Saturday, August 31, 2013

5 Social Tools In The War On Groupthink

The #1 problem we face today is not physical, i.e. that we cannot live together on this planet. It is social-psychological, i.e. that we cannot get groupthink, "mob justice," the "herd mentality," out of our heads.

Groupthink has always been with us. The modern-day version is branding. It started out as a decision-making technique: The simpler you think, the easier it is for me to sell you my version of soap flakes...breakfast cereal...motorcycle.

But branding has become way too successful. We see people living a glorious life on TV, we want the things they have, but our minds are dumbed-down by preoccupation with consumption. We fail to see the real world and to challenge and change the status quo for the better. (As Marx pretty much predicted.)

Last night on HGTV they had this show called Amazing Water Homes. One home was like an aquarium with walls. Another was a house built on top of a waterfall, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Yet another was a house sitting on a tiny rock island in the middle of nowhere.

Every house nice. Every house innovative. But here's what I was trying to figure out:

If innovation were a product like Coca-Cola, and we wanted to duplicate the "secret recipe," how could we do that from scratch? 

Why can't everyone have an innovative house?

The opposite of groupthink is innovation. So let's challenge the obstacles that get in the way of the latter:

  • Failure to promote the necessary psychological qualities: Perhaps independence from the group rather than a kind of merging with one's peers; perhaps critical thinking; maybe an enjoyment of play and the view that serious things can and should be fun.
  • Stupid educational practices: How about eliminate standardized tests and force kids to actually write once again; how about catering to different learning styles; how about bringing our children to the workplace, where they can combine skills learning and exposure to real-world problems?
  • Pitiful gender norms: The HGTV show featured innovators who just "happened" to be males and an extended interview with the "long-suffering girlfriend" of one of them. Although it is true that we control our own choices, when women are lionized only for being self-sacrificing, deferential, etc. we encourage them to minimize their own ideas and ambitions unnecessarily. I recently saw this movie, "The Other Woman," where the "career woman" was portrayed as cold, uncaring and out of touch while the "relationship woman" was portrayed as sympathetic, human and worth caring about. Similarly, we must overturn shameful racial and ethnic stereotypes: The stereotype of the "brilliant and kooky Caucasian genius" is very, very overdone in Hollywood and was prominent in the HGTV show, as it seems to be everywhere.
  • Non-existent or non-communicated public incentives:  We can do a lot more to encourage innovation at the governmental level. Financial grants, computers, deregulation, partnerships, contests...the sky is the limit, but where is the effort? If it is there, the communication is sorely lacking.
  • Vast economic divisions: It was noteworthy that one of the innovators had a large, open plot of land in Wisconsin and time and space to be creative, thus he could build a gigantic fish tank without having to juggle two part-time minimum-wage jobs that might suck the creativity out of him. Can we not figure out a way to take the massive resources that we already have, the technologies already at our disposal, and simply disperse them more effectively?
We could do all of these things, if we wanted to. But we haven't really wanted to, so far. Because we haven't framed the problem correctly, and therefore don't see it as urgent, if we see it at all. Here it is:

Life is going to get worse for most people unless we start applying new solutions to old problems.

We haven't accepted the idea that change is necessary. 

Trying to maintain the status quo may be psychologically comfortable, but as resources grow scarce it will be impossible for many to maintain.

We haven't accepted that change means doing things differently.

The definition of change is that it means adapting to something unfamiliar.

We can't stop fighting amongst ourselves for limited spoils.

We continue to think that survival is about "getting and protecting." In reality it is about "creating, sharing and multiplying."

Let's take back that space in our heads, get off the groupthink train, start seeing our problems as urgent, and solve them creatively and together. Then we can all share in the rewards.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

5 Leadership Lessons from "Hell on Wheels"


For the unfamiliar: "Hell on Wheels" is a fictional TV series about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the USA in the mid-1800s. The main character, shown above, is Cullen Bohannon, the crew foreman, whose wife and son were murdered in the Civil War. Initially preoccupied with revenge, over time he becomes determined to play a leading role in the railroad. More at Wikipedia.

