Sunday, December 31, 2006

Critical Thinking for the New Year

Critical Thinking: What Is It?

This question has come up before -- in interviews of people from different backgrounds, fields, and classes, teachers tended to use this term when asked (in round-about ways) to explain the signs of an effective thinker. CEOs and financiers used the term "problem-solving" or "innovative thinking." Others used phrases like the ability to "close the loop," "think independently," or "think on one's feet."

What's the Difference?

If given more context, it would be clear that they all represent pretty much the same process:

Representatives of each group I interviewed -- teachers, managers, CEOs, financial analysts, policemen -- are keeping a keen and dedicated eye out for anyone who is a quick study at figuring out the important information in any given situation and to analyse it effectively -- again, in terms of a particular task.

In other words, success across contexts lies in the ability to (first) observe and absorb concrete details and both analyse what's their and imagine what's possible. From that group of data, the winner finds the most effective solution to the problem at hand.

Breaking this down is a complicated enough proposition that many interviewees have told me it's impossible to teach -- you either have a gift for it, or you don't.

In fact, although some people are better at it than others, the skill requires practice at what to do in one context, in-depth repetition, and transfer the understanding to another context.

Then you start all over again.

For more on the way I've broken down this process, peruse past posts. It's everywhere in one form or another. Or send a note with a specific question, and I'll be happy to direct you.

An Interesting Prospect, If Baffling

People do teach what is called "critical thinking" in school. Others also teach "problem solving" and "innovation" in business. As far as I can tell, it's all the same stuff.

One of the things I have arranged in my time off from blogging is a trip to England to explore their notion of critical thinking. At the moment the educational system offers an A.S. (or junior A-Level, a sort of Pre-SAT). Next year, they will offer an A-level that can qualify a student for university.

How do you institutionalize the process of independent thinking, of creative analysis, of problem-solving in a school setting?

Why Now?

This is a particularly interesting prospect when one considers the new standards for admission. How is critical thinking taught given that the English government has declared all post-secondary educational institutions "universities" (including what Americans would call junior colleges, trade schools, and so on)?

Is it task-oriented? How could it be if the educational contexts of higher education are so diverse? Is it taught to be transferable across contexts? The English are notoriously class-specific -- is it likely?

My Experience: Critical Thinking Requires Context for Students

My data is anecdotal rather than scientific -- I've interviewed fewer than a hundred people and taught for fewer than ten years in a formal setting. However, that doesn't mean I haven't learned a thing or two.

The first is that students learn critical thinking best when they are given a context in which to practice (and practice and practice) until they've got as deep into a subject area as is possible. Only then do they really understand the process.

It didn't work when, as a new teacher, I tried to explain the process in the abstract. I gave examples, offered reading by philosophers and educators, and the result was no understanding of how to apply what they read.

Then everything changed. Only after we used concrete material (in this case, drama) as content to explore the differences and similarities in problems -- again, in this case among genres, periods, playwrights, characters -- did we apply the abstract philosophy to explore the concrete matter at hand.

And then there was light.

More on this in future posts.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Better Marketing Through Storytelling

Storytelling has become a hip term in businesses, both for internal communications and brand development. The good consultants articulate what you already know -- stories are effective means by which to create memorable and convincing messages.

It's just another example of the ways businesses could have learned this earlier by asking any third-grade teacher.

Storytelling through New Media

Check out experts Howard Greenstein and Dean Landsman speaking about this on YouTube. The video was made for the Uplift Academy's Better World Network. However, it's articulate and helpful for any organization that wants to understand how better to speak to markets, understand licensing, and breaking down barriers to new media broadcasts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

One Common Language I'm Afraid We'll Never Get

The Black Hole: Generalizing About Problems in Education

I have a bone to pick with Dr. Richard Gilder, friend and colleague, but right only in part in his generalizations about English teachers. He laments:

. . . students today, at least in the United States, have no idea how their own language works. English and its grammar are a mystery to them. How did this happen? And what can and should we do about it? The notion that grammar is boring, and is therefore an impediment to the learning of English, made its insidious way into the minds of those who teach English and subjects of a similar ilk.

Having been both an English teacher and a teacher of "subjects of a similar ilk" (writing and many other topics apart from language within the humanities), I protest quite with great ardor.

There certainly is a feeling among certain groups of teachers that correcting or teaching language structure impedes or prevents the kind of engagement that comes with expressing ideas without reference to grammar. Sometimes, grammar needs to be blended in and enforced after confidence is built from the first forays into writing.

Why Don't Americans Teach Their Children How to Speak?

Norwegians learn Norwegian -- the Greeks are taught their Greek.

Here are a couple of reasons derived from primary research:

Many teachers of all age-groups believe English grammar and logic should have been taught by someone else. This is anecdotal evidence rather than scientific -- my pool of data is restricted to 50 subjects.

These teachers of classes from first grade through the last year of graduate school all agree that it's not his or her job. The system is not designed for instructors of different age levels to collaborate. I didn't interview kindergarten teachers -- but I'm guessing they would say that learning good English comes from the home.

And now a Latin teacher is passing the buck as well.

The Black Hole: Where Does Good English Come From?

Grammar and and writing are hard to teach even for the Shakespeares among us. Both subjects are labor intensive on the part of the teacher and the student. They both require repeated and consistent feedback over a long period of time.

This is a lot of work for teachers worried about state requirements (for public schools) or getting articulate students into good colleges by cultivating their ideas. What's more, it's hard to engage students in either as a discipline. Even when courses give time to the subjects, students often don't absorb them.

Here's a bigger problem: grammar and writing are particularly hard to teach if no one ever taught them to you. How can you emphasize the importance of a discipline you don't feel comfortable with yourself?

Grab the Opportunity Where it Lies -- And Forget the Blame Game

I taught at and Ivy League university for years, and my students often had very weak skills in grammar and writing. At first, like Richard, I cursed the darkness (after all, I wanted to teach new material -- material that interested me enough to grind through graduate school to get a PhD).

Then I got practical. Over the course of five years, I came up with a system to integrate the material I loved with strong writing practices. Richard's done the same with his book on Latin for English speakers.

What Next?

It would be helpful if he took the energy he uses cursing the darkness (and teachers of other subjects) and uses instead to transform the black hole (where English has been lost) into a new galaxy. Why not organize a forum where teachers of all subjects can talk to each other about common challenges and strategies to master them.

Invite some businesses along as well. Employees are just older students. Perhaps there's a way to get funding from a business that wants to improve its collective communications skills.

After all, markets are conversations. What could be more profitable than starting one?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Finding New Ideas: Rattling Around Convention

Everything is Relative

My uncle designed with Marc Jacobs wearable art that rattles. The ring and bracelet fun to play with but are definitely not for children. They ring with the sound of gems hidden inside gold.

Each piece is hand-made and has eight "houses" (read: compartments). In each house sits one gem: if you've got money to burn, you can house eight perfect quarter-carat diamonds; if not, semi-precious stones do the trick quite well.

With every movement, there's a tinkling sound (or rattle), but no one but the wearer knows what's in there. It's fun to hear them jingle (particularly when someone does the most ordinary tasks throughout the day).

What's So Different Here?

Even my grandfather, who came from the diamond business in Belgium (and was not impressed by much), was rather chuffed by the rattle ring and bracelet.

"The only conceptual high-end jewelry ever," he'd say, "was the tennis bracelet. And that didn't have anything to do with tennis -- so really, it doesn't even count." At 95, my grandfather had more respect for the creator of mood rings because the concept part was real. He respected people with imagination.

Why This is Fun, Even Just to Think About

It might seem too obvious to say, but gems have always been symbols of importance and power. If you consider the reason most people buy high-end jewelry, it's to show off what they've got. You can see this in the oldest paintings -- no courtier, king, or even burgher would be painted without as much bling as possible.

