24 March 2009

Lies, Damn Lies... and Then There's Toronto City Council

The major news outlets, not surprisingly, have missed the point on the upcoming statistical survey of homelessness in Toronto. The headline-grabbing story tells about $100 gift cards being given to 100 people who will act as homeless decoys during the night of the April 15 survey in order to provide a measure of statistical validity to the study. This sort of introduction of "defects" in quality control style studies is the source of that famous disclaimer, "accurate to within +/- 3%, 19 times out of 20." The real story is that the survey methodology - as statistically valid as it might be - is relatively worthless when it comes to understanding the real needs of the homeless population.

The reason has to do with the limitations of positivist methodologies (and when you're talking about statistical significance, you're talking about positivism) in general, and the specific biases introduced when researching marginalized populations. Simply put, when you are dealing with people, the researcher has no way to know whether answers to survey questions are truthful. This problem is exacerbated when dealing with vulnerable or marginalized populations - those who have reason to fear or mistrust. When doing an ethnographic study (which is essentially what this homeless needs assessment is), it is important to establish a relationship of trust between the researcher and the participant. Otherwise, the participant may simply say what s/he thinks the researcher wants to hear. In this case, some of the people being surveyed may answer, or not, out of fear, or make up answers as an evening's entertainment. The statistical analysis can tell you whether the numbers work, or not; it can't tell whether the answers are reliable, valid, truthful, and worthy of forming the foundation of public policy. And the stock response of, "it's better than what we have now" is a nonsensical justification for ill-conceived policy that does little to address the complexity of the sources of homelessness in this city.

"Councillor Janet Davis (Beaches East York) said the methodology was designed by academics who are experts on statistics." Perhaps, Councillor Davis, you should be using a methodology designed by academics who are experts on marginalized populations to understand the needs of marginalized populations.

Update (2 Apr 2009): Iain de Jong, Manager of Toronto's Streets to Homes program responds.

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22 March 2009

Battlestar Galactica at the United Nations

A television show that is already iconic, and will likely be remembered as one of the greats, Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series), has finished. And I must say that I couldn't imagine how Ron Moore and David Eick were going to pull off a satisfying ending, even with the two-hour series finale, but somehow they did it in fine style. This is one series whose DVDs I'll be watching again and again.

But more important than the quality of the writing, the production values, and the performances of the tremendous ensemble cast, Battlestar Galactica was a reflection on the hard and complex issues that face us here and now. That is, of course, the role of speculative fiction in the culture, to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to provide the anti-environment that provokes a new awareness and a venue in which that awareness can be explored.

Last week, BSG was hosted at the United Nations for a symposium on human rights, terrorism, children and armed conflict, and reconciliation between civilians and faiths. At the table were
Mary McDonnell, Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos, and Battlestar Galactica creators and executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.

On the UN side, panelists will include Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning; and Famatta Rose Osode, from the Permanent Mission of Liberia to the UN.
The panel was moderated by UNICEF ambassador and Oscar-winning actor, Whoopi Goldberg.

Here is Edward James Olmos telling the assembled delegates that there is but one race - the human race - and that is it. So say we all!

A torrent of the full panel is here, and well worth watching.

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21 March 2009

No Educator Left Behind

The talk that I did for TVO's Big Ideas program last November, No Educator Left Behind, has enjoyed quite a fair bit of attention and acclaim, especially among the various conferences that have requested it as a keynote. Recently, a colleague who is editing a book on online learning communities asked me to contribute that talk to his volume, and so I now have a complete text of the talk. Because of the fussing that goes on with published books, I cannot yet make a copy available for general downloading, but if you'd like a copy for private or pedagogical purposes, (or if you'd like to invite me to give this as a keynote for your organization), you can ask me. In the meantime, here are some excerpts to give you the idea of the piece:

The Problem of Modern Education
The University, indeed almost all universities, and the primary and secondary education systems as well, are finding themselves increasingly out of touch with the needs of today’s youth, and therefore with the requirements of tomorrow’s citizens. When we see the size of the widening gulf between students’ everyday lived experiences in the world, and their experiences when they are incarcerated in classrooms and lecture halls, we know that there is a major inconsistency between the world of educators and policy makers, and almost the entire rest of the contemporary world.

