Thinking about education, work & AI

The world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant. An important challenge is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions. A key question is how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce. ‘Just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy. Perhaps the future utility of might be best seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible – ‘Literacy 4.0’. Smart people in future will need to understand and work across skill clusters and the various dimensions of the smart society – smart educators will help them …

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This blog has its origin in a workshop I attended week or so ago about AI and the future of work – you may recall a blog from me on that topic a short while ago.  One of the exercises we undertook was a group conversation about what university education might look like in 2025. There was a fair bit of lively discussion about technology, collaboration and equity of access, but I must say without any definitive insights.

I think one participant hit the nail on the head when they posed the question; will there actually be universities in 2025. The obvious answer is ‘Yes’, but really the question was rhetorical, because while universities will in all probability continue to exist as institutions with that name for decades, the role, constitution and structure of the university is changing, and will continue to change.  It is doing so not just under the pressure of technology but from social, cultural and economic developments.

Tertiary education is something I have thought about and discussed with many intelligent people over the years.  The main things I got from tertiary study were the importance of structuring my thoughts and learning how to learn – both pretty much learnt by doing.  I guess long story short my view is the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.

A key concern, of course, is the question of how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce.  There was acknowledgement and some excitement around the current move in university circles to offer micro-credits or if you like ‘à la carte’ selection of elements from their portfolio of offerings. The sensible idea is that students can fine tune their learning as close as possible to their specific needs.  This comes close to the position I have arrived at; that ‘just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy – a little bit at a time, focussed on a tangible goal or to take the next step or getting that necessary credential.  The days of imbibing a large body of knowledge early and living off that for years seems long gone (if it ever really worked).

I reckon there is no wrong pathway but there are multiple pathways.  While I respect people who commit to even extended academic journeys, my feeling is that an integrated work and learning pathway will track better in an environment of uncertainty about work futures.  One obvious example is the apprenticeship model.  In the past this worked similarly in essence for the degree model, in the sense that the apprentice/student gained a body of knowledge that was meant to last a lifetime of employment.  One important development for both over past decades has been the recognition of the need for constant skill maintenance, however this still operates within the original silo. What is increasingly necessary is the ability to chart a course between learning models and across spheres of employment, to create an individualised trajectory of knowledge acquisition and value creation.

University of Melbourne has launched a brand campaign showcasing what it regards as its distinctive curriculum, the ‘Melbourne Model’.  Its YouTube video presents the idea of education that equips students with world knowledge, so that they can adapt and be ready for every possible future.

As slick as this is, it does strike me however that an important challenge with this approach is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions – universities aren’t the only ones using YouTube!  How often have you heard someone say, ‘Oh I learnt how to do that from a YouTube video’?  The ‘University of YouTube’ might serve as an umbrella term for the ready and instant availability of knowledge and ‘how-to’ instruction on the Internet.  Not to mention the access to the vast storehouse of human knowledge Google (and other search engines) have given over the last couple of decades, and the power of social media to foster the rapid emergence of communities of interest and practice to share and develop knowledge.  Sure there are quality and trust issues, but that doesn’t stop people successfully using these information resources all the time, in both their personal and professional lives.

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In some ways it’s perhaps analogous to the problems facing subscription television – a classic fixed cost versus variable income problem.  As their offering is increasingly unbundled and contested by ‘watch only what you want’ streaming services, maintaining the integrated network infrastructure becomes increasingly difficult. Similarly universities require significant financial logistical and educational agility to sustain a coherent offering from a swarm of micro-learning opportunities.

One key aspect of the modern knowledge equation is the advent of AI and big data, and it will be interesting to see how the application of data analysis to educational design and experience will play out. AI will not be monolithic, various actors and agents will contend and contest and are unlikely to be perfect. Humans are likely to be the adults in the room for quite some time to come. In fact it occurs to me that governance will be a growth area in AI-world along with curation and editing of AI-based products to best fit human needs. One very interesting area will be learning and developing ways to interface with AI based systems – the common office screen and mouse systems are likely to go the way of the command line DOS prompt of old, and perhaps work interfaces will come to resemble contemporary digital game environments?

Students will definitely need to get accustomed to an increasingly data dense educational environment. A positive outcome could well be better management of diversity and complexity in catering to individual student needs and wants, enabling a better matching of learning environment, methods and partners. Perhaps AI assisted ‘adaptive education’ could assist managing these multiple pathways?

