Croquet conversations

Sometimes when ask what I am doing in retirement, I say I am seeking to have ‘interesting conversations’. For this blog I have taken a different approach to usual, weaving various fragments of recent conversations on the sidelines of the week-long Manly Croquet Club Seabreeze tournament into a single fictionalized exchange

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By the lawn at the Manly Croquet Club Seabreeze tournament:

It’s taken us ages to drive here, there was an horrendous accident on the parkway that held up traffic for over 30 minutes – it took us an hour and a half to get here this morning.

Yes, we were faced with a three bridge problem coming from Marrickville: the Anzac Bridge the Harbour Bridge and the Spit Bridge each with their own particular idiosyncrasies.  So rather than drive to Manly every day, we decided to stay over for the week of the tournament and rented an Airbnb granny flat just on the other side of the golf course – about 20 minutes’ walk to here.

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Wow, that’s a good idea!

Yes, we figured that people actually used to go to Manly for the holidays – back in the day, before they invented Tuscany…

How have you found it … Airbnb that is?

It was a great decision – we’ve called it our ‘cruise on dry land’ and it’s worked out brilliantly. The young couple who own the house have a young toddler – actually one thing that might have bugged me in the past, but that I’ve enjoyed in grandparent mode, has been the literal pitter-patter of little feet overhead.

It seems to me with all this development adding more and more people, generating ever-increasing traffic that Sydney is drowning in its own prosperity.

“Into every life a little rain must fall” as my mother often said as she counselled resilience in the face of adversity.  You know, watching this very welcome spot of rain sprinkling on the dry croquet lawns, it occurs to me that it can also true in the positive alternative – that is, whatever adversity one might face, a little relieving rain will ultimately fall.

Yes, but it’s hard to see where the sprinkling of rain to ease the pain of the Sydney traffic might come from – it certainly a paradox that the more capacity and infrastructure we add, the more traffic we seem to generate.

I agree, that certainly seems the case. You know, I fully get the idea that the best solution to congestion is actually congestion, eventually it will be self-managing.  But that is completely politically unsaleable, since everyone wants their particular connection problem solved, which walks us back into the problem.

A wicked problem!

Indeed! Perhaps technology will help us through better traffic management and perhaps congestion charging by location. Of course technology in the future often doesn’t get such a positive spin – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

[Puzzled look]

The original sci-fi novel that was inspiration for the movie Blade Runner.  I am really looking forward to seeing the sequel that was released recently.

Is that so?  I’ve not seen the original movie.

It’s well worth seeing – it seems to me to be quite an important work, not exactly a prediction but it looked at important and pressing issues, which are still relevant today, maybe even more than when it was first released.  A bit like what Mark Twain said about the past – history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. Maybe in the same sort of way good thinking about the future won’t predict it, but is likely to rhyme with it?

I don’t think that I’m that march in tune with modern technology – it all seems a bit much to keep up with frankly.

I don’t think that you sound as much of a techno-sceptic has the woman at my U3A drawing group. When asked if she had received the newsletter said ‘No!’  Told that it was sent as an email attachment in a PDF file, she observed with considerable vehemence that if it was not on paper she did not want it and that in any case that she did not have email. I must admit I was impressed and surprised by such a closed mind in a group that is supposedly engaged in creative practice.

Well yes, I wouldn’t count myself as such a digital refusenik – I wonder if they are digitally disenfranchised or just living with their heads in the sand?

I am reminded one point made an interesting sci-fi book I finished reading recently – by Iain M. Banks called Excision – about what he called ‘the dependency principle’.  He said however smart you are (and here he was talking about hugely advanced AI Minds) you should never forget where the OFF switch is located. He makes the point that base reality remains essential – the electricity that makes computers work and the basic physiology that enables the human mind to functions.  Lose that base reality and you lose everything constructed on top of it! So there is a danger in being dependent on technology …

So there’s nothing wrong with staying in touch with day-to-day reality … for a different take on what laughingly passes for reality, I just finished Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which was a fantastical cornucopia of detailed insights and observations.  To me there is a compelling comparison between this work and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. I don’t see it as derivative but rather a member of the same genre, whereby a preternaturally gifted child observes and influences the great tapestry of history – Saleem by virtue of his telepathic gifts and acute nose and Oscar with his glass shattering voice and insistent drumming.

Wow, interesting … I guess reading and appreciating literature is perhaps also a form of conversation, both with the author and with yourself, as well as then being material for conversation with other people. Something I’ve done in the few months since retiring has been to re-watch all seven seasons of the television series called ‘The Shield‘. Watching it in its entirety across a reasonably short time-frame, I found it quite Shakespearean in the depth of the drama of a man acting very badly while striving to fulfill good intentions of comradeship and family – perhaps even better than the legendary Breaking Bad.

Really? I don’t actually watch much television myself.

We don’t watch broadcast television much at all anymore either but I think that the long form television series, delivered by pay or DVD or streaming, is arguably the preeminent literary form the first couple of decades of the 21st century. Just like the serial works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy became literary icons of the 19th.

Hmmmm, maybe … anyway how is the croquet?

I’ve been making a few tournament updates on Facebook illustrating each with a photograph of a flower from the fine garden beds surrounding the lawn.

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When I mentioned this to someone from the club, the response was that the gardeners who put in a lot of work would be very pleased for the acknowledgment of their efforts.  I also mentioned the croquet-themed men’s room sign I employed for one update, and was quite staggered that a long-standing club member had never noticed such unique signage – same for the women’s by the way.

 

Interesting what people don’t see. How’s your play been?

Oh, I managed make a break with 9 hoops in a row in my last game – lost the game but that made it worthwhile.

Congratulations! Becoming one with the mallet …  I’ve had a few shorter breaks, but my current specialty seems to be making my opponent play their worst game … sometimes I win, sometimes they do, but often low scoring, scrappy games. As I commented to one of my opponents, it’s like being stuck in bronze hell…

Oh well, such is life, as Ned Kelly told his gang!

Not such a wicked problem I guess. Oh, I think that’s my turn on the lawn – been good talking to you.

Likewise, good luck!

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The specialist generalist

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions. Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions. I must say I am enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.