In fact, we are facing a generation gap, the likes of which we have not seen since the fifties. Educators and policy makers seem to be tremendously ambivalent and confused by what is going on. So I am moved to ask, what is the role of education in a society, and therefore, what is the role of the educator? And if the context within which that role exists and is enacted changes, how must the enactment of that role correspondingly change? I suggest, therefore, that it is time to get back to the basics, to coin a phrase: to understand precisely how we arrived at the education system we now have in order to reframe our thinking relative to the education system we now need to be consistent with contemporary circumstances.

The Generation Gap
There is a generation alive that was socialized and acculturated in a world defined by modernity, structured by the mechanized, industrialized foundation of linearity, determinism, and fragmentation that emerged from the 17th century. And, there is a generation alive today who were socialized and acculturated – between the ages of approximately eight and ten – in the year 1995 and later. These are people who today (in 2009) are twenty-four years of age and younger. They are living in a world in which – according to them – the Internet never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which Google never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which everyone who matters is either a click away, or text message away, or a Twitter tweet away, or a posting on a Facebook wall away, among a variety of devices, all of which – regardless of what they look like, or how they functionally operate, or what they are called – are the precisely the same: they are connection devices.

Unlike we of the “fogey generation” who were socialized and acculturated in a societal ground defined by the effects of mechanized print, in which our experience with technology and media is primarily within a linear, hierarchical, sequentially causal context, today’s youth and tomorrow’s adults live in a world of Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity. Everyone is, or soon will be, connected to everyone else, and all available information, through instantaneous, multi-way communication. This is ubiquitous connectivity. They will therefore have the experience of being immediately proximate to everyone else and to all available information. This is pervasive proximity. Their direct experience of the world is fundamentally different from that of us in the fogey generation, as we have had to adopt and adapt to these technologies that create the effects of Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity (UCaPP).

Collaborative Construction of Identity
For the UCaPP generation, identity is established and constructed collaboratively, relative to a complex sense-making and meaning-making process that occurs when artefacts that individuals create and control interact among diverse contexts that are contributed by those to whom the individual is connected among one or more social networks. The UCaPP generation who “say everything” through diverse social media, from weblogs to Facebook, are not indulging in narcissistic wastes of time, or publicity-seeking through the realization of Andy Warhol’s iconic fifteen minutes of fame. They are instead rehearsing a fundamental existential imperative, answering the timeless question, “who am I?” with a through-the-break-boundary Cartesian redux: “I blog, tweet, and post, therefore I am.”

The 4 Cs
But in the UCaPP world, the reframing of identity as being collaboratively constructed suggests that the foundation of our contemporary education system must similarly be reframed. In my view, this means replacing the 3 Rs of the modern education system with the 4 Cs of an education system that is consistent with living on this side of the break boundary. Those 4 Cs are Connection, Context, Complexity, and Connotation.

Education is What Remains
I have suggested that the “what” of education is about locating oneself in the context of society’s structuring institutions. But what about the “why” of education – why do we do it? I have always maintained that education is what remains after you have forgotten everything that you have been taught. With an obsessive emphasis on outcomes, skills and test scores, the focus shifts from what remains to what is taught. This is a very dangerous course for society, because a society is formed of “what remains” – the social values, the moral and ethical sensibilities, and the ability to effect transformation in the face of systemic injustice. A primarily instrumental focus in teaching content ironically encourages ignore-ance – literally, the learned ability to ignore much that is politically, ethically, and morally problematic in our world in favour of that which is instrumental, efficient, and merely economic. Don’t get me wrong: Instrumental and functional learning is important as skills and specific capabilities comprise the basic building blocks for any civilization or culture. However, all learning must be contextualized by the broader notion of education: that which remains. Eliminating or minimizing this vital consideration – which is the prevailing tendency among all first world countries today – negates any potential societal benefits of skills, job training and instrumental learning.