In this context it was interesting to note the 2017 report from the AI Now Institute at New York University, focused on the use of AI in government and the law.  It suggests that “the design and implementation of this next generation of computational tools presents deep normative and ethical challenges for our existing social, economic and political relationships and institutions.”

It cautions that “Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, health care, welfare, and education should no longer use ‘black box’ AI and algorithmic systems”, since difficult decisions need to be made about how we value fairness and accuracy in risk assessment. It is not merely a technical problem, but one that involves important value judgments about how society should work. These concerns, expressed particularly about the legal system in the report would seem to be as applicable to educational institutions, which would seem as susceptible to perpetuating AI-driven harm as any other.  Thinking about this leaves me to an observation that education can largely be seen as a lagging institution: that is rather than driving our massive social and economic shifts, it is essentially driven by them, adapting and configuring it’s offerings to suit the times.

One notable exception that observation which occurs to me however is the fundamentally role of literacy as a social and economic enabler.  Perhaps that is one way of conceptualizing the future utility of education rather than providing intellectual toolbox or skill set it might be better seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible. Dr Josh Healy Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne writes about what researchers are calling the new literacies, what he terms ‘Literacy 4.0’.   Educational institutions and educators will need to consider how they can anticipate to the new and changing lattice of options and adapt themselves to best assist their students to navigate that environment.

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) spells out where that literacy might be used (without using the term) when it discusses 7 ‘clusters of work’ – skills that are transferable across jobs – to help young people (and I would suggest people of any age) navigate the new work order. Their conclusion:

By understanding the skills and capabilities that will be most portable and in demand in the new economy, young people can work to equip themselves for the future of work more effectively. Our mindset needs to shift to reflect a more dynamic future of work where linear careers will be far less common and young people will need a portfolio of skills and capabilities, including career management skills to navigate the more complex world of work.

The FYA analysed skills requested by employers across 2.7 million online job advertisements posted over the past two years and the occupations were then grouped based on whether employers demanded similar skills from applicants. These clustered in the following seven groups (take a look at the report to explore them further):

  • ‘The Generators’
  • ‘The Artisans’
  • ‘The Coordinators’
  • ‘The Designers’
  • ‘The Technologists’
  • ‘The Carers’
  • ‘The Informers’

A glimpse of the future smart society that these clusters of skills might be used in is given a World Economic Forum (WEF) piece titled: The society of the future looks nothing like you might imagine.  A ‘smart society’ is defined as one where digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: the well-being of citizens, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions.  A natural group of countries to use as role models was the Digital 5, or D5, nations, representing the most digitally advanced governments in the world. The group comprises Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK – sadly Australia does not seem to rate a mention.

The D5 nations are used by the WEF to define a global benchmark for a smart society organized them so that each indicator could be classified under one of 12 broad benchmark components. These broad components are:

Citizens/People Components:

  • inclusivity,
  • environment and quality of life,
  • state of talent and the human condition,
  • talent development.

Economy Components:

  • global connectedness,
  • economic robustness,
  • entrepreneurial ecosystem,
  • innovation capacity.

Institutions Components:

  • freedoms offline and online,
  • trust,
  • safety and security,
  • public services.

It would be an interesting exercise to map the seven FYA skill clusters more precisely across these WEF smart society benchmarking components – something for another day perhaps.  In any event, smart people in future will need to understand and work across both these dimensions – smart educators will help them …

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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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Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy

In my experience one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise, to make the most of what attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker. The one-page election brief drafted on behalf of the Marrickville Croquet Club Committee is an example of the craft.

Well, it is election time for NSW Local Councils, and at the Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) we decided that the Committee could usefully send an Election Brief to all candidates as part of our management of key stakeholder relationships.  We wanted to remind candidates of the existence and importance of the club locally and more broadly within the expanded municipality, and to seek their active support of the club in future if elected.

In my experience working as a consultant, consumer advocate and then a public servant one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise – it is often vital to capture your points as briefly and precisely as possible. You need to make the most of what limited attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker.  I think the following one-page brief I drafted on behalf of the Committee hits the mark as an example of the craft (note that the brief did not include the photos in this blog).

As an aside, to illustrate the effort in achieving concision, I was going to quote one of my favourite Mark Twain sayings:  If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.  However a little research, which led me to Quote Investigator, tells me that in fact “Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research”.

While many variations of the expression have been used by many famous figures, apparently the first English language example was a sentence in translation of work by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.  Indeed I actually like what we are told by wikiquote is the literal translation even more:

I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

A modern take on the need to be brief is the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’, which basically says you should be able to get your idea/proposal/request across to your intended audience in the time you might have them trapped in a lift … 30 seconds to a couple of minutes max.  In that pitch you need to get the listener engaged, interested and agreeing to your concluding ‘call to action’.