Since ceasing full time work, and starting my Charles 6.0 transformation, I have met a number of people (some more significantly advanced in years than my own) that continue employment on a consulting or contracting basis. It has sometimes been suggested that perhaps that’s something I would like to do. Quite apart from being pretty fully occupied without having any work-like obligations, one reflection on this has been that these people normally have a highly specific and singular expertise that is valued in the marketplace, such as database programming, construction engineering or town planning.  The world of the consultant contractor is the world of the dedicated specialist.  Quite reasonably most clients are looking for someone to undertake a specific task with well-defined outcomes – that way they know they will get at least an approximation of what they are paying for.

At various times during my working life I have worked as a self-employed consultant/contractor. To be completely frank I’ve never really been all that good at it.  While I easily discharged the usually IT related tasks (such as application coding or database design) entrusted to me by various clients, I generally wanted to do more and often found the focused, repetitive aspect of the work they wanted me to specialise in frustrating and somewhat unfulfilling – when I’ve done something once I generally want to solve a different problem or acquire a fresh skill. The basic problem is that I’m interested in too many things.

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions.  However, usually people either feel they have a good handle on what needs doing or they lack the trust necessary to commission someone else to explore the problem space.

By and large there is also an inclination to ‘rush to solution’ – there is little appreciation of the art and skill of sitting with a problem long enough to understand its true demands and dimensions – which quite frequently are more or less different to the immediately presenting issues.   Newsflash: that is not a proposition easily sold into a competitive market place – there are not many clients willing to pay someone to sit with a problem – they want them solved – ASAP!

I actually found the best place to practice that particular art is as a full time employee – oftentimes you can layered the necessary time spent sitting and thinking in among all the busy work that employers seem delighted to visit upon their workers. It is here you can cultivate the position of the generalist employee, easily deployed to various tasks but sometimes lampooned as the ‘jack of all trades that is master of none’.  However as the Wikipedia entry about that saying notes, such an individual may be a master of integration, knowing enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring the disciplines together in a practical manner – what I would call a practical generalist.

Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions.

One conceptual tool I have found useful to frame complexity in this context is what is commonly known as the ‘Stacey diagram’, so named after the British organizational theorist and Professor of Management Ralph Douglas Stacey. It has apparently been frequently adapted by other writers, as noted by Wikipedia often in ways not consistent with Stacey’s – to the point that apparently ‘he dropped the diagram and now argues against its use’.  I am as guilty of appropriating and extending his original thinking as anyone!  But I find it incredibly useful as framework for analysis and thought, and so I have sketched my own take on it, as illustrated here.

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There are two axis to the diagram – Uncertainty and Disagreement:

  • The horizontal x-axis is Uncertainty. When an Issue or decision is close to certainty it is because cause and effect linkages can be determined.  This is usually the case when a very similar issue or decision has been made in the past, you can then use past experience to predict the outcome with a good degree of certainty. The other end of the certainty continuum is ‘far from certainty’. This is when the situation is unique or at least new to the decision makers.  The cause and effect linkages are not clear.  Using past experiences is not a good method to predict outcomes in the far from certainty range.
  • The vertical y-axis is Disagreement. This measures the level of agreement about an issue or decision within the group, team or organisation.  The degree of agreement on what should be done is an important factor in determining success.

I have found a very useful and succinct exploration of the Stacey matrix in relation to art of management and leadership, on this GP training resource archive.  It maps various forms of decision making onto the matrix: Technical rational in the ‘simple’ region which is close to certainty and close to agreement – in terms of this blog the place for the specialist; Political for the area having a great deal of certainty about how outcomes are created but high levels of disagreement about which outcomes are desirable; Judgmental for the opposite set of issues with a high level of agreement but not much certainty as to the cause and effect linkages to create the desired outcomes.

Political and Judgmental for my purposes here are the realm of the ‘practical generalist’.

And then there is the Complexity zone which lies between these regions of traditional management approaches and chaos and is the natural home of the specialist generalist.

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A few observations on what is required to work as this close to the edge of chaos – for it to be a ‘zone of opportunity’ …

  • Be prepared to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing much of the time!  The qualification is to be able to ascertain rapidly what needs to be known and to acquire that knowledge rapidly rather than to have a stored repertoire of specialist knowledge to hand.
  • Work on the basis of principles rather than rules. I like this recent post I found on LinkedIn – ‘Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles’, which observed “Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive.”  But a specialist generalist needs to be prepared for uncertainty even here: paradigm shifts in terms of the set of principles to be applied in a given space, to find space for innovation and novel principle to emerge.
  • Be a systems thinker – I like the following illustration of the Tools of a System Thinker (attached to a tweet by @SYDIC_ITALIA Chapter Italiano della System Dynamics Society Internazionale – no further reference to acknowledge). However a specialist generalist must be an open-ended systems thinker, sensitive to emergent systems and to proto-systems at the edge of chaos.  You cannot insist on systems at all costs, but need to utilise the insights systems thinking can generate.  Be a network systems thinker, value the connections in the models you will perceive and generate as well as utilizing networks of skill and knowledge around the problem space.

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It took me a long time to recognize and name myself as a ‘specialist’ generalist.  It is a very difficult and demanding role, one that is difficult to sell and articulate, but one which can deliver dividends with multiplier effects well beyond the contributions of specialists and practical generalists, since it is the role that seeks innovation, requires agility and rewards resilience.   That said, in the end with respect to my specialist computer-related skills, I decided to employ my abilities to my own ends rather than to try to meet the often poorly articulated and often contradictory needs of clients, be they internal or external.  I must say I am similarly enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.

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AI and future of work

‘Work’ is a fundamental shaper of everyday life. There is widespread agreement that AI technology is making possible the automation of a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks, with obvious consequences for those currently doing those tasks. The orthodox economics proposition that a general equilibrium will prevail, however the live and urgent question today is whether this time it is different … maybe the historical pattern of compensating job creation has broken. Planning for how society, nationally and globally, might need to respond would seem like a useful insurance policy.

Last week’s blog explored Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – broadly defined – and this week I am looking at the implications of this technology for the future of work. I encountered AI tech first when researching the impact of technological change on the employment context and prospects for visually impaired people while at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) in the early 80s.  I observed that it was a time of considerable technological excitement, but that there was also considerable anxiety about the impacts of automation on jobs.

