Wednesday, April 29, 2009

happy endings

Keith McArthur has kicked off the Cluetrainplus10 Project with the FAQ and the list of participants. This is my contribution.

36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. However "fell" is not really the right verb to use. The inhabitants of the two Germanys did not wake up one morning to find that this icon of the Cold War, this continual reminder of the divided state of their nation, had collapsed in the night. It was taken down. By people. Demolished. It didn't fall, it was pushed.

Organisations have a strange relationship to the outside world - and it doesn't matter if they are corporates, small businesses, government departments or not-for-profits. We talk about customers, suppliers, citizens, donors or service users. We may even have been one just a few weeks previously. We talk publically about serving them. We fantasize privately about killing them. We wonder why they are so alien and difficult. And that is a little odd because they didn't create the technological, legal & social firewalls that we are hiding behind.

Social software does not change the world. It simply makes our present patterns of behaviour less tenable. Other things matter too. We outsourced a whole bunch of stuff. We fired a bunch of people then hired them again and then fired them once more. We've had more cosmetic surgery than Mickey Rourke so it's no surprise that we look as good as he does.

Everyone's a little confused. Is "delighting the customer" really what drives your behaviour? Are your staff really "your greatest asset"? Do you really seek "integrity in all your actions"? The NewSpeak of our organisations is bastard, ugly pidgin of the nerves that is incapable of either poetic inspiration or the direction of a combat command.

If we write our words collectively, in public (and whether it's text or images or video or audio is only of minor importance) then may be we can rebuild our language and the relationships that it supports. But we cannot wait for these walls to fall of their own accord.

They must be pushed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

no luck

I am torn by the work of Richard St John & his eight secrets to success.

I cannot disagree that passion, work, focus, push, ideas, improvement, service & persistence are good things to do. I would strongly advise people to do these things.

At the same time, Richard calls himself a "success analyst". And yet I think there's a gaping hole in his analysis. And this highlights a critical difference between Richard & myself. Richard seems to believe that the world is fair. I do not. And this has implications.

From my understanding based on his website (& please correct me if I am wrong), Richard has interviewed a lot of successful people and, based on his analysis of those interviews, has identified the 8 secrets to success*. If you do these things then you will be successful. Richard does not believe in luck: our success is NOT determined by this thing we have no control over called luck. Our success is the result of doing things that we do have control over – the Eight Success Principles.

That's because his chosen method blinds him to the role that luck plays in the lives of successful people for two reasons:
  • There is this thing called the self-serving bias. If you ask people why they have been successful then they tend to attribute it to their own abilities. They tend to attribute their failures to their environment. Successful people may be different in this regard but if so, I would like to see the evidence. Asking people why stuff happened to them is not always a reliable way of establishing facts.
  • The sample of people that Richard chosen are all successful. He has not spoken to people who did all of his 8 thing but were ultimately unsuccessful. So I'm guessing this bunch of people don't exist. Right?
I asked Richard about this latter point and he was kind enough to respond in this blog post. Please read the whole thing but I'm going to pull out a quote for you: So, there was a high correlation between not doing the 8 Traits and not achieving success.

Richard is right to use the word "correlation". He picked a group that are defined as failures - and quite an extreme group. There is an issue with this. Let me demonstrate this by adding a 9th secret of success: "owning a Bentley". There was probably a higher level of Bentley ownership aong millionaires than there is among street beggars. Does this mean that their lack of Bentley ownership is a cause of their non-millionaireness?

To put this another way, there is also a strong correlation between poverty & mental illness - but the cause & effect relationship may go in both directions. Being mentally ill decreases your ability to find an income. Being very poor causes you lots of stress that may increase your chances of developing mental illness. But all those unsuccessful people that Richard had talked to must have lost (or never had) passion and focus before they ended up in their situation. Right?

If Richard's method seems familiar that's because it is very similar to one used by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Good to Great looked at companies rather than people but has come in for a lot of stick from Bob Sutton & Phil Rosenzweig for using the "asking awesome people why they are so awesome" method. This recent HBR article noted that: we evaluated 287 allegedly high-performing companies in 13 major success studies. We found that only about one in four of those firms was likely to be remarkable; the rest were indistinguishable from mediocre firms catching lucky breaks. But I thought that luck played no role in success? How can this be?