The entire piece is an hour to watch, and less to read (depending on how quickly you read about 7,500 words), and is available on request.

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16 March 2009

More Chickens and Eggs

In the previous post, I asked, what came first, the purpose or the relationships? In it, I argued for the primacy of relationships as being fundamental to the nature of organization itself; purpose emerges from the relationships, in my view, not the other way around.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, to learn that among my research data is a commentary from the CEO of one of my participant organizations who reflects on the connection between business results and a significant change in organizational culture. A traditional, command-and-control culture was drastically changed to value collaboration and (to the extent practically possible) eliminate relative status, class, and hierarchy in valuing ideas and inviting participation and contribution, even when it comes to significant and strategic business decisions. So, given that the results of the biennial employee satisfaction survey showed an almost unbelievable improvement in the humanistic indicators of engagement and well-being (i.e., really, really improved morale), it was almost a vindication of the extreme cultural change when the bottom-line results came in. The CEO reports:
That was also a record year in business. So it was our record year. We had fallen to a margin that was completely unacceptable, some of our lowest revenue in our entire history of the business. So within two years we had our record year of eleven years in business.
Great stuff, right? However, the issue that this raises for me as an organizational researcher is, how do I move from jumping to the facile conclusion – that improved morale corresponds to improved business results – to be able to claim that a primarily relationships-focused organization is more effective than one that gives primacy to its purpose? The answer, interestingly, is that I cannot reasonably make that specific claim. At least, not directly.

Conventionally, there has been much studied and published on how to improve a working environment so that workers will become more productive, and perhaps even feel happier in the workplace. This stuff goes way back to the famous Hawthorne Experiment, and the early work of Roethlisberger and Dickson, the subsequent interpretations of Elton Mayo, the rise of the Human Relations Movement in management studies, leading up to contemporary interventions in Organization Development. However, the primary focus of all of these contributions continues to be one of instrumentality: effectiveness remains a measure of an organization’s ability to acquire and deploy resources in order to accomplish the stated goals and objectives of the organization. What I question is whether that specification is the appropriate definition of effectiveness for a UCaPP world.

These days, it is not that difficult to construct a legitimate argument that critiques striving for such effectiveness, both writ large in the context of organizations and economies, and writ small in the context of individuals seeking what they consider to be their personal due. Such an extreme focus on instrumentality and achieving objectives (to attain status, class, and privilege) has sewn the seeds of what in retrospect now appears to have been the inevitable economic and ecological collapse and catastrophe that clearly threatens order, stability, and perhaps even our civilization’s ability to sustain itself. In a world that is ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate, to change the fundamental premise upon which organizations are constructed necessitates a change in our collective understanding of what it means to be effective.

Simply put, to be effective is to be cognizant of the effects one intends to create, and actually bring about, in both the social and material (i.e., natural and physically constructed) environments. As effects are substantially distinct from goals and outcomes, an organization concerned first and foremost with its effects must be equally concerned with the ways in which it interacts within the social and material environments in which it participates, hence the primacy of relationships and a concern for tactility over vision. From the relationships it creates among all relevant constituencies, an organization enables and facilitates its intended effects, that are subsequently enacted via the goals, objectives, and outcomes for which it strives.

P.S. This is apparently the 600th post for What is the (Next) Message? Thanks to all those who have played along in the comments and private emails for your encouragement and contributions to my thinking. I hope you all continue to find useful, enlightening, and thought-provoking stuff for the next 600 (at least).

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13 March 2009

A Chicken and Egg Question

I have come to distinguish between what I call “the purposeful organization” and “the valence organization.” One is based on the objectives, goals, and outcomes that the organization achieves, the other is based fundamentally on the relationships among all the members of the organization. This, however, suggests a question: what came first, the purpose or the relationships?