The AMC channel has discovered a formula for success that appeals to Gen Xers like me: 
  • Take a small band of people;
  • Set them against deadly hostile enemies;
  • Show how they try to make normalcy in an extreme;
  • Then have one character (usually male) lose the woman he loves, after which;
  • Said leader emerges as a true leader who fights off his evil counterpart. 
Let me say that I do not like Westerns, action movies, or horror flicks as a rule but "Hell on Wheels," like "The Walking Dead" is none of those things. It is actually a leadership tale. After watching a season on Netflix, here are some things I've learned about what people need from a leader:
  1. Leaders have to embody a very grand, wildly exciting, profitable-for-everyone goal. The railroad was and is the dream of connecting people with far-off lands, of making the wild inhabitable, of limitless wealth and trade. But at the same time, it was a crazy and dangerous concept many had to pay with their lives for. So - they build a bridge over the water and Bohannon tests the train car that rides over it. He flies this way and that inside the car and almost falls out. The scene is awesome and explains in about three minutes why the workers are in that godforsaken place at all.
  2. Leaders have to make good on a reward. At the most minimal level you have to pay people what you promise them, whether it's money, recognition or other forms of developmental opportunity. In the show, there is another character, "Elam" (the singer Common) a freed slave who works for the evil Durant but only because he envisions a home of his own, "just a piece of land by the river" to make beautiful and to defend. Elam is willing to do the dirty work although it pains him, but when he believes the sacrifice is no longer worth it, he quits and has to be recruited back.
  3. Leaders must inspire admiration and fear. We talk a lot about the idea that leaders should be visionary and engaging and that is true. But the fear factor cannot be ignored either. If the leader lacks any ability to impose negative consequences, people will not follow him or her. In the show, the railroad is initially run by Durant. Nobody likes or respects him; he's an evil, greedy fraudster and a killer. Obviously this is an extreme. But a little fear is essential and leaders who are excessively "nice" are doing the workforce a disservice.
  4. Leaders require enforcers. The leader communicates the vision, the mission, the values and also the consequences for failure. That's important, but the leader is emotionally invested and therefore compromised. The enforcer is the one who has no investment other than to serve the leader single-mindedly. The combination of leader plus enforcer has exponentially greater impact on the individual who is expected to do the work. In the show there are times when the leader tries to act as enforcer (e.g. Bohannon tries to be judge and jury), but when that happens he is restrained by another character who reprimands him for overstepping his bounds.
  5. Leaders who don't hold people accountable are not respected. There is a scene where Bohannon tells a worker to stop talking so much and get back to work. The worker talks back. It almost gets physical. But Bohannon stands his ground and the workers goes back to work with a shrug of his shoulders. Similarly, a member of the settlement tries to kill two brothers he believes are responsible for the death of his friend, and Bohannon, acting as a sheriff, frees the brothers, restrains the man and throws him out of the town. People may test the rules, but they need to have them there.
While it's true that a show is just a show, often you can learn a lot from the way art exaggerates life and makes us focus on key issues or themes we tend to overlook. I actually learned a lot just from the exercise of writing this post, and would be curious what others might want to add, either from HOW or elsewhere.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Elegance Of The Code

Though I could never construct them from scratch, and have always had trouble getting "into the weeds," I've always been fascinated by elegant logic systems:

  • Talmud, Hasidism and the Kabbalah; comparative religion
  • Astrology, macrobiotics, and all that New-Agey stuff
  • HTML, Drupal, Sharepoint, Google Apps
  • Symbolic interactionism, Marxism, and all the other -isms, plus feminist theory for good measure
  • Marketing and branding

But these are most useful as brain puzzles. In my own life I prefer to manipulate ingredients somebody else has already made from scratch, i.e. blocks of code. I am a Lifehacker, and appreciate the genius of Sandra Lee, the queen of "semi-homemade" cooking.

My grandmother was an innovator. During the Depression she would make an entire meal for six from the ShopRite "can-can" sale. My aunts and uncles reminisce that for a few pennies they had gourmet peas and mushrooms in brown sugar sauce. Never knew the difference.

People who can develop abstract, but closed systems of brilliance win awards. I appreciate what these can do, but find the logic more incomplete than useful because it is self-centered: That is, it does not ultimately translate into reality.