In his blog post responding to me, Richard goes on to say: So, if successful people follow the 8 Traits, what differentiates the ones who achieve super success from those who achieve moderate success? Again, it’s a question of degree. The Gates and Oprahs of the world not only do the 8 Traits, they do them to a greater degree than other people. They love what they do more than most people. They work more hours (even after he was a multimillionaire, Bill Gates worked most nights until 10pm and only took 2 weeks off in 7 years).

Bill Gates is approximately 100,000 times richer than me. That means that he must work 100,000 times harder than me. Or else he loves his work 100,000 times more than me. Or could it be that environment and/or luck play a role here? But that can't be right because life is fair and luck plays no part.

Actually there is one group in the world for whom life is fair. And that's people like me & Richard - white males in the developed world. Life is more than fair for us. It is wonderful. It rocks being a white male living in a developed country (esp. if you have an education, money, status & power) - and don't let any self-hating liberal hippy tell you otherwise. And if the rest of you aren't as successful as us then you have only yourselves to blame. Be as passionate as us. Work as hard as us. Stop being losers.

So what will I tell my children?

I will tell my children that they must work hard & be passionate about they do & all the other things that Richard talks about. But I will also tell them that life is not fair and they are very lucky to be living in a country with access to education & health services (assuming we still do). I will then refer back to the previous point that life is not fair and state that they are also very lucky to be born into this wonderful country in a position of relative status & power.

And I will finish by reminding them that life is not fair and this all could be taken away from them in a moment.

*But wait? Are these really "secrets"? I don't really feel that "hard work is important" is something that anyone has kept from me. Every authority figure in my life has told me this.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

bring the noise

"My name is Legion, for we are many"

Much of the work in data communications has been about getting the clearest data possible, clearest signal possible - and while this may be useful when I'm trying to have a convo on Skype, noise reduction isn't necessarily a good thing when applied to online identity.

Triggers: Marcus Brown writes a little here, Chris Locke writes a little there and Adam Ferrier writes somewhere else.

The strand that links these blog posts for me their recognition that our identities are partially cocreated with others, they lie in relationships (but not wholly). And not all exchanges are good. And not all relationships are wanted.

In giving out our data, in presenting ourselves in different environments we must guard against being too transparent or else we end up like Mr Cellophane.

One option is passive acceptance.

Another solution is to give away as little as possible. Get off the grid. Put up the gates. Information survivalism.

The third is to overwhelm & confuse. Multiple identities. Multiple data. How many social security cards can you collect? How many people do you want to be? How much noise can be introduced into the system*? One person as many? Many as one?

How do we introduce disorder into the world for own collective advantage?

*Michel Serres is obsessed with noise, with turbulence. I have to go back to my copies of his books.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Story week is coming

Anecdote, Sparknow and Innotecture have been working together for a little while now to find out a bit more about what stories have influence and impact. We've found quite a difference in views, even among ourselves. So we're inviting our combined readership and their networks (and their networks) to participate in Story Week (starting May 4th) Over 5 days we're going to show you 5 stories from different people in different formats, intended for very different audiences and settings. You're going to tell us how you respond to them. We'll tell you what you collectively told us. We'll all learn something in the process. Oh, and it will be fun, too.

Watch this space...

Friday, April 10, 2009

moral panics: young people & the internet

Journalists love an outrage like ordinary people love hot cross buns. A couple of items have cropped up in the Australian media recently around cyberbullying & the impact of the internet on young people that I think require a little scrutiny.

Exhibit 1: Miranda Devine wrote an article last week entitled MySpace cadets sliding into addiction. Ms Devine quotes Susan Greenfield. Baroness Greenfield is probably a very good researcher in her field of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. However she also has a side vocation as a writer of speculative fiction. Unfortunately, many journalists cannot tell the difference between scientific research and speculation. Based on this interview, the ABC's Kerry O'Brien seems to be one such journalist. I would like to see the Baroness actually support her claims with, y'know, some science. Dr Ben Goldacre puts it very well in this article.

To her credit, Ms Devine does quote some research. Well kinda. She mentions the work of Dr Mubarak Ali. Currently researching the problem, Ali says internet addiction is so serious that by 2012 it will likely be classified as a mental disorder in Australia. Being a bit of nerd, I dropped Dr Ali an email asking if I could receive a copy of his published research. He was kind enough to respond and tell me that he hadn't published anything yet. He pointed me to the Teenspeak website where he is running a survey on this topic. I asked him how many people had responded to his survey (i.e. his sample size) and, as the survey appears voluntary, how he'd be controlling for self-selection biases. He hasn't got back to me yet but it is Easter so I am looking forward to his response after the holidays.