Look at Medieval alter pieces -- artistans lent even Mary and the saints gold and fancy jewelry, just to show they were important. Forget the fact that the characters decked out in diamonds were supposed to inspire humility from the collected masses by example.

But that's another discussion.

So What About this Rattle Business?

The rattle collection turns all this on its head: you might like having a secret more than bragging about what you've got. Knowing something is better than showing it. And for me, a sublte and counter-intuitive idea offers pleasure that is greater and lasts longer than a habit whose value has always taken for granted.

What If Every Conventional Idea Were Rattled, Just a Little?

It's worth considering: what other conventional notions of power and importance could be turned upside down (or as in this case, inside out)? What could sustained curiosity inspire?

If you want to know more, send me a note. The pieces will soon be offered in exclusive catalogues for the tremendously wealthy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Gold in the Rubble: Building an Effective Learning Environment for Business

I've been hearing complaints from many colleagues and clients about the lack of corporate training within their organizations. Sometimes they complain about the quality. Regardless, degree programs are being slashed, new hires are made project managers with no word on what to do, and even receptionists are not taught to answer the phone politely (forget helpfully).

Believe it or not, this could turn out to be very good news.

Stop Training and Start Teaching

I'm working with a colleague on a new ways of training that bypasses particular skill issues and get to the root of these challenges. If you need our services, by all means, get in touch.

However, lest this seem like shameless marketing, I'd like to encourage the competition just as strongly as potential clients. if you also are in the business of helping companies function properly, now is the time to move beyond a focus on particular skills to the roots of how people learn. And to change the experience of working everywhere.

One Solution

A colleague in Australia told me his company has already begun. At some point a few months ago, I suggested an induction program that rewards outside interests for new hires to ensure that they retain and develop resources from outside their jobs. Lasting and valued Networks as well as ideas tend to emerge rather than be organized conciously. Learning is associative, and so the more disparate interests one has, the more data points there are to combine for innovation. Also highly engaged people are more effective in the workplace (as well as happier in life, research shows).

My colleague's company rewards managers for supporting outside interests of those who work for them and make time for the latter to engage and develop their passions.

Make no mistake, this is not an groovy kind of community -- the people are all engineers, bent on proving things, focused on how things work.

Something in the Air?

With business leaders' despair about the range of inadequacy -- from ordinary skills to that of high-level innnovation, both, there is room now to experiment. Perhaps it's the spirit of the Web -- making the new capabilities of the Web work for you financially demandsd informed experimentation. We're in new territory and one that is seen as demanding personal engagement to run effectively.

Perhaps it's just that there is an empty space to fill, and new ideas are rising when before there were too many people crowding the room with the same old solutions.

Whatever it is, there is a lot of room for new ways of thinking. Now is the time to learn about what's possible.

Friday, November 17, 2006

It's All in the Teaching: Latin Like You've Never Seen It

Where Do Professors Come From?

There is an old chestnut in academics that speaks to the ridiculousness of standards that rewards faculty with tenure in the liberal arts: It's hard to agree on what constitutes good research, but everyone recognizes a great teacher. Usually, teaching isn't really taken into account.

Of course there are the exceptions -- both in the way faculty are rewarded and in the fact that some prodigious researchers devote themselves to their classes -- but by and large, the American system is run in a manner that does not benefit the students (whose parents are paying huge amounts of money for the privilage).

Why You Can Learn More in Secondary School: It Matters if You Can Teach

I have a good friend, Dr. Richard Gilder III, who is one of the best teachers in whose classroom I've had the privelage to sit. He teaches Latin, something with a language with which I have very little familiarity, but still I was inspired and learned a lot.

That's really saying something.

Great Teachers are Hard to Find

Richard enlisted me to raise awareness of a new approach to teaching Latin, and I thought I'd mention it here for those who might be interested.

The man's got a fancy name but a simple premise:

Most American students (and probably many elsewhere) are not familiar enough with the workings of their native language to do much other than memorize when they learn another. What if language structure and logic per se were taught as part of the Latin curriculum? In other words, wouldn't it be wonderfully efficient if students could learn Latin and English all at once? And leave prepared to learn other languages as well?

Not News but Worth Repeating: Great Books Can Help Make Great Thinkers

I'm not a fan of Allan Bloom, but with Gilder's strategy, I think teaching Latin could have as much or more of a direct application to better business practice than almost anything else.

No one speaks Latin, but what could be more useful in a global economy than learning to think in two language and laying the groundwork for others?

And there's nothing like introducing unlikely connections and crossing disciplines for >sustainable innovation.

What could be more unlikely?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Response to Yesterday's Post Got Me Thinking . . .

Someone sent me a note about yesterday's post suggesting that although he thinks Rob's work is teriffic, often what's missing in ONA/SNA is value network analysis. Information can also be found here.

Thanks for writing, and if you're interested in me posting your name and site, please give a shout.

I'm not sure if this is entirely true, however. Rob spent quite a bit of time on the evaluating (and putting a value on) outcomes in business terms. My concern is that if networks are put entirely in existing business terms -- as new a concept as it is to improve the way organizations and individuals function -- SNA (now ONA) will end up being a passing fad.

Regardless of business outcome, the individual and how individuals operate is the center of this process. Individuals impulses are as important as their behaviors -- in fact, they drive them.

I find this already in the way Valdis Krebs explains his work, although he's been in the business for over twenty years. Let's hope this style of storytelling becomes a trend.

My sense is that a more human vocabulary could benefit the current language of corporate archetypes. Otherwise, all you've got is more business process and training from mgt. rather than connections over which employees have ownership and personal bonds that last.

Here's hoping that the language of feeling will blend with that of corporate function once the process has more widespread credibility.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Say What You Mean: Demystify Engagement for the Sake of Innovation

For Those New To This Excercise . . .

. . . jargon drives me to rail. I began this weekly blog to explore ways of breaking down silos in terms of learning and training, creativity and innovation, and any other aspect related to the results of curiosity and insight.

There are exceptions when trying to give credibility to what are called the softer skills that no one can really measure but everyone knows are important anyway.


Most of the time, the more economically successful of these silos (eg programs for professionals) claim their exclusivity and advantage through mystifying concepts that fourth grade teachers take for granted. Some of these include reconnecting the intellectual body to the emotional body, emphasizing broad learning rather than narrow training, and putting teachers and trainers of all levels together to garner insight and maximize personal resources

It all might sound a little un-credible to businesses. However, by getting everyone together, we'll be more efficient by sharing what businesses call "learnings," eliminates redundancies, and create efficiencies. How more business-like can an argument be?

The Setting

I attended a Round Table focused on Social Network Analysis (SNA) run by Rob Cross and the McIntyre School at the University of Virginia.

The attendees members of the Round Table were, for the most part, large organizations in financial services, professional services, manufacturing, consumer products, and so on. There was also a scattering of independent consultants and non-profits that genuinely added great perspective to the discussion.

The Hidden Power of Networks: An Excellent Book

I very much appreciated Rob's book -- one of the few business books that IS a book rather than an article stretched by publishers to fit between hard covers and look like other of its kind on bookstore shelves. It's a generous book -- full of detailed, accessible discussions of a process, its purpose, and uses.

In other words, it entirely a process that produces the most mystifying of maps and diagrams and for which people charge a lot of money. How generous is that?

Some Lovely Surprises

Organizations presented their results of using Rob's software and Network Analysis, and they seemed quite honest about what worked and what didn't. No marketing case studies, these. There was a genuine desire both to learn and share knowledge here, sometimes with competitors.

Also, very near the conference's end, Steve Denning gave a wonderful presentation on Storytelling. The slides were surprising and had everyone laughing, and Steve's straightforward personal engagement with the audience was unique for the weekend. By gum, he even stood directly in front of the audience, miles away from the screen, and acted as though the podium didn't exist.

