call it, Centre Block.

Despite the Conservative talking points, questioning the legitimacy of the opposition to form a coalition (of which there is no question - it is both democratic and constitutionally legitimate for a group representing two-thirds of the electorate to form a government), now is the time for true collaborative leadership to come to the fore. And I'm not merely talking about the worldwide economic crisis that Harper and Flaherty think can be beaten back by denying civil servants the right to strike, and women the right to pay equity. This is a UCaPP world that needs UCaPP-style leadership. The lessons from south of the border are quite clear: those who are willing to consider the multiple interconnections among diverse contexts, and engage in productive dialogue rather than partisan debate, are those whom the people will follow. They are the referent leaders. And, Stephen Harper, you are no Barack Obama.

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27 November 2008

$0.05 of Knee-Jerk Stupidity from City Hall

Why am I not surprised that Mayor Miller and crew have once again taken a serious issue and reacted in a BAH way? The plague of the plastic bags, that suddenly has become environmental enemy number one, is to be dealt with through coercion, consultation only with privileged interests, and a justification that reinforces one of the major structural dysfunctions of the modern business corporation.

Miller announced a 5-cent charge that is to be paid by consumers for each plastic bag used in, say, a grocery store. Most of these plastic bags end up in the garbage (most often used for containing the garbage), and this is seen as a Major Problem for solid waste management. The problem is that the profit from the sale of plastic bags ends up in the pockets of the grocery stores, who claim that they will use the windfall for things like "staff training" (presumably on how to handle customers who are upset at the increase in their grocery bill.

The modern business corporation is a very efficient externalizing machine. In other words, it is designed to slough off as many of its own costs as possible onto others, be it consumers, or society as a whole. With this announcement Mayor Miller has given them a holiday gift: the ability to collectively profit by approximately 3 cents a bag for between 400 and 500 million bags a year. The number of plastic bags is unlikely to be reduced significantly: as one anonymous spokesperson for the city pointed out, the additional cost is unlikely to be a burden to families. That, of course, means that it's unlikely to induce a change in behaviour.

With a paternalistic mentality of coercion and non-collaboration that Miller has displayed throughout his term, a much more progressive alternative seems to have been completely ignored. He could work with the retailers to shift over to oxy-biodegradable plastics for bags. They then could be combined with the organic waste and composted - after all, the majority of plastic grocery bags are indeed used to hold waste. I'm sure there are other alternatives available as well - both to garbage issues, as well as to the Mayor and many of his sycophantic councillors.

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26 November 2008

Flying Solo, and Big Ideas

Well, it seems as if this is a big TVO week for me. Last spring, I sat down with producer Wodek Szemberg for a long conversation about a wide variety of topics. This conversation (as well as conversations with many other people) are being sliced and diced into a series of minute-and-a-half interstitial clips called Flying Solo that will be broadcast on TVO throughout the day. My first is on The Future of Belief, and will be on-air tomorrow, November 27 at 21:50:15. But you can see it here first:

And, even more exciting is the broadcast of my lecture, No Educator Left Behind, on Big Ideas this Saturday and Sunday, November 29 and 30, at 16:00. This was a keynote I did for Centennial College back in June (and will be repeating at Ontario University Institute of Technology next February), and was also the Bill Murphy Distinguished Keynote address at the National Extension Technology Conference in Raleigh, NC last April.

If you tune in, please let me know what you think!

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21 November 2008

I Got Q's Letter of the Day!

Yesterday, on Jian Ghomeshi's show, Q, Jian interviewed playwright Jonathan Reynolds. Raynolds maintained that contemporary theatre is too left-wing, that artistic directors are too timid, or too politically motivated, or both, to mount productions of plays that have a more conservative or reactionary bent to them. Playwrights and directors, on the whole, tend to be liberal and sit toward the left end of the political spectrum. Thus, potentially controversial plays that question the so-called progressive doctrine (like Reynolds's own Stonewall Jackson's House, for instance) are rarely seen. It's a far-left conspiracy, dontcha see? It's a clear case of cause and effect.