Not a bad thing to be able to do, although it perhaps has a bit of a Mad Men feel to it – I note Wikipedia characterises the series as an American period drama. My reflection is that you know you are getting old when period drama is set in times you can remember – I guess that’s why I get the leisure to write short blogs!

Enjoy, and remember, the opposite of a briefing is a longing 😉

Marrickville Croquet Club

Brief

Local Government Election September 2017

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The purpose of this brief is to acquaint Inner West Council candidates with the existence and importance of Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) as a community, recreational and sporting resource in the municipality.

MCC is a Marrickville community asset in a number of ways: it offers an inclusive, all-age, low intensity recreation activity in the municipality; it is financially self-sufficient and takes good day-to-day care of the facility maintained by council; it continues to build membership and community engagement, thus increasing utilisation of the facility and contributes to diversity of recreation options.

MCC was established in 1926 and is therefore a long-standing entity and reference for the landscape of Marrickville Park. The clubhouse and lawn were recognised in the recently completed Plan of Management as a significant heritage item in the park and MCC operates as an integral part of Marrickville Park with the continued support of council in the maintenance of the facility.

The arrangements for the retention and maintenance of the croquet club in the park have worked well to date and there seems to be genuine efficiency in combining croquet lawn maintenance with that of the park oval and cricket pitch.  With this support, MCC is delighted to curate and help preserve the croquet club as a living contribution to the heritage assets of Inner West Municipality.

MCC also contributes a particular recreational asset for the area: membership is diverse and players participate across age and gender.  Croquet offers an almost unique opportunity for people of all ages to interact in a recreationally competitive environment on an equal basis relatively independent of physical capability. MCC remains enthusiastic to engage with Council as it regains momentum post-amalgamation, and would like to participate in initiatives such as Sport-A-Month and similar programs to develop and encourage community participation in the sport.

MCC is the only croquet club in the municipality, drawing playing members from various corners of the area. With the relatively recent rebuilding of active membership and engagement, the Club now has scheduled play at the facility 5 days a week.  The club is well accepted and supported by the immediate local residents and continues to engage with the broader community such as in recent events with both Petersham after school care students and the Marrickville Heritage Society.

The club is diligent in seeking relevant publicity for the club and croquet in general and is taking advantage of contemporary communication tools to build an online community using Facebook, which now has 286 supporters (increased from 102 in 2013).

We ask you to note that the Marrickville Croquet Club relies on (and is of course grateful for) continued support from Council.   Without that support, MCC would likely cease to function, which would deprive the community of an excellent low-impact, age-inclusive recreational resource, while leaving open the question of preserving the heritage value of the croquet-specific physical infrastructure which has an important place in the park landscape.

We urge you, as a candidate for local election, to publicly commit to the principle that the Marrickville Park croquet facility should be supported and preserved as a functioning and intact entity.  Your confirmation of that commitment by email would be appreciated.

Management Committee of the Marrickville Croquet Club

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Fake news anyone?

Fake news is very much in the news recently – the keynote presentation on the topic by Professor Jeff Jarvis at the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at UTS last week got me thinking about the current erosion of ‘trust’, the shift from ‘siloed’ to ‘networked’ communications and media and how a viable business model for news media is actually essential to democracy, which in turn is essential to an innovative and adaptable economy and society.

Last week I went along to the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).   The Centre has the very useful goal of helping us to understand key areas of current media evolution and how new technologies and digital transition can be harnessed – to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.

As well as reconnection with various colleagues from the ACMA and other networks, I also very much enjoyed the keynote presentation by Professor Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He chose as his topic ‘Fake news’, which he then with a very sensible sense of irony denounced as a bogus topic.  The real topic he suggested was the current erosion, and urgent need for restoration of, ‘trust’: trust in ‘facts’ as a basis for policy action; our ability to conduct civil community discourse; political and other institutions; and news media.

20170725_175309-02One observation I would offer on the issue of so-called ‘fake news’ is that there has been a long established practice on public relations of ‘slanted’ if not ‘fake’ media stories – although it would seem that the velocity of less-than-reliable news has sped up with the rest of the news cycle.  Jarvis raised dramatic but not alarmist concerns about the ‘weaponisation’ of information manipulation and the ability of various actors to leverage the media tools now available to foster polarization and attack the ‘truth’ through scale and speed of communications.