The Only Caveat (And a Big One)

Despite the possible benefits of SNA for acknowledging individuals as such, it's clear that business are still reluctant to admit that their employees feel as much as they think. Social Network Analysis (SNA) becomes Organizational (ONA) to sell into business. Presenters described their processes in terms almost exclusively in terms of behaviors driven by the impulse to succeed and Conflict should always be resolved">agree, whether it derives from the employee or as an edict from management.

Rob talks about "energizers" and those who drain energy from a team or individual and the symptoms that can ferret these out. Yet he didn't say anything about the passion and engagement that causes the transference this kind of energy from person to another.

Likewise, Steve Denning, as directly as he connected to the audience, described the structural aspects of an effective story. Yet he neglected to point out that in order for a story to be effective, the teller needs to feel it's important.

When I approached Steve to ask why he didn't point out perhaps this most important issue in effective transfer of information, he told me he was saying it implicitly through his talk.

This seems to miss the point of this exercise. As any teacher who educates her peers will tell you, modeling has little effect without explicit discussion of what she is teaching.

I've been told that it's unrealistic to try to change the system because it's the way things are. However, with that attitude, SNA would never have been adopted by anyone. Who discussed social networks two years ago?

The Danger: SNA Going from Lasting Learning to the Usual Business Training

If business leaders continue to define credibility as lacking in emotional content -- if networks can't be identified as "social" (eg belonging to the participants) but instead as "organizational" (eg belonging to the business) -- you'll never get the kind of creativity and collaboration in business that you do outside it (say, on the Web).

As for Learning . . .

If credibility for business processes exist in describing behavior rather than in articulating and generating the impulse that best creates it, despite the beginnings of communities of individuals within organizations, we're eliminating the internal combustion (eg emotional responses) that cause both the positive and negative behaviors in companies.

By dissociating the emotional system from professional behavior, you effectively minimize innovation. Even heated conflict can be tremendously productive if the goal is something new.

After all, what is inspiration but the meeting point between intellectual and emotional insight?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How to Implement Web 2.0 In Practice? Write Some Wrongs (and Not Just in Theory)

Continuing from a few posts ago . . .

It's pretty much agreed that businesses will find it a competitive necessity to be fleet of foot strategically to survive the changes in the way the world (and in it, their customers) connect and are connected.

I have been researching case studies on how businesses actually use what people call Web 2.0 (in all the ways they define it). Andrew McAfee says there are so few that he and his crowd "are waiting to hear" from anyone who will offer up an example.

As long as a good idea only exists in theory, it probably won't go anywhere. And that would be a shame.

Not My Idea, But a Good One

After rereading Ross Mayfield, Nancy White, Valdis Krebs, Rob Cross and Ken Thompson, I realized that Andrew McAfee's Enterprise 2.0 will really only be the second step in at least a two-part process for companies that want to be more adaptable, creative, and innovative.

Companies need to establish a 2.0 culture before introducing wikis, tagging, and so on. McAfee's famous case study's follow-up is that the evangelist left who made the wikis work so well. Word has it that the excercise has not been doing so well ever since.

Hating Jargon, 2.0 Must Go

I use the term 2.0 here only as a nod to McAfee. McAfee is a very smart guy and knows his stuff. However, with all due respect to Mr. O'Reilly, jargon is only necessary to lend credibility to this project, and it's gone a bit out of control. It's important to acknowledge that we're really talking about behavior that works offline to build strong culture and community.

On the other hand, if throwing around numbers works to help you sell good ideas into your company, do what must be done by all means necessary.

To Date, Shifts in Culture Often Start with IT

The few case studies that exist on social networks begin in the tech department and spread outward because either 1. Techies are open to new toys and are comfortable with improvements through technological means; and 2. Techies can be a tight community that works together. The rest of the culture needs evangelizing.

But what if you start by changing the culture and then introduce the tools? Wouldn't that have more widespread application, both within and across companies?

Identify Those Who are Interested Anyway . . . In Everything

In one circumstance, I suggested to a friend that perhaps writers would be a place to build a test case. Big businesses often use writers across countries and industries to articulate the insights, discoveries, and brand of the sales force. This is often done in the form of marketing, too much under the Orwellian rubric, Thought Leadership.

Because of what they do, these writers often already have built far-flung networks. They know who is doing what, where, and when, and they often are used to write the script. Often, too, these people are naturally very interested in many topics and in meeting new people (or, in 2.0 language, building out their networks).

Here you've got a possibility of creating community among disparate departments through individuals who all have one thing in common (their job) and perhaps share common tendencies and interests. They also have a lot to gain by learning about each other's work.

Writers and Marketing: Undervalued, but Not News . . . Yet

The reason this hasn't happened yet, I'd wager, is that marketing is considered more a necessary evil than a value in most money-making ventures. I know this from experience but also because a techie friend told me this last week -- both she and her partner in a start-up are stuck in the habit of valuing only that which can be measured in terms of direct revenue.

Here's a way for the creative types to find a stronghold in their businesses -- become a case study. Show your multi-national corporations way to a 2.0 culture of community. The techies can then introduce some helpful tools, but there's a good chance they won't get buy-in without your lead.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thoughts on a Thinker. . . This Time With Feeling

Continuing from the last post, I've been considering some of the ideas from Howard Greenstein's podcast in which I participated with Nicole Lazzaro. We produced it at a think tank retreat a few weeks ago to flesh out some of the ideas that were presented briefly and with lightening speed. This happened all weekend, as these things tend to do when a group of smart people get together, hardly ever see each other, and have their say or test out their work.

About the Podcast

The podcast itself is not optimal -- we worked outside where the background activity sounds much more fun than the conversation. However, Nicole raised a few points that are worth pulling out and discussing further. One is the question, value, and nature of jargon raised by some of her naming conventions (covered before -- start here and scroll up).

The other is the meaning created in gaming when players are together in the same space. Jane McGonigal works brilliantly on this, but there's more to say, particularly in the context of games restricted to the computer screen.


Nicole and I spoke briefly on the phone about a challenge she's facing naming a group of emotional responses to gaming when more than one person is present. This class of responses fascinates me because it links performance online with that off-line.

In other words, how can content producers take advantage of performance online in a way that is unique to the Web and still incorporate the benefits from other media in that offer a rich relationship between audience and performance?

Most of all, theater comes to mind.

More Jargon: Words from Other Languages to Enrich Our Own

Back to the podcast: Nicole mentioned that there is a completely different quality to responses when gamers are playing in the same room. She said that the room becomes the game space, and the computer screen shrinks into the corner.

So this is what I came up with as a first shot -- to help describe this phenomenon:

Convocare -- The class of feelings that occur when one person or more joins another in the same space. These emotional responses require more than one personto be present body, not just in the abstract.

They include, among others, a sense of independence from, connection to, superiority over, competitiveness with, inferiority to, isolated from another. The key is that all feelings occur in relationship.

The convocare class of feelings can be broken down into other emotional responses (some listed above), each with its own precise description.

A Funny Thing Happens to Naming (But Not Necessarily Ha Ha)

Very few people would dispute that inspiration is the meeting point of emotional and intellectual insight. I know this because in over 20 years of educating professionals and young students, no one ever has.

However, at a certain point in our development as Westerners (the point depends on the culture), our cognitive intelligence is considered to be entirely independent of our intellectual capacity. This can happen in school or at home -- adults stop asking students how they feel about something and instead ask what they think. No one would ever do this to a four-year-old because it's impossible to conceive that the two pieces are separate.

The implications of using only half your brain effect people of every age, in every profession.

What's In a Name?

Only when we get down to a level of verbal precision equal with that of other cognitive research will emotional responses be integrated into the mix of cognition, even when the brain isn't mentioned.


