15 December 2010

Innovating Innovations in Healthcare

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Centre for Innovation in Complex Care. It is an interprofessional, trans-institutional organization, housed at the University Health Network in downtown Toronto that is
dedicated to studying how to improve the entire process of care for patients with multiple problems. Its purpose is to engage our patients and clinicians to identify problems with current healthcare practices and develop solutions for addressing them. Innovative research and evaluation in a real clinical environment will allow our clinicians to utilize the latest technology to improve patient care.
It is also, much to my delight, a UCaPP organization, and it is its UCaPP nature that is its key to success in achieving true innovation throughout every aspect of the healthcare system.

The Centre has active projects that range from improving clinical communications via new Blackberry applications, to methods that are focused on improving the in-patient experience, to completely rethinking and redesigning the systems and processes associated with treating atrial fibrillation, currently the most frequently encountered arrhythmia for which patients are admitted to hospital (not to mention being “challenging, costly, and resource intensive”).

So what makes the CICC innovative in its approach and organizational design – that is, what makes it UCaPP – and how does this influence its success? Fundamental to all UCaPP organizations is the idea that change happens where it happens, and the impetus for change can come from literally anywhere in an organization, or in this case, anywhere throughout the healthcare system. CICC members include physicians and nurses, pharmacists and nutritionists, engineers and designers, researchers and patients. It includes members from all the teaching hospitals in Toronto, and institutions elsewhere in Ontario. To become a member, one “only” needs to initiate a project (more on that in a moment), and find collaborators, which precisely echoes the process I’ve observed in other UCaPP organizations. Their “rounds” – medical jargon for socializing knowledge – are generally open to any interested party, and those who are interested in innovations in healthcare that address systemic or global issues are welcome to initiate a project conversation that is consistent with the Centre’s vision and values. As its Medical Director, Dr. Dante Morra, said to me, “if you’re interested in addressing a handwashing issue on 13E, we’re not so interested. If you’re interested in addressing a handwashing issue throughout the entire system, come talk to us.” Project participation is largely through self-nomination, which means that there is an emergent and organic vetting and review process that occurs throughout its life. There are lots of opportunities to share information, through weekly operational rounds, monthly deep-dive reviews of active projects in which all members from among multiple areas of expertise have an opportunity to contribute, and innovation rounds that look at new opportunities coming into the Centre.

The Centre strikes me as non-hierarchical, with any individual being able to take relative leadership roles, depending on the nature of what type of leadership needed at any particular time for any given project. Most important, however, is that the collaborative leadership creates a tremendous sense of camaraderie, with individual autonomy among the members, collective responsibility for the success of each project, and mutual accountability for the Centre’s overall success. It’s through innovations like this one that healthcare will become sustainable, especially in the face of increasing challenges and demands.

13 December 2010

A Letter Sent to OISE Dean Julia O'Sullivan Regarding the Peto Thesis Controversy

Dear Dean O’Sullivan

I am writing to express my concern over the recent controversy surrounding the master’s thesis of a recently graduated student from the Sociology and Equity Studies in Education department, Jennifer Peto. Aside from Ms. Peto’s particular political views – with which I will admit I do not agree – my concern centres specifically on the questionability of the scholarship represented by the thesis, and hence on the reflected questionability of the scholarship produced at OISE in general. As a recent graduate of OISE myself, having earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, I am dismayed by the prospect of the value of my degree being diminished, and my own scholarly contributions being called into question. After all, the worth of one’s academic credentials are only as valuable as the reputation of the institution from which they were obtained.

The common discourse in the popular press – The National Post and Macleans Magazine, to name but two examples – and on the floor of the Ontario Legislature directly calls into question OISE’s academic standards, including the rigour with which its graduate students are supervised, and the quality of work that is accepted as a graduate thesis. Indeed, an academic examination of eighteen thesis abstracts (including two for which the theses were reviewed in toto), prepared for University of Toronto’s President, David Naylor, and reported on in today’s press can be summarized with a sad indictment: having accepted what appears to be a sub-standard polemical essay as scholarship worthy of a master’s degree has “hurt the scholarly reputation of one of the world’s great universities … [and] are related to a larger systemic problem at OISE.”

Knowing the politics-in-use among the various graduate departments, I can appreciate the differences between the critical discourse and focus on transformative praxis in Adult Education, for example, and the discourse of radical activism-at-all-costs that pervades Sociology and Equity Studies. Others, who are not as familiar with the specific political agendas of various faculty members, like Prof. Sheryl Nestel, cannot so easily contextualize and distinguish the supposedly scholarly production of one department from another. To outsiders, all masters and doctoral graduates from OISE can potentially be tarred with the same brush of questionable scholarship, dubious supervision, and laissez-faire awarding of graduate degrees. It is not only the reputation of the Institute that is being called into question; it is the individual reputations and qualifications of each and every graduate that are equally being doubted.

I, for one, am proud of the “contributions to knowledge” represented by both my doctoral and (empirically based) master’s theses. I am thankful for the outstanding mentorship and guidance I received from my professors in the Adult Education program. I cannot passively stand on the sidelines while the reputations of so many hard-working scholars are being summarily cast onto an academic midden heap because of what appears to be the politics of relatively few individuals.

The Provost’s initial response to this controversy, that the thesis is merely “a student paper,” is alarming. There is a substantial difference between a thesis entered into the university’s compendium of knowledge production on Tspace and a course paper that, in many cases, often reflects the professor’s espoused worldview, replayed through lenses of the professor’s preferred political hue. As a first response in an attempt to diffuse the controversy, it was an unfortunate statement. On reflection, it seems to cast aspersions on, and uniformly diminish, the value of all scholarship produced throughout the university—clearly not the intent of the Provost.

As has been done in other post-hoc cases of questionable academic standards, I am calling for an independent academic review of the master’s thesis in question to determine whether it truly meets the standards for an acceptable thesis at the University of Toronto. To be clear: it is not the specific subject matter of the thesis that I am questioning, but rather the degree to which the subject matter has been adequately examined and vetted in accordance with the standards of academic rigour worthy of a master’s thesis at a top-tier university in Canada. In my opinion, at this point only an independent review will be able to establish the scholarly merit of Ms. Peto’s thesis, and therefore, the validity of the degree to which she was recently admitted at convocation. Only such a review will help to clear the air and to begin to rehabilitate the seemingly tarnished reputation of OISE, a reputation that deserves to be held in high esteem.

Sincerely yours,

Mark L. Federman, Ph.D.

23 November 2010

Crowdsourcing Intelligence and Foresight

James Surowiecki had an interesting and meme-worthy idea when he published his 2004 bestseller, The Wisdom of the Crowds. However, when reduced to its simplest ad absurdum, the concept breaks down in ways that are hugely problematic. It is not necessarily the case that an arbitrarily large group of poorly informed, often disengaged, and self-interested individuals will magically coalesce into a wisdom-dispensing oracle. Nonetheless, it is also the case that, putting aside disengagement, collective cynicism, apathy, and selfish interest, together we are all smarter (which is why I release most of my stuff under Creative Commons).

National security, going beyond the current burlesque sideshows at airports, is quite another matter. Its practitioners and purveyors are certainly engaged and often overly informed. (That they have multiple self-interested, ideological, and political interests is another matter.) However, a case can be made that the massive interactions among a myriad of environmental, economic, social, technological, cultural, philosophical, and yes, political circumstances and factors suggests that the more minds that can be directed towards the extreme complexity of global problems, the better.

