Doomed to deride the language of the next generation

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Image: Instruments of literacy – never what they used to be…

Tucking into the delights of Steven Pinker’s book about writing, The Sense of Style, I fixed on this note about the glum, cyclical outrage we’re all doomed to serve up about a younger generation’s inability to use their language well:

According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.

Reminds me of the opening of Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, when he noted that the Greek philosophers were a bit worried about the effect the new technology of reading and writing would have on young minds. Standage relates how, in the Seventh Letter and the Phaedrus, Plato argued against the written word…

writing undermines the need to remember things and weakens the mind, creating “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

I remember hearing the same sort of nonsense about calculators when I was at school and, Standage says, we see it again in popular criticisms of the internet, Google and social media…

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Blah, blah… meh.

Language and media evolve always and affect one another in turn. As I get older I want to remember this, and not waste any breath talking about how the next generations are clueless.

Neuroscience bringing work culture to its senses

Interesting video from the Financial Times – an interview with Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and coach who teaches at business schools.

For those who care to pay attention, neuroscience has been able to back up a great deal of common sense in the workplace, and may even begin to counter the ridiculous long-hours-as-status-sginifier that began in the 1980s and plagues us still.

What sort of common sense? Well, that we are none of us superhumans. That we can’t work 80 hour weeks and not suffer a lot of ill consequences, many of them in the quality of the work we do. That we are unable to multi-task without making lots of errors, unable to make high quality decisions if we don’t sleep enough, get nutrition, hydration and, you know, have a life…

On the sleep point, Ms Swart remarks in the video: “A lot of lawyers are very surprised when I tell them that.”

All so obvious, but without some data, some science to back it up, we’ve suffered stupid-work and presenteeism as defaults in the workplace for too long.

I also like the emphasis Ms Swart puts on the importance of  habits and growing new ones. You need structure to help you grow new habits, a professional coach or an app connected to wearable devices can help with this. I’ve found reading, talking better working habits openly with colleagues, peers and coaches have all worked well. For getting more sleep and not being so sedentary – a wearable device has indeed been very useful.

 

Crypto-consumers

The fact that Ad Blocker and similar plug-ins have long been top of the charts for browser extensions gave us a clue to what people like online: an absence of advertising.

What then, to make of the Red Onion Tor Browser - a web browser that makes it hard for digital eavesdroppers to see what you are doing online – being number 11 in the iOS App Store paid chart?

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Probably that people don’t like being spied on by Big Brother’n’Big Brands. Another signal – along with things like the Cryptoparty movement that increasing numbers of people are looking at how to take personal privacy more seriously. Here’s some excerpts from a piece I wrote a couple of months ago for the IAB Future Trends report on The Future of Data (and also blogged about at Brilliant Noise):

Ain’t no party like a cryptoparty

Last month I saw a warning from the near future for brands. I was at something called a Cryptoparty, one of hundreds happening every month around the world where activists teach ordinary people how to lock down their personal data online and avoid the perceived twin evils of Big Brother and big brands.

A nice man called Chris quickly taught me how to encrypt my email, web browsing and instant messaging. In 2008 the founder of Facebook predicted that the amount of information people shared online would double every year. Zuckerberg’s Law as it was inevitably named, was part of the spirit of openness and increasing transparency that had been sweeping through the web and our personal lives since the first glimmerings of social media as mass media took hold in the early Noughties.

That wave may now be breaking with some violence on the rocks of the Snowden revelations of mass surveillance by the US and its allies, along with the clumsy efforts of governments and corporations to take advantage of the big data bonanza to peer into the lives of citizens and consumers.

Marketers have been lazy and clumsy in their use of customer data to date. Even floating the idea for this article met with indifference and denial from my peers – consumers couldn’t give a fig about privacy, is the gist of some individuals’ feelings on the matter.

Things move fast on the web, however, and soon enough Martin Sorrell was telling Ad Week Europe that the Snowden scandal was going to hit brands harder than they thought and that “people are underestimating its significance among consumers.”

At the Cryptoparty, I learned that there are a mass of apps and services you can use securely, but as soon as I try them a big downside becomes clear. They are slow, clunky and lack the features of free services like those from Google, Microsoft and Apple, for instance.