Well, not so clear in my book. Looking at this cultural issue through a McLuhan lens allows us to see the effect-and-cause aspects of it, and that led to me writing to the show, and being selected as (cue the David Byrne and Brian Eno loop of "Regiment") Letter of the Day:
I think that your guest, Jonathon Reynolds, was (sort of) right, but for the wrong reason. Yes, it's probably true that most playwrights, artistic directors, and artists of all types are more left-wing in their political, and especially social views. But it's not *because* they are politically and socially lefty that their art reflects progressive topics, subject matter and critical approaches. Rather, it's the other way around: their art allows them to probe the ills and dysfunctions of society and their humanity moves them to cry out as latter-day Paul Reveres: "To arms! To arms! The greedy, the selfish, and the liars are coming!"

Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian media philosopher (who gave us "the medium is the message," and "the global village") had great respect for art and artists as probes into the nature of our society:
"The job of art is not to store moments of experience but to explore environments that are otherwise invisible." (from McLuhan Hot & Cool)
"The artist makes new perception that changes all the social ground rules." (from Take Today: The executive as dropout)

As McLuhan observes, artists have the uncanny knack of being able to probe society as it is, to find human dyanamics that are hidden from the most of us, and turn it into public spectacle for all to see. It's not that they are necessarily politically left-wing. It's that so much that robs us of our humanity has been created, and obfuscated, by those who are politically right-wing.
Thanks for choosing me. It's an honour. And, sorry about hurting your brain with this one!

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17 November 2008

SusCamp '08: Ryan Taylor and the Fair Trade Jewellery Company

Ryan Taylor is an interesting guy. He's an adventurer, explorer, miner, and goldsmith. He is also the founder and proprietor of The Fair Trade Jewellery Company (whose website - ftjco.com - is not quite public yet, it seems). His business creates made-to-order custom rings from gold, platinum and diamonds that are ethically and sustainably produced. The diamonds are Canadian, but that's not the interesting part of the story. The metals are mined using indigenous knowledge and artisanal mining techniques from the people in the Choco forest of Colombia, working in conjunction with Oro Verde Corporation (literally, "green gold"). He uses what he terms a "family supply chain business model," in which his company works directly with the miners' village to ensure safe, sustainable, and ecologically responsible retrieval of the precious metals.

He described some of the problematics of the Free Trade Labelling Organization, and the certification infrastructure that has been created. FTLO has become a very large bureaucracy (and that brings its own issues), and the licensing expense has already increased the economic barrier to entry so that only large corporations are able to effectively participate. Equivalently, contracts are typically made with landlords - the individual workers and their families typically have little say. The inspection and certification process itself has become bureaucratized, so that inspectors who have expertise in one area - say, cacao - are asked to inspect forest harvesting, without having sufficient knowledge to properly adjudicate sustainable practices. As well, Fair Trade primarily guarantees a fair financial return for the indigenous workers' labour. The people typically have no knowledge or stake in what happens to the product once it has been taken to the wholesale commodity market. For those who legitimately say that a credentialing organization is the only way to ensure that claims of fair treatment and payment are true, Ryan points out that it becomes a matter of providing sufficient evidence - video footage and the relationship with NGOs like Oro Verde - to develop trust. Besides, in today's environment of emergent transparency, one's reputation is easily destroyed in the case of malfeasance.

Taylor's approach deals directly with the village, its existing social structure, and the individual families. The workers are engaged and care about the product that their commodity helps create. The entire life cycle of artisanal mining becomes a concern of the jeweller, and of the end consumer as well. Taylor's company pays a premium for the commodity, facilitated through Oro Verde, and then re-invests his company's net profits back into the village. Currently, his re-investment rate is 25% of net profit as his business is getting off the ground. By next year, his plan is to re-invest 100% of net profit back into the village.

This is what I would call making a respectful, as opposed to "respectable," profit!

