Yeah, that helmet. #leblaireau #cinelli #aerolite
Yeah, that helmet. #leblaireau #cinelli #aerolite
That Cinelli helmet. One word: Hinault. @musettecaffe
It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago that I nervously attended my first university lecture at Simon Fraser University – a life changing moment to be sure. My alma mater just turned 40 this fall – SFU’s School of Communication, now part of the Faculty of Communication, Art, and Technology – and they celebrated in style October 23rd at the elegant downtown Segal Graduate School of Business.
I was asked to speak and share my thoughts on their theme of Staying Relevant, something that not only plagues middle-aged graduates, but post-secondary institutions themselves in challenging economic times.
I joined other alum Aaron Cruikshank who runs the Hive co-working space just up the block from us here and Shannon Ward of Babyproofing Your Business fame. It was great to catch up with some familiar (if not slightly older looking) faces and meet some new ones as well.
Thanks again to all of the outstanding alumni who attended last night, Dean of FCAT Cheryl Geisler, Director Alison Beale, event organizer Ovey Yeung, and to the professors who left an indelible mark on an impressionable mind.
Text of my speech below…
Good evening everyone.
It’s an honour and a privilege to be a part of this event. Happy Birthday School of Communication; you don’t look a day over 38.
So it wasn’t without a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invite to speak here. Looking at the attendee list, telling all of you, including some of my former professors how to be relevant… well…This suggests that a) I am or somehow was relevant. And b) that I know something about how that process happened and c) through a combo of A and B I might know how to prolong it or achieve relevance again in the future…
And so, in a very contemporary response – I headed straight to Google.
I looked up the definition of relevance.
And that sent me to Wikipedia.
What I found there was the information studies definition of relevance. It was also one that I’d happened to encounter once before when working on an intranet strategy project for a client of mine.
Here’s the definition:
Something (A) is relevant to a task (T) if it increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal (G), which is implied by T.
Source: Hjorland & Christensen. 2002.
Now it’s nearly 20 years since I started designing and developing websites. That all started here in 1994 at SFU at the trailers under the AQ where The Peak Newspaper made its home and then later as a Research Assistant that year at the Centre for Systems Science working with Barry Shell.
I have to admit: this concept of relevance has continued to be a difficult, dare I say wicked, design problem.
The reason being: it requires you to understand what a particular user’s task is, how information fits into that task, and what goals are implied by that task.
Gaining knowledge about these seemingly obvious components in the act of design is more difficult than you may think, especially when you are trying to build large public websites that support the tasks of hundreds of thousands of users…
In my company’s case, those users may range from the local citizens of Vancouver seeking to access their civic services online, to the global fans of the trading card game Pokemon.
The actor in the “subject knowledge view of relevance” is never mentioned, but assumed. It’s the person performing the task, striving to attain their unknown but implied goal.
When we encounter this definition, we often put ourselves in that actor’s shoes, the task-completer, the goal-seeker, being the arbiter of what’s relevant and what is not.
This is certainly the case as we recall many fruitless visits to Google and Wikipedia searching for something that never quite materializes…
But what happens when we replace the Something (A) with Someone (A)
Someone (A) is relevant to a task (T) if he/she increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal (G), which is implied by T…
and I’d append: performed by another Actor (X).
What happens when we replace not just Someone (A), an anonymous anyone, but you.
How are you relevant in this new definition?
This way of thinking of relevance makes you the object of someone else’s tasks and goals.
And in doing so, we might contemplate relevance as an attribute you possess – a property – something to be gained and lost, (pause) bought and therefore possibly sold.
In doing so… We objectify ourselves.
We instrumentalize our selves.
We perceive our unique personal value in terms of our utility for others in a marketplace of information and attention.
Regarded this way, relevance is no more than what late 19thC sociologist Thorstein Veblen described as a positional good – goods which are in limited supply and which become more sought after and expensive as prosperity increases – functioning like glamour, coolness, or any other marker of status in our desire economy.