Paula Vogel, my mentor in a past life of live theater and academic discourse (not necessarily together), has described empathy as a chemical reaction between bodies. There certainly is a different kind of experience in the live theater than in any other performance medium, and probably physical chemistry contributes.

However, there's more to it, and the Web will only benefit as we explore the relationship between audience and performance online.

Nicole is definitely on the right track.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jargon as a Solution: Could it Work?

Continuing from the last post, Nicole Lazzaro and I met in Virginia with a diverse group of very bright people to discuss a range of topics that interested us all.

I decided, quite against type, that there is a place for jargon.

Why This Surprised Me

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I believe that jargon is unnecessary for understanding and, in fact, divisive. Jargon both creates and reinforces silos among disciplines and thinking people. The use of jargon keeps those on the inside in a position of authority, even if those on the outside know just as much, or more. It's a weapon in a larger power game that includes in intellectual, economic, and social politics and power struggles -- either all together, or one at a time.

The "Aha" Moment

Nicole uses English terms except for the word "Fiero" for the feeling of winning after a long struggle in a computer game. The word, she said, "Sounds like what it is -- F-I-E-R-O," she said stressing the "r's." A great breath of pride and relief. A thrilling sense of accomplishment. It's a perfect word for what Nicole was looking to describe.

Why Jargon Can Be Useful

I suggested to Nicole that the words she uses as technical landmarks in a game's progression -- "emotions," "amusement," "anger," and so on -- don't have the credibility to a business audience or the specificity of a word like "fierro."

"Fierro" is specific to her project, and it's unfamiliar to an audience that tends to dismiss emotional response as either weakness or a lack of credibility in intellectual ability. It's not just business people who dismiss emotional reactions as such. Teachers, particularly of older children -- certainly in university -- will have none of it expressed in what are valued as intellectual arguments defending a position.

Jargon solves this problem. Generally, it serves to distance the raw immediacy of feeling from a discussion by disassociating an emotion from a response. This works for two reasons:

First, credibility today lies with the Johnsonian’s and Cartesians rather than the Romantics, Swift, Sterne, and the "men" of sensibility. In other words, we behave as thought the head operates entirely without the emotional system.

Second, jargon obfuscates the feeling state for professional reasons. In a time when assumptions about thinking have become habit, it keeps everyone comfortable and makes the response credible.

Nicole has said (quite rightly) when dealing with the familiar, "It is much more powerful to use a new word. It grabs attention and . . . cuts one free of associations from a previous word. Such mental baggage gets in the way of the new conversation."

Without the Nasty Side-Effects: Optimizing the Benefits of Jargon

I like "fierro" because the word means what it says onomatopoetically. It also genuinely means what Nicole wants to express, albeit in another language. The combination to me makes jargon acceptable. First, words like this are accessible to everyone through sound and feeling. Second, if that isn't effective, you can find the meaning by looking to cultures outside the business world and find overtones not available in your own language.

This is jargon that enhances, rather than reduces, meaning. It also derives from everyday language without abusing it. Why transform "construction" into "construct" when they mean the same thing? Why invent a word when there are plenty of wonderful options already in existence? The only effect is to alienate those who are not familiar with the jargon.

In a larger sense, if language of a particular field has lost its power to persuade -- such as those associated with emotional reactions -- why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Why not instead, like Nicole, create connections -- among cultures and languages -- to rehabilitate importance concepts?

Next Steps

Nicole and I are going to work together to consider the emotional language of gaming research. If we can energize it, the effort can only offer support to other fields suffering from a lack of credibility in an environment hostile to arguments that include feeling.

Any suggestions are most welcome.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Jargon and Emotional Response in Learning

The situation

I was at a meeting last weekend with tremendously bright people who were all in different fields. We all had in common, it seemed, both a desire to improve communication through technology and a proclivity for considering various social network tools as the means to do this.

The Issue

As discussed previously, all good teachers succeeed by provoking with a combination of emotional and intellectual bait. However, as Sir Ken Robinson remarked at TED, you'd probably not see a teacher in a gathering that includes the kind of professionals gathered last weekend.

Then I met Nicole Lazzaro. She focuses on games and the specific ways that they engage (or don't) through emotional response. I was intrigued by her repeated reference to the importance of feeling states to learning, not least because she is the first person to do so in a business-oriented meeting.

Surprised at My Own Reaction

Despite the fact that a consideration of emotion is perhaps the most neglected aspect of learning outside a classroom (and even inside some classrooms of older children), I found that I flinched each time Nicole connected to business the words "emotions," "amusement," or other generic terms for what we feel. On the other hand, everything she said was fascinating.

So I asked her to meet me outside. We did a podcast on the subject of games and emotions with Howard Greenstein.

Language and Feeling

During the podcast, Howard and I asked Nicole to define the myriad emotions, the desired proportions, and the optimal timing of each to create successful games. Nicole continued to use words like "amusing" (here, "funny"), and I questioned the specific meaning of each because they are all everyday words that have a variety of connotations. For example, all games have been referred to as "amusing" if one considers games to be "amusements."

Nicole has done a lot of hard core research on the brain and emotional reactions. She is an impressive thinker, and the success of her work attests to her long experience and real knowledge of both human behavior and the most current science that explains it.

However, the language she uses still doesn't have the same credibility to me. THAT, I realized, was the reason I flinched in the meeting when she spoke. There is already enough dismissing of feeling-based reactions in learning. Here was a scholar and fascinating thinker who could change all that through the game business. Yet the language still wasn't as strong in a business context as the business itself.

More in the next post.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Conversations with Valdis: Part 4

Continuing from the last post, Valdis Krebs talks more about his process for social network analysis. Here he explains more about some of the metrics.


Valdis explains that centrality metrics include scores for "degrees" and "betweeness." "Degrees" tells you the number of steps that one person would have to take to connect to someone else. "This measure tells you the least about what's going on in a network," says Valdis, "but it is a simple way of measuring activity. If I have 10 connections, and you have two, it means that I am more active in the network. Unfortunately, this is not particularly valuable information on its own."


Betweenness is a measure that can be the most revealing about the largest number of issues. Valdis says, "It uncovers the role of connector that Gladwell talked about. If you have a high "betweeness" score, you're connecting parts of the network that wouldn't be connected otherwise.

Someone with such a score can be a broker and very valuable to the network. On the other hand, if brokering is too much work, he or she can be a bottleneck and detrimental to the network.

Brokers have a lot of power and control over what flows within the network because everyone has to go through them. It can be a good thing -- helpful -- or a bad thing -- misuse power or if you quit, the company's screwed for information flow."


Closeness measures "how close is one node to all other nodes -- how quickly can this node reach other nodes in the minimum number of steps. People talk about six degrees of separation. There really are only two that are valuable -- three at the most." Valdis gave an excellent example of this in our first conversation.


Valdis created a new metric to help the others make more sense as a group. "The last metric is Power -- a combination of Betweenness and Closeness. do you have quick have quick access to everyone else, and does you need anyone else -=- location, location, location -- in real estate, the value is geographical -- want to be at a good intersection, near good schools, good neighborthood, etc.

Valdis concluded, "In the network, it's about who you're connected to and who they're connected to that measures your power. Access plus control."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Conversations with Valdis: Part 3

Continuing from the last post, Valdis Krebs talks more about his process for social network analysis. Here he explains more about the group on which he focuses.


Valdis explains that centrality metrics include scores for "degrees" and "betweeness." "Degrees" tells you the number of steps that one person would have to take to connect to someone else. "This measure tells you the least about what's going on in a network," says Valdis, "but it is a simple way of measuring activity. If I have 10 connections, and you have two, it means that I am more active in the network. Unfortunately, this is not particularly valuable information on its own."