I point this out to Chris. “People think my machine is broken when try it,” he admits cheerfully, “But it’s just very secure.”[...]

Last word to Sir Martin: “We want to be more respectful of privacy and also want to monetise our audiences our way. Being more focused on privacy is not bad for business, it can be good.”

We may not reach a stage where everyone cares about online privacy enough to download a Tor browser or a VPN like Cloak to their smartphone, but the number of people who do is likely to grow, even become a significant minority.

Things I learned from The Checklist Manifesto

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This post is a summary of things I’ve learned and thought about after reading The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. The book was given to me by my father following a conversation we had about how to develop effective operational systems that don’t get in the way of people’s creative, strategic and innovative flow. As you can imagine – we’re the life and soul of any family get together.

Everyone, as we know in the age of Buzzfeed, loves a list (there are some lovely musings that Brainpickings about why we love them so much).  But The Checklist Manifesto advocates using lists as teams in our professional lives. It begins with aircraft crews and surgical teams, types of work where overlooking details can be fatal and yet check-lists haven’t always been, and sometimes -  surprisingly – still aren’t universal.

The three most important things I took away from reading the book were:

  1. The use of checklists dramatically raises effectiveness and reduces errors. This is true even when experts are in charge. This has been proven in surgical medicine and commercial airlines. Mainly this is because of “necessary fallibility” in our complex age – no one person can always remember all the essential steps to do something well. We expect the impossible from ourselves
  2. Checklists are not just lists. They become a way of doing things: an organisational habit. Everyone needs to understand and accept them – including, in some cases partners and contractors (this was stressed in some interesting case studies about communication checklists on large-scale construction projects).
  3. To be effective, checklists need to fulfil a few key criteria. They must be:
    • Concise. Five to nine points per section is recommended in the airline industry.
    • Clear. They need to address a few key points – not every step in the process.
    • Collaborative. Anyone in the team can pause a project/procedure if one is not completed, regardless of seniority. Also, checklists can be improved and iterated after use.

There’s a lot more to the theme – examples from Atul Gawande’s work with the World Health Organisation, the idea’s use in healthcare systems around the world, including the NHS, with the data to back it up – and this is not a book that felt padded out, as many management works do.

It shows how checklists were first used in complex systems during the Second World War, when the first B17 bombers crashed in test-runs, not because they were faulty designs but because in the four or five decades since the invention of flight, these were the first airplanes that were too complex for one person to fly. Essential tasks during take-off would be missed and cause sometimes fatal problems later on.

Gawande says this level complexity is widespread:

Much of our work today has entered its B17 phase. Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, fire-fighters, police-officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone. Multiple fields, in other words, have become too much airplane for one person to fly.

Checklists act as guards against our cognitive biases, he continues:

Four generations after the first aviation checklists went into use, a lesson is emerging: checklists seem to be able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realised. They provide a kind of cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us – flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness. And because they do, they raise wide, unexpected possibilities.

It’s an idea we’re using at Brilliant Noise as we develop our operational systems and ways of working. This book is about meeting complex challenges, but it is interesting how everyday processes can be made much more effective with the use of brief checklists – for instance, simple team or project meetings.

Some of us have been experimenting with a checklist to start and end each meeting – purpose, how we’ll be working, how notes and actions will be taken, that sort of thing. It sounds so simple, but when you’re working at pace, it’s easy to start a meeting by diving in to whatever seems most important, rather than checking some essentials – like who is there and why, how we will work and what we want to achieve. These things can seem self-evident and obvious to everyone present – and in fact they are, just in subtly different ways for everyone present. Those subtle differences of perception can lead to avoidable errors and misunderstandings if we don’t catch ourselves early on – hence check-lists.

Checklists are being worked into our emerging processes as the company grows quickly (we’ve doubled each year for the past couple of years) and demands effective ways of working as a larger group. They seem to fit really well – not as prescriptive as heavy-duty ISO-style quality systems that I’ve worked with in the past. Much clearer, lightweight and easy to use.