Such is the case made by Carol Dumaine, a deputy director in the Office of Intelligence and Counter-intelligence at the US Department of Energy. Writing in Seed Magazine, she proposes a Global Foresight Commons that:
would expose discoveries, assessment processes, and foresight methodologies to the evaluation of a larger and more diverse community of people than currently possible. A single agency, government, or nation could not achieve the requisite diversity, involving millions of participants worldwide, that such a global foresight commons would entail. It would need to evolve organically, initially in a bottom-up fashion, with an international mix of early contributors, and would eventually need to attract the support of organizations that encourage their members to contribute their ideas to the commons. This system can be thought of as a robust and strategic form of Wikipedia, but with capacities for globally distributed synthesis, and for evaluation of non-proprietary, non-classified, forward-looking assessments: a “StrategicPedia,” as it were.
Interestingly, she echoes Marshall McLuhan's opinion of the artist, the person who lives their lives on the edge that demarcates the future from the present.
The gift of the artist is to reperceive the present by thinking what no one else has thought about. Great artists—and great scientists—detect the early tremors of seismic change in society, politics, technology, religion, and philosophy and represent the world as they see it through new eyes and new understanding. But the shock of the new often challenges orthodoxy, branding many creative minds as threats to the stability of society.
Sadly, governments are BAH organizations. I know of not a single one that has either the foresight or fortitude to give up what a government (and those individuals drawn to exercising the power of government) crave: control. To succeed, a proposal such as that which Carole Dumaine suggests must acknowledge that its participants are actually engaged in a UCaPP endeavour, and hence, must embrace principles of a UCaPP organization. A foundational principle of UCaPP leadership is that the leader must cede control to be able to create an environment of individual autonomy, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. This, of course, is anathema to conventional (pseudo-)democratic processes based on partisan politics and geopolitical neo-liberal ideologies that are driving most of the Western world today. It also stands in stark opposition to what is presumed to be the risk-reducing, best-practice-du-jour based on a cult-of-the-experts, not to mention the experts' vested interest in their own expertise. Such abdication of true UCaPP leadership (by those who may have been elected to high office, but are often not worthy of those positions by any objective qualification) inevitably results in a collective inability to employ novel methodologies, to seek undiscovered possibilities, and to draw on the associative pattern-discerning power of para-disciplinary minds. UCaPP leaders welcome dissent in the context of a culture of inquiry; demands for compliance and hewing to a party line poorly serve a complex, massively interconnected world.

What Carol Dumaine proposes may be radical, but it is far from new. She simply points out that solving complex problems during a disruptive periods of change - like the one through which we are now living - necessitates Renaissance minds, "what Leonardo da Vinci called saper vedere, or knowing how to see. Da Vinci’s relentless questioning of everything challenged the conventions and taboos of his time."

The challenge is not to see what no one else can see, but to think new things about that which everyone already sees.

21 November 2010

Not Your Father’s (or Mother’s) Normal: The future of “new-television,” at the Television Bureau of Canada

On Friday, I had the opportunity to speak to the annual Sales Advisory Conference of the Television Bureau of Canada. This is an organization representing all of the major broadcasters in Canada; this meeting was concerned specifically with the future of the business side of television—advertising, marketing, and demographic shift research. The theme of their conference was “The New Normal,” and they asked me to speak about the future of television and television advertising. Here are some ideas that I introduced to the attentive and responsive crowd at the Four Seasons Yorkville on Friday morning.

As I derive in detail in No Educator Left Behind, our understanding of the term, “mass media,” changes with each change in cultural epoch. In the primary oral society of ancient, Periclean Athens, there was no mass media since there were no masses (as we have constructed that concept). The first mass media was literally “media IN masses” during the manuscript culture dominated by the medieval Church—people were instructed how to conduct their lives by those who had command of the (literate) Word of God in masses. But when Gutenberg began printing the bible on a moveable-type press, he signalled the beginning of the transition to what McLuhan calls, The Gutenberg Galaxy, in which information – mostly fragmented and segmented – can be “cast broadly” or broadcast. Media in masses transforms to become media FOR the masses, a conceptual understanding whose dominance persisted through to the 20th century.

Now, however, as we have come through the break boundary into the UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) era (which occurred in 1995), the construction of the term, mass media, once again changes. It is no longer media for the masses, but media BY the masses. weblogs and wikis—publishing and the press by the masses; podcasts—radio by the masses; YouTube, Vimeo, Revver, BlipTV—television and cinema by the masses. And all of these represent a profound change from the Enlightenment model in which a sole author creates an artefact and “casts it broadly” using the technology of the day. Rather, all of these UCaPP technologies enable a mash-up/remix culture of collaborative construction in which new cultural creations emerge from prior creations in a process that is consistent with an ethos of sustainability: produce, reuse and recycle, and from the reusing and recycling, produce some more.

We now create a media ecosystem that includes both the artefact itself plus all of its contextual links that give it meaning in our contemporary, massively interconnected, UCaPP world. In particular, that ecosystem includes attention hooks that attract us to that media parcel, and those hooks link us in to the rest of the environment that includes the artefacts, the happenings, and the people, that almost magically emerge and appear in our individual and collective consciousness. Any given media artefact enables the emergence of a sort of complex, media ecosystem, more like a strange attractor in complexity terms, or what I have taken to calling a strange media attractor.

Similarly, audience itself is interconnected in diverse and complex ways via the media artefacts themselves, and these contextual links. It can no longer be simply understood as multi-way divisible demographic groups, but rather is complex and emergent, depending on the influencing factors of the myriad interconnections and experiences. The more diverse the environment enabled by the strange media attractor, the more robust is the emergent audience that is produced. The more the audience is produced, the stronger the strange media attractor becomes, to be reused, recycled, continually producing and reproducing each other. This, by the way, is the complexity science explanation for what you might otherwise call media branding in the UCaPP world.

In the same way that mass media are no longer mass media, and audiences are no longer audiences—television is no longer television. The key to understanding the future of television, or “new-television,” centres on appreciating the nature of complex, emergent audiences and how they interact with multi-modal, strange media attractors—these diverse collections and collaborations that include conventional content, a wide range of diverse experiences and interactions, often enabled by technology like apps, that span both the physical and cyber-worlds, and connection with and proximity to, other people.

Interestingly, the role of broadcasters remains largely the same in the UCaPP (business) world: they deliver audiences to advertisers. In this respect, the two largest broadcasters in the world are Facebook and Google. Google – now the world’s largest advertising company – their nominal claim to fame is that they became really effective at sending people away. When they started in 1996, this was a revolutionary idea, because at the time, the biggest marketing issue for websites was how to make themselves more sticky. Google succeeded because they became tremendously skilled at sending its users away to where they really wanted to be.

Facebook, on the other hand, became tremendously successful at bringing people together in all sorts of different configurations of events, and groups, and especially collaboratively constructed, shared experiences. Together with Craigslist, Facebook and Google deliver more consumers to more advertisers than any other organization in the world. They don’t explicitly seek to own content and regardless of what some might say with respect to privacy concerns, they don’t even seek to own you. I would think of them more like Hotel California—you can check out anytime you like – especially with your credit card – but you can never leave.

What Google and Facebook do especially well among their various properties and affiliates is they create emergent, complex audiences. They, themselves, are the strongest of the strange media attractors. They are open, they’re relatively agnostic with respect to specific content, and they don’t judge. Whether it’s YouTube enabling the emergent audience for Old Spice Guy, wrapped up and delivered to Proctor and Gamble, or Zynga’s addictive but annoying Facebook games, Farmville and Mafia Wars, the most successful broadcasters in today’s UCaPP world do one thing and one thing only, and they do it exceptionally well: They enable and create emergent, complex audiences. They make it easy and cheap for consumers to access the content they want. They make it easy and cheap for those consumers to be delivered into the hands of the advertisers. And, most important, they make it the most natural thing in the world for people who are ubiquitously connected to experience pervasive proximity, with other like-minded people, and coalesce into that complex, emergent audience around whichever media attractor wants to do business with them, no matter how strange they might be.