It’s no new thing for people and society to stress about the impact of changing technology on jobs and employment – apparently Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent for a knitting machine because of the poverty it could cause and in the early 1800s the Luddites, poster children for technological resistance, destroyed weaving machinery.  It is worth noting that it is a misconception that the Luddites protested in an attempt to halt progress of technology but rather were trying to gain a better bargaining position with their employers.

The late seventies – early eighties was a time of relatively high unemployment and the Australian debate was framed by a Senate Committee of Inquiry into Technological Change in Australia, culminating in the Myers Report.  Many of the headlines of those times would not be out of place today – perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same?

The conclusion of the report, and outcome we can see today is that while micro-processor driven technology innovation might destroy jobs it would also create them, and usually in greater number and with better pay.  In defense of his Committee’s report Prof Myers gave a good summary of the orthodox economics proposition that a general equilibrium will prevail:

When technological change lowers the price of goods by cutting labour, families will spend the money so saved on other goods and services and in doing so will generate jobs often in quite unrelated areas of the   economy. (AFR 30 Sept 1980)

However, the live and urgent question today is whether this time it is different … maybe the historical pattern of compensating job creation has broken. The critical debate is whether the past pattern of technological change generating wealth and supporting work as a distribution mechanism will hold or whether there has been some kind of de-coupling. The case for such a de-coupling is persuasively and succinctly argued in this brief video piece that explores the consequences of an increasingly automated workforce, worth watching: “Humans Need Not Apply” by C.G.P. Grey.

In 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne used a functional analysis to show that with the availability of big data a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks are becoming computerisable, and they estimated “that sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide”.   The Bank of England built on this in a study reported by their Chief Economist Andy Haldane.  Using the Frey and Osborne methodology, the Bank did its own exercise for the UK to produce a broad brush estimate to suggest for the UK up to 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation. In the US, the corresponding figure would be 80 million jobs.

Lending support to the idea that this time it may be different, Haldane noted:

… new-age machines will be thinking as well as doing, sensing as well as sifting, adapting as well as enacting. They will thus span a much wider part of the skill distribution than ever previously. As robots extend their skill-reach, “hollowing-out” may thus be set to become ever-faster, ever-wider and ever-deeper.  As digital replaced analogue, perhaps artificial intelligence will one day surpass the brain’s cognitive capacity, a tipping point referred to as the “singularity” (Stanislaw (1958))). Brad Delong has speculated that, just as “peak horse” was reached in the early part of the 20th century, perhaps “peak human” could be reached during this century (Delong (2014)).

It is worth noting, for balance the OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Paper, ‘The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis’ by Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory, and Ulrich Zierahn. The paper specifically addressed the “occupation-based approach proposed by Frey and Osborne (2013), and argues their approach might lead to an overestimation of job automatibility, as occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate.”

Overall, they find that, on average across the 21 OECD countries, 9 % of jobs are automatable.  They critically reflect on the recent line of studies that generate figures on the “risk of computerisation” and argue that the estimated share of “jobs at risk” must not be equated with actual or expected employment losses from technological advances because:

  1. The utilisation of new technologies is a slow process, due to economic, legal and societal hurdles, so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected.
  2. Even if new technologies are introduced, workers can adjust to changing technological endowments by switching tasks, thus preventing technological unemployment.
  3. Technological change also generates additional jobs through demand for new technologies and through higher competitiveness.

A similarly balanced yet cautionary view is adopted by Merrill Lynch in their A Transforming World report:

The limiting case here would be general purpose robots that are effective substitutes for human labor but at a fraction of the cost. In that case, widespread unemployment could be an outcome – it depends on whether there develops a large enough sector in the economy where humans have a comparative advantage. This could be the arts and entertainment, or personal care services, or areas that involve deeper analytical thinking that is not amenable to existing forms of AI.

How all this will play out in labour markets and more broadly is obviously a matter of speculation, or more productively perhaps scenario analysis and planning.   That latter approach is exemplified by a PWC report published recently “Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030”, which examines 4 possible scenario ‘worlds’ of work by that time, shaped by Collectivism versus Individualism and Integration versus Fragmentation.  The worlds are: Yellow, where Humans come first; Green, where Companies care; Red, where Innovation rules and Blue, in which Corporate is king – again, worth taking a look at the report.

Central to their thinking for all these is the impact of AI, which they discuss in term of 3 levels: Assisted intelligence, widely available today, such as car GPS navigation systems; Augmented intelligence, emerging today, for example, the combination of programmes that organise car ride‑sharing businesses; and Autonomous intelligence being developed for the future, an example of which will be self‑driving vehicles, when they come into widespread use.

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One of their take-away messages is that organisations can’t protect jobs which are made redundant by technology – but have a responsibility to their people. They urge organisations to protect people not jobs, by nurturing agility, adaptability and re-skilling.

In an up-to-date assessment of the rapid strides being made in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, titled “A CEO action plan for workplace automation”, McKinsey Consulting notes tech advances in everyday activities:

For instance, researchers at Oxford University, collaborating with Google’s DeepMind division, created a deep-learning system that can read lips more accurately than human lip readers—by training it, using BBC closed-captioned news video. Similarly, robot “skin” is able to “feel” textures and find objects by touch, and robots are becoming more adept at physical tasks (such as tying a shoelace) that require fine motor skills.

One key to thinking about the future of technology is to focus on what is taken for granted or has merged into the background of daily life.  Changed technologies or behaviours are only seen as novel for a brief window, and then become unremarkable, either because they have been discarded and forgotten, or because they have merged with the fabric of everyday life and are not thought about or explicitly valued as such. Once we use something every day, we do not call these things technology anymore. Whether a stone or a drone, it simply becomes a tool we apply to a task.

However, ‘work’ is a fundamental shaper of everyday life. A perspective on this debate might well be the notion that the change is a transformation of how work is defined, not just a shifting of work from one means of production to another.  The Bank of England economist Haldane discussed a re-shaping of the labour market, rather than a simple projection of increased absolute unemployment. He wondered if “a fundamental reorientation in the nature of work could be underway.”

Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain was quoted in a Guardian article as saying:

“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.” Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.