When pondering the trustworthiness of news, I remembered the notion that traditionally journalism has not been rated as high as many other professions in terms of trustworthiness.  I hunted out the latest Roy Morgan survey on the image of various professions, conducted in May 2017.  This finds only 20% of Australians rate Newspaper Journalists ‘very high’ or ‘high’ for ethics and honesty with 17% so rating TV Reporters.  However, looking at the time series helpfully provided by Roy Morgan, it is worth noting this is actually an all-time high for newspaper journalists on a rising trend, and up from 12% in 1976. TV reporters are shown to be reasonably stable around the mid-teens since 1988 when first measured.

This suggests to me perhaps some support for the avowed optimism Jarvis offered, with strategies and counsel about using traditional and new journalistic practice to counter the attacks on trust, to build news literacy, resurrect civility and encourage responsible sharing. What particularly struck a chord with me was his stress on the need for journalism to develop as an audience-centric service.

In my own thinking about media and communications futures I have found the application of network thinking and analysis to be very useful.  The world of communications has moved over the last couple of decades from one of massive ‘silos’ such as TV stations and printing plants to one in which the functions of those silos have been spread out across wide and varied networks, from the electronic hardware of the Internet and to the software based landscape of social media. This has been, to use an often misunderstood and sometime overused term, a ‘paradigm shift’, which has shaken business models and re-arranged social structures.

Under the ‘silo’ paradigm, agents such as journalists and regulators could see themselves as standing ‘outside’ the silos, but they are now effectively participants, enmeshed in the networks of the new paradigm. And this is where, as I understand it, Jarvis is going with his thinking and teaching: forget about so-called ‘objective’ reporting and engage meaningfully with real communities and deliver them a service they find valuable. Makes sense to me.

One important and obvious dimension of the paradigm shift has been the commercial challenges to the business models of the incumbent media industry ‘silo-owners’.  That in turn has been an ever increasing threat to the business-as-usual activities and very livelihoods of people working in them – such as musicians, photographers and journalists. This was an ever-present motif in presentation and the Q&A that followed: how can the activities of journalists be made commercially viable?

I was reminded of the classic and prescient 2009 article by US digital analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’.  His persuasive analysis was that print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting and the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.  However, the marriage of this heavy-lifting journalism to the stream of advertising revenue was essentially coincidental.

Shirky notes “This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting … that the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”   And if this relationship was under stress in 2009, things are reaching breaking point a decade or so on and Shirky’s wry observation “that ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model” is becoming very real indeed.

The persistence but ‘hollowing out’ of established masthead media, was chronicled by media and technology editor Nic Christensen in his final day at Mumbrella, writing about the “ … massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.”

The same sentiments were reported for Canada by Nieman Lab: “To be clear, though, almost all daily publishers have found them themselves forced to cut, given the cascading losses of their broken print business.  … We’re not mourning the death of printed newspapers, but of all the reporting — pixels or paper — that’s been disappearing for a decade.”

Clearly a business model beyond click-bait is needed.  What that might be is a matter of urgent inquiry by many and anxious anticipation by others – despite what may be an emerging market failure, such a thing will be next to impossible to regulate into existence   News itself may be a commodity, but without a fountain-head of reliable reporting about things the great and the good might prefer we remain ignorant of, democracy has a profound challenge.

And without the great capacity of genuine democracy to renew and sustain an innovative and adaptable economy and society we all risk being significantly poorer, materially and in spirit.  Hopefully journalists find ways to be engaged, adaptive, entrepreneurial and commercially viable – all of which it must be said is much more easily advised than done – and the new UTS Centre for Media Transition can assist.

The narrative necessity

We are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  

One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event.  There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership.  We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.

In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever.  We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them.  And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.

This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting  “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”

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Being smart is no get of jail free card!

If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data.  This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’.  In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.

That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …

 

 

 

 

However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.

He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.  On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.

20170709_084329Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”  That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”

Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.

Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence.  I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe.  However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?

Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!

The strategic power of your brand

This blog tells the Charles Six Dot Zero ‘brand story’, and suggests that an emotional ‘brand’ connection can be a key device to achieve strategic alignment, focus strategic energy and direct strategic attention within a group or organisation.

First a story: Once as a young man living in Christchurch (NZ) I was visiting my parents in Auckland.  I was unhappy, directionless and quite possibly depressed for a variety of reasons, including a wallowing Master’s thesis and my father’s poor health – he had recently lost a leg to smokers’ artery disease.  I headed out for a walk one bleak afternoon.

