20 February 2010

The Essential Roger Ebert

If you love movies, there is little chance that you would not know the name, not to mention the contribution, of Roger Ebert. Ebert, with his longtime partner and nemesis, Gene Siskel, gave us "two thumbs up" and peerless guidance of what was worth seeing on the big screen. Chris Jones of Esquire magazine has written a remarkable portrait of Roger Ebert, a man now silenced by repeated treatments and surgeries to battle the cancer that is taking his life by inches.
Seven years ago, he recovered quickly from the surgery to cut out his cancerous thyroid and was soon back writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and appearing with Richard Roeper on At the Movies. A year later, in 2003, he returned to work after his salivary glands were partially removed, too, although that and a series of aggressive radiation treatments opened the first cracks in his voice. In 2006, the cancer surfaced yet again, this time in his jaw. A section of his lower jaw was removed; Ebert listened to Leonard Cohen. Two weeks later, he was in his hospital room packing his bags, the doctors and nurses paying one last visit, listening to a few last songs. That's when his carotid artery, invisibly damaged by the earlier radiation and the most recent jaw surgery, burst. Blood began pouring out of Ebert's mouth and formed a great pool on the polished floor. The doctors and nurses leapt up to stop the bleeding and barely saved his life. Had he made it out of his hospital room and been on his way home — had his artery waited just a few more songs to burst — Ebert would have bled to death on Lake Shore Drive. Instead, following more surgery to stop a relentless bloodletting, he was left without much of his mandible, his chin hanging loosely like a drawn curtain, and behind his chin there was a hole the size of a plum. He also underwent a tracheostomy, because there was still a risk that he could drown in his own blood. When Ebert woke up and looked in the mirror in his hospital room, he could see through his open mouth and the hole clear to the bandages that had been wrapped around his neck to protect his exposed windpipe and his new breathing tube. He could no longer eat or drink, and he had lost his voice entirely. That was more than three years ago.
Ebert's own response to the article is posted on his blog - his words are as touching as is the Esquire article itself. Well worth the read if you are a fan of film, of Roger Ebert, or both.

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So What Do You Do?

Every so often I get asked this question, often in a social encounter: "so what do you do?" And my response is always the same: I create great environments of engagement so that all participants can have the opportunity to achieve their own aspirations. As for me, I want my own aspirations to have at least two of three principle attributes - they should be interesting, important, and fun - and hopefully all three. All of that suits my role* (natural mode) of educator and is a nice place to live for how I hope to earn my living now that "this thesis thing" is coming to a close.

Why do I bring this up this morning? I just received an email from some students who attended my lectures and playshops last fall during my annual trip to Högskölan för Lärande och Kommunikation (the School of Education and Communication) at Jönköping University in Sweden. I love these opportunities to engage with first-year communications students and introduce them to the thinking and approaches of Marshall McLuhan, especially including the Laws of Media tetrads as an analytic tool for both reading and writing the culture, as many of these students will eventually do. In particular, these engagements with the students are always interesting and fun, and being able to inspire students to new thinking about the world is, perhaps, among the most important of human endeavours.

The students shared with me a lovely video project they created in their Visual Communications course for which they used the tetrad approach to help them construct the piece. As will all good craftspeople, you can't see the tools left over in the final production, but the cleverness of it demonstrates to me that there was some advanced creative thinking that went in to its design. The video is a fabulous example of a cool medium - on in which the audience must become involved to complete the work. Watch it twice.

(Thanks, and congratulations, Johan, Sanna, Sara, Ida, Robin and Jennifer!)

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16 February 2010

A BAH in the Park

Today is budget day at Toronto City Hall and we are being told that it costs money to run a city like Toronto. Yes, that's true, especially when one realizes that BAH is far more expensive and less efficient than UCaPP, and the fair City of Toronto is a Bastion of BAH. Here is a small microcosm of a much larger organizational and management problem that pervades the tiny minds of the City bureaucracy. It concerns the rink at Dufferin Grove Park, and how City managers went out of their way not only to destroy a healthy, (UCaPP) emergent community organization, but to impose such utter stupidity in the name of BAH.
Parks and Recreation management is making it move to homogenize its offerings. Management says: No community boards of management for arenas. And in the case of outdoor rinks, the message this year has been getting ever more insistent: No campfires. No skate lending. No mini-pizzas. No woodstoves. No zamboni cafes with cheap food. No easy collaboration between rink staff and rink friends. Rink staff are cautioned: “you are in conflict of interest. Your responsibility is to the Corporation of the City of Toronto.” No visits to other rinks to give those other rink-friends suggestions, or answer their questions. Stay in your zone, and in your assigned place in the city hierarchy.