The former example – the purposeful organization – is what I perceive to be the conventional definition of organization, that is, a group of people who come together to accomplish a particular purpose. When they come together, they eventually create various relationships, but the organization’s objectives, goals, and outcomes – its purpose – is primary and sustains over time, irrespective of the people. This, of course, leads to the BAH notion (ex Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management) that people are interchangeable, so long as the replacement “parts” (people) have the same specifications as did the “original equipment,” and that the management protocols are well-defined and rigorously adhered to (ex Henri Fayol).

In a valence organization, people create multiple relationships among each other and the purpose of the organization is an emergent property of the people in relationship. Change the people and you change the relationships; hence, you change the nature of the organization itself. It is almost inevitable that the purpose of the organization will similarly change to a greater or lesser extent, as will its ways and means of accomplishing that purpose. However, Valence Theory also includes an action theory of effects: the nature and characteristic of the organization is expressed in the effects it creates throughout its social and physical environment – in other words, through its tactility, who it touches and how it touches them. To maintain a consistent valence organization is to maintain its tactility, although the means and specific objectives that create its various effects will inevitably change as the complex social and physical environment in which it exists changes according to the principles of complexity.

So which comes first, the purpose or the relationship? I think its fairly evident: You can achieve relationship without a purpose, but you cannot achieve a purpose without relationship.

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09 March 2009

The Valence Organization: More Than Simply Org2.0

danah boyd, that is dr. danah boyd, newly of Microsoft Research, has posted her "crib notes" for MSR's Tech Fest. Like pretty much everything danah posts, they are well worth a read (and if I happen to land the summer job for which I applied, several of danah's papers will certainly be on the reading list). Her brief history of social media sites post-Friendster provides a wonderful context; her examination of the generation gap between the UCaPP and fogey generations is pretty much spot on - although I tend to be a little more explicit about construction-of-identity vs. personal-branding uses for Facebook et al. And she does seem to confirm my belief that Twitter is indeed the Facebook-for-fogeys.

However, the paragraph that really resonated with me and my work is this one:
For the technology crowd, Web2.0 was about a shift in development and deployment. Rather than producing a product, testing it, and shipping it to be consumed by an audience that was disconnected from the developer, Web2.0 was about the perpetual beta. This concept makes all of us giggle, but what this means is that, for technologists, Web2.0 was about constantly iterating the technology as people interacted with it and learning from what they were doing. To make this happen, we saw the rise of technologies that supported real-time interactions, user-generated content, remixing and mashups, APIs and open-source software that allowed mass collaboration in the development cycle. We saw half-baked ideas hit the marketplace and get transformed by the users in an elegant dance with the developers. This was a critical disruption to the way in which technology was historically produced, one that rattled big companies, even those whose agile software development cycles couldn't cope with including all consumers as active participants in their process.
Now, take that paragraph and replace all the references to products and technologies with organizations and valence relationships. It might sound something like this:
For the management crowd, a Valence Organization is about a shift in control and involvement. Rather than hierarchically structuring an organization, functionally decomposing objectives into individual tasks, and obsessively controlling both the performance and behaviours of workers, for the nominal benefit of consumers, and the actual benefit of investors – all of whom (workers, consumers, and investors) are, in actuality, disconnected from management decisions – the Valence Organization is about active participation, true collaboration, and continual emergence. These concepts make all of us nod our heads as if we actually understand, but what it means for managers, consultants, and theorists is this: Valence Organizations are about constantly iterating, evolving, recursively and reflexively combining and recombining proto-organizations as people interact with each other and learn from what they are doing.