The idea of providing everyone with a basic income has been the topic of some considerable interest of late.   To me at least there is significant tension between this idea of providing a significant sum of money to all and sundry irrespective of their other means and the fixation of our current political culture on targeting, means testing, and micromanagement of welfare payments. While-ever our society continues to see a moral virtue in working, and work remains the primary methods of wealth distribution, to me it seems unlikely that we will be able to easily implement the notion of universal basic income, even if it is a good idea.

I actually find it hard to improve on the conclusion I reached writing my position paper on Unemployment, technology change and visual impairment for the RBS in 1982 – “While a great deal needs to be said about technology, its change and its impact, little of this can be said with confidence.”

It may be that the familiar nostrum of economic growth, expanding employment opportunities in new fields not prey to automation, will mean that the technological changes under the umbrella of ‘AI’ will essentially be ‘business as usual.  However, as McKinsey put it “In the past, technological progress has not resulted in long-term mass unemployment, because it also has created additional, and new, types of work.  [However] we cannot know for sure whether these historical precedents will be repeated.”

If these historical precedents do not hold, then without a ‘good public policy idea’ it would seem highly likely the role of work in providing significant and predictable income to large numbers of people will be severely challenged and disrupted. So will the social structures and institutions dependent on that effective wealth distribution. Planning for how society, nationally and globally, might need to respond would seem like a useful insurance policy.

AI – where might we be going?

This blog is based on my observation of AI since I first came across the idea working at the Royal Blind Society in the early 80s – although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts. Thinking about developments for the next decade, I settled on the term ‘Sentience’, which deliberately avoids the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in), to choose a word reflecting a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020). It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships to things, information and other people. It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

I have been interested in the interaction of humans with technology since my initial university studies in anthropology and sociology.  We are not defined by our tools, but our tools have functioned as an extension of ourselves and as facilitators of interaction with our environment. Over the past millennia they have produced an accelerating transformation of the shape and pace of human society.

This post is shaping to be a two part blog: the first exploring my thoughts and experience with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – broadly defined – and the second next week looking at the discussion about the implications of this technology for the world and future of work.

I first came across AI when I was working at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) in the early 80s, although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts.  At the time I was completing my Master of Commerce, in which I had pursued my interest in technology in various topics ranging from Information Systems Design to Industrial Relations.  It was in the latter that I engaged with the ideas of sociologist Daniel Bell and the notion of the ‘post-industrial society’.

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It is interesting that the term ‘convergence’ had been much discussed in the seventies. It was a product of the Cold War – the idea that industrial economies would converge in their structure and organisation and that essentially Russia (then the USSR) would come to resemble the US and Europe. There is a whole thesis waiting to be explored in figuring out what happened to that idea in the vortex of history – too much to go into here.

The key learning for me was that the complexity and interrelatedness of technological innovation and change with economic and social factors such as:

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  • Factors of production
  • Technological interdependencies and linkages
  • Organizational structures
  • Sectional, regional and individual distribution of income and wealth. International interdependencies
  • Public and private demand

 

I applied this learning at the RBS when researching the impact of technological change on the employment context and prospects for visually impaired people.  It was a time of considerable technological excitement as the personal computer began to penetrate the mass market – a signature moment was when TIME Magazine nominate the PC as ‘machine of the year’ for 1983.

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One element of technological change which played into these investigations was machine vision: while wildly futuristic at the time, it was also becoming almost imaginable and at the apparent rate of change and innovation seemed possible in a foreseeable future. It turned out that machine vision, particularly ‘in the wild’ was actually much harder than might have been apparent and is something that is only now (2017) starting to find wide spread use in things like self-driving vehicles – and so far as I know has yet to find practical application in the everyday lives of visually impaired people.

However this sparked my general interest in the whole field of computers mimicking or emulating human cognition or perception. Expert systems were an area of market enthusiasm, one that I found particularly interesting. I actually crafted and experimented with my own primitive expert system shell, written from scratch using turbo Pascal which involved delving into the arcane and technical worlds of generative grammars and token parsing as well as algorithmic inference processing.

But ultimately both for myself and the world at large expert systems proved to be a dead end. This this was primarily due to the issue of knowledge capture that is the sheer effort required to manually encode knowledge into decision tree type language. The other limiting factor was the limited processing power and memory storage available on their computers off at the time.

The general interest in AI peaked by the end of the decade – the cover of this Economist 1992 special feature would not have been out of place today, but the discussion is much more about the limitations and cumbersome nature of the technology than grand horizons.

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Increasingly the view came to be that any particularly advanced or clever piece of coding was seen as intelligent while it was a novelty, but rapidly became ‘part of the furniture’ and thence became part of the ‘dumb’ and rather pedestrian reality of IT which came to dominate our working lives.

During the course of the 90s the word ‘convergence’ at least in tech circles changed and came to be much-discussed in terms of the coming together of the traditional silo platforms of broadcasting, telecommunications and print. Pervasive digitalisation  broke the legacy nexus between the shape of content and the container which carried it – a voice call was no longer solely defined by being carried on a plain old Bakelite telephone network; a TV show no longer solely by arriving via a transmission tower and home receiver (the same for radio shows); music spread rapidly beyond the domains of the vinyl record, compact cassette and CD – it got ‘shared’ online; and the Internet carried news much further and faster than a newspaper.  This meant that commerce and regulation constructed on the premise that content could be priced and controlled by how it was delivered increasingly lost its force, both in logic and in practice.

Then over the first decade of the 21st century (the ‘noughties’), IP-based networks and then social networks came to play an ever more important role.  This has meant content became non-linear, interlinked and ‘uncontained’ while people increasingly expected to connect and communicate seamlessly – anywhere, anyhow, anytime. Entire new and massively successful network businesses emerged in the second half of the decade – Google and Facebook to name the most obvious.

‘Silos’ was the convenient way to describe the pre-convergence arrangements and ‘Layers’ was an important alternative way to look at the way the technological environment was changing, as a way to describe the actuality of what was called convergence.  Layers had been in common technical use for a decade or two before this, but it around at this time the general utility of the concept more generally became apparent, since it is native to the way in which networks are constructed and the Internet works.

