Category: Public notebook

Meeting-less leadership

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Creative leaders can struggle with the limiting effects of seniority. They are expected at more meetings. Less of their time is their own. Everything is scheduled and less  spontaneous – it seems frivolous to have diary time that is not spoken for by one plan or priority.

I was inspired to read about IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett’s radical response to this challenge in a New York Times article. He has a Sunday night ritual of deleting meetings from his diary – as many as he can, and then sets up a desk in the middle of the office where he can be found, interrupted and bumped into serendipitously:

I bucked our internal trend of “hot desking,” where people don’t have a permanent desk. Most of our employees sign up for a desk when they come in for the day — that helps keep everyone flexible and fluid. But I wanted to be an anchor in all that fluidity. So I sat myself permanently and resolutely with our I.T. team at its help desk, which is the most visible and central spot in our San Francisco office.

I think of the help desk as an overlap between a coffee bar and a hacked-together technological lifeguard station. The people there are full of energy and fun. Sitting high up on a stool with them has encouraged people to approach me spontaneously. This lets conversations and interactions happen naturally over the course of the workday. I try to spend about half my day at the help desk and the other half doing what I call “doctor’s rounds,” when I walk through the office and talk to people if they request it or if I feel that they are receptive to it.

I now allow myself to be pulled, to drift in and out, and to be available for five-minute or two-hour interactions depending on what’s needed. Because of that, I feel as if I am part of a living, breathing organism, and responding to its needs rather than simply running from place to place with a calendar in my hand.

Of all of this – and a strange thins about a lamp made of a desiccated cod – it’s the first bit I like most. Making saying “no” part of the planning routine, creating space for unplanned things to happen. I think I will try that out…

 

Big data in a historical context

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Excellent stuff from Alan Patrick on his Broadstuff blog, talking about the 70s, 80s and 90s versions of big data – or “data”, they were calling it back then…

And you know what – you just cannot simulate the minute operation laden details of a shop floor or logistics network reliably. No matter how big your dataset, or your computers, or your machine tool onboard intelligence, there is just too much variability. Which is why the Just In Time/Lean movement came about as the better approach – the aim was to simplify the problem, rather than hit it with huge algorithm models and simulations so complex no one fully understood what they were doing anymore (just ask the banks what happens going down that route) – the aim of JiT/Lean was to actually reduce the problem variability, to get back to Small Data if you like.

Alan discusses the way that despite fascination with new technology and algorithms, the drumbeat that industry marches to is that of economics – in this case the pendulum swing of offshoring and onshoring, powered by the temporary advantage of emerging economies’ lower labour costs.

[....] It’s back to the future….I suspect they are now using bigger and bigger number crunching to eke the last 20% of improvements from the various kaizen projects ongoing, trying to keep the factories in situ as the Big Economics shift yet again

The rate of change today often feels bewildering at ground level, but keeping one eye on the forces of history and economics, we see ourselves in the context of slower moving, but more significant trends. In The Second Machine Age – which I’ve been fixated with over the last week (I even look dangerously close to finishing it) – the authors point out that

  • productivity gains from electric motors took about 30 years to emerge in manufacturing.
  • steam engines unlocked 100 years of productivity gains (and an exponential growth in human population).
  • microprocessors and the IT revolution unlocked meagre productivity gains until the late 1990s

What drove productivity in these instances was innovation that used the technology better – innovation in products, processes, organisation and management. When we’re looking at new technologies in our lives and workplaces like social computing, big data etc. it could be decades before their actual potential is felt by all bar the early adopters that are able to see their potential and change their mindsets and ways of working fastest.

A useful IFTTT recipe for blogging

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A really useful piece of advice from Adam Tinworth about blogging is this: bring the inspiration or desire to blog as close as possible to actually blogging.

This sounds obvious, but over time all sorts of tools and steps in the process can get added. Consequently, I have an Evernote notebook full of links to blog about, and a Byword folder stacked with ideas and links I’ve not got round to writing up.

This IFTTT recipe is one attempt to overcome this. I’ve created it so that every time I bookmark on my Diigo with the tag “to_blog“, a draft post is created on my personal blog.

If you think it could work for you too, create an IFTTT.com account and give it a go.

Threshold concepts

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Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.

My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).

Taking a look at some information about the idea, I came across a summary of a conference on threshold concepts in New Zealand, which called out the following characteristics:

• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.

Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?

Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need. 

A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this: 

Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.

I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.

On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…

It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.

But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:

Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.

The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog - for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.

Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.

Words, actions, privacy.

Ember

Image: My medieval public identity…

It used to be when users kicked up a fuss, social networks quaked and gave way to their demands.

Then Facebook began a kind of two-steps-forward / user outcry / one-step-back dance with privacy and user data.

These days, as the market has matured and the incumbents feel a little more settled, their networks seem a little too hard to opt out of for users.

In a recent New York Times article about Google+, Google’s Bradley Horowitz said: “We are attuned to both what people say and what people do.”

How I read that: sure, we hear a lot of complaining, but no one’s voting with their virtual feet.

Users complain about the forcing upon them of a Google+ identity, but they don’t do much about it. They don’t close down their Gmail, start using other search engines, give YouTube a swerve. Not many of them. Not enough of them to worry about.