From these various understandings, and from the lessons (apparently not completely) learned by the recording industry, I was able to suggest some specific, recommended tactics and strategies for the television industry, based on openness, collaboration with a complex, emergent audience, focused on developing and monetizing these new, strange media attractors. Based on the individual responses from many of the attendees, I was able to provide some useful food for thought. There may yet be hope for an anticipatory transformation of the television industry, at least here in Canada, in a time of “The New Normal.”

12 November 2010

CBC's Quirks and Quarks 35th Anniversary Show

I had the privilege of being invited as a panelist for CBC's renowned science program, Quirks and Quarks' 35th Anniversary Show. The show will be broadcast live tomorrow, Saturday, November 13 at noon in all time zones, and streamed live from the CBC Radio One site (drop down the "Listen" tab from the top menu bar; you can choose which feed you'd like).

The show provides an outstanding survey of developments among many diverse areas of science and tech that have occurred (or should I say evolved) over the 35-year history of one of CBC's flagship programs. On the panel will be:
Cosmology: Dr. Barth Netterfield, Professor of Observational Cosmology, in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, at the University of Toronto

Neuroscience: Dr. Jody Culham, Associate Professor specializing in Neuro-Imaging, in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario

Climate Science: Dr. Danny Harvey, Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography and Planning, at the University of Toronto

Renewable Energy: Dr. Aimy Bazylak, Assistant Professor of Micro-scale Energy Systems, in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, at the University of Toronto

Planetary Science: Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, and Professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, at the University of Toronto.

Genetics: Dr. Marla Sokolowski, Professor of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Genetics at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

Fundamental Physics: Dr. Lee Smolin: Faculty Member, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

Ecology: Dr. Madhur Anand, Canada Research Chair in Global Ecological Change, and Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph

Human Evolution: Dr. Shawn Lehman, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto

Technology: Dr. Mark Federman, Independent business and technology consultant. He was previously Chief Strategist at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

Listen on-air Saturday, or download the podcasts. Either way, it's well worth the listen!

26 October 2010

The Agenda with Steve Paikin: Death of the Liberal Class (Video & Analysis)

Last Friday, I was one of the panel on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The featured guest was Chris Hedges, author of the recently published Death of the Liberal Class. In it, Hedges argues that traditional, liberal institutions - the liberal church, universities, labour unions, the press, and the Democratic Party in the U.S. - have sold out to corporatist/capitalist interests. They are thus no longer able to fulfil what he claims are their proper and useful role in society, namely, to act as a mitigating channel for dissent and dissatisfaction among the populace, providing a means to deflect massive, disruptive, structural changes. There was a featured interview with Hedges, and then the "debate" - the panel on which I participated with Hedges, and two others espousing the political right-wing, more corporatist views, Reihan Salam, and Tony Keller.

I think I did reasonably well, even though the conversation was themed on geo-political policy, economics, hegemonic brinkmanship during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and whose life experience - Salam's or Hedges's - was more apropos to a reading of the hollowing out and decay of contemporary America. None of these are especially my ken, but I managed to hold my own (when I could get a few words in edge-wise).

Some observations: Of most concern, and perhaps most telling, was Salam's neo-liberal approach, validated by his personal success in light of the fact that his parents were immigrants from Bangladesh, and he grew up in a depressed part of Brooklyn. His story is exemplary of the archetypal, if mythical, American Dream Fable, but represents a particular instance of privilege that he does not afford to those whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them by the very deregulations and so-called free-market economy that Salam and his right-wing think tank cronies espouse. Salam's claim that those so dispossessed, whose own "American Dreams" have become a series of waking nightmares, have simply migrated elsewhere to greener pastures is laughable, and certainly defies simple observation. Indeed, his attempt to refute economic statistics by counting the economic benefit of living on food stamps is ludicrous. His challenge to Hedges's case can perhaps best be summed up in his opening statement: "I just could not recognize the reality that I know from my daily life." And that, for most neo-liberal corporatists on the political right-wing, is the problem.

Tony Keller, on the other hand, is not as Ebenezer Scrooge-ish in his analysis as is Salam. In my opinion, Keller's perceptual limitation comes from his inability to understand the principles of complexity. He cannot see a "conspiracy" among all the various factors that, taken together, have "conspired" to disrupt the fabric of civil society (even though Hedges does not use a conspiracy metaphor). To Keller, who seems to espouse an old-style laissez-faire market approach, the interconnectedness among the various forces at work in a capitalist-driven society is invisible. He seemingly cannot understand that independently occurring economic and social factors do not necessarily have to deliberately collude to enable the type of emergent patterns that we are experiencing as a result of the apparent liberal sell-out that Hedges names. Keller's position is that human history has been a story of progress, and that progress is good (with a relatively minor concession made for the fact that not all progress has been unproblematic... oh really?!).

My own position (at the 4 minute point in the video) is simple to state: the constructs that gave us corporatism, capitalism, the liberal class, and modernity itself are now obsolesced, and we need a new framework in which to observe, theorize, understand, and undo the dysfunctions that we have clearly visited upon ourselves, and the wider world. That Salam is willingly blind to such disruption and dysfunction is not only sad, but naive in the extreme. That Keller cannot understand the connectedness that defines the contemporary world (UCaPP, for those who are playing along at home), represents the constraint of Industrial Age, managerial socialization. Arguments from neither of these simplistic contexts are useful; rather, they serve to bolster ignorance - 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.

Hedges's argument is useful and even truthy as far as it goes - that there has been a de facto collusion among predominantly economically driven forces, and those that have traditionally provided more progressive mitigation against the selfish, consumptive inclinations of that mythical, and anything-but-rational beast, homo economicus. The solution, in my view, is two-fold. First, we can recognize that, historically speaking, we are in the midst of a massive cultural transition from an epoch largely defined by the Enlightenment that solidified into modernity, to one that is being structured (although that term itself is problematic and must be taken in its broadest sense) by conditions of UCaPP, and has yet to emerge into a stable, homeostatic form. This suggests one particular inevitability: that the Salams and Kellers of the world will inevitably shuck off this mortal coil, and in their places will stand men and women who have been socialized into a more mutually responsible and collectively accountable sensibility. That final understanding, namely, that we are all responsible for and accountable to ourselves, each other, and the world at large - be it natural, built, material, or social - will inevitably dominate intelligent and reasoned discourse.

Second, we can hasten the day of societal institutions transforming to become more in-tune with this contemporary dynamic by adopting a worldview and analytic frame which are themselves more consistent with UCaPP conditions. Although I am an obviously an advocate of Valence Theory (that emerged from my doctoral research) and the ideas I express in No Educator Left Behind, as being quite useful in this regard, similar frameworks that recognize complexity and acknowledge a socially just economics would be equally acceptable and useful, at least to me, and likely to those of the more progressive persuasion as well.

What is not acceptable in a contemporary context is the penchant of the fogey generation - men like Reihan Salam and Tony Keller - to continue to apply 19th and 20th century principles to the analysis of our 21st century reality. And even Chris Hedges is at somewhat of a loss, as he continues to apply a distinctly Industrial Age model as the theme for a possible alternative.