As the noughties wore on, it also became apparent that ‘layers’ as such could not ultimately and successfully grapple with all the developments in the marketplace.  The ‘bright lines’ between layers are blurring under the impact of virtualisation and software emulation.  An example of virtualization is the way in which several physical computer servers can emulate a single large (virtual) computer OR a single large physical computer can emulate several (virtual) computer servers. This has been extended beyond the enterprise and is essentially the basis for cloud computing – the customer buys the computing and storage they need as virtual resources from the supplier who takes care of the physical requirements.  Multiple, inter-networked free-scale networks which can configure to emulate many other network forms better explain the complexity and rapid adaptability of the market in the current decade, whatever we decide to call it (the ‘tweenies’?).

So the term ‘silo’ was useful shorthand to describe the pre-nineties technological environment, ‘convergence’ summarized the nineties, ‘layers’ was useful for the noughties and ‘networks’ is perhaps most apt for our current decade, which as you may have noticed, is drawing to a close.

This ‘progression’ is reflected in the movement in the discussion of the technological environment from ‘convergence’ to the ‘networked society’ and ‘connected life’.  This shift does not suggest that the transition to the ‘networked society’ is complete, but rather that the concept of the ‘network’ better describes and encapsulates the current dominant movement and theme at work and influencing society during the decade.  Having remarked on this progression, the obvious question is to ask: what is likely to be the concept that fulfils this role in another decade’s time?

My stab at it a few years ago was ‘Sentience’.  I was deliberately avoiding the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in) and chose a word that reflected a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020).  It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships  to things, information and other people.  It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

What is different now in the contemporary explosion of interest and practical utilisation of AI is both the remorseless contribution of Moore’s law and the breakthrough in the algorithmic understanding of machine learning and its application in what is called deep learning. This is the technique which led to the victory by AlphaGo (the Google Deep Mind app) when it played the human Go master, Lee Sedol. It is also evident in everyday examples ranging from face-recognition, language translation, predictive text and enhanced search algorithms – things that in the eighties would have been dubbed AI are everywhere!

I am not particularly married to the precise term ‘sentience’ – numerous others exist. For example Shivon Zilis, an Investor at Bloomberg Beta surveyed every artificial intelligence, machine learning, or data related startup she could find (her list had 2,529 of them to be exact).  She addressed the labeling issue of using “machine intelligence” to describe how “Computers are learning to think, read, and write. They’re also picking up human sensory function, with the ability to see and hear (arguably to touch, taste, and smell, though those have been of a lesser focus) … cutting across a vast array of problem types (from classification and clustering to natural language processing and computer vision) and methods (from support vector machines to deep belief networks).”

She noted that:

I would have preferred to avoid a different label but when I tried either “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning” both proved to too narrow: when I called it “artificial intelligence” too many people were distracted by whether certain companies were “true AI,” and when I called it “machine learning,” many thought I wasn’t doing justice to the more “AI-esque” like the various flavors of deep learning. People have immediately grasped “machine intelligence” so here we are.

And I landed on ‘sentience’ – it is important to note that it does not indicate an ‘end state’ but rather flags a way to discuss a possible dominant theme of its decade (say 2020-2030). Another theme will arise and it is relevant to consider what sentience would not describe: to establish the boundary conditions for the concept and think about what may remain ‘undone’ by 2030-ish.  Thinking beyond that boundary may in turn give clues about the shape of the decade and those to follow … noting that such a shape is impossible to discern beyond broad conjecture.

One direction for such conjecture might be about the emergence of ‘machine autonomy’. It can be useful (in terms of imagined scenarios) although increasingly dangerous (due to the temptations and risks of predictive hubris) to speculate even beyond the rise of autonomy to further phases, perhaps the realization of fully conscious artificial intelligence, perhaps the emergence of essentially incomprehensible ‘alien’ machine-based intelligence:

  • 2030s – ‘machine autonomy’?
  • 2040s – AI ‘awareness’?
  • 2050s – ‘Alien’ intelligence?

It occurs to me that perhaps this is where the fruits of ‘convergence’ as mentioned in this blog have come full circle.  It seems that the developments which can loosely be pulled together under the umbrella term AI are genuinely flagging the arrival of ‘post-industrial’ society, that the world Daniel Bell conjured with is emerging in front of our eyes, even if we do (can) not accurately perceive it.  However the shapes we can discern are certainly the source of some anxiety, particularly as related to the world of work – and that will be the topic for my next blog post …

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A reflection on resilience

Resilience is about mastering the control and release of energy. One of the core elements of resilience is not letting events blow you off course. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes. Strategic patience positions you for resolute action.

Well, I actually had a different blog topic in mind for today, but yesterday, neatly book-ended by two unrelated groups with similar messages changed my mind to report on these and share reflections  about resilience – let me tell you why …

Yesterday morning I felt a bit ‘flat’ and since it was Monday  if I was working fulltime I would have shrugged it off as Monday-it is – but now Monday  as such shouldn’t make much difference to me. I suspect I was probably still recovering from the exertions of my participation over previous days in the Association Croquet Silver Brooch tournament.

There had been a lot of cat and mouse play between evenly matched opponents – not always pretty but quite entertaining at times. 3 games in the first day had left me feeling a little less than upbeat, but eventually over the full 2 days everyone won 2 out of 4 games, and I came 3rd on nett points. Further on the positive side of the ledger I actually beat both of the other place getters in my games with them, and ended up with 6 additional points in my handicap index.  I will come back to that idea of positive framing shortly.

So in that slightly Monday-ish mood I set off for my third 9am Tai Chi class.  The teacher, Master Alex emphasises relating your mental state to the physical movements.  He talked about the importance of balance, breathing and purposeful, smooth movement when walking.  We followed his lead into the increasingly familiar routine and I am starting to get an understanding of how the dots might join. In fact for a brief moment I started to get some flow experience going and for about 5 seconds actually felt the beauty of the thing … more to come with practice I hope! The fundamental proposition seems to be about mastering the control and release of energy and by the end of the session my energy levels and my mood had lifted substantially.

A day of household chores and shopping then pretty much flew past and I set off to attend my first Sydney Facilitators Network meeting in, oh let’s see, probably 15 years … as I observed in a previous blog I had recently discovered the group was still in existence. Typically it meets on the second Monday of the month and each meeting features a guest facilitator who conducts a session to showcase or test ideas of techniques.  I went simply with the notion of checking-in to see what there was to see – so it was pot-luck.  As it happened the topic was ‘The Art of Resilience’ and about 30 people had turned up to participate.