I must confess that I have a suspicion of the term "internet addiction". I haven't seen articles about TV addiction or radio addiction or SMS addiction or telephone addiction. As this ACMA report states (p.2): Despite these changes, other aspects of young people’s discretionary time are notably stable. Electronic media and communication activities overall take up around half of children and young people’s aggregate discretionary time, and this proportion hasn’t changed since 1995. So far from becoming slaves to technology, young people's use of tech has remained fairly stable - it's just the tech they are using that has changed.

Near the end of the article, Ms Devine makes this comment: Her fears may be reflected in reports this week from two fatal traffic accidents in Yagoona and Burwood, where onlookers were said to have watched, laughed, chatted and taken photographs, ignoring the pleas for help from one man as he died, treating the scene as if it were entertainment. When I was a police reporter almost 20 years ago, such a scenario would have been unthinkable.

The problem I have with this statement is simple. If the internet makes us bad people then we would expect to have seen rates of violent crime rise over the last decade as internet use became more widespread. However the opposite is true: rates of violent crime have trended down over the last 10 years as web usage has trended up. N.B. I am not claiming that the internet makes us better people - simply that there are probably other factors that are more important than the internet.

Let me be clear: I am sure that some young people do not have a healthy pattern of internet usage. We need to have a public debate about the impact of these new technologies on young people and the role their parents could be playing. However I would prefer to base this debate on facts and evidence rather than innuendo.

Which brings me to Exhibit 2: ABC's Four Corners programme last Monday. The topic was cyberbullying. The first half of the show seemed sensible enough - discussing first ordinary bullying and then bullying with an online component. Then it all got a bit weird. The main story was an awful one of young man who took his own life. Prior to this he had been harassed by a former friend using a number of different communication media.

You have to sympathize with someone who has had to bury their child. However I have an issue with the ABC supporting statements like: "There's a new word that I've created for this it's a new drug, and the new drug is cyberspace. Cyberspace to us has taken our child."

Suicide by young males is a horrible problem but it is not a simple one. As the Wesley Mission state: Suicide is a complex issue which, while tragic, confronts families, friends and wider communities. It results most often from an accumulation of risk factors, and it intersects with problems and concerns across society: mental health, drugs and alcohol, family issues, employment, cultural identity, law enforcement and criminal justice, education and poverty.

Rather than discuss the complex issues around teen suicide and the particular issues around men (& our chronic inability to seek help when trouble strikes), as far as the ABC was concerned it was all about the interweb as a sinister tool for bullying that is so powerful it makes people kill themselves. This undermined the valuable first half of the programme.

Again, let me be clear: Bullying is an issue. It probably always will be. There is so much good work that could be done in discussing this with parents - but can we have a grown up talk please?

Are we capable of that or would we prefer to work ourselves up into a moral panic instead?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

ways i have been lucky

1. I grew up in family of tight-wads.

I had quite a comfortable upbringing. I am demonstrably middle-class. However in one respect I find myself a little unusual. My family is debt-phobic. My parents grew up with rationing in post-WWII Britain. They nursed a young family through the high-interest rate 1970s. For them, debt was not a handy way of accessing funds but something not that far from alcoholism or drug addiction. This meant that we spent our holidays visiting glamorous Birmingham (where my grandparents lived). However inheritance of their loathing of debt has made my life considerably easier in recent years.

2. I joined a marginal profession just as it faced annihilation.

I trained as a librarian back in the mid-1990s. I don't really remember why. This meant that (quite by accident) I found myself smack in front of the information Tsunami that was the internet. And that was a good thing. It sent me down a pathway that involved technology, human behaviour, all kinds of cool things. Above all, I learned that professionally you either adapt or leave. Simple really.

3. I am mentally ill.

I suspect that I suffer from cyclothymia - a mild form of bipolar disorder (manic depression). The "down" part of the cycle is pretty horrible (struggling to get out of bed, wanting to die), the "up" part is exhilarating & a little scary (boundless energy & confidence, insomnia, poor impulse control) but there are plenty of bits in the middle. There is a genetic link between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and a close family member was diagnosed with the latter condition. The depression drives me to read compulsively as a form of medication. The hypomania drives me to get things done (often based on what I have read). My condition (and there is no reliable test for it, just conformance to symptoms) has probably aided my professional life - just as my relative's condition has probably condemned them to a life of marginalisation.

There are many other ways in which I have been lucky but these are 3 that have been pinging round my mind recently.

How have you been lucky?