For their part, the villagers are terraforming the land that has been mined once the precious metals have been extracted. The land is restored and replanted with trees, to eventually create an income source from timber. As well, children are educated, well-fed and housed, and see a future for themselves in the village. Ryan says that this may not be the most super-scalable business model, but that's not his interest. Rather, it is creating a sustainable model for the community in an industry that is inherently anti-sustainable and environmentally damaging.

For me, Ryan Taylor's Free Trade Jewellery Company is a perfect example of the Valence Theory assertion that suppliers, producers, and consumers are all full members of a valence organization. It doesn't matter whether people come to the same "building" (in either physical or cyber-space), or if they happen to be on the payroll. So long as there are multiple valence relationship connections linking the members, every member has a stake in the entire organic organization.

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SusCamp '08: Lina Srivastava and Sean Howard

Although they may not realize it themselves, Lina Srivastava and Sean Howard are organization development practitioners working in the realm of social change - the sort of stuff that OISE's new Collaborative Program in Workplace Learning and Social Change focuses on. They facilitated an example exercise that addressed a real problem in the emerging world, that of waste pickers in Delhi losing their livelihood due to commercialization of waste disposal. The situation was simplified for the purpose of the session, and relatively little guidance was provided to the individual break-out groups at the outset. We were challenged to seek to understand how individual perspectives could be changed that would change behaviours, and subsequently lead to systemic change in a societal setting. (Howard is a marketer by background - his method was more-or-less OD; his vocabulary was marketing).

Having an OD guy in our group (me) enabled us to navigate the problem using a systems change approach. We asked "who's perspective are we talking about," and that led us to identify the various stakeholders and their particular interests. We then observed the complex interconnections among the interests - themes that would undoubtedly be problematic, through which feedback and feedforward loops would be created, causing ripple effects throughout the system. We then realized that the only way this complex issue would be resolved is by creating a space of engagement, in which all parties concerns would be heard and respected, and that the interrelationship polarities and tensions could be explored.

There's that "space of engagement" notion again - the basic principle of ba. In dealing with situations as complex as those that arise in an organization, or throughout the larger community, it is vitally important to be able to create a common space in which all parties can engage. Effectively, we are creating the conditions for a valence organization to emerge from among a group of individual constituencies, each with their own interest. Identifying and exploring the nature of the potential valence relationships becomes a means through which dialogue can be facilitated, and that, in turn, creates the ba space from which resolution can emerge.

Thanks to Lina and Sean for inspiring what has turned out to be an interesting line of thinking for me, taking Valence Theory from philosophy and theory, to praxis.

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16 November 2008

Sustainability Camp '08

I spent the day today at Sustainability Camp '08, an unconference held in Toronto, Ontario that enables deep and meaningful discussions and the collaborative sharing of practical ideas about sustainable community building in a creative economy. It certainly was a well-spent day, providing me the opportunity to engage with many interesting people and ideas. Even more important, it was an inspiring day, hearing about some of the fantastic initiatives that challenge conventional thinking about organizing, creating businesses, and approaching environmental issues.

I had the good fortune to lead a session early in the day, enabling me to share up-to-the-minute thinking about my Valence Theory research. Many of the ideas I presented are still in in the very formative stage of having just emerged from the empirical data, and I appreciate the opportunity to try them out on such a diverse and thoughtful group of people. The notes for my talk are here, and include some brand new thinking about the -ba and fungible- forms of the five valence relationships. I would love to hear your responses and reflections on what I presented.