It was a fun and useful couple of hours of guided group and individual interaction and sharing on the theme of resilience. The leader and guest facilitator Lina Mbirkou used the ideas of Jon Kabat-Zinn summed up as: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” and we explored questions like how to develop the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties? How to strengthen our ability to deal with challenges? Is it really possible to build resilience?

She started by going round the group asking each person to say their name and in one word how they were feeling – my response was ‘energised’, as I realised I was still drawing on the Tai chi session early that morning. There were an interesting number of contact as she spoke about the importance of breathing and purposeful movement when walking.

As the group worked and shared I also found myself drawing on my croquet playing experiences.  I have found that playing a competitive sport for the first time in late middle-age incredibly interesting.  In my Zone of Opportunity blog I mentioned ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.

One thing I have observed in myself has been the development of greater resilience in the face of competitive and performance pressure. One very useful tool which I shared with the Facilitators group has been the Reflect, Relax, Refocus (RRR) approach.  When something goes wrong with your game, you need to own it and understand it (Reflect) before trying to put it away. Then let it and the feelings it has created go – forget about it because you have learned any lesson (Relax). Finally, get back into the game with a clear head, back with your game plan (Refocus).

To me this is one of the core elements of resilience – not letting events blow you off course.  This can be as short-term as a passage of play in a croquet game, when the RRR sequence might take a matter of a few seconds. Or it might be something that plays out over weeks and months, like say for instance planning a career change … or retirement.

In any event, the Tai Chi-like thinking about the control and release of energy seems integral, again applicable across the same time-scale. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ (a useful phrase I first heard recently used in relation to the current crisis on the Korean peninsula) means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes.  Strategic patience positions you for resolute action – yin and yang perhaps?

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Building resilience is also a key concept in contemporary management practice, the key to fostering innovative, agile and relevant organisations as we all confront an environment of constant change.  When we are confronted with novel and complex environments the need for resilience increases exponentially.  This challenge was nicely expressed by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock, subtitled, ‘When Everything Happens Now’.   He suggested:

A simple visualization is to think of time as a river flowing at a certain pace. Below a certain threshold, the movements of things on the river are fairly linear and predictable. … This is historical progress as we have come to know it over the millennia.  But when the speed of the flow increases beyond that threshold, the river becomes turbulent, non-linear, unpredictable. Such is the state of time in 2012.

… and there are few signs that things are slowing down or becoming less complex as we wind down 2017!   For an interesting riff on this take a look at this Forbes piece from 2012 – ‘Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: The End Of Time Is Not The End Of The World’. The resilient conclusion is:

Most importantly, the end of time as we have known it is not the end of the world. It is a new world that we can assert control over in new ways. So get over your doomsday hangover and get to work!

Resilience is the necessary organisational capacity to perceive relevant facts from emerging trends, adapt to change, and bounce back from setbacks.  One useful approach I have found (used in our ACMA transformation program) is to think in terms of the four ‘muscles’ of resilience (spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional).  Each “muscle” contributes to different forms of organisational capability, in the following way:

  • Physical – applying scarce resources to maximise leverage and outcomes
  • Intellectual (Mental) – generating alternatives and reflecting on legacy approaches
  • Spiritual (In Spirit) – nurturing genuine commitment to shared values, beliefs and goals
  • Emotional – promoting self-awareness and considered responses.

Through the purposeful creation of a context that values spiritual endurance, intellectual agility, physical dexterity and emotional maturity, these four “muscles” can be developed and strengthened in each individual and therefore for the whole organisation that they are part of.

Perhaps the most challenging element is that of emotional maturity. Emotional maturity in an organisational context requires a high level of self-awareness (of both the external position and the internal organisational dynamics), as well as the ability to manage feedback constructively.  I prefer the term emotional ‘agility’ to the perhaps more popular term ‘emotional intelligence’, sometime shortened to EQ … it captures more accurately for me the fact that it is a skill that can be acquired, rather than perhaps being seen as an innate quality.  I found this statement in a recent HBR article provides a succinct summary:

Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential … Recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.

There is no way I would claim to have perfect resilience for myself, and ultimately events can stretch and exhaust the resources (the ‘resilience musculature’) of any individual or organisation.  However I am always looking for tools, communities and perspectives to build those muscles as best I can, knowing that they will likely be tested by only real constant in life and history: the unexpected!

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Life cycle analysis

The life cycle concept is a useful tool for systems analysis and design thinking – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes. This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design. The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. However, does the pace of change and the rate of innovation that simply will not slow perhaps have implications for the lifecycle of humanity itself, connecting the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society? Maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we might contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

This was a tricky blog to get started – the topic opened so many doors to dense topics it was hard to get the sense of a thread to join them.  So I went for a run instead and after the quiet reflection that such activity induces I had the beginning and the end … now all I need to do is navigate between them.  I hope you can stay with me for the ride.

20170905_161507I first came across the idea of the ‘life cycle’ as a formal tool for analysis and design in the early eighties when I picked up managing the new DEC VAX computer system while working at the Royal Blind Society, and subsequently broadened my Master of Commerce degree studies at UNSW to encompass Information Systems Management (ISM).

I took to the concept immediately, firstly because I am something of a natural systems thinker, and secondly perhaps because of my engagement with biology as a subject at high school – it was my enthusiasm for social biology that drove my initial interest in studying sociology at university.  In the early seventies sociology was a new kid on the block at NZ universities – in fact it wasn’t available to first year students when I commenced at Auckland, dictating an initial stint with Anthropology and Psychology instead.  But I digress …

I explored the lifecycle topic quite extensively in an ISM essay from around 1986, which I unearthed in that front room filing cabinet. I noted:

A ‘System Lifecycle’ notion is often used to describe the development, planned or unplanned, of information systems based on computing tools. Although “there are many different methods for representing the lifecycle … all contain essentially the same components” (7, P.13) and these components can be viewed in a simple linear sequence. But when generalizing to the information systems activities of an organization or sizeable organizational unit, a more sophisticated understanding is necessary.