Lines of communication are strictly laid down. The recreation supervisor is told to stop working with his on-site rink staff directly. On-site staff are told to work only with the “recreation programmer.” If rink users ask the rink staff when the zamboni crew is coming to resurface the ice, rink staff are not allowed to ask the crew directly -- they must call the Recreation Programmer, who calls the Recreation Supervisor, who calls the Parks Supervisor, who calls the Zamboni Foreperson, who radios the crew and then calls the Parks Supervisor back, who calls the Recreation Supervisor, who calls the Recreation Programmer, who calls the rink staff. Yes, really. Every time.

The supervisor himself is cautioned about being in conflict of interest. His job is: to follow policies laid down by management, sometimes backed up by council vote, often not. If he wants to support special activities put on by rink friends, he has to ask the Permit Office, which asks for permission from the Parks Supervisor. If permission is given, Customer Service enters the information into the central permit system. If the rink supervisor is seen to be helping rink volunteers avoid paying a permit fee or insurance for community events, he is warned.
It's interesting that the phrase "conflict of interest" is bandied about. Whenever a bureaucrat seeks to reproduce his/her system of means as their main organizational goal (in the words of Manuel Castells) they create a huge conflict of interest, one for which we, the citizens of Toronto, pay dearly. It is little wonder that both the politicians and bureaucrats of City Hall seek to control, regulate, and punish rather than facilitate, encourage, and reward grassroots initiatives and things that just make sense. Not surprising that City Hall attracts raw ambition, power-seeking, and narcissistic self-righteousness irrespective of one's political bent, throughout both its elected and non-elected ranks, and among its associated agencies and services.

It's a sad state of affairs (and no, that's not meant to be a Giambrone punchline, but case in point...)

(Thanks, Michael!)

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08 February 2010

I Think We Need a Different Kind of Medium

I'm in the University of Toronto Blue Book of so-called experts willing to provide interviews to various media outlets. As such, I receive a fair number of requests from, among others, journalism students concerning social media, the effects on society, and any sensational headline involving Facebook. But today, I received an email request somewhat different from the usual (both the individual and the school shall remain nameless to protect the embarrassed:
Mr. McLuhan,
I am a journalism student working on a short piece about social media's impact on PM Harper's recent decision to cancel Parliament's spring break. My
focus is mainly on whether the facebook movement impacted his decisions. I was wondering if you, as an expert in the social media field, had any
thoughts on the matter that you would be willing to share with me.
I think this student is confusing medium, message, and medium.

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07 February 2010

Google's SuperAd

Google's Superbowl ad is perfect: great story-telling, show not tell, and perhaps most savvy of all, hitting the message of the Internet spot on - relationship and connection. This one goes to my commercials playshop (assuming I visit Jonkoping again).

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Message to TTC's Gary Webster: It Ain't Gonna Happen

I came across the public version of a memo TTC Chief General Manager (egad! what a title), Gary Webster sent to all staff.  In it, he says that "our customers deserve better," and that he is "becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC." Do tell. What concerns me - that is, what indicates that Mr. Webster is essentially without clue when it comes to matters of changing organization culture - is the conclusion of his memo:
As Chief General Manager, I am ultimately accountable to our customers. As employees, you - and you alone - are accountable for your actions. The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end. I hold all of management responsible to make this happen. Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you.
Fascinating how wrong this man can be. Every single sentence in that paragraph is either wrong on its face, wrong-headed, wrongly framed, or combinations and permutations of all of the above! I cannot imagine how someone who conveys such a basic lack of knowledge about organizational culture and the nature of leadership could end up as "Chief General Manager." (Actually, I do - that is the nature of BAH; to be a BAH leader, you have to have a BAH leadership personality.) So, I hear you asking, what's wrong with Mr. Grand Chief Poo-Bah's memo?

1. "As Chief General Manager, I am ultimately accountable to our customers." Wrong. Your position does not automatically or necessarily convey accountability, except in a trite, nominal, procedural, it-says-so-in-the-book sort of fashion. Being "ultimately" accountable is code for "there are others who are going to fall before I do," rather than the more direct, "if our customers feel pain, I'm going to make damn sure I feel it too." But, worse than that, the idea of "ultimate" accountability means detachment, not an impetus to own up to fundamentally what is wrong (more on this later).

2. "As employees, you - and you alone - are accountable for your actions." Wrong. Oh, I would say that in a sort of childish, you're-responsible-for-your-own-behaviour concept, yes, individuals taking coffee breaks, naps, not handing out transfers, being churlish and rude - yes, people should be able to control themselves. The operative words there are should be able to. TTC workers - management and unionized workers alike - are human, and humans respond to their environment. If the environment has been poisoned by management and union alike, the workers (all workers, right up to you, Mr. Webster), are similarly poisoned, and their behaviours are likely to be toxic. Thus, it is insincere or naive (or both) to simply say that individuals are solely responsible for the daily headlines of inappropriate actions. In other words, Mr. Webster, if you are truly holding yourself accountable (see point 1), you are "ultimately" accountable for the toxic organizational culture over which you preside. But, you're not alone in your accountability - no, not by a long shot.