Tom Williams of GiveMeaning.com provided the keynote for SusCamp. He provided a great framing for one of the elusive valence forms, namely Economic-ba, referring to his concept of "Return on Generosity": how people feel the effects of their contribution, no matter how small that contribution might be in absolute terms. A person could, for example, be the "$5 philanthropist" (an expression of Identity-ba), and through what Tom calls "the power of plenty," the pooling of small contributions can have enormous effect (as we saw in the Obama campaign). Tom profiles some of the current public discourse that pits the Economy against Environmental concerns, and astutely asks why an artificial construct, the collectively constructed fiction called The Economy should trump the reality of the place in which we live and that sustains us, that is, The Environment. I would explain this as Economic valence connections tying to fungible-Identity and fungible-Socio-Psychological valences in a status oriented culture such as ours. (If this is entirely Greek to you, download my talk notes.) I think that being able to understand the human dynamics that inform this sort of question may provide some clues to discovering how to resolve the challenges of this sort of framing.

Tom rhetorically asks, why choose the environmental movement as opposed to any other issue to rally around? His answer is that the environment affects so many people in so many ways that it has the power to bring people together for collective action. But we have seen the same sort of galvanizing effect with the Barack Obama presidential campaign. (When I mentioned this during the conversation, Tom pointed out that the presidential campaign was still relatively close, with only 52% of the electorate choosing Obama. What I didn't have the opportunity to say in the public session is that the 52% only reflects US politics; from the perspective of galvanization to common cause, Obama support worldwide was four times that of McCain, according to a BBC Poll). In the emergent Support-Obama valence organization, I would suggest strong Economic-ba, Identity-ba, and Socio-Psychological-ba which is similar to environmentalism, and potentially similar to any other arbitrary issue. But the laws of complexity mean that this dynamic cannot necessarily occur without having the "right" strange attractor (i.e., the issue), coupled with the "right" critical mass of people - enough people asking the same questions at the same time (without necessarily requiring the same answers for all).

More on the SusCamp '08 in subsequent posts.

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15 November 2008

John Williams is the Man

And now a musical interlude. An a cappella, Star Wars themed tribute to the music of John Williams.


The person in the video is not actually singing, but lip-synching to the singing of Moosebutter, a professional comedy singing group based in Provo, Utah. The lyrics are here.

And now for something completely different (as if that wasn't different enough), here's a ukelele, pennywhistle and tuba cover of the Star Wars Imperial March.

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09 November 2008

Complexity on Film: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche: a figure of speech that presents a part for the whole, or the whole for the part; for example, “hands” for sailors, or “the law” for police. A reproduction of a life, for the life. Or, in some cases, a reproduction of a reproduction of the life. Mirrors within mirrors. A theatrical Mandelbrot set in which characters play the characters playing the characters within a film.

Such is the brilliance of a film that is itself a case study in complexity, Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The story itself is simple. Theatrical director, Caden Cotard, played by the always mesmerizing Philip Seymour Hoffman, wins essentially unlimited funding that enables him to reproduce his life over a lifetime in a massive warehouse. In the process, he is forced to reconcile his feelings and relationships with the various women in his life – his wife, daughter, assistant, and others. A simple enough story. Yet, complex systems are built from simple elements. It is the recursion of both feedback and feedforward loops, and the small, seemingly insignificant, perturbations that result in massive systemic changes out of which emerges this cinematic masterpiece.

Apparently, people’s opinions on this film are split: you either love it or hate it. Synecdoche is not mindless entertainment that allows an audience to escape everyday reality. Kaufman makes his audience work to engage with his characters. It is a textbook example of a McLuhan cool medium, needing the audience’s active participation to complete the work. If you plan to see it – something I heartily recommend – plan also to spend several hours with an intelligent companion mulling over its absurdist roots and surrealism. (Metaphysics homework assignment: answer the question, what’s with the burning house?) Plan as well on seeing it at least twice, if not three times, to begin to capture the various fractal twists and turns through the warehouse of Cotard’s life, even as he cleans up the mess left behind by his vanished wife, Adele, subletting Capgras’s apartment. If, as is said, the unexamined life is not worth living, Caden Cotard’s life has indeed been recursively worthwhile. And so too is spending at least two hours with Charlie Kaufman's magnum opus.

(And if I ever have the chance to teach a course on complexity, this film will be on the syllabus.)


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04 November 2008