To make this happen we yet need to see a shift in vocabulary that supports balancing true bond-forming relationships, giving up the perceived necessity for control in favour of collective and actively shared responsibility, and decoupling status and privilege from the ability to contribute and be rewarded for contributing. We saw unsustainable organizations collapse under their own mismanaged laissez-faire or greed-motivated impetus, or both, all based on either adhering fast to, or attempting to explicitly reject (and thereby ironically acknowledge), the dominant management discourse that has underpinned organizational practice over the last century. What is rattling big and small companies alike these days is the inherent inconsistency between the effects of being ubiquitously connected and (therefore) pervasively proximate (UCaPP), and the ingrained, socialized need to maintain 100-year-old (or 400-year-old, depending on your sense of time) ideas of bureaucracy, administrative control, hierarchy, accountability, functional decomposition, the primacy of measurable goals and objectives, and fealty to the once-powerful bottom line - even if they are considered so-called best practices one way or another.

The critical organizational disruptions required to sustain and thrive in a UCaPP world represent themselves as understanding the effects of complexity, feedforward processes, environmental sensing, the importance of balancing valence relationships, the power of ba, and the action theory of effects (that augments Argyris & Schön's espoused and in-use theories of action). These more-UCaPP effects on organizations are rattling even those whose nominal beliefs in relatively more democratic or inclusive management practices can't cope with the velocity or ferocity of change effects, "including all consumers as active participants in their [previously exclusive internal] process."
Thanks for the inspiration, danah!

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04 March 2009

Eye (and Finger) Candy

I just love these visions-of-the-future montages. But then again, as a kid, I also loved all those flying cars, living on Mars, wealthy as the Czars imaginings, too! Here's the latest from Microsoft labs: a vision of 2019.

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03 March 2009

BAH Organizations: Evil Incarnate?

Pure and simple: BAH dehumanizes. Renders people without human emotion, without human response. Without humanity. Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." And since BAH systems, when successful, turn good men and women into slaves of a non-human system, evil doesn't even break a sweat in winning that triumph.

Today's case in point: the tragic death of a mentally ill teenager, originally incarcerated for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. If you can believe it - and I am still dumbfounded by incredulity at this report: "Ashley Smith slowly choked herself to death at dawn in her Kitchener, Ont., prison cell, [while] seven guards looked on because they were instructed not to intervene if the troubled federal inmate was still breathing." And why, you might ask, would seven presumably human beings look on and watch a 19-year-old girl strangle herself to death? Because they didn't want to fill out the paperwork! That's right - the triumphant embodiment of evil is red tape: "Prison managers were trying to curtail the reviews and paperwork triggered each time guards entered her cell to stop her frequent attempts at self-asphyxiation. A manager testified she was pressured to reclassify incident reports so that they wouldn't be filed as “use-of-force” interventions, which require more red tape." As one guard put it, "It's not pleasant to see somebody with a ligature around their neck and their face purple and being constantly told at briefings and having a seminar on use-of-force to not pay her attention and to not go in her cell."

No shit, Sherlock.

But it gets even better for BAH-as-evil-incarnate. In the most bureaucratic of bureaucratic nonsense, "Ms. Smith never got a full psychological assessment and her segregation was never reviewed after 60 days as required by law. Because she was a disruptive inmate, she was moved 17 times during her 11 1/2 months in the federal system. Each transfer then reset her segregation time so she never officially reached the 60-day mark. “It was a violation of the law around segregation,” [Correctional Investigator Howard] Sapers said."

When discussing Valence Theory and the nature of UCaPP organizations, I'm often soft on the requirement for all organizations to change, to become more consistent with contemporary times. I often fudge and say that there is a spectrum of organizations from BAH to UCaPP, and organizations can choose where along that spectrum might be most appropriate for them. But after reading reports such as this one, and seeing clear examples in my research of how - in far more benign settings - BAH organizations are specifically designed to strip the humanity from humans, I'm not so sure any longer. I'm becoming more and more convinced that BAH is, to coin a phrase, a clear and present danger to contemporary society, to innovation, to social justice, to sustainable success, and especially to those among us who are most vulnerable and most in need of our assistance and compassion.

Ms. Fairchild testified that guards would be disciplined if they didn't heed orders and stay away from Ms. Smith if she was still breathing.

In other words, "just following orders." Evil triumphant indeed.

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