21 October 2010

On "The Agenda with Steve Paikin" on Friday

I'm excited about doing The Agenda with Steve Paikin on Friday, October 22 (20:00 and 23:00 on TVO). The featured guest is Chris Hedges, in Toronto to do a three-week stint at the Monk Centre, and author of the newly published, Death of the Liberal Class.
The liberal class posits itself as the conscience of the nation. It permits us, through its appeal to public virtues and the public good, to define ourselves as a good and noble people. Most importantly, on behalf of the power elite the liberal class serves as bulwarks against radical movements by offering a safety valve for popular frustrations and discontentment by discrediting those who talk of profound structural change.
The Death of the Liberal Class examines the failure of the liberal class to confront the rise of the corporate state and the consequences of a liberalism that has become profoundly bankrupted. Hedges argues there are five pillars of the liberal establishment – the press, liberal religious institutions, labor unions, universities and the Democratic Party— and that each of these institutions, more concerned with status and privilege than justice and progress, sold out the constituents they represented. In doing so, the liberal class has become irrelevant to society at large and ultimately the corporate power elite they once served.
In listening to Hedges talk about his book,  he strikes me as a latter-day Howard Beale, the character played by the late Peter Finch in the movie, Network, who implores us all to cry out, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" There is almost a neo-Marxist tone to Hedges's analysis, and he stops just inches short of calling for a revolution. But he is no crackpot radical. Chris Hedges is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and draws from history, philosophy, political economy, literature, sociology, and psychology to construct his well-wrought argument.

For the most part, I agree with Hedges's thesis. Where we differ, perhaps, is in the inevitability of his conclusion. I think there is a way out of the mess into which we've allowed ourselves to be seduced. I'm looking forward to the conversation tomorrow evening, and I'll write more on my specific ideas after the broadcast. If you're available to watch, it's Friday, October 22 at 20:00, repeated at 23:00 on TVO. I'll post the link to the video podcast when it's posted early next week.

Update: (26 Oct 2010): The video of the panel debate is now posted, along with my post-game analysis.

18 October 2010

Rethinking Employee Engagement

One of the LinkedIn groups I follow – Organization Development and Training – had an ongoing conversation that addressed the question of whether so-called employee engagement programs are effective. After all, a recent study by one of the name-brand, managerialist consulting companies, McKinsey, found that non-financial incentives like praise, recognition, attention, and the opportunity to take on new leadership responsibilities were only marginally more effective than the good old Taylorist approach of bonus incentive pay.

Given that a survey taken at a time of economic insecurity would find that economic incentives are more engaging than engagement programs is hardly surprising to anyone who looks beyond the restrictions of the assumptive box into which this study has been molded. But the conversation among OD practitioners expanded the question somewhat, and led to an observation from one person that employee engagement tends to be weakest among organizations which have no long-term purpose, but only a short-term vision—call it managerial myopia (nearsightedness).

The immediate response to that observation was a call for creating a balance between our individual passions and purpose, and those of the firm. The idea is that the organization’s interests being inherently superior to those of its members create a disconnection between individual’s (non-economic) motivators and those forms of engagement that turn on her/his intrinsic motivators. The responder observes that, “we are still wedded to the paradigm of the organisation holding the balance of power in a relationship. I think that increasingly that's a choice we make, not a truth.

The idea of organizations holding the balance of power in a relationship being a “choice” is only partially true. Over the past four centuries, that balance of power, and the subjectification of organization’s members to its institutional authority have been the received and accepted model that has shaped not only organizations, but Western society as a whole. It is received knowledge, certainly, but knowledge that has been consistently received and reinforced, predominantly by those who hold the privilege of societal power. What this suggests is that we have yet to fulfil the prerequisites for any hope of sustainable success in truly engaging employees through non-financial, supposed incentives. We first have to “unreceive” the knowledge that an organization’s (predominantly or exclusively economic) interests necessarily take precedence over the collective values of all its constituencies. In other words, we need to acquire both a new way of thinking about organizations, and a new vocabulary and discourse that supports that thinking, to effect the changes necessary to shift the last 400 years of “that's always been the way things are.”

To balance passion and purpose, I have proposed the idea of tactility to replace vision as the guiding sensory metaphor. The issue is not where we see ourselves in the future (which never arrives, of course), but rather whom are we touching, and how are we touching them, today? Are we touching – that is, creating the effects – in ways that we intend, and what subsequent effects (secondary, tertiary, and so forth) are being set in motion?

Those effects can be articulated as valence relationships—those connections that bind us and enable us to react and interact with each other, and with other organizations, communities and environments. It is through the effects we create by way of Economic, Socio-Psychological, Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological relationships that our passions and purposes become connected and viscerally expressed. When we balance the totality of effects among an organization’s various constituencies, employees (among other members) cannot help but become more engaged, or conversely realize that they and the organization are irreconcilably incompatible. The result? Organizations and their members are more engaged and aligned with each other, with their communities, and with their passions and purposes.

14 October 2010

Changing Education Paradigms

From the remarkably good RSA Animate, the latest animation from Sir Ken Robinson, on Changing Education Paradigms.

I like how he traces the false epidemic of ADHD among children, and how he connects the necessary engagement with the aesthetic to promote creativity and divergent thinking with the ANaesthetic effect of drugs like Ritalin that essentially turn off minds, disconnect engagement, and create compliant factory machine components.

What I like most is how everything that Sir Ken says, and how he constructs his argument, exactly parallels and complements my own ideas on No Educator Left Behind. It's not the ego-stroking validation that pleases me, but rather the realization that there are credible people elsewhere in the world who understand, as I do, that the modernist education project is fundamentally wrong for our time, and that doing more of the wrong thing will not bring about the requisite changes to sustain an already transformed present, and inevitably transformational future. Not only our current education system, but also our current fundamental model of what education is and should be - the education paradigm - are wrong for our time: we are spending incredible amounts of time, money, and effort to create great citizens for the 19th century who become completely disengaged and increasingly unable to survive in the 21st.

Standardization and testing won't do it. Fancy tech in the classrooms (alone) won't do it. Rethinking the fundamental tenets of education, as I discuss in No Educator, is the place to start - we simply have to get back to the basics.

12 October 2010

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time?

A perfect example of a completely misguided marketing message: the Charmin bear enjoying the softness and absorbency of the bathroom tissue, posed in front of a destroyed lake. The takeaway? "Use Charmin. Destroy ecosystems."

Marketing is about messages which, as Marshall McLuhan told us, are entirely effects. Looks like someone in this agency's creative department will be scrubbing toilets for some time to come...

14 September 2010

Want to Change the World?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”—R. Buckminster Fuller

Fuller and Marshall McLuhan were acquaintances—perhaps one could even call them friends. Certainly, they shared aspects of a worldview when it came to understanding processes of change. (On the other hand, McLuhan was a Paul Revere-ish figure when it came to technology: “To arms! To arms! The media are coming.” Fuller, on the other, other hand, embraced the beneficent potential of technological change.) With regard to this “Bucky” quotation, I notice the explicit reference to obsolescence, and the tacit implication of reversal (which is my favourite among McLuhan’s four Laws of Media).

When a particular idea, conception, invention, or technology (all “media” in McLuhan’s construction) is no longer providing the structural impetus for a society or culture, it is, in McLuhan’s terms, obsolete. As he notes, this doesn’t mean that it disappears; in fact, it might be just the opposite. Obsolescence means that the thing or concept in question becomes ubiquitous in a banal sort of fashion—like some fashion (think, cloned couturier at Walmart, for example). It is almost always the case that the new medium – more precisely, the effects of the new medium – goes relatively unnoticed for a long while, all the time reframing, reshaping, and re-engaging the means and consequences of human interactions. But it is the new medium’s ability to diminish the dominant influence of the old – to force the latter’s obsolescence – that enables change.

It is often the case that a medium is pushed too far, forcing it into what McLuhan calls reversal—the state in which the effects of the original medium “flip” into their opposite. Whereas obsolescence is the tetrad quadrant of the past, reversal is the quadrant of the future. It is the means and mechanism of large-scale, systemic change.

Bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organizations have been around for a long time—arguably since the 10th century or so, an in the modernist context, since the post-Enlightenment (i.e., 17th century) period. The Industrial Age confirmed the BAH organization as a “best practice,” more or less, and from that foundation 20th century thinking progressed (and I use that term loosely) towards structural contingency theories: the idea that an organization’s structure determines its effectiveness, and that structure is contingent on the environment external to the organization among its markets, customers, competitors, regulators, and so forth. It sort of makes sense, in a deterministic, linearly causal, Industrial Age, clockwork notion of factory-style organizations. It characterizes “the existing reality,” or at least the reality that existed as we entered modernity.

Problematic? Sure. Dysfunctional? Clearly. Changeable? Ah, that’s the proverbial $64,000 question. You see, that so-called existing reality is no longer the current reality, that is the reality of contemporary times.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. Build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

That is why I created Valence Theory, and why I focus on interventions that don’t fight the existing reality in organizations, but rather introduce a new model that is more effective – creating an explicit awareness of effects – in order to help all members of the organization truly change things.

If you are the type of organizational leader who believes that his or her employees are the problem, or the arrangement of the organization chart is the problem, or that the solution lies in simply implementing new technology that makes old processes more efficient, then I might be able to offer you assistance via individual coaching and counsel. However, if you are the type of leader who realizes that their organization’s existing reality will not sustain it through this current period of complexity and transition, I definitely can assist with a new, effective model and methods that make the existing model quite obsolete.

06 September 2010

Zen and the Art of Organizational Transformation, Effectiveness, and Sustainable Change

I’m re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the classic, 1970s, philosophical novel by Robert M. Pirsig about one man’s journey into the philosophy of science, epistemology, the elusiveness of quality, and the process of (re)discovering oneself through a reconciliation of the romantic with the classical (read: rational). I read it the first time when I was much too young (recommended to me by my manager early in my professional career), and now am appreciating the philosophical reflections on replaying an earlier life, cut short by technology. In a very real sense, that description characterizes aspects of my own journey. Like the author, I too have learned the benefits of having become a reflective practitioner, the value of applying philosophy to practical matters, and a quest for understanding the elusive nature of quality in systems of organization.

I was struck, the other day, by a passage early in Chapter 8:
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
The second issue (I’ll get to the first one shortly) raised in this passage – the notion that tearing down the factory, or implementing organizational change, for example – without seriously challenging the underlying assumptions that gave rise to the particular form in the first place, is relatively futile if what one wants to achieve is sustainable change. I’m biased of course: my entire research is directed towards creating a new, fundamental understanding of organization so that theories of leadership, effectiveness, and transformation may be consistent with contemporary circumstances, rather than those of classical, Industrial Age thinking. To paraphrase Pirsig, if one attempts to institute organizational change, let alone “transformation for sustainability” that seems to be in vogue these days, but the systemic patterns of thought that produced that organization (and its problems, quirks, dysfunctions, and ineffectiveness) are left intact, than those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding organization.

When one is seeking to restructure an organization, or to integrate multiple organizational cultures after one or more mergers, or to revitalize leadership, or even something as relatively minor (in the large scheme of things) as implementing new workflow processes in the hopes of improving operational efficiency, it is important to recognize the dynamics that caused the need for change in the first place. Understand those dynamics, articulate the nature of the desired effects (not goals or outcomes—effects), and then set about enabling new organizational structures, operations, leadership processes, and the rest. (Valence Theory, of course, provides the necessary vocabulary and tools for the recommended understanding and articulation.)

This brings me to the first issue that Pirsig quickly zooms by, leaving it in a cloud of assumptive dust: the question of effects. From the classical perspective – one that adheres to the Newtonian, clockwork universe of “cause (first) and (then) effect” – it is easily understood what he is getting at. He speaks of the importance of attacking not effects but the underlying causes which have to do with persistent, old-style thinking. I agree, but one should not give such short shrift to the effectiveness of effects. We may, among our organizations, seek to accomplish goals and objectives. However, in all of our myriad approaches to planning, there is no way of knowing whether the goals and objectives we strive to accomplish are, in fact, the correct goals and objectives. Those goals and objectives? They are simply a means to an end, and that end is the resulting effects we enact among the various constituencies with whom we interact. Please think about that last comment for a second or two: goals and objectives by themselves are meaningless; their context, and hence meaning, is solely derived from the effects they enable among the organization's various interconnected constituencies.

Sustainable organizational change is only sustainable relative to those social, material, and spiritual environments with which the organization engages, combines, and interacts. That means being completely aware of the effects one intends to enable and create, and the effects that actually emerge, through any introduced process of transformation or change. Admittedly, this is a significant challenge for contemporary leaders, not unlike that of reconceiving the notion of the unitary, classical nature of a motorcycle to reach the epiphany that Pirsig’s narrator realizes when he finally reconnects with the forcibly departed Phaedrus.

Classical notions are no longer adequate to understand the complex dynamics of the contemporary world, nor of the contemporary organization. Change is only sustainable if it emerges organically from the environment that contextualizes it.

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26 August 2010

Salsa, and the Art of Organization Effectiveness and Leadership Development

Among other things, I am a salsa instructor—a passion that is completely in tune with everything else I perform professionally, and the values that pervade my life. The key to becoming a great salsa dancer is the same as creating a great organization (and, not coincidentally, the foundation of great, contemporary education): connection, context, complexity, and connotation. Leads and follows must, first and foremost, be connected and in touch with each other. They must learn to clearly signal and read the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum that flow throughout the dance. Advanced dancers know that, while the lead directs the movements, the follow sets the style, and both must complement each other, dancing collaboratively to create a beautiful, flowing, and passionate dance.

Regardless of their relative skill, the partners must respond to the context provided by the music. They must follow not only the tempo, but the mood, theme, and sometimes lyrics should also be reflected in the grace and passion of the shared movement. Rather than simply responding to the external context of the music, the dancers must allow the music to flow through them, enabling meaning-rich connection to emerge as they combine their connected interaction with the environment of the music. This necessarily means that the dance is complex: a number of simple elements that interact among connected, but otherwise independent, autonomous agents, resulting in the emergence of patterns that cannot precisely be predicted beforehand from the starting conditions.

Finally, the fourth “C,” connotation, or the creation of meaning. When I dance in the role of instructor-with-student, we create a certain and very particular meaning, irrespective of my partner's gender or our relative dance roles (that is, me in either the lead or follow role). That meaning emerges from the other three “Cs”: the connection in our roles; the context of both the music and the instructor-student relationship; and the complexity of the learning process. On the other hand, when I dance with one among some of my favourite partners, the connotation or meaning is completely different, particularly with a passionate song.

Reinforcing and augmenting the foundation of the four “Cs” is one simple idea—what it is that I do, whether in my role as dance instructor or as lead with a partner:

I create a great environment of engagement.

When I perform in the role of Organizational Therapist, when I’m invited as a Leadership Coach, when I’m asked to facilitate processes of Organization Transformation and Change, the same principles apply: I create a great environment of engagement that enables organizations and their leaders perform like advanced dancers.

Organizational leaders must, first and foremost, be connected and in tune with the other members of their organization—and those members extend beyond those who might merely be on the payroll or attend at one or more particular offices. There must be clear and consistent signals indicating the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum for the organization. And although the leader might direct the movement, it is the other members – all the participating constituencies who are affected by the organization’s motion – who set the style of interactions. All members and constituencies must mutually complement the collective organization, and “dance” collaboratively in accomplishing the organization’s goals and aspirations. Most important, this collaboration is responsible for creating the desired effects in the total organizational environment, and enacting the organization’s emergent and collective values.