3. "The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end." Wrong. It won't end, especially by fiat. This is yet another example of the toxicity to which I referred a moment ago. If you believe you can legislate good behaviour - especially without changing the fundamental nature of your organizational culture - you're in for a surprise.

4. "I hold all of management responsible to make this happen." Wrong, for the same reasons as points 2 and 3. It isn't management's responsibility to effect organizational change; it is the responsibility of all TTC members (and the public, too).

5. "Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you." Wrong. First, real change starts with YOU, Mr. Webster, not the "you" (i.e., TTC workers) at whom you point your finger. Your so-called reviews and plans are likely to involve blame, resistance by the union, customer service "training" for the workers, and not a whit of substantive change that truly creates cohesiveness in an organization and heals the long-standing rifts that exist among the workers.

So what is to be done? It is easy to say, fire the lot of 'em (including senior managers and Chief Whatnots). It's easy to say privatize transit in the city because competition and the so-called free market cures all ills (not). I think what is important to recognize is that the fragmentation and "separation of labour" (Taylor's thinkers and doers) mentality is at the heart of the dysfunction. Do both Gary Webster and Amalgamated Transit Union 113 head, Bob Kinnear, agree and truly accept that there are extensive, organization-wide cultural dysfunctions? If not, then they have to go because they are fundamentally part of the problem. Do they accept and truly acknowledge that each of them, and their respective constituencies, have actively contributed to the adversarial atmosphere that creates such dysfunctions in organizations? If not, then, again, they have to go or there will never be a solution to mutual intransigence.

A major intervention is required, along the lines that one might call "organizational therapy" (and yes, disclosure time: this is something that I practice and facilitate). It begins with collaboratively bringing together the human values from among all (i.e., an appropriate representations of) members of the organization, not by title, rank or seniority, but across and throughout the organization, irrespective of hierarchical status. It continues with extensive involvement from among all constituencies. It evolves to a complete revamping of operational supervision, and even the collective bargaining process.

In short, it is not about individual action, individual responsibility, and holding individual accountability. It is, instead, all about individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. And, it isn't going to happen overnight, nor over several months' full of nights. It is going to be a slow transformation that will take several years to effect in an organization this large. But the beauty of it is, changes can begin to occur immediately, once those in charge begin to realize that a Bureaucratic, Administrative, and Hierarchical solution to this problem just ain't gonna happen.

Update (8 Feb 2010): This post has been attracting a lot of attention over the past couple of days, so let me be explicit about who I am and the location of my standpoint. I am an Adult Educator, Organizational Therapist, and Organizational Philosopher by training, practice, and disposition. I have just completed an extensive research study on issues of "old" and "new" styles of organization and how to effect transition from old models to new, and developed a new, fundamental theory of organization which is my doctoral dissertation. I understand how cultural change initiatives can go very wrong, very quickly, and the amount of work, perseverance, dedication, and serious attention it takes for any hope of success. I also know FOR CERTAIN that conventional, quick-fix, action-oriented, for-the-love-of-god-do-something approaches (like "customer service sensitivity training") only make matters fundamentally worse, especially in the long run. This is clearly a very unwell organizational culture (a reflection of similar dysfunctions in the larger City Hall organization, by the way) that needs considerable intervention assistance from other than the usual suspects.

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The Case of Thornley-Fallis: "We Own You" (or so we claim)

My friend, Leigh, posed a question on her Facebook profile asking what people think about PR agency, Thornley Fallis’s, new “online communications policy.” Essentially, it is based on the premise,
You’re always one of us
Each of us represents the company to the world and the character of the company is defined by our beliefs and actions. We must be mindful of this when participating in social media and any kind of online communications.
You may be active in social media on your own account. That’s good. But please remember that whether you are on your own time or company time, you’re still a member of our team. And the judgment you exercise on your own time reflects on the judgment you exercise at work. There’s only one you – at play and at work.
It goes on from there to provide guidelines like, “cause no harm to any person,” be civil, respectful, and transparent, and so on. Not bad things, right? Personally, I think borrowing from the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath is a cute touch, if a tad unoriginal (which raises the question, do you really want a PR agency that speaks in “borrowed” clichés?, but I digress…). There is some emerging conversation on Leigh’s Facebook wall that equates the notion of “you’re always one of us” with 1984-ish groupbeing, and the tacit assertion that the company claims ownership of its employees. This being Canada (and the company being Canadian), such is not the case in law—unlike our neighbours to the south, our labour laws are enlightened beyond employment-at-will. Nonetheless, this idea of “you’re always one of us,” a.k.a., “we own you” is an increasing – and increasingly problematic, if one-way – construct in the contemporary workplace.