Betweenness is a measure that can be the most revealing about the largest number of issues. Valdis says, "It uncovers the role of connector that Gladwell talked about. If you have a high "betweeness" score, you're connecting parts of the network that wouldn't be connected otherwise.

Someone with such a score can be a broker and very valuable to the network. On the other hand, if brokering is too much work, he or she can be a bottleneck and detrimental to the network.

Brokers have a lot of power and control over what flows within the network because everyone has to go through them. It can be a good thing -- helpful -- or a bad thing -- misuse power or if you quit, the company's screwed for information flow."


Closeness measures "how close is one node to all other nodes -- how quickly can this node reach other nodes in the minimum number of steps. People talk about six degrees of separation. There really are only two that are valuable -- three at the most." Valdis gave an excellent example of this in our first conversation.


Valdis created a new metric to help the others make more sense as a group. "The last metric is Power -- a combination of Betweenness and Closeness. do you have quick have quick access to everyone else, and does you need anyone else -=- location, location, location -- in real estate, the value is geographical -- want to be at a good intersection, near good schools, good neighborthood, etc.

Valdis concluded, "In the network, it's about who you're connected to and who they're connected to that measures your power. Access plus control."

Conversations with Valdis Part 2: Measuring Social Networks

Talking to Valdis

To continue from a previous post, Valdis Krebs uses a software called Inflow to analyse networks -- within companies, among civic groups, among geographical locations -- you name it, and Valdis will often find a network component important to everyday functioning.

Valdis has been doing this for over twenty years -- much longer than the term social network has been in common usage. It's not a gimmick. It's a very smart approach to identify areas that until now have been considered intangibles.

What Inflow Measures (and Why)

Valdis designed Inflow to identify "the most popular social metrics." "We tend to focus on centrality -- how central is a node in the network and how centralized is the network as a whole."

There's reachability which Valdis explains as something that factors in awareness. "It's what the sociologists call prestige," Valdis said. "But Google uses similar metric for page ranks -- in other words, who's pointing to your web page and who's pointing to those who are pointing to your website. So you have to think broadly about it as well as narrowly."

Some metrics can be seen in cluster analysis. This process identifies which nodes are more closely connected to each other than they are to the rest of the network.
"There are small world networks, althought this is more popular with academics than with business people.

"You can also talk about structural equlivalence that show which nodes in the same network have the same connections. If you and I have the same connections, we are structurally equivalent. That could be good news -- we can act as substitutes for each other.

On the other hand, Valdis adds, "It can also be bad news because we're both fighting for the same resources, satisfy the same customers, or when it comes down to reduce the network, one of us can be let go.

People who are structurally equivalent and don't know each other often find themselves in conflict. So network analysis can often identify why people don't get along in ways that are not personal, and something can be done about it."

More on Valdis and measuring networks in the next post.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Power of Groups to Strengthen the Indvidual

Continuing fromt the last post on the power of groups, social networking in schools is usually discussed in terms of the stuff students pass to each other via cell phone or IM.

But there's (always) more.

Groups: Do They Squelch the Individual?

Nancy White posted recently arguments for and against the potenital of groups to galvanize individual opinion and expression. She cites Konrad Glogowski whose classroom work resulted in reducing a collection of unique voices to what he calls "the lowest common denominator."

Nancy argues that within organizations, she has seen that listening within a group can be an empowering experience. I agree, and I would add the same goes for the classroom when exercises are organized to support this kind of work.

The Classroom: Why It Works

Both at Brown University and in the South Bronx with middle school kids, I found that group work offered a kind of mirrioring experience for each member. Uncertainty about competence is often more obvious with teenagers than with adults, however, in new situations, everyone could use some support.

In fact, I found that when engaged in new activities -- or in old activities never before done with others -- many students have come out of their (individual) shells to such an extent that the transformation makes them almost unrecognizable.

The key, as Nancy points out, is listening. Students who feel heard and supported, regardless of weaknesses in writing or argument that are also discussed in these situations, find a new way of seeing themselves through others.

The right kind of mirroring makes good parenting. It's not surprising that it's also excellent way to learn.

If anyone wants some tips on how to make this work, please feel free to drop a line. Designing these situations correctly is essential for success.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Master of SNA: Valdis Krebs

Continuing from the last few posts, it seems increasingly useful to unravel the full range of value and processes within social network analysis. The applications and contexts in which SNA can add insight seem to be multiplying every day. And still, there is so much more that will probably emerge through informed experimentation.

Inflow and Valdis Krebs

I was lucky enough to be trained for three days by Valdis Krebs who has been working in this field for twenty years.

In addition to years of experience across a variety of organizational models, Valdis has a remarkable talent for clarifying through anecdotes even the most complex concepts and abstract principles. He designed the Inflow software to untangle confusion with the same sort of power.

Exceptional Course Design

Without a doubt, Valdis is one of the best teachers I've encountered -- and that includes my time at Bryn Mawr and working toward my PhD at Brown. Beyond standard training, this course supports and demands learning and problem-solving that go beyond the parameters of any particular task.

What Does SNA Promise?

As firmly as Valdis believes network analysis can help organizations with everyday challenges, he is also quick to add that network issues comprise only one part of a bigger picture. Both the analyses and subsequent solutions only offer potential. The rest must be accomplished by those in the network with the right kind of support from the organization's leadership.

He indicated that this kind of analysis works best for organizations when looking at people at manager-level and above in the heirarchy. These are the networks and sections of the overall organizational flow that hold the greatest potential to improve flow of information.

What Parts of the Network Should Be Measured?

Valdis began by indicating that there is value for networks when an individual requires one or two steps to relay information to another individual. The research bears this out, but it's also common sense.

Valdis' Example

If I want to influence George Bush and I have a relationship with him, I have a good chance of getting information to him. If, instead, I know Barbara Bush well, I still have a good chance of getting the information to George. My relationship with Barbara and her relationship with George makes it probable, but there is already a chance that the information will not arrive in the form or with the focus that I intend.

Once one gets to three steps removed, say, I am the college roommate of Barbara Bush's high school roommate, there is much less of a chance that I can get information to George. I must rely on my contact to transmit the information to Barbara and then on Barbara (who doesn't know me) to get the information to George. If my information or message arrives with George at all, there's a good chance it will be distored.

More on Valdis and his ideas in the next post.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

SNA: Solutions For Other Parts of Your Network

Children's Stories: In the Context Social Networks

Network Analysisis is not just for business. It can be tremendously useful across functions and contexts. Networks outside the office comprise a network that I haven't addressed in a while.

For Busy Parents

You busy parents who haven't had time to find an extra story for kids' bedtime, here's one for you. The illustration was done by Ron Hilley, who also happens to be a chorus member at New York City Opera.

Please feel free to pass it on (as long as there is no money involved). Please also do the same with King Barkthur and It's a Drag to Be a Dragon.

As always, the only rule is that this is read aloud.


This story is particulary dedicated to Tobias, Daniel, Erin, and Oliver (who seem like they might like polar bears), Sarabeth (in her new responsibility as a big sister) and her new sibling (who could always use a good story with all that waiting to be born).

And Now To Our Story . . .

Gus and the Polar Bear Orchestra

It's a little known fact that the most beautiful music in the world is made by polar bears.

You may be too young to remember the famous winter concerts on the North Pole. Everyone was invited.

As soon as it snowed, animals and human beings from every clime would gather on ice caps and glaciers to listen.

But when the ice melted in the spring, the bears found themselves surrounded by garbage from the people's picnics.

The orchestra would find themselves spending the whole spring and half the summer cleaning up.

Soon there was no time to practice for the winter concert. Alexander, the conductor, decided enough was enough.

"We’ll send a letter to a scientist I know saying that polar bears have decided to sleep all winter," said Alexander. People will believe anything.

And so they did. And the people stopped coming. And so did the garbage.