Relevance considered in this light strikes me as sharing an unfortunate aspect of the popular idea of meritocracy: by organizing ourselves based on a leader’s claim to rule that they are the best and brightest, we simultaneously denote the position of the worst and dumbest in this arrangement. So too with the positional version of relevance: in order for you to be relevant, it follows that someone else needs to be deemed irrelevant.
Call it the search engine optimized presentation of self in every day life.
So that’s a pretty bleak, pessimistic take on relevance.
And it left me wondering: is there a redeeming quality within the concept of relevance, one that is worth pursuing for its virtue, rather than this pessimistic instrumentality? Is there something beyond relevance as a careerist tendency that threatens to undermine our personal integrity along the way?
I’d like to suggest that the relational aspect of relevance is both its greatest weakness and its biggest strength.
Relevance is a concept that can only be understood in the presence of our relationship with someone else.
Yes it can be reduced to a pessimistic, transactional view.
But it can also be elevated to the inclusive, empathetic, and conformational.
We needn’t objectify ourselves, or others.
Instead we can acknowledge, encounter, and confirm.
And we, the people assembled in this room tonight, students past and present, graduates and professors of Communication, we come especially equipped with the analytical tools to understand this affirming concept of relevance – an idea after all, that only makes sense, that can only exist when meaning is exchanged between two parties.
For that, after all, is Communication.
So it should be no surprise to all of you that I learned how to consider the other in relation to ourselves, and consider ourselves in relation to the other here at SFU- it was most likely in Lynne Hissey’s Communication 205 that I encountered these ideas, in a reading of Martin Buber in a tutorial buried deep in the Classroom Complex.
I learned how to understand the role of context in communication – asking the question of “by who, for whom, under what circumstance, and to who’s benefit?” from my first moments in Communication 110 to my last courses contemplating critical theory of technology.
Being able to discern who the actors are, what their relationships is, and how power is exercised through those networks of relationships – these are ways of seeing that I’ve long taken for granted.
I learned how to make these concepts come to life in my professional career, utilizing ethnographic methods to gain insights into the lives of others, the meaning they ascribe in their technologies of communications, the involvement of their perspectives in how to better design large-scale information systems: much of it was there in CMNS 363 with Catherine Murray and Steve Kline, then described in the mid 90′s as the “ethnographic shift in audience research.”
And where would I be without the ability to investigate a concept’s positive and negative aspects simultaneously, pulling and pushing an idea from figure to ground and back again, without Roman Onufrijchuk’s tour through Innis, McLuhan, and Grant. (I know it was offered as a Canadian Studies 491, but really, in my memory it was and will always be a Communication’s class)
So, what then is more relevant than a critical ability to enter into the domain of shared meaning, and contemplate the nature and dynamics of communication?
This institution and the exceptional people in this School taught me how to think critically.
It exposed me to a remarkable breadth and depth of thought in the 5 short years I was here.
Those concepts, ideas, debates, and discussions, continue to stick with me today, 20 years since I attended my first CMNS course as a curious and slightly intimidated teenager.
So if there is one bit of advice I can leave you about being relevant here tonight, to this accomplished, successful, and privileged room, and it’s one that I am not sure is entirely tweetable or easily digestible, it is this:
Savour the tension between the critical and the pragmatic, between the needs of yourself and the needs of others, and try your best, as frustrating and difficult as it may seem, to leave them unresolved for as long as you can.
That tension can be a remarkable, productive energy in your life and the lives of those around you.
And I hope it challenges you to accomplish remarkable things and be a better person, and not solely in the marketplace for employable talent but more importantly as a just and thoughtful member of humanity.
Your skills are much required at our present time.
*A prettier version of an earlier sketch of mine. Maybe I should do T-shirts. Hey, Warren Ellis does T-shirts.
*It’s kinda embarrassing to have no Maker angle in one’s Twitter-Tumblr-WordPress-Flickr online empire.