I have written about this before, regarding the case of Professor Colin Wightman at Acadia University. And, I discuss a similar example that occurs in one of my participant organizations in my research. This premise is further evidence for me that Identity-valence has become dominant in the UCaPP world. It is easy to interpret this from the ground of a sort of indentured servitude—we pay you, therefore we own you. Given the centuries during which Economic valence (that is, fungible-Economic valence) has been dominant, it’s easy to understand this reading. Additionally, and especially in BAH organizations, the reciprocal nature of f-Economic valence has not been recognized as balanced: the cliché of “fair value for money” is rarely recognized and practiced by corporate entities. There is, of course, a corresponding resistance from the members of the organization seeking to make such an ownership claim. From the traditional “separation of work and life” perspective, these sorts of claims are as repugnant as they are intrusive. However, in an ironic sort of way, an employee protesting the intrusiveness of an ownership claim is, in effect, reinforcing not only the ownership claim itself, but also the dominance of an imbalanced f-Economic valence as the structuring force of the organization. Both of these, I submit, are obsolesced constructs in the UCaPP world.

When an employee says to their boss (organization), “what I do when I’m off the clock is my business, not yours,” they are also essentially saying the converse: “when I’m on the clock, yes, I agree, you own me.” The employee constructs themselves as no more than a mercantile service, defined in strictly f-Economic terms. All other considerations are secondary. If their mercantile service expressly does not include, say, providing insight on policy, or creating new inventions, or improving the efficiency of the operation, or reporting on quality of service lapses, any contributions made in these areas are strictly voluntary contributions to the wealth and wellbeing of a privileged few (see Marjorie Kelly’s book, The Divine Right of Capital, for an excellent treatment of these sorts of issues, and why U.S.-style capitalism is a contradiction in terms). Employees who separate their identities in this way accede to the “rightness” of hierarchical privilege, arbitrary imposition of policy, and exclusion from decision-making in their organization. This, to me, is highly problematic and anachronistic in ways that I discuss at length (in the section on “The Natures of Organization”).

However, when viewed in terms of Identity valence (even fungible-Identity valence), the nature of Thornley-Fallis’s claim of “you’re always one of us” becomes ever so much clearer. Both individuals and organizations reciprocally construct their identities in relation—in relation to their employees, their customers, their sister, parent and partner organizations, and ultimately, to the communities of which they are a part. When Tiger Woods decides to practice his putting outside of his home course (sorry), the identities of those organizations for whom he is a (paid) spokesman are equally sullied. Naturally, they quickly distance themselves from the golf superstar. Perhaps less famous, but no less connected, each member of an organization is the organization. But equally, the organization is its members. It is not sufficient for the members to take on their organization’s espoused values (let alone its in-use values). The organization must respect and embody the collective values of its members. Those in the organization with legitimated hierarchical status must understand that they cannot legitimately impose unilateral policies in a UCaPP environment and expect their members to accept them without critical conversation, no matter how reasonable the sugar-coating may sound. Indeed, in imposing a “we own you” policy (admittedly, well sugar-coated), Thornley-Fallis is causing harm to the persons who are their members by requiring that they unilaterally give up their values if not aligned with those of the organization. And, I would go so far as to guess that there has not been an explicit conversation among all members as to just what those collective values might be, or whether dissent becomes a firing (or constructive-dismissal) offence. Identity valence must be a two-way relationship in an organization that purports to be consistent with contemporary times.

And by making the claim that they are “hip” with social media, Thornley-Fallis must either be truly consistent, or admit to social media hypocrisy – not hip, but a wannabe hipster. So, Joseph Thornley, which is it? (Here’s a hint: brandishing the title, CEO, ain’t hip with being UCaPP.)

(Thanks, Leigh!)

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02 February 2010

Final Thesis Section Now Posted

After five years of work, the journey now approaches its end. Today, I have posted the last section of my thesis on the Valence Theory Thesis Wiki.

This last section - Meaning: The interplay of figure and ground - describes Valence Theory specifically: the five valence relationships, the two valence forms, and the notion of "effective theory of action." It contextualizes the research findings (from the section, Figure), and describes some of the implications, including, The Nature of Leadership, and Effecting Organizational Transformation.

As with the other sections, each chapter is preceded with A Conversation with Nishida. In particular, the conversation, The Place, describes the philosophical foundation of basho ("place" in Japanese) from which some of the Valence Theory constructs are derived. The other Conversations are both entertaining and thought-provoking, setting up the mindframe for the content chapter to follow.

As always, I invite your comments, critiques, feedback, and suggestions. If you are a research participant, this is your last opportunity to provide input and guidance with respect to how your contributions are represented.

Thank you to all who have contributed their comments on the draft so far. And, once again, a special thanks to those organizations and individuals who participated in the research, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Happy reading!

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