Everyone was very happy. As you probably know, music is as necessary for bears as getting up in the morning.

As you also have probably been told, all bears would play every instrument if they could, but the rule was that each must choose one when he or she turns three.

This was very important for Gus. He was two. And his birthday was coming up fast.

In all of Polar Bear history, all cubs have understood music as instantly as fish know how to swim. But as the son of the great conductor, Gus was something of a mystery. No matter how much he practiced, Gus couldn't play a note.

A week before his birthday, Gus decided to try one more time.

One day when Gus’s mom was cleaning her trumpet, Gus snuck out of the house to the place where the musicians practiced.

It was very dark and very quiet.

Gus's mother had shown him how to blow the trumpet. He liked to get dizzy, and fall down. It was fun, but he couldn't make it play.

Gus loved the cello and getting tangled up in the strings.

And the clarinet because it tickled his nose.

And the piano because you can play with no hands.

The tuba is very big and fun to climb into.

And the triangle makes a very nice hat.

But Gus still couldn't seem to make any music. The quiet was too quiet, and the dark too dark. So Gus began to sing.

And Gus sang louder and louder until everyone in the village came to the rehearsal room.

"Gus," said his grandmother, BearBear Ma, as she untangled her cello strings. "You have a beautiful voice."

And he did. And from that season on, Alexander made sure there was a song for Gus to sing every night.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mainstream Journalism and Open Source: Can They Mix?

Did I Mention . . . ?

I don't think I mentioned in my Eurogel series that Jimmy Wales spoke about the the value of Wikis generally, Wikipedia, and his new project, Wikia. Most of his talk can be found elsewhere, and although there are strong opinions on both sides about whether or not an open source model could extend past his project to all other information sources (and, of course, to Linux), the jury is still out.

So when my colleague and good friend, David Spector,sent this article on journalism and wikis, I thought it a good idea to post a link here.

A Little About David

David is famous for his development work from the earliest days of the web, but he's perhaps less known for his writing for O'Reilly and others. Like me, he writes both for proprietary publications and for those those that are not online.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Word About Swarms and Social Networks

Here's a short word about an innovative social network strategy and software created by Ken Thompson of Swarm Teams.

Ken uses the kind of behavior theory derived from AI:
A. Teams exist in nature.
B. These teams have flourished AS teams since their species evolved.
C. What could the dysfunctional teams within human organizations learn from this?

Communication In Swarms

There's a review and demonstration online, and it's worth reviewing. Here's why:

Rather than offering a "star network" approach (everyone you add to your network has only you in common), Ken has organized a "peer network" approach. Once you do the inputting, your network becomes its own swarm -- everyone can communicate with each other.

But Wait, There's (Always) More

In addition to the ability to leverage networks of everyone in your own swarm, Ken has built in a reputation management tool for all messages sent.

If you respond to a message, you receive a point. However, when you send messages, those who receive them do the rating. If the message is deemed valuable, it gets a point. If it doesn't, the sender loses a point.

What better way to prevent spam in an organization than by making it transparent?

And So?

In other approaches, consultants do a social network analysis through questionnaires. In this case, you can track the swarms in action, and once you've got them communicating, you can track the data, map it, and learn a lot about how the organization really works. It eliminates the challenge of getting people to fill out lengthy forms (honestly) for an initial snapshot.

There's even more to think about with Ken's approach, and still some kinks to work out, so check the review and demo in Robin Good's "What Communications Experts Need to Know."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Jan Gehl, Max Gadney, and More

More Great Experience

With more time to blog, I'd create a post for each of Eurogel's speakers. For example, other speakers of note include Jan Gehl (President, GEHL Architects, who regenerates cities by looking at the way inhabitants want to use them) and Max Gadney (Head of Design and Audience Insight, BBC News Interactive), who provoked listeners to question our assumptions about what news looks like.

And So . . .

Because time is short, I can refer you to Gene Driskell's pictures that effectively capture the intimacy and variety of the conference, and articles by Andrew Ferrier and Eric Reiss do a good job of covering more of the topics.

Go next year -- it's absolutely worth the cost of admission.

Banking on Customer Experience: David McQuillen and Credit Swisse

Like GEL in New York, two of Eurogel's most salient results are new perspectives on old problems and as a result, inspiration and a palpable sense that even the most daunting problems can be solved with a new approach.

No airy fairy promises, either. Mark Hurst offers concrete examples.

Seeing Possibilities

Sometime during his tenure as a banker at Credit Suisse in Switzerland, David McQuillen noticed that both his workplace and the country itself were practically inaccessible to anyone with special needs. This bothered him.

To give his team a new perspective on the organization's physical space, David made his team spend a week in a wheel chair. Each member, including David, was asked to use the wheel chair for every task throughout the day.

Expectations and A Starting Point

David was focused on logistical challenges -- of how hard the copy machine would be to reach or the restroom would be to use. However, he found he could use the copier, make presentations, and reach the cafeteria table without too much trouble. The real problem was that no one would look at him.

David went into the project believing he would change the way bankers built buildings. He came out of it understanding that he would have to change the way think about people.

Implications Far Beyond Special Needs

It's no secret that most high level business people feel perfectly comfortable with graphs and numbers, but they feel much less on solid ground with emotions. This, David found, extended to avoiding consideration of all kinds of experience AS experience.

So David took the executive board through an immersion experience of what customers do every day -- applying for credit cards, using the website, and changing money in the teller line. David said the experience was for these men "like going to the moon" because it had been decades since any of them had been in these situations.

The Biggest Challenge

David put the executives through quite a lot -- wearing a suit that constrained their sight and movement to mimic the experience of a 70-year-old, blindfolding them to give an inkling of what the blind must do, and so on.

However, the most painful experience for every board member was to speak to customers directly. The only requirement was that the executive asked the customer a series of questions, but David had more cancellations for this phase than any other. However, when they finally were forced to do it, they were almost like children in their excitement about what they learned. More than anything else, a direct relationship with customers and their experience had an enormous impact on these decision-makers.

The result? The bank's customer service improved dramatically, and it was made accessible to those with special needs.

A Fairy Tale?

This might sound like an unusual story from a far away land. After all, everyone isn't a banker, Switzerland is only one country, and cultural norms differ elsewhere.

However, here's a question:

In your organization, how many decisions are made about customer experience by those who never interact with customers at all? How many are made from charts, graphs, and information delivered by consultants or marketing departments?

And how much do you think you could learn by doing things differently?

Ted Dewan: The Roadwitch

Another Eurogel presenter called Ted Dewan paved the way for a new perspective on cars.

The Space Between Buildings
Ted began by saying that the Danish are smart about the use of space between buildings. Not true, he added, in England.

Ted lives in Oxford and has been frustrated with the traffic situation for as long as he can remember. He contends that there is a popular delusion that the space between buildings is reserved for cars, and the goal for city design is to get cars from one end to the other as quickly as possible.

Only the space that's left can be occupied by people, and this is not acceptable.

Spontaneous Bursts of Community

Regardless of the sense of being pushed to the edges, or perhaps because of it, people in Oxford have proved to come together as a community with very little provocation. When Ted first moved to his street, he needed help raising an old iron lamp post he had brought with him.

He put a sign outside his house that said "Jubilee Lampost Raising" with a time that everyone should meet. The response was tremendous, even though he had not yet met any of his neighbors. People arrived on time, and the event took on the sort of comraderie and purpose usually reserved for Almish barn raisings.

See Ted Run

Now his street comprised a community, Ted had even more of an incentive to stop cars from keeping people in their houses. In his attempt to prevent kids from being run over on Halloween, he faked an accident. Cars that usually sped down the road stopped slowed down to rubber neck. The action was coined a "roadwitch."