Drifting through the suburban landscape I wandered into a derelict house which lay wide-open close to the footpath.  A ruinous scene seemed to echo my juvenile angst – nothing of interest.  However, as I turned to leave, my attention was caught by a flash of white on a shelf high in the desolate kitchen.

It was the edge of a dirty old tile which, when pulled down and brushed off, revealed a wonderful ceramic depiction of a lotus flower.  It was as if the universe had reached out to offer exactly the reassurance that was sorely needed at that time.  My mood lifted, I walked back to a freshly purposeful engagement with my thesis and a more supportive attitude to my Dad.  And re-invention started to produce the person who would move to Australia in a year or two. I have treasured that tile for over 40 years and the design made an interesting study as I learnt to paint some 20 of those years ago.

Casting around for an image to populate the icon space on the WordPress template for my Charles Six Dot Zero blog, that painting was an immediate candidate. A little bit of graphic design magic and the focussed image featured for this post emerged.

For me it captures the deep emotional resonance of personal reinvention.  It reinforces the power of narrative in defining purpose and it encapsulates and expresses my key values – to be calm, centred, creative and connected.  In short it sums up the ‘brand’ charles6dot0, what I want to be and do in this sixth iteration, and provides an ideal visual representation for it.

In my previous blog What does ‘strategy’ mean today? I noted that achieving intellectual agreement with strategic intent is easier said than done, and that forging the necessary emotional engagement often neglected.

The whole point of developing and articulating a strategy is to create a common direction for a group of people – something that might be termed ‘strategic alignment’, and it is essential if the strategy is to be anything more than ‘shelf-ware’. Obviously this is easiest when constructing a strategy for a group of one!

But strategy itself will probably be insufficient to engage people in groups larger than one of two.  It will need to draw on a deeper narrative about why the group exists, what the group is seeking to achieve and what it values – what you might think of as the ‘reason for being’.

Too easy.  Surely it’s obvious to members why they are there, even for quite large organisations. The temptation is to solve this query quickly; but it can actually be very difficult, because it does pose fundamental questions.

Usually it is indeed obvious to any given individual why they are part of a group and what the group is trying to achieve. It’s just that, surprisingly often, different answers are equally obvious to others in the group. Put different obvious answers in the same room and ensuing conversations are not always easy, because the obvious is, well, obvious … and people are usually emotionally attached as well intellectually invested in their views.  Social science tells us discussion is as likely to drive them deeper into their position as to persuade them otherwise.

One useful, but sometimes neglected entry point to discover this deeper narrative is the group’s brand statement – for an established organization this might be clearly and explicitly detailed; for other groups, like community organisations, it may be undocumented and less explicit, more akin to folk-lore.

Brand is much bigger than the visual identity that is the usual public face of a brand. An important element and summation point for brand development is capturing the essence of the organisation into a single and unifying statement—a Single Organising Idea or SOI.

The SOI should describe what the group wants to stand for in people’s lives.  An SOI should in a single phrase or short sentence, distilled from the promise, beliefs, values and the core focus of the group, state the unique and distinct purpose of the group, and therefore the brand

Critically this statement should communicate and connect at an emotional level.  It is not necessarily stated in terms suitable for public exposure (that can come later when developing a brand ‘tag –line’) but it must resonate with at least the majority of members.

One caution however is to avoid design by committee, something that can sandpaper away the distinctive edge of your brand thinking into blandness.  Leadership is essential in framing, conducting and concluding the necessary conversation. When it’s done, it’s done, and someone has to call it – this is not necessarily the task of the formal office-bearers of the group, who may well contribute best by encouraging and empowering ‘situational leadership’ – probably the topic for another blog.

The behaviour of individuals associated with the group is a critical manifestation of the brand. So the brand should be developed and used to set the behavioural cue for everybody in the organisation.  It can and should be a catalyst for thinking, planning and action, thus becoming a strategic organising device to focus energy, alignment and attention within the organisation on its mission, intent and vision.

In one way or another, a brand for the group will exist, and to succeed any strategy must be consistent with this ‘reason for being’.  It is essential for strategy to link with a group identity and to resonate emotionally as well as intellectually with its promise to the community, what the people behind it believe and aspire to, the values it represents, and its core focus of action.

Alignment with these brand attributes will help communicate a strategy with consistency, integrity and longevity and assist to deliver the outcomes or capabilities it requires. Perhaps think of this as a positive form of ‘group-think’!