Balance is a dynamic activity

ZZ10C5F218Sometimes when I read or hear a useful insight, I remember to squirrel it away (on my Tumblr, and  - via IFTTT – under quotes on Diigo). This one, from Ed Catmull’s superb book Creativity, Inc., has been in my head a lot recently.

Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness – the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments.

Balance is a dynamic act.

How wonderful and how true. It’s liberating to realise that all that wobbling you’re doing could just be quick movements you make in staying balanced rather than some impossible dream of achieving balance.

It reminds me of a question a colleague asked me: Do you think the company is heading in the right direction? The instinctive, reassuring answer is “yes”. The more accurate answer is “sometimes and mostly”.

If there’s a direction we should be heading in then, on aggregate we’re going that way. As with all start-up companies – or I suppose on a grander scale, all companies – heading in the right direction is a series of course corrections.

 

Two unusual portraits of my family

This week I got two very unusual family portraits – one expected, one a delightful surprise. One very digital-age, the other a kind of analogue throwback.

Portrait #1: Lomokev street-style

The first was by the brilliant Brighton photographer Kevin Meredith (a.k.a. Lomokev), of whom I’m a big admirer. I own one of his prints and when Brilliant Noise started up a couple of years ago he did the portraits of the founders for our website. Last year I did one of his excellent weekend Hot Shots courses and tried my own hand at Lomography, the old Russian film cameras which Kev has long championed, and from which he gets his nickname.

When I saw he was doing family portraits using the photo-montage technique he uses for his street style photography, I knew I had to get one done of my lot.

And here it is. The final version will be four separate framed photos, but this digital version has us all side-by-side. I really like it…

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Portrait #2: Us on holiday two years ago

The second portrait I stumbled across on the internet. A couple of years ago we were on holiday in Mallorca. On our way out for the day we stopped down the road from our villa to put our rubbish and recycling in the communal bins and we saw a Google Maps car go past. Knowing that it was heading for a dead-end, we stood and waited for about five minutes and it came back.

Of course, I checked the map a couple of months later, but the road we were on wasn’t available on streetview on Google Maps. I assumed that perhaps it was a private road and Google wasn’t allowed to post images of it. Ho hum, I thought, and forgot about it…

…until this week when I was booking a holiday to Mallorca again and trying to see a villa on streetview and I thought, why not check and see if that photo is there now. It took some clicking around (I couldn’t remember which backroad outside Pollensa it was) and then… bingo.

ZZ2A707FE2 ZZ58C0ADBBFunny little moment of serendipity, eh?

‘The three stages of digital transformation’

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Newspapers were among the first businesses to feel the full disruptive force of digital. But they aren’t unique. Best to to watch their struggle, and learn from them, whatever line of work you’re in.

Adam Tinworth’s analysis over at Journalism.co.uk of how print publishing businesses is, then, interesting both for what it says about that sector, but also because you can broadly apply it to most other industries:

Broadly speaking, I think we can place pretty much all traditional print businesses making the move into online publishing into one of three categories: Additive, Replicative or Transformative[....] 

Additive [...] They are still doing what they used to do – publishing a print product that is much as it’s always been – but also creating a digital product that contains additional material. [...]

[Replicative] You’re not doing anything substantially different from what you were doing before, but are instead just publishing it in more channels.

[Transformative] Surviving at this level requires a massive rethink of the organisational structure of the whole operation.

“Digital transformation” programmes are too often not transformative. There’s a proclamation by a board – everyone cheers for a bit, does some training, and then gets back to business as usual and hopes for the best. As Adam goes on to say:

Hitting the transformative stage means letting go of the idea that we’re an organisation that exists to publishing a newspaper/magazine/website and focusing on the idea that we exist to produce journalistic content for a particular audience.

Substitute the middle bit and this is the same crisis of strategy and culture that almost every company being challenged by digital is facing. The answer for all of them begins with a customer-first approach, I believe. Beginning is really, really hard though – and it may be the easiest part of the process.

 

 

Buzzfeed the disruptor

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With the leaked and digital transformation there’s a lot of focus on the struggles of the newspaper business to remain competitive in the internet age.

Buzzfeed, like all great digital businesses, rewards revisiting and close attention. It is evolving so quickly that it’s just lazy to have it mentally filed under “listicles & kitten photos” or “death of news culture”.