This began a flurry of signs posted throughout the neighborhood that told cars to go elsewhere in amusing ways. Although the city council refused to fix the streets when there had only been a few deaths, it took the police only an hour to arrive and force Ted to take the signs down.

More Roads, More Witches

On his own street, Ted let the children paint the car as a sort of auto scarecrow. Cars again slowed down, and the congestion dissapated. He brought out a sofa into the street, and the children brought other furniture to create a sort of livingroom installation. Ted reported that the neighbors began feeling a sense of ownership as they sat in this space usually reserved for cars. People began coming out of their houses and stayed until the police came to take it all away.

The Trend Spreads

Roadwitching became a kind of street squatting that spread across the world, from France to Arizona. Anything that calms and pushes back traffic is good, these happenings said. When the spaces between buildings becomes ambiguous, they invite people to gather and form communities.

Ultimately, Not Bad Results

Ted has gained credibility with the city, not least, through his noteriety. One Christmas he was asked to create an installation for one of Oxford's main roads, and it became a Cyclemas Tree (made of bicycle parts) that effectively slowed down cars for the season as they stopped to stair.

Perhaps even more compelling, in Ted's street, the children are growing up with a sense that they can create change through political action.

And so the Roadwitches continue.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Han Bennink: The Art of Noise

Talking About Music . . .

To continue from the last post, by far the most thrilling moments of this year's Eurogel were created by Han Bennink in his drumming.

Critics and fans have written about him for years, so you can always research the music history, biography information, and the rest if it interests.

The best part of the performance (other than the performance itself) was the lack of dialogue about music, music theory, influences, and all the rest of the dross that usually goes with musical demonstrations.

For example, someone asked a question about Han's boots. He buys them in Nottingham. End of discussion. A happy thing because it left time for more banging and hitting a broom, the drum kit, and a drumstick stuck in his mouth.

. . . Is Like Dancing about Architecture

It's impossible to reproduce the experience, so I'll say no more than this: write to Susanna von Cannon and ask for tour dates. This is one experience you should not miss.

More on Eurogel in the next post.

Eurogel 2006: A Gem in the Rough at the Black Diamond

The First of Its Kind

I just returned from Copenhagen where I attended Mark Hurst's Eurogel, the first GEL event to be held outside New York. It was a challenging conference precisely because it was the first. Probably its most salient feature was the heart with which it was offered by the organizers and received by the attendees. And as you can see from the pictures, taken by Daniel Hunziger, it also attracted a very young, hip crowd of designers, bloggers, and other business people interested in innovation.

Different from New York's GEL 2006

Rather than focusing on wide-spread trends -- in business innovation, in art, in gaming, in innovations corporate communication, in information mapping, and in online community, this gathering had its feet firmly in the life of Copenhagen. Most speakers were city natives, and the numerous artists and designers expressed more their own personal experiences rather than focusing on the connections with trends in the wider world.

There were notable exceptions -- look for them in the following posts.

A Different Kind of Good Experience

Despite the relatively narrow parameters, every attendee with whom I spoke felt lucky to be there. I felt the same. Although it is certainly a work in progress, Eurogel offered a level of intimacy and community that I haven't experienced at any other event.

Much of this is due to Mark Hurst, Dawn Barber, and the other organizers who went to great lengths to ensure attendees were happy with their experience. They were all generous with introductions among those at the conference, and the genuine effort to connect people gave the event a family feel.

Part of the great experience, too, can be attributed to calibre of the attendees who as a group were certainly more than the sum of its parts. Our cross-disciplinary experience and engagement in learning made the Black Diamond buzz.

Don't miss it next year.

For more on the conference from another source, check out the article by Fatdux. More from me in the next posts.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

When Good Social Networks Go Horribly Wrong (And What You Can Do to Fix Them)

When last we saw our heroes, they were very busy eating at a rather chic spot in New York while managing to carry on a conversation, hold a baby, talk to friends from the Bronx, and gesticulate a lot.

I'm not sure we were the neatest table in the place.

However, it was at this point in the discussion that the question was raised: why do the results of network analysis sometimes go horribly wrong?

It's A Pain to Fill Out Forms

Many network analysts begin by asking employees to fill out surveys to list their skill sets. This can cause problems.

First of all, the surveys are often long and involved. As Nancy White pointed out, all the information must be present for the data to be truly useful to the social network analysis.

As Dean Landsman added, this problem can be mitigated either through financial rewards or by asking managers to begin filling out what they know about their teams' skills and interests. Once the data is plotted, more can always be added.

In fact, Dean suggested that the analysis will be more accurate by beginning with the managers' view of their team-members' skill sets rather than by having team-members fill out their own surveys. Any individuals' biases and blindness about his or her own talents can get in the way of gathering useful information.

But Do Managers Necessarily See More Clearly Than Their Teams?

In the same way that every employee is not a natural connector, every manager might not be a natural (or even trainable) expert at identifying areas of prowess in his or her own team. Just like their team-members, managers' views can be colored by their needs, personal issues, an their own set of biases. It's best, then, to invite a facilitator to walk the managers through such an analysis. The results will help ensure accuracy and identify the managers who might have enough natural talent to serve as facilitators as the network information is updated.

A Bigger Problem

As discussed at great length in other posts, often business leaders want to determine and measure the outcome of processes in advance. It's a shortsighted and dangerous strategy with social networking. Just as a creative person can't be cajoled into creating art on demand, the best connectors create networks as they appear to them.

As Nancy White says, this is exactly where the strategic challenge lies -- how much should people outside the network (say, those in charge) activate and push the networkers to do their job and how much should they stay away to let the connectors be free to do what they do best?

You can do a lot of damage with network analysis if you use the data to legislate from outside. Social networks don't work when they're treated as though they can be activated at will, as though by a switch. Connectors will not be able to do their best work under these circumstances. Yet, when is it a good idea to give some direction? And what is the best way to give it?

Networks as Organic: Members as Nodes

Dean added to this discussion that there are two important points to keep in mind:

1. Networks are made up of living people who excel at times and at other times will not. Furthermore, these people have responsibilities beyond the network -- to projects within their departments, to their lives outside of work, and so on.

2. Networks are made of nodes that do not work well with a hub and spoke model. The network must be flexible enough that if one node goes down, there are ways to go elsewhere or around it in order to get the information or skills you need. If someone in the network changes jobs or leaves, it shouldn't bring down the network.

So How To Make It Work?

Companies must change their values and compensation structures for social networks to foster innovation and optimum team-building. Reward people for the ways in which they disseminate knowledge rather than for the fact that they originated it or hold it.

An Example

Nancy gave an example in the Michael Smith Genome Center in British Columbia. Every piece of data has an RSS feed and is distributed. Raw data, as well as collections of analyses, are available to everyone in Canada (in the case of government funded projects) and to a smaller network for those that are funded by private organizations.

Scientists are rewarded not on the basis of published papers but on the quality of the data streams. Managers are rated on their ability act as filters -- to route the data streams to those who need them. Higher-level managers are rewarded on their ability to identify strategic opportunities.

The system reduces the power of seniority and raises the value of connecting ideas with those who are interested. This fosters innovation.

And So?

Social network analysis is an excellent tool to optimize a company's talent. It can help you graph where the skills lie, improve processes, and solve problems in new ways that lead to innovation.

However, networks are organic and require guardians whose talent allows them to grow in appropriate ways and to leverage resources for maximum value. However, leadership must rethink their reward structure and trust the network guardians to experiment in an informed way. This requires long-term thinking, experimentation, and the willingness to let go of control.

Social Network Analysis: What Can It Do For You?

At lunch today, Nancy White (with the curly hair), Dean Landsman (with the beard) and I (the blond in the back) fell into a conversation about social network analysis, the reasons it's useful, and the drawbacks. If you wanted to boil down the process and its value into a page, how would you frame it?