While we’re on the theme of venn diagrams, Bruce Sterling takes a whack at IDEO’s desirable, feasible, viable venn in an anticonventional fashion.
Hugh channeling his Jessica Hagy this morning. Nice venn.
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
from ‘Panopticism’ in Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
Prompted by reading a blog post on self-management, organic forming of teams (insert hand waving), self organization, and the amazing frictionless collaboration that follows, which severely lacked any mention of power, politics, or discipline (not really surprised).
Some nearly 20 years after I first encountered it, Foucault’s writing is still remarkable. And so increasingly important in so many domains in our current era.
Also: social intranet as panopticon.
There is no aspect of work or leadership that takes place outside the realm of communication. Human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to mainstream economics. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.
Being skilfully present in the forward movement of thought and relational action is the new meaning of being rational.
From Esko Kilpi’s Resilience, rationality and how we make decisions (September 25, 2013)
I’ve been involved in a complex discussion with a broad group of social tool makers, org culture theorists, change agents, and others, regarding the nature of change in organizations and the role — and challenges — of change agents. I decided to recap thoughts on organizational metaphors (a la Gareth Morgan) and Joanne Martin’s work on organizational culture, and then connecting it with Henry Mintzberg’s work on emergent strategy.
From Martin’s viewpoint, I am advancing an argument that is –as its core — a usurping of the guiding metaphor of organization culture.
Today’s entrepreneurial culture in business is grounded in an integrative metaphor: the CEO as visionary develops a strategy for the business, then lays it out so that others in the elite rally around it, and then it is inculcated into the controls and culture of the business, which are monolithic."The coming cooperative organization is scary, because it places ambiguity and uncertainty at the center of organization dynamics. It is based on not knowing exactly what to do, in a world increasingly difficult to read. It values experimentation over execution, places agility above process, and puts learning ahead of knowing. It asks more questions than it can answer, and it may not even know how to answer them."
But the reality of business is that the average employee is increasingly disengaged: they are rejecting alignment with the leadership-provided storyline and monolithic culture. At the very least the reality is that culture has drifted into a differentiated form, with various subcultures believing what they believe, and varying degrees of dissent, rebellion, or passive assent.
From the mindset of integration, this is a manifestation of a sick culture, and something to be fixed. From the mindset, however, of fragmentation, this is a middle ground, a transition zone. As we head toward a more cooperative form of work, and leave behind the consensus requirements of the ideal integrated culture, then the role of leaders change.
As I wrote in the recent piece Moving toward emergent strategy: slowly, if at all, the nature of strategy changes in a time of great change, when the future is difficult to foresee. The role of leadership changes with it, as well. Instead of concocting a strategic vision and pushing it out to the organization through cultural and managerial channels — the deliberate style of strategy — leadership must shift to distributed, action-based strategic learning about what is actually happening in the market: emergent strategy. This, as Henry Mintzberg observed, does not mean chaos, but unintended order.
To come full circle, if the goal of my circle of friends is to concoct a way to way to help change agents within business organizations, I feel we should start with a metanarrative about the changed groundwork for business, the shifting role of strategy and leadership, and, lastly, the fading of consensus and collaborative organizational culture as a consequence.
The coming cooperative organization is scary, because it places ambiguity and uncertainty at the center of organization dynamics. It is based on not knowing exactly what to do, in a world increasingly difficult to read. It values experimentation over execution, places agility above process, and puts learning ahead of knowing. It asks more questions than it can answer, and it may not even know how to answer them.
The power dynamic for change agents is always all uphill: if they want to lead the business forward, they have to convince leaders that they can’t stop the future by saying no, and the best way ahead is through. But we would be making a mistake by sticking to the contemporary metanarrative, one that would reduce this to increased alignment, immediate increases in productivity, or near-term fixes in what is viewed by management as a broken culture.
The challenge, then, is not to reëngage the workforce in solid, uniform cultural norms and allegiance to the company’s official vision — an approach more suitable for the previous decade or century — but to disengage management from the limited metaphor of Martin’s integration mindset. And the place to start is by reconsidering the nature of strategy — and its practice — in a postnormal, chaotic, and changeable world.