Healthy organizations are thus informed by the 4 Cs: connection, context, complexity, and connotation. They are connected among their members and constituencies through valence relationships. Because of these connections, each constituency introduces an often unique context that flows through and is incorporated into the organization and affects its emergent behaviours. In this sense, the organization does not instrumentally respond to an external context like a beginner dancer counting out the rhythm, but rather becomes part of the overall environment, allowing the “music” – the environmental stimuli – to flow through it and provide organizational impetus. This, in turn, means that simple, deterministic analyses (such as those provided by the more instrumentally focused structural contingency theories) are not entirely helpful; a more appropriate analysis is based in complexity. And that means that leaders must learn to be cognizant of emergent meaning, or connotation, as they consider both more immediate tactics, and strategies to address longer-term objectives.

More than all of this, healthy organizations are passionate. They are passionate about being present in the environment of their connected constituencies. They are passionate about engaging with their various partners. They are passionate about creating a beautiful and elegant flow of desired and intended effects throughout the metaphorical ballroom floor of their industry, or market, or community, or other social environment on which they dance and enact their collective organizational aspirations.

In my role as therapist, coach, and facilitator, I help organizations, their leaders, and all their constituent members collaboratively create this passion through authentic connection, appreciation of diverse contexts, understanding organizational complexity, and enabling emergent connotation or meaning.

Most of all, I do one, consistent thing: I create great environments of engagement.

(For those who might be a little more left-brain-oriented, here is a detailed, specific exposition of what I do.

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13 August 2010

"You Will Be Charged! Ignorance is No Excuse!"

How's that for a nice, friendly introduction to Toronto-the-(once)-good? This was how a Japanese visitor to our fair city was greeted late last evening (after midnight) by one of our uniformed city ambassadors, otherwise known as a TTC fare collector at Spadina station. TTC Customer Service Advisory Panel, please take note.

A young Japanese man, Toronto guide book and tourist map in hand, had erroneously walked in through the bus driveway into the station. Somewhat confused by the non-obvious (to his eye) design of the station, he exited through the turnstile, and came around to show his weekly transit pass to the collector. (Yes, of course there is the "no entry" sign, but, hey: foreign visitor, rudimentary knowledge of conversational tourist English, and how well would you do against signs in Kanji?).

The collector was suitably incensed at the effrontery of the young man, and proceeded to give him a suitable dressing down, accusing him of a crime, informing him that he could be charged, and repeating these in that way some people have of dealing with those whose English is not up to scratch: louder and more insistent means that it becomes more understandable. The young man replied that (a) he had valid transport media (the weekly pass); (b) he was a foreigner and was unfamiliar with the particular ritual with respect to open driveways into a subway station (I'm paraphrasing); and (c) he understands and won't do it again. The collector wouldn't take (c) for an answer and continued with threats to have the young man arrested and charged, repeating, "Ignorance is no excuse!"

The collector is right: ignorance is no excuse. But, of course, I'm referring to the ignorance of the collector himself. Ignorance of customer service is no excuse for rudeness. Ignorance of your role as a goodwill ambassador of Toronto is no excuse for reading a visitor the riot act, especially if he's not rioting. Ignorance of the black eye our transit system has been wearing these past months over fare-collector rudeness (among many other things) is no excuse to add to the blackness regularly demonstrated by the good - and I used that adjective advisedly - members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113.

As for me, I helped diffuse the situation as I paid my fare, and ushered the young man towards the correct subway platform. His comment to me was that he could not believe the rudeness - it was, after all, a simple mistake, and he was not trying to avoid paying a fare. I expressed my agreement, apologized to him on behalf of the truly good citizens of this city, ensured he knew how to get to where he was going, and wished him a much better and more enjoyable stay in what is normally a great place to visit.

Hello TTC? Hello Gary Webster? Hello Bob Kinnear? Is anybody home? Is anyone there really serious about your business? And, far more important (notice what I do as a professional practice - second item, and check out "The Messages" - up there in the top right corner of the webpage), does anyone realize that such front-line behaviour is indicative of some very serious, systemic issues that still infect your organizational culture?

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11 August 2010

Hiring Strategy - Experience or Education? Wrong and wrong...

Friend Larry Lyon pointed me to a post entitled, Don't Hire Experience, Hire Learners. The gist of the post is a response to an article in the Australian Financial Review which suggests, “most employers say that if you have to choose between getting an MBA or getting two more years of experience, you’re much better off with the experience.” The post goes on to respond with a quote from the book Rework, which says, “Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when hiring. ... There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.” The post concludes that demonstrated ability to learn - like hiring an MBA - is a better indicator of success than mere experience.

Not exactly. This reasoning is an example of a false dichotomy, missing the essence of what's really going on in terms of effects and causes (in that order!).

My recommendation in response to all of this? Hire learners, yes. Hire MBAs? This is a dubious decision at best, because they don't necessarily know how to learn; rather, they know very well how to play a very particular game. To paraphrase a highly recommended radio documentary from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: MBA - Mostly Bloody Awful (also, Mediocre But Arrogant, and Management By Accident).

Learning requires one to be comfortable with admitting what you don't know - MBA grads typically don't qualify. Learning requires having an open mind and not sticking to the "trite and true." Most people who have been in the work force for years in a BAH organization where they're supposed to shut up and do their job don't qualify.

Instead, hire the radical. Hire the iconoclast (I'm looking for work, by the way - I can actually help with these sorts of issues). Hire the person who dissents with virtuous subversion. Hire the curious. Hire the person who lives a culture of inquiry.But first, ensure that you are a leader who truly welcomes diverse voices that provide radical worldviews, and introduce virtuous subversion. Ensure that you encourage a culture of inquiry throughout your enterprise, and that you, yourself are truly a reflective practitioner. Be a learner among learners.

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08 August 2010

On Values, Vision, Tactility, and Mission in Contemporary Organizations

I had the good fortune to meet Ellen Hayakawa recently, and share a brief conversation (as well as a couple of blues dances). Ellen’s work is complementary to mine—she focuses on spirituality in a corporate setting, and “exploring the relationship between spirituality in the workplace and sustainability.” The conversation we shared enabled me to reflect on the relationship among tactility, vision, and values, and how several distinct ideas often become conflated, and therefore, confused in many people’s minds.

In the conversation, Ellen mentioned using a ground of personal and collective spirituality to enable an appropriate focus on “mission, vision, and values.” I had several comments in response—predictable comments for those who know me. First, I observed that the order of these aspects of individual and collective guidance were in the wrong order, exactly backwards as far as I was concerned. For me, values must come first, then an appropriate sensory metaphor (more on this in a moment), and finally the so-called mission, objectives, goals, tasks, and direct action towards accomplishment. Second, as I discovered in my research, vision as the dominant sensory metaphor for organizations, has pretty much run its course through the Gutenberg-inspired epoch that ended with modernity. In a world that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate (UCaPP), tactility is a far more appropriate – not to mention useful and socially cognizant – sensory metaphor.

Ellen argued her defence of both the order and sensory metaphor admirably. In doing so, she helped me to sort out some of the connections between the individual and the collective, and the relationship between one’s own sense of place and purpose in the world and that emergent sense characteristic of UCaPP organizations, namely the “place of organization,” or organization-ba.