To data driven Google, an outcry on Twitter and in opinion articles is largely noise. People stopping using their services would be a strong signal – and they just aren’t seeing that.

I can think of a couple of people who have opted out of Facebook (a couple out of the few hundred people I’m connected to there).

As for Google, I have only met one refusenik so far – and heard tell of others in the online activist community.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Will governments and brands begin to follow this logic? Petitions and online slacktivism, as one-click protests are derisively labelled by some, aren’t always going to signal real behaviour changes – boycotts, votes, spending money elsewhere.
  2. Are people who are opting out of Google and Facebook the start of a movement toward “de-clouding”, rejecting handing their personal data over to large corporations? It’s too early to tell whether this will remain fringe dissent or whether it will begin to spread. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and, to some extent, Apple and Amazon (the “stacks“) will be aiming to make sure the massive utility value of their services outweighs fear and suspicion of their stewardship of our data.

Online security expert Bruce Schneier calls entrusting our data to the stacks “feudal security”, a theme picked up by Aral Balkan recently in his TEDxBrighton talk.

Feaudalism works, you could argue. It worked for thousands of years. Quite apart from inequality and fairness though, feudalism kills progress – it causes stagnation, homegeneity, stasis.

I guess what Schneier and Balkan are pointing out with the feudalism metaphor is that this is a kind of opt-in feudalism – it doesn’t have to be that way. Actually, as I sit here typing into a Chrome Browser, on an iMac, before turning to my Gmail etc. – you realise that it’s no opt-in, it’s something you have to put a great deal of effort and time into opting out of…

: : As an aside, I’d be a lot more likely to use Google+ more often if I didn’t have two identities there. Reflecting on the “forcing users to have a single Google+ identity” strand in this post as I edited it, I realise – I’d love a single identity. Can I have one, please?

My work and personal email are both on Gmail, so I have two lots of circles, etc. Reminds me of this tweet I favorited [sic] the other day:

 

 

 

My contemptible device

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As discussed in a recent post, I recently chaired a panel on – among other things – voyeurism, privacy and gender politics, following a screening of the short film SLR at Lighthouse, in Brighton.

During the discussion, the entertaining, insightful and consistently challenging Wendy Grossman referred to the iPad Mini in front of me – on which I had my notes – as “that contemptible device”, or words close to that…

She was referring, I think, to its closed ecosystem, the command-and-control its manufacturer still holds over it, giving a panopticon-like view over its users’ lives – and some other things she dislikes about Apple. She doubtless has a valid point or two, but we’ll get back to the trade-offs we’re willing to make for things that work well over control, privacy etc. in another post (after the other day’s cryptoparty shenanigans, there’s definitely one bubbling up).

So ever since, the iPad Mini has been “my contemptible device”.

The name has actually made me feel slightly more affectionate toward the thing. I like to affect contempt for it, although I can’t really bring myself to compare it to phones and computers that I have really hated. I remember a grey slab I was issued by the tech quartermasters when I started my last proper job, packed with software designed to process ideas and thoughts into grey, bullet-pointed entropy. Then I was given a “smart” phone to match. A phone so bad, it allegedly destroyed the electronics in one of my colleagues’ cars when he plugged it into to its USB port.

I am enjoying the idea of an almost ubiquitous, well designed, well built piece of gadgetry being notorious and despicable. This is partly recreational contrarianism, but I also want to properly understand the arguments as to why anyone should reject tech owned and run by large corporations (there’s a thing called “de-clouding” where you remove your data from the cloud, which I want to find out more about). I’m not sure whether I object to the idea completely, or just don’t agree with it yet. I’m sincerely, deeply curious.

It may not be the supposed contemptibility of Apple that does for the iPad, though, if Zal Bilimoria of Andreessen Horowitz’s comments in an article on re/code are on the money. He joined the VCs recently from Netflix, where he said the company’s data seemed to show that tablets were being neglected in favour of large phones or “phablets”.

The tablet couldn’t possibly shoulder all the expectations people had for it. Not a replacement for your laptop or phone — but kinda. Something you kick back with in the living room, fire up at work and also carry with you everywhere — sort of. Yes, tablets have sold in large numbers, but rather than being a constant companion, like we envisioned, most tablets today sit idle on coffee tables and nightstands. Simply put, our love for them is dying….

What I realize now is that it has been the phone all along. What we are witnessing today is a merger of phones and tablets, not just at Netflix but everywhere, which is why this decade’s attempt at tablets is nearing its death — just four years after Jobs launched the original iPad.

After a couple of months of determined attempts to use the iPad Mini as a writing machine, I’ve returned to my first love – a 15″ MacBook Pro for writing. It’s had a really positive effect so far on my blogging. It’s the form factor, the power and the speed with which you can write, edit and flit about the internet. I realise now how much I have unknowingly missed this bulkier form of mobile computing for years. We’ll see if effect this continues or not – I cycle through fads and obsessions with different devices and workflows all the time – but I feel pretty strongly in favour of it right now.