Some appendix material I included in a recent intranet strategy engagement to help increase the literacy of our client in order to understand their bias when thinking of technology and organizations.
My intent was that if they understood which camp they belonged to, they could contemplate other positions more effectively, and (optimistically) find a way forward with their portfolio of social intranet strategic initiatives.
It is worth being explicit in our philosophy of social intranets, technology, organizations, strategy, and change, as many of our approaches in the recommendations section will be contingent upon understanding the interplay between and across these concepts.
a) the relationship between technology and organizations
It is tempting to say that if an organization implements a particular technology, organizational results are guaranteed. Why else would be deploy a technology in the first place? It is our intent to guarantee results and deliver certainty. Those tools that do are effective in helping us meet our collective organizational goals.
Much of the language of technology and information technology in particular is around control, data, prediction, and certainty. Those are all things that we desire in complex organizations with shifting conditions, economic turbulence and market uncertainties.
Based on our own experience observing the deployment of web-based technologies, including ThoughtFarmer intranets operational at our clients’ organizations around the world, we feel we have sufficient evidence to say that the introduction of a technology into an organization has an effect, but its guaranteed causality is dubious at best. This is not a comment on the quality of our software (we certainly hope not) nor is it trying to diminish the value proposition of the social intranet. Rather, it is our attempt to recognize the dispositional nature of organizations; they are disposed to behave in certain ways, using a technology to their advantage or do their disadvantage or both simultaneously.
Social intranets and the behaviour that unfolds inside of them can’t be predicted ahead of time. They are not causal or structured in the same way that other more prescriptive or close-ended technologies, typically those known as “systems of record” tend to be. They are messy, complex, and therefore difficult to discuss, as many employees are armed simply with the layperson’s terms about technology that most of us pick up from popular media and the press about the role technology plays in society at large. That narrative is mainly causal, deterministic, overly simplistic, and filled with technological imperatives (technology will do X…).
In thinking about technology and organizations and the relationship of the two, we hope that we can make our software better and that the organizations that buy it create value, through productivity, organizational cohesion, innovation, and of course, efficiency. We also seek to increase the literacy of our clients in this important and misunderstood domain.
MIT Sloan School of Management scholar Wanda Orlikowski is one of the more lucid and provocative writers in this area. Along with Susan Scott, she suggests that when looking into the research done on technology and organizations, there are two primary dominant frames. She then suggests a third way of overcoming the two previous ways, after stating some of the major pitfalls of the two widely adopted approaches.
In her 2008 analysis of over 2000 leading management journal articles, she summaries the two primary modes of thinking about technology and organization to be:
1. Technology and Organizations as discrete entities acting directly upon each other
a) Techno-centered view (impact of tech on the organization, design of tech)
Technology ==> Organization
b) Human-centered view (uses of technology, participative design, organizational meaning)
Technology <== Organization
2. Technology and Organizations as mutually dependent ensembles, co-constituting each other
Technology <==> Organization
3. Sociomaterial; simultaneously as an entangled network of human and non-human agencies (conceptually blurring all previous boundaries of where technology starts and organization begins: they are one entity)
Sociomaterial: simultaneously enacted, reconfigured, and constituted over time.
We’re probably inclined to say social intranets are in alignment with Orlikowski’s third approach, as conceptually difficult as it is to comprehend or talk about, because social intranets are composed of the interactions amongst a group of human actors, all of whom possess agency and the ability to create things (not predictable) and the agency of one may have a big impact or very small impact on others (from the act of creating a label of a top-level section and its corresponding findability (or lack thereof) or the blog post from a CEO or a difficult question posted to a forum or a funny profile pic (funny to some, not to others)).
Or rather, relying on purely a techno-centric view is not sufficient for our strategic purposes. By installing an intranet, an organization does not guarantee its performance. It’s more complex than that.