Please Note: The following comes from my notes of the conversation I took while eating brunch. As it's not easy to be both an accurate stenographer and well fed at exactly the same time, I ask Nancy or Dean to speak up if I've got egg on my face anywhere below.

Everything's Math

Dean Landsman led with the claim that every process can be mathematically plotted and social network analysis creates graphs, curves, and charts using skill sets. I would add that with social networks, because people and their capabilities are the data points, social networks present a kind of math whose values are all variables.

So that's the process. What's the point?

Cubing Numbers Works: Not So Always With People

Most business leaders will tell you that they are interested in maximizing resources by leveraging the talent of their workforce. However, most of these are either not aware of their full stable of capabilities or do not make it easy for different groups to communicate regularly. In many cases, marketing professionals don't hob nob with the accountants, business analysts might not communicate directly with the sales team, and none of these groups usually encounter the C-suite.

Social network analysts use surveys to take stock of each employee's skill sets. Each skill is listed in order of strength. If you add an interest analysis, done in a parallel way, will uncover both motivations for hard work and skills that had before gone unnoticed. You can also capture what might otherwise be considered intangibles in work and learning style that will help you build stronger teams.

Finally, at its best, social network analysis breaks down walls that separate people by rank, discipline, and tenure. Rather than tackling challenges by department, the data allows problems to be addressed by people of the appropriate combination of skill sets, regardless of where they sit or what they do.

So Now What?

One of the most important skills to identify in this process is that of successful social networking. Everyone is not equally gifted as a connector, and as Nancy White says, every company only needs a few. These connectors are the people who can identify where resources can be matched and create the connections among people, teams, and projects throughout the organization. These people are called network guardians or network weavers.

For more on the essential nature of this role for successful business practice, see last week's discussion.

An Example

You've got a software development project and need a logistics expert. You know from graphing your company's talents that there is no one in the current software team. With data from social network analysis, you find exactly the right person -- you bring in someone who has this expertise, even if she works in the advertising department. Through collaboration, advertising and software will learn about the other's processes and thinking.

Beyond the problem at hand, this knowledge can inform the product of each going forward. Furthermore, the project benefits from more than one perspective, and this is impossible when teams are kept separate. For How To's, see the post on can lead to innovation>June Holley.

For more on this, please see the next post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How to Talk About Business Trends: Podcast with Howard Greenstein

You might remember a discussion of Linda Stone's discussion of trends in terms of where people put their attention. It's' brilliant thinking, and presents a persuasive vision of the future in terms of where technology meets human desire (defined as opportunity).

The only challenge I present is that Linda doesn't acknowledge how this could change when considering cultural, educational, financial, geographical, and other issues that separate many American professionals from everyone else. I'm not asking Linda to address every group. I'm only suggesting that her argument would be stronger if she acknowledges the parameters of the people effected by the trends she describes.

Howard Greenstein interviewed me in a podcast on the way to the Uplift Academy meeting last week, and he focused in on this topic. You can find it here: Just scroll down to the Howard's shows and click "play it."

Feedback is certainly welcome. And for more information on Howard, take a look at the piece from MeshForum.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

After a Birthday Break: More on Networks and Innovation

After a week off for birthday festivities and am back to continue the conversation from the last post on networks and innovation.

Networking: Why A Geeky Noun Is an Essential Verb for Innovation

The idea that networks make new ideas possible through collaboration seems obvious to those who already serve as guardians of such networks. To those who use them in more narrow ways -- for specific sales goals, for example -- it's time to wake up to what you might be missing. Think long-term. Think R&D. The more people you can connect to each other to solve problems, the more likely one of these solutions will be one for which you've been looking on your own without success.

What to Look For and Why

June Holley organizes this strategy beautifully with software that can provide metrics for all those who feel that a traditional sort of measurement is the criteria for real progress. Her presentations on smart networks are online -- I won't reproduce them here.

However, the main points to stress from the overlap in her and my own work on innovation are:

1. Talented, rigorous, and energetic relationship/alliance guardians are competitive necessities in a world where everyone is a live node on a global network. If you don't find the right combination for innovative thinking, someone else will.

2. Network-building is a long-term, ongoing process that should enable both specific goals as well as those that will emerge over time. The latter will be unknown until they appear, but they are also competitive necessity. This is where the real innovation happens, both in the combining of resources by the network guardian and by the individuals within the relationship she fosters.

3. Networks and their results are both intangible and quite tangible indeed. They should be mapped and re-mapped with appropriate software. The relationships that seem less useful should be considered and managed with as much care as those that seem immediately useful (see 2).

4. The network guardian's responsibilities include finding and cultivating relationships for an organization, pairing relationships for the sake of innovation with each other (even if the organization itself is not immediately implicated), and training others to do her work as they take over pieces of the networks. The guardian must be able to identify those who have the kind of talent and interest in this area and then train them -- as well as those within the relationships she cultivates -- so that the networking effect becomes exponential.

Comments are welcome -- I've seen this work wonders. Anyone else working this way to excellent effect.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Neworks for Sustainable Innovation

With some of my clients, it has been challenging to articulate the value of creating networks that do not have a predictable relationship to revenue generation. Businesses generally want a timeline for ROI and a business case mapped out from the start.

However, if thinking is associative, and a business plan uses only known quantities, then the results are unlikely to be surprising. Only by introducing something less predictable, along with the risk that it brings, can innovators maximize their ability to see things new.

And Then I Met June Holley . . .

At an Uplift Academy meeting this week, I met June Holley of Network Weavers. She clearly articulated how to build social/political/business networks and also how to map them. The software is in beta. However, I found even more useful the explicit articulation of the ways in which sustainable innovation depends on strong networks and the ways in which they can be built.

How This Is Usually Done

Most people would have a hard time disagreeing to the premise that successful business is all about relationships. Sure, there are business development departments (read: sales), non-profit development people (read: fundraising), and high-level executives who play golf, tennis, or dine with other high-level executives (read: closed system).

A Better Way

June suggests the important of something bigger: someone in charge of expanding a central network for the general good of the organization in all areas. This role she calls a Network Guardian. The overall network can be broken down into smaller networks as needed and organized or developed by other network guardians, depending on the size and needs within the organization.

These networks are built thoughtfully but without the expectation that each relationship will yield direct financial returns. Instead, volume within the network makes room for experimentation. In turn, there is room for both the inevitable failure that comes with risk as there is for greater success than if the experiments had never happened.

Where Does Innovation Come In?

As discussed before in more detail, the more resources to which you have access, the more likely there is to be innovation.

Also as discussed in depth in earlier posts, developing one's own (and employees') resources to the fullest extent is the first step to sustainable innovation. Then, the more new perspectives and process that can be considered in relation to one's own, the more likely it is to find effective solutions to challenges faced by your organization.

Of course, sometimes these solutions are only new to you. A process that is old hat to one group can take on new possibilities when introduced to a new context. After all, what one culture, industry, or discipline takes for granted might be an innovation in your business that makes the difference between success and failure.
There's also the value of collaboration.

A group of heads together -- if they're good heads -- often is more effective than the sum of its parts. Again, people from surprising combinations of disciplines or job descriptions can produce equally surprising (and effective) results.

And So?

My experience building networks for non-profits and for-profits alike has consistently proved to expand brand and leverage resources. However, there are not a lot of organizations that use network guardians such as myself with all the company's functions in mind.

The value of relationship development without the promise of direct revenue generation is too often overlooked. Instead of seeing in these networks something you can't measure, consider them directly related to essential R&D.

Think big. Think long term. Think networks that can be applied to every group in your firm (including those that serve internal purposes only).

With an effective guardian, your networks could become a source of sustainable surprise. What could be better for innovation than that?

For more on June's work and the process in particular, please see Nancy White's post and the next post here.