For organizations in the ‘real world’, the stability in simple linear models of change does not exist. A simple linear model would ignore the fundamental characteristic of information systems that they age and wear out like most other assets, and renewal must be part of the planning process. Therefore, as a first complication, we must accept “the complete life cycle of a system, from its initial conception to its ultimate disposal.”

An even broader sense of discontinuity to further complicate planning scenarios is pointed to by Buss when he suggests that “Complete uniformity across all IS projects is likely to be impossible because organizations will be at different stages in their use of … various technologies.”

I have chosen those paragraphs because they continue to ring true for the task of managing information technology today (the language and technology have changed, the challenges remain almost exactly the same! They also capture the essence of how the life cycle concept contributes to analysis and design – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes.  This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design.

The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. This was exemplified for me as I wrote the words to celebrate my eldest sons’ marriage a few years ago, where I commented on the family pattern of ‘building up, letting go and welcoming in’ – a pattern that has been continued and confirmed by the most welcome birth of our first grandchild.  I have appended the notes for that brief speech, which to my surprise was the subject of a number of favourable remarks, at the end of the blog (lightly edited to protect privacy).

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I found the idea of a ‘life cycle’ to be useful well outside the narrow world of IT systems.  For example I used it as a consultant in the late nineties to create a model of Neighbour Aid service delivery, identifying possible benchmark events for these Services. That model was built around the various activities and processes of groups of stakeholders (community management committee, service coordination, clients, and volunteers), reflecting what might be called their ‘life cycle’ in the organisation. The model then neatly provided a starting point to detail functions which Neighbour Aid services might usefully benchmark between themselves.

Single Code Customer Life Cycle

The concept then found applicability in my work as a consumer advocate at CHOICE in the noughties.  In 2003 I advocated that a Customer Life Cycle perspective would provide a useful structure for a Single Telecommunication Consumer Protection Code.  The code surfaced almost a decade later and rather than explicitly use that framework assembled various existing codes into chapters – thereby inevitably covering a number of customer lifecycle event but without that overarching logic.

 

 

 

I also used the idea to describe how advocacy worked, which found utility in the work of a consumer focus group convened by the Australian Communications Authority in 2004.  It had the objective:  “To improve the effectiveness of consumer input and influence to the regulation and governance of the communications industry.”

CDC Representational Cycle

We gave ourselves the label Consumer Driven Communications and we established a powerful logic in drafting our work into the ‘Strategies for Better Representation’ Issues Paper by combining what we dubbed (and rather crudely illustrated) as the Representational Cycle with our version of the Regulatory Pyramid (a whole other discussion probably for further blog post sometime).

CDC Reg PyramidCDC Matrix

 

This produced a matrix of 36 topics which extensively covered the field of consumer engagement with the telecommunications industry and governance – a little too comprehensive for the appetites of some in the end perhaps. The group produced an extensive discussion document and then generated a final report with numerous recommendations, all of which pretty much disappeared under the tides of history, as the Communications Authority merged with the Broadcasting Authority to produce the ACMA in 2005.   Digital archaeology on the project is difficult – Google will only unearth scattered, mostly cached results.  Such is life, as many famous advocates have said.

 

Nevertheless, as I hope I have demonstrated, the ‘life cycle’ is powerful and persuasive tool – it doesn’t fit every situation, but when it does apply it can deliver coherence and insight – both useful for analysis and design.

There is a distinct sense today of technological acceleration, and certainly in the IT world we seem to be seeing ever shorter life cycles, as we move from products and services dependent on hardware to those defined by software, and now to offerings crafted from data analysis by machine learning and AI.

It certainly seems clear that the pace of change and the rate of innovation will not slow: as one group with a real-world interest in understanding technological change (the Office of the [US] Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office NeXTech project) suggested that “… in the period the team is actually supposed to be planning for, the strategic horizon of the next 25 years, we will see technologies literally one billion times more powerful than today.”

Some draw a conclusion relevant to the lifecycle of humanity itself, connect the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society. This line of thinking is illustrated by a reviewer’s summary of the thesis in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

Perhaps this is, as the reviewer remarks, “exaggeration and sensationalism”: but maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we can contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

Do you agree?

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Meanwhile on a more immediate & personal note, celebrating my son’s wedding I said:

I have often said that if I had known how great it was

to have kids, I would have started a lot earlier …

but of course then I wouldn’t have been able to

do it with my wife …

and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as

great or as much fun.

I have personally learnt heaps,

and grown a lot, from being a parent .

By and large I reckon I have got more out of the

 parenting deal than my kids have

… so I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

As time has gone on, one of the things I have learned

is that the toughest job of parenting is not:

The missed sleep and 24/7 demands of the early years;

Nor the school concerts and soccer matches of the middle years;

Nor the taxi / linen / reserve banker services of later years.

No … those nurturing tasks are comparatively easy … because,

although they can be emotionally demanding

and sometimes physically draining,

you are in control.

I think the truly tough job of parenting is …

the letting go,

acknowledging you are no longer in control.

This was brought home to me when J***** set off on

his first long solo drive.

He was taking himself and his brother T*****

to a St John’s training camp in the Blue Mountains

…  all I (we) could do was wave goodbye and then

trust that he (and T*****) would arrive in one piece.

However what we were trusting was not good luck –

we were trusting that J***** had learnt well

and that he would navigate safely and

independently to his destination.

And of course he did.

And he has been travelling well ever since, working hard,

making good choices and getting good results.

And today J***** is continuing his life’s journey

joining with J##### to build what will be the most

important asset they can possess between them

– a happy and productive partnership.

An old friend once remarked that the investment

he most valued was his marriage – something I have

always remembered –

I always say I have 3 super funds to maintain:

Firstly – my marriage;

Secondly – my fitness / health; and

Thirdly and only then – any actual super account dollars

–  because without the first two,

money alone has little meaning or usefulness.

Growing value in a partnership is about

the opposite of letting go –

it means letting someone else in,

trusting, sharing and learning how to fit together.

What I have found to be quite miraculous about

creating a family is how that unit can grow

and extend.

I remember that when we were expecting T*****

(two and a half years after J*****)

 I expressed some concern to my wife that

I loved J***** so much

I wondered how could love

another child as much.