Generally speaking, this is also related to organizational scholar Gareth Morgan’s work on metaphors used to describe organizations. We can also talk about similar metaphors used to describe intranets:
Those that consider Technology and Organization as separate entities, involved in causal relationships tend to favour thinking of the two in mechanical terms (intranet as machine). Those who believe Technology and Organization to be more about the humans inside of them and less about technology, contemplate the problem as a cultural one (intranet as culture / political system) and finally those who believe them to be one entity composed of a network of actors, both human and non (i.e. sociomaterial) tend to discuss them using ecological terms (intranet as ecosystem).
We firmly believe that language matters: the language we use and the metaphors we choose underpin key assumptions about the relations between the entities we talk about and our beliefs (often not well understood), about our ability to intervene, control, or influence these relationships. This leads directly to our second frame of reference with regards to strategy and decision-making contexts.
b) decision making & strategic contexts
As previously stated, a simple causal strategy (if you do A, then B will happen) isn’t going to be sufficient, given the discussion so far and given our lived experience of just how complex a many-to-many communicative, collaborative environment for staff (and all of its associated messiness and meaning). However, there needn’t be an “all or nothing” approach when it comes to strategy. We reject either/or-ism and tend towards a more both/and-ism
Several of the themes / contexts identified in this report are ordered, known, and lend themselves to causal strategic initiatives (do this, then that will happen).
But several of the themes are unknown and will remain unknown until we intervene and probe, testing to see what happens; we can only prove our hypothesis or hunch about these issues by testing them. And therefore, we should be prepared for our tests or experiments to fail (that is the nature of an experiment, after all). The goal is not to have them fail on purpose, but rather to recover quickly upon failure and learn from the failure, integrating that knowledge into our next experiment to iterate our strategy.
All initiatives recommended in this report seek to have an effect in the system; we feel more or less certain about some than others. As a result, a portfolio approach to managing the risk associated with uncertainty should be applied (don’t put your strategic eggs into one basket).
For more on this strategy in certain and uncertain contexts, see: Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, Snowden & Boone, Harvard Business Review, Nov 2007.
For more on the philosophy of technology and organizations, and an alternative philosophical approach to the dominant frames of the last 50 years of management literature see: Wanda J. Orlikowski & Susan V. Scott (2008): 10 Sociomateriality: Challenging the Separation of Technology, Work and Organization, The Academy of Management Annals, 2:1, 433-474
These are the Daves I know… @davegray @snowded.
Scenes from a bridge, tunnel, and tolling conference. #secretlifeofinfrastructure
Source: Socio-Technical Knowledge Management and Epistemological Paradigms: Theoretical Connections at the Individual and Organisational Level, Matthew Jelavic, Interdisciplinary Journal of Information, Knowledge, and Management Volume 6, 2011.
EVEN thieves, it seems, now have a smartphone app. Makkie Klauwe (it means something like “easy pickings” in Amsterdam slang) reveals the city’s best places for pilfering—for instance Reestraat and Tuinstraat, where bicycles appear to be a good target. The app depends for its dark arts on pulling together publicly available data on disposable income, crime levels and other problems reported in a district. A good place to steal might, for instance, have high income, low reported crime and broken streetlights.
Luckily for Amsterdam’s citizens and tourists, Makkie Klauwe does not exist. Bram Fritz, a graphic-design student, thought it up for an app contest the city held in 2011 (it won first prize in the “safety” category). Although he says he might write the app one day, the main aim was to kindle a debate over the ever greater amount of easily available data that can change urban life. “I wanted to confront citizens with what could become a threat to their property,” explains Mr Fritz.
Over the past few years, Gordon Ross has become a good friend, and we were on a panel at SxSW together two years ago with Dave Gray and Megan Murray. He’s among the most articulate and deeply studied practitioners and thinkers in the theory and practice of social tools, today.
Stowe’s email interview with me from this week… A small snippet of what’s rattling around in my head at any given time…