The idea that mission is central to an organization comes from the modernist conception of what I call the “primary-purposeful organization.” Essentially, this means that an organization’s purpose – its mission – is primary above any other consideration. That purpose is imposed on everyone who joins the organization so that all are contributing to accomplishing the mission, goals, and objectives towards a common end. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But, what becomes quite fascinating to me is that, in a primary-purposeful organization, vision often seems to be an adjunct that is almost reverse-engineered to justify the mission. I have seen too many organizations engage in so-called visioning sessions that are actually attempts to align a conception of vision – often merely a future projection of goals and outcomes – to back-justify the mission at hand. And that mission is inevitably and directly tied to some sort of fungible Economic (tradable exchange of value, whether money is involved or not) connection with well-identified constituencies. So, as Ellen indeed describes it, the order of “mission, vision, values” is the way it’s done in most organizations. Understand the primary purpose – mission – reverse-engineer a consistent future for the organization’s direction – vision – and then ensure that the espoused values align with both. In a sense, this order hearkens to Argyris and Schön’s single-loop learning in which what is espoused becomes well-aligned with what is actually done, all in the name of consistency (yet another hangover from the Enlightenment). That Ellen can help organizations inject a spiritual sensibility and sense of wellbeing, enabling its members to connect with their own spiritual centres, is unquestionably admirable and worthwhile, because doing so in an instrumentalist, primary-purposeful ground is such a tough road to hoe.

Ellen’s insistence on the importance of vision is not the usual argument that I hear from other, more-conventional and traditionally socialized OD consultants (like, “you can’t know where you’re going unless you have vision”). Rather, Ellen directly connects one’s individual vision with one’s personal values and therefore, sense of direction in the world. Here is where I think traditional vocabulary becomes both limited and limiting. Values, as one of my friends likes to remind me, are those aspects, characteristics, behaviours, and attributes that one wants to promote, preserve, and protect. They indeed speak to how one locates oneself in the world, and creates connections that reflect the ba-aspects of connecting, binding, or valence relationships. As one understands one’s own values, and collectively and collaboratively joins with others of like-mind to promote, preserve, and protect those aspects, the process of organizational emergence begins to occur (even within extant primary-purposeful organizations) in a way that is intrinsically consistent with values, and indeed, the potential of human spirit and spirituality as Ellen so elegantly puts it.

From collective values, the nascent valence-conceived organization can then begin to understand what effects it aspires to create in the world. These effects – distinctly different from outcomes, goals, and mission – can be expressed among the five valence relationships (Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological), and represent the organization’s tactility, answering the question, whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today. For someone coming from a ground of spirituality in the workplace, this idea of touch and enabling effects in one’s wider social, emotional, material, and spiritual environment provides far better guidance for actually doing things than beginning with striving to accomplish an arbitrary goal somewhere in the future. Consistent with pervasive proximity in a UCaPP world, tactility is immediate and sustains; vision can be (and often is) illusory, transitory, and always in the distance (think, “mirage”).

If you, like Ellen, construct your organization based on mission, vision, and values, then welcome to the world of modernity. I’m sure you would do really well in the 20th century, and create great opportunities, and a strong sense of doing what is right for spiritual sustenance. However, if you truly want your organization to be consistent with the world as it is today – firmly located in the UCaPP world of the 21st century – it may be time to reorder your fundamental organizational priorities and retire that old chestnut of vision as the dominant, guiding sensory metaphor—an artefact, after all, of post-Enlightenment thinking. In other words, it may be time to consider transforming your vision of organization itself into one that is valence-conceived, and therefore organic, alive, and vital.

In my practice, transforming organizations and leadership today begins with articulating individual and collective values. The process of transformation proceeds by translating those values into mutual tactility, thereby enabling the organization to create its place – organization-ba – among the various diverse constituencies it touches. From this place of fundamental guidance, the organization can then determine what it must accomplish – its goals and objectives – to enact the effects that manifest its values. Not only does this process enable a far healthier organization, it sets up the organization for its own sustainability, and as a contributor to collaboratively sustaining our world.

Values. Tactility. Accomplish. Sounds like appropriate and useful guidance to me.

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05 August 2010

Tomorrow: Online with the Globe on Narcissistic Leaders

I've been invited to participate in an online conversation at the Globe and Mail site on the topic of their recent article, Narcissistic Bosses and Why You Should Love Them. I'll be joined by Eric Cousineau, the person about whose presentation at the Toronto OD Network I wrote a couple of years ago. It will be interesting to see what he has to say (I'm guessing that we won't necessarily see eye-to-eye on this one). The article cites author and academic Michael Maccoby, who:
...views narcissism as being largely beneficial, if not inevitable, in entrepreneurs and chief executives – beneficial because narcissists are innovators, inevitable because narcissists, being ambitious, are the most likely to rise to the top.
Really. I can't say that I agree with him about narcissists being innovators necessarily, but certainly about them rising - or perhaps stomping on people below - to realize their ambition of being at the top and in charge. His key thesis, that good leaders have an "interrelated set of skills - foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating, and partnering - that he terms 'strategic intelligence'" is generally unassailable. However, suggesting that these are exclusive traits of narcissists - even so-called productive ones - is nonsense. And putting up the strawman that the opposite of someone with "strategic intelligence" is a "consensus-building bureaucrat" offensively ignores the reality of collaborative leadership in a contemporary context.

The online conversation is here, and runs from 10 to 11 a.m. EDT, tomorrow, Friday, August 6. If you're available, please hop online and join the conversation. 

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01 August 2010

PBS Frontline: College Inc.

Catching up on some old blog reading, I came across this exposé - or should I say, "investigation" - done by PBS's Frontline on for-profit, higher education corporations in the United States. The short version of the story is pretty straight-forward: Many regionally-accredited colleges in the US (and elsewhere) face significant financial pressure. Regional accreditation is the key criterion through which a college's programs qualify for US Federal Government student loans programs. For students who do not qualify for, or cannot afford, admission to either a state college or private, not-for-profit university, these for-profit institutions provide a way of obtaining at least a nominal, accredited qualification that may enable them to compete in a job market that increasingly demands formal qualifications. Put all of these factors together and you get the recipe for a perfect business: high demand among an under-serviced market, with immediate funding provided by the federal government, and those on-the-deferred-hook being promised that the value of their asset (the over-priced house... err... degree) will cover the future repayment of a loan they maybe shouldn't have qualified for in the first place.

Enter the private investors. There is considerable profit to be made by siphoning money from the federal purse now, to be repaid by anonymous individuals in the future, via investing in these down-at-the-heels colleges whose primary asset is not the quality of their research or, more importantly, the quality of their instruction, but rather the fact that their programs qualify for federal student loans. Hence, the astounding rise in market capitalization and economic valuation of such businesses as Grand Canyon University, Argosy University, Education Management Corporation, DeVry University, Chancellor University whose own claim to fame is the marketing potential of the Jack Welch Management Institute (ironically, among the close-up shots is a listing for a course in Business Communications and Ethics taught at that Institute), and the granddaddy of them all, University of Phoenix. The fact that the resulting average student debt load from these schools is almost double that of private (i.e., expensive) not-for-profit universities, and the employability of its graduates is apparently a fraction of that of traditional, higher-education institutions should not come as a surprise. The issue for the traditional business mind (hello, Mr. Welch!) is profit, so long as it violates no laws. The long-term effects, actual suitability for purpose, and consequences for any other constituency whom the business touches - those are apparently not part of "business ethics" in many traditional constructs.

The video is 55 minutes, but worthwhile viewing by anyone concerned with the state, and future, of higher education. What is considerably troubling to me as an Adult Educator is that many traditional, well-respected universities are beginning to follow the supposed economic imperative to be run more like a business, especially when it comes to the factory-model of undergraduate education (hello, University of Toronto!).

I should note that the program did not examine "hybrids": those traditional universities that have out-sourced the management and technical logistics of their distance-education programs to for-profit education corporations, while retaining control of their academic standards, faculty, and admissions.

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31 July 2010

Organization Therapy and Healing: The how-to guide

I’ve been asked a few times recently to explain just how the process of organizational therapy and healing works. “So what exactly do you do?” is how the question is sometimes framed. More often, though, it’s along the lines of “I think my company / activist group / community organization / social justice movement can use some of what you do—how can I explain it to my boss / management / the leadership?”