What I discovered was that the envelope of

family love extends easily and

T***** immediately had a huge place in our hearts.

So families are about welcoming in

as well as being about letting go,

While today marks for us a continuation

of letting J***** go,

we are also happy and proud

to welcome J##### to our family,

and to the extended family,

who over the last decades

have extended such a warm welcome

to me – one for which I am very grateful .

So, welcome J##### –

 there is always room for one more.

We wish you and J***** all the best

on your journey together,

and as you craft your own pattern of:

building up;

letting go; and

welcoming in.

 

 

Trusting the process

I have always found fostering ’emergence’ to be a very useful approach to explore unstructured problems, undertake genuine consultation, seek innovative solutions and set an initial frame for collaboration.  When the going has got sticky in any of those endeavours (and believe me it does) I have always borne in mind this wise counsel:  trust the process (and implicitly therefore the ability of the group to self-organise) to resolve uncertainties, to gain a productive direction and reach conclusions meaningful to at least most of the participants.

In the mid-nineties (after Pancon Mining and before CHOICE) I had time out of the workforce, looking after the kids and supporting my partner as she re-established herself in the workforce.  After a year or so I realised I needed to keep up connections with the outside world, and happened on a group called the Sydney Facilitators Network. This had been established in 1992 by Richard and Maria Maguire and functioned as a loosely coordinated self-organising group with no formal membership – everyone was welcome. I was impressed that it is still functioning today! I went along regularly back then and had many interesting conversations and picked up quite a lot of facilitator folklore.

For example they promoted as an innovation for group work something called Open Space Technology (OST). The distinguishing aspect of this technique is that participants create the agenda for the work themselves, stemming in part from the realisation that the best part of many conference or workshop events is the coffee breaks, when participants self-organise to learn what they want/need from who they can network best with.

These days OST has been pretty well absorbed into the average facilitators’ toolkit and this style is perhaps eye-rollingly familiar to those who have worked on the corporate sector or public service.  It might call to mind seemingly endless planning days and numerous ‘training’ sessions, about which there is often a predictable air of cynicism.

But back in the nineties it was actually pretty radical stuff … and since then has continued to inform my views about the powerful phenomenon of ‘emergence’ in human affairs – at work, for creative endeavour and individual thinking. These ideas were confirmed and reinforced in the intensive leadership development course I did in 2010-11 at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School, as mentioned in my Zone of Opportunity blog.

A phrase repeated in our Facilitators Network meetings was to ‘trust the process’, relating primarily, but not exclusively, to OST, because, particularly to start with, the approach can be very challenging. People want to know what direction to head in, why they are there, who is in charge etc.  OST and related emergence-centred approaches reflect those questions back to participants – and that can create significant discomfort. It is not a perfect or magic solution, is not suitable for all situations and does not necessarily always deliver. But it is also worth contemplating the alternatives that cynical detachment can imply, such as:

  • Just tell me what to do
  •  Just do as I say
  •  Get an expert
  •  The answer is obvious, let’s just get on with it

If any of those proposition are actually true or work then there wouldn’t be any need to be having the discussion. But often they mask feelings of powerlessness or ‘learned helplessness’ which more collaborative and open approach can address … not necessarily without discomfort or even conflict.

However I have always found fostering emergence to be a very useful approach to explore unstructured problems, undertake genuine consultation, seek innovative solutions and set an initial frame for collaboration.  When the going has got sticky in any of those endeavours (and believe me it does) I have always borne in mind that wise counsel:  trust the process (and implicitly therefore the ability of the group to self-organise) to resolve uncertainties, to gain a productive direction and reach conclusions meaningful to at least most of the participants.

It was demonstrated to me as recently as last week – in my blog I noted I am involved with a UTS Creative Cluster workshop group, UTS Journalism PLUS – we are about halfway through a planned program of weekly gatherings to conceptualise and design prototype solutions to help journalists and their readers to face contemporary media challenges.  Last week we did some small group design thinking work, which compressed a process of questioning, idea generation, user identification and initial prototyping into a ninety-minute window. A demanding agenda, but I was delighted at the conclusion of the exercise to hear one of my colleagues unself-consciously observe that we had reached a really good landing, but that when we started he had no idea of what we were doing – he had implicitly trusted and worked with the process … and valued what emerged.

20170825_134048Of course one of the problems which the workshop is grappling is the apparent loss of trust today in many of our macro-processes, embodied in institutions such as democratic governance, mainstream media, science etc. As expressed in the title of a Conversation article by Julianne Schultz, Professor at the Griffith University Centre for Creative Arts Research, there are widespread fears that our systems of governance are “denying fairness, complexity and humanity”.

She suggests a “ ‘war of ideas’ has encouraged mistrust of experts and cynicism about institutions, undermined faith in a shared humanity irrespective of ethnicity or religion, and discouraged questioning of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy.”  In a very noisy world of many voices, or warring ideas, some shouting, others insistently whispering, trust does indeed seem to be a commodity in short supply – and like reputation, it is something easily lost and hard to rebuild.

Amid the chaos and cacophony of modern communications I was interested to read a piece by writer Zat Rana about his adoption of the habit of blocking out a 2-hour period of his day just to think. Rana seeks to remove all possible distractions and basically lock himself in a room with a pen and a notebook.  He notes that “2 hours is a long time, and some of it will feel unproductive and not all of it will be structured, [and that] much of the value doesn’t come out of the routine questions, but from the time I have left after I run out of things to think about.”  Sounds to me a lot like an intuitive and individual application of OST, with an appreciation of the value of emergence as a valuable outcome of free-form thinking.

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Julianne Schultz offers a positive vision, perhaps trusting demographic processes: “Meanwhile, the quiet post-materialist revolution that started in the 1970s has produced generations of people who are more open-minded, tolerant, trusting and accepting of diversity.”

For myself, this week I commenced Tia Chi at Kendrick Park in Tempe – the once-a-week sessions are provided free by the local council.  As an absolute beginner in an established but welcoming group, my initial impression is that there are enough dots to capture my attention.  I am interested to see if trusting the process can join these dots into learning a new skill & way of seeing. I am particularly intrigued to test if there is any application of the emphasis on smooth movement, balance, tension and swift release to croquet play.

Further updates on this front to come I suspect.