Despite the honeymoon with my Mini being over, I still love it for reading, for notes and for trips to London when I don’t want to haul a couple of extra kilos of laptop around. I still love my contemptible device, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be playing with whatever Nokia, Android and Firefox OS devices of all shapes and sizes, as soon as I can get my hands on them. Despite having been accused of tech-partisanship in the past, I’ve little brand loyalty:  my obsession is with what lets me think fastest, work fastest, what software gets out of the way and doesn’t break down the most.

Other than that, I’m not fussy.

Image: Lighthouse Arts

Work is the signal

I like this Tweet:

Reminds me of Caroline Webb’s saying that “email is procrastination in disguise”.

Sure, email is a vital tool. Yes, it is a powerful communication platform and sometime the  most  important thing to do is send an email.

You know what he’s getting at though, don’t you.

Via Impossible.

SLR screening and a debate on the web, voyeurism and selfies

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Last week I attended the screening at Lighthouse of a BFI short film, SLR – a dark, troubling thriller about voyeurism, social media, selfies and hypocrisy. A heady mix.

Afterwards I chaired a panel with Wendy Grossman, Georgina VossChris Pinchen and the director, Stephen Fingleton.

SLR is a really interesting film – the director described the experience he was trying to create for the viewer as  like “being Cybil Shepherd on a date with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver”. If he meant uncomfortable, tense and gripping, he got a direct hit on my amygdala.

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Image: Stephen Fingleton at the panel. 

I was surprised to learn that few short film directors agree to put their films online, preferring the slower, more rarefied audience that distribution via film festivals allows. Stephen Fingleton, the director had gone for reach, he said, wanting to get SLR seen by as many people as possible.

With 218,000 views and rising when I wrote this, he’s definitely getting a bigger audience for SLR than most short films.

Stephen Fingleton, is an engaging, impressive, talented chap. Speaking with him beforehand and during the panel he was first and foremost impressive as a deep thinker. He’d made a difficult and provocative film about this subject, but was continuing to consider the issues around it.

One of his scripts featured on the Hollywood Blacklist last year – a list of the best screenplays not yet in production. He’s now working on his first feature film – I’ll look forward to that.

The twenty minute film is available to watch online (and is embedded below).

SLR from Stephen Fingleton on Vimeo.

And, if you’re interested in seeing the panel discussion that followed – here’s the video.

Image credits: Still – Driver Films; Photo of Stephen Fingleton, Lighthouse Arts

More new and old media pairing

ZZ03FF51C3More from Writing on the Wall, by Tom Standage, on how old media is often – for a while – enhanced by the new,  rather than being replaced. 

In England in the 1600s, newsletters were distributed about parliamentary and Royal news by mansucript subscription “news letters”. They literally began as letters, which were copied by teams of scribes and sent out – often to be shared in groups, read aloud or copied and passed on again.

Printed newsletters (called “Corantos“)  were largely, at first, about foreign news – partly as a consequence of strict censorship laws. However, some bright sparks in the manuscript trade started included the printed foregin news – the first newspaper supplements, apparently:

But rather than competing, the two forms proved complementary. Corantos could be enclosed within manuscript news letters as they circulated, providing printed foreign news alongside the handwritten domestic sort. Letters from this period contain abundant references to printed material [...] entire transcribed copies of them and, on several occasions, the printed corantos themselves. Coratnos were printed versions of what were originally manuscript documents, and the information they contained was in turn recycled into manuscript news networks.

There have always been news networks – and there have always been social networks bound up in them.

Image credit: (cc) Wikipedia 

Who can see what you are doing on the internet right now?

Yesterday’s cryptoparty was fascinating in so many ways. A two hour-ish session took us through online privacy issues, behaviours and tools.

Particularly useful was an interactive diagram from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for internet freedom, showing who can see what you are doing with your web browser – from a hacker sitting in the same coffee shop, to your ISP, the hosts of the website you are using and government agencies tapping into the internet backbone (as the NSA and GCHQ in the UK have been doing) or contacting the ISP or website for their records. 

Click on the image below to try it for yourself.

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I knew some of this previously, but this diagram is really helpful in clarifying the situation. You can see who see how of your online activity is blocked by using a secure plug in (the HTTPS Everywhere extension for Chrome and Firefox browsers will do this) or a super-secure browser like TOR (which encrypts and hides users’ location, identity and web use). Fro the most part, the former blocks people seeing who you are and your data, the latter almost everything except your location and the fact that you are using TOR.

On the last point, using TOR presents what my colleague Jason Ryan calls “the cryptographer’s dilemma”. While it means you have a huge amount of privacy online, it also holds up a metaphorical sign saying “I am doing secret things! Over here, mass surveillance agency – me! Me!”.

Recommendations for using TOR for people like activists or journalists who need to keep their online activity away from prying eyes include:

  • Don’t use it too often
  • Don’t use it at home
  • Don’t upload files on it
  • Don’t log in to your email

There are more in an exhaustive – and, frankly, exhausting – list called Want TOR to really work?.

Online privacy and mass surveillance are very complex issues, as are the solutions. I’m very grateful to Chris Pinchen and his cryptoparty friends for helping me to begin to think these issues and ideas through.