The New York Times understands this, as its leaked report on innovation makes clear. Look at its elegant visual explanation of Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma and for “Disruptors”, read Buzzfeed and its amazing social media distribution engine now being used to develop higher quality journalism.

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In an interview at the DLD NYC 14 conference, Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti talked about the company’s strategy. It’s well worth 20 minutes of viewing, but I’ve noted some bits that resonated for me below…

  • Social content: Asked “what is Buzzfeed?”, Peretti responds, that “Buzzfeed is a social content website….  Social content is content that people think is awesome enough to pass on to their friends.” He says that whenever a new media arrives, people put the old kind of content into the new distribution technology. When that fails, new players bring in new types of content that work…
  • Scale. Buzzfeed has the scale of a traditional media company without the industrial media infrastructure, he says. 75% of our audience [120 million uniques a month by its internal metrics] arrive through social media.
  • News and entertainment. Peretti desribes Buzzfeed as a news and entertainment company – just like newspapers always have been (to illustrate this he cites crossword puzzles and property supplements, but of course a lot of news is essentially entertainment – think sensationalist coverage of celebrities and murders). Buzzfeed is investing in foreign correspondents and investigative journalism now – it has two reporters in Ukraine right now, for instance.
  • Mobile-social audience. People spend more time looking at phone screens than TV screens, Perretti points out, but “In a world where media companies are still making media for legacy systems that are not nearly as relevant, especially for younger readers…”
  • Empathetic, not authoritative. He contrasts Buzzfeed’s tone and approach as being more about empathy, where traditional media would be more about authority.
  • Not selling “adjacency”. Traditional measures like clicks (CPMs etc.) aren’t as important to Buzzfeed, as it doesn’t sell “adjacency” (putting ads next to content. Buzzfeed’s model, is a platform for social content (CMS, data science, brand. metrics, systems)  which they use for news, entertainment and branded content (the latter being the revenue of course). “CPMs are based on this mistaken notion that there is limited space [on the internet]…” News, entertainment and branded content can all find their audiences, he says – there’s no limit [beyond users' attention , of course.]

: : Bonus link: My Brilliant Noise colleague, David Preece has some analysis of the New York Times Innovation report.

: : Timothy B. Lee at Vox has some interesting analysis both of the NYT report and of the innovator’s dilemma model – incumbents rarely change and survive, he points out. H/T Adam Tinworth.

Brands on the edge of a cultural breakdown

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Let’s connect a few dots around the idea of brands.

After the Forrester Marketing Leadership Forum in London, I finally caught up with this James Surowiecki article from February’s New Yorker, Twilight of the Brands. The gist of it – consumers need brands less than the brand marketing industry thinks they do…

It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. “Absolute Value,” a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality; if a car was made by G.M., or a ketchup by Heinz, you assumed that it was pretty good. 

Connect this with The Economist piece on the collapse of trust between people and advertisers, as the industry continues to optimise for interruption marketing that no one really wants…

Havas Media, a big marketing agency, says trust in them has been declining for three decades. Last August it published the latest in a series of worldwide surveys, in which 134,000 consumers in 23 countries were asked what they thought of 700 brands. A majority of those taking part would not care if 73% of them just vanished. In Europe and America 92% would not be missed. Only in places like Asia and Latin America, with lots of newish consumers, is there a bit more attachment to brands, though Havas Media reports that it is declining there too.

Fracking the social web, as John Willshire calls the relentless chasing of consumer attention by any and all technological means, is part of all this.

And meanwhile brand marketing is losing the brightest and best talent to adjacent, more digital, agile and innovative industries, as agency CEO John Winsor wrote in post at The Guardian:

Every day the best and brightest young talent leaves the industry to join (or just bypass the industry all together) digital alternatives from start-ups to established digital players and other, more innovative established players in other industries (IDEO is an example). They might think of themselves in the marketing and advertising businesses but they don’t want to take the traditional path. Working their way up through the creative ranks not only seems too slow but much too political and bureaucratic.

In a couple of weeks’ time the Cannes Lions festival of advertising will kick off. The last day, Saturday, is innovation day. Maybe next year, that should come at the beginning.