Is Your Organization Ready to Heal?
Not all organizations – even if they are in trouble – are able to hear the type of guidance I offer. Just as individuals in crisis may try to motor through on their own, or focus on getting things done irrespective of their emotional and spiritual wellbeing (that, of course, affect how well they can get things done), an organization in crisis, transition, or cultural disarray may instead focus on tangible results irrespective of its members wellbeing.

First, therefore, the legitimated leadership in the organization have to recognize that they have some sort of problem, crisis, or at least large-scale discomfort that they would like to fix. Moreover, they are able to identify this sense of unease with problems concerning organizational culture, or dysfunctional human dynamics among their members.

Leaders might frame that concept in a variety of ways: morale issues; trauma and stress related to layoffs, mergers, or acquisitions; regular escalating conflicts among people; systemic complaints about lower and middle management abuses; or similar signs and indicators. The leadership cohort also have to at least minimally realize that the problems won't be fixed by the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking ship (a.k.a. restructuring or a new org chart), or by a simple “town hall” or “all hands” meeting (although the town hall thing could serve as a wake-up call), or even through a leadership retreat event in which the organization’s vision becomes revision and the mission is put in remission. Something new must be tried.

Beginning Something New
This is where I come in. We have an initial conversation in which I attempt to get a first assessment on where, how, and when the organization is feeling pain. It could be coming from clients ("some of our best clients are telling us that they really don't like doing business with us like they used to"). It could be increased grievances against management. It could be more incidents of supervisor abuse or subordinate insubordination.

During that initial process of conversation and assessment (which could actually be several individual conversations followed by a group conversation in which I play back what I've heard—of course unattributed to any particular individual), I describe how I view organizations in the general case (i.e., using Valence Theory vocabulary). I may even give some generic (sanitized for confidentiality) examples of other organizations in similar straights that have been helped. I then coach the leadership through devising a discovery plan which has the aim of understanding the issues—and especially the issues that wouldn't come out when people are feeling unsafe. This often begins to look like a plan for an Action Research type of intervention.

Action in the Research
The findings of the Action Research investigation (and the duration of this varies immensely) are brought out in a process of formal dialogue (à la David Bohm) in which the legitimated leadership folks are in dialogue, and some non-leadership members are the process observers. This dynamic helps to model the erosion of hierarchical privilege and the beginnings of inclusive, more participatory, and collaborative leadership.

At this point, subsequent work depends entirely on what is found, and how the organization's members want to proceed. I should mention that by "members," I ideally mean everyone whom the organization touches via the five valence relationships, although at the early stages and iterations, management are sometimes more reluctant about including external "holders of stake." To begin the process of rebooting the organizational culture, I often advise beginning with a values and tactility session, as I describe in my thesis findings, that facilitates organizational members’ understanding of precisely what and how the organization wants to be. From there, the specific issues that were discovered during the first AR intervention can begin to be addressed in the context of the explicit set of organizational values, and the answer to the organization’s tactility question: whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today?

As a matter of fact, I just did a mini-version of this yesterday for the annual retreat of a volunteer, activist organization of which I am an ally. The action research part wasn't necessary, since the membership were polled with respect to specific initiatives and undertakings that were deemed important for re-booting the group after a successful, but seriously draining initiative that occupied them for the past, nearly two years. We did the values and tactility session using a close variation of a conversation café model, and I facilitated working through the proposed initiatives based on the fundamental cultural understandings that emerged from that opening session. As well, I helped them model changes in interpersonal dynamics and behaviours that, traditionally for this organization, inevitably resulted in huge gaps between espoused and in-use theories of action when it came to internal meetings. Much of what the group decided came out of a judicious application of my ideas of Effective Theory. They even adopted the UCaPP model of creating reference groups [see the section on "Sustaining a Complex Culture"] for new members. At the end of it all, they marvelled at how well the day went, how much they had accomplished, how good they all felt about the process, and similar sorts of wonderful and validating epithets about how I helped them to create a great environment of engagement among their members. Put simply, that's what I do.

Now, what can I do for you and your organization?

(For those who might be a little more right-brain oriented, here is a more creative exposition of what I do.)

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21 July 2010

Logic vs. The Bureaucratic Mind: Guess which wins?

The Ontario Government is a marvel of bureaucratic thinking (but don't worry Toronto City Hall, and the Harper Conservative Regime - you're both doing really well in bureaucratic race to the bottom). The recent eco-fee-asco is not only politically damaging, revealing as it does the malaise that seems to pervade Queen's Park. It is actually far worse in its implications of a government so out of touch with sustainability issues, so blinded by a linearizing bureaucratic logic, so ineffective that it cannot perceive the effects of anything that it does, that it is hard to know where to begin, either in one's critique, or an effective remedy.

Here's the back-story: Money is a force-motivator. In other words, one can very crudely change behaviour by adjusting the amount of money one associates with that behaviour. Charge five cents for a shopping bag, and people will reduce their consumption of shopping bags, because it's not too difficult to bring your own. Bureaucratic logic (in this case, a.k.a. by its proper name, reductio ad absurdum) says that by charging some number of cents for containers of toxic products, people will reduce their use of toxic products. We can always bring our emptied plastic water bottles to refill with bleach, laundry detergent, and other household cleansers. And, if we really don't want to cart our own fluorescent tubes and those CFP "bulbs" the government has been foisting on us to the solid waste transfer stations so that we can sit in the queue among the garbage trucks, we could always reuse them as lawn ornaments. Or something...

In practice, eco-fees are a good idea IF AND ONLY IF they are applied to those who can actually do something about toxic and excessive packaging. Throughout the world - and especially in Europe - manufacturers are responsible for the disposal fees associated with their packaging - the packaging over which they have exclusive control. The result is a significant reduction in excess packaging because the fees placed on the manufacturers are indeed a force-motivator. Consumers have been known to unpack gadgets, small appliances, and anything else that is feasible in the stores, resulting in stores and manufacturers having a positive incentive to reduce trash.

Not so here, among the self-interested, so-called stakeholders (and I do absolutely hate that term). In this case, the self-interested holders of stake who form the euphemistically named Stewardship Ontario are the very manufacturers and retailers who would be stuck with the bill, if they didn't have the power to simply say, "consumer pays." Among the bureaucrats, there is no thought given to the logic which responds, "but consumers can't do much to change the packaging"; manufacturers and retailers can, so they should be the ones on the hook. Simple, logical, effective, and not so bureaucratically absurdum.

One additional point: the bureaucratic approach to fast-and-loose accounting, that allows the government to say, "it's not a tax" with a straight face, because Stewardship Ontario is technically not the government and, you know, only governments can collect taxes, doesn't fool anyone who doesn't want to be fooled. What is completely amazing to me is that Minister Gerretsen seems genuinely surprised at how poorly this all turned out. Then again, he is only advised by bureaucrats - unable to either perceive quality or innovate.
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16 July 2010

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything - Especially Social Media Marketing

A number of confluences over the past couple of days with respect to advertising and marketing, social media, memes, and cultural evolution. In response to a tag from my friend, Leigh (and if you're in marketing, you'd do yourself a favour to have a conversation with her), here's the answer to the question about why social media and digital strategies  work, don't work, sometimes work, are a big waste of time, are the greatest thing since Burma Shave, and combinations and permutations of the above.

People are social beings. Always have been. They enjoy sharing experiences. Always have done. When we fundamentally change the way we share our experiences, we change the ways in which we interact with one another, and that changes everything. In other words, "the medium is the message." And, by the way, we've recently changed the way in which we share our experiences, so remember the old assumptions about interacting with each other? They're now sort of wrong, and we need to understand the effects of those changes, so that those who get paid to capitalize on human interactions can actually earn their keep.

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