My daughter plays this video game, Minecraft. Her entire school is obsessed with it. In Minecraft you collect materials and build things with it. If you are really good you get to build an entire "house," or anything -- up to and including entire worlds.

I love the house my daughter has built. It's a mansion. But Minecraft has no connection to the world of the living.

We get too caught up in the systems. We fail to think critically --

  • What is the social context within which these systems get made? How does this affect the content itself?
  • What is the rationale? Why do we need it?
  • Instead of continually creating new systems, how can we cross-pollinate between one and another?

In the world of IT, the reason we have so much difficulty integrating platforms and applications is this very tendency to obsess over code and forget the bigger picture. It isn't a musical symphony - we aren't curing a deadly disease - rather we are usually building similar tools that overlap and duplicate each other, and that can be seriously streamlined.

Some people were born to think in 0s and 1s. But those people aren't usually leaders. To move the people themselves, you've got to relate abstract "dreaming" to "doing." And engage ordinary people in a purposeful battle in the real world.

* All opinions my own.

Fear G-d, Not People

Monday morning and I realize my attitude toward work has changed. It is still an important part of my life. But for the first time ever, a sense of balance is settling in.

After you spend enough time visiting an ailing person in the nursing home, you finally wake up. Because you see all the once-powerful people now too weak to eat their food.

A job is only one part of your life's mission, and that mission is directed by the One above.

I have avoided thinking about G-d; the subject made me feel uncomfortably powerless. Yet the side effect of that too often was a victim's mindset: I feared people.

When I turn my faith toward the right source, the fear of people drops away, and I feel like a victor, actually. While I remain happily Jewish, for the change in attitude I credit the inspiring television sermons of Pastor Joel Osteen.

When I simply acknowledge, praise and thank G-d for all the good things in my life, the power of faith powers me.

There is a musical rendition of the Jewish prayer we are supposed to say on waking: "Thank the King for restoring my soul." I love it.

Or, you can think of it another way. As Osteen puts it: "If you’ll keep your trust in God, He promises that no weapon formed against you will prosper."

Have a great day everyone, and whatever your beliefs, stay strong!

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The 5 Darker Sides of Innovation Worship

"One of the myths of the Enlightenment is that what we mean by progress is intimately bound to the presumed disinterestedness and political neutrality of Science. Science is said to be liberatory to the extent that is hermetically sealed from the chaos of political struggles and the conflicts of everyday social relations. Hitler’s scientists were to be unencumbered by the uses to which their discoveries and inventions were put." - Stanley Aronowitz, "Setting the Record Straight: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Critics"
Innovation is a wonderful thing. But like every business mantra that becomes a buzzword and then jargon, it gets used without serious thinking as to the costs and consequences, especially on the average person who may not be able to "ride the wave" and "master the system." Such as:

1. Applying "MBA Metrics" to "Hacker Culture":  In "The Secret to Unleashing Genius" Forbes tries to rank companies according to their "innovation premium" (or innovation equity). Their definition of this: Start with "what the market thinks the company is worth," subtract "actual money coming in," and wind up with an intangible clump of value. Not surprisingly this is exactly the same fuzzy logic people use to define brand equity (the value of a brand). Difficulty understanding innovation -- what it is, how it works, why it's valuable -- has led to a debate at Google, where the famous "20% time" to experiment has been restricted and essentially added to the normal workday, according to some of its engineers. (Google officially disagrees, but you can read the debate here.)

2. The New Caste System: The same article talks about Amazon as a prototypical innovative company that has "radically decentralized the work of coming up with new products or services so that the majority of employees feel like it is expected of them." That is all fine and good except the flipside is an anti-union approach that Amazon justifies as interfering with its ability to run the business. Not incidentally for a company that prides itself on innovation, the "innovators" are content while the "non-innovators" complain of unfair treatment. True society becomes less and less possible in a world characterized by the "Digital Divide," where the have-nots lose access not just to technology but fundamental participation in society (through money itself).

3. Who Put A Robot In My Chair?  In 1994 Stanley Aronowitz's The Jobless Future pointed to the devastating impact that technology would have on the average person, i.e. to destroy jobs:  "All of the contradictory tendencies involved in the restructuring of global capital and computer-mediated work seem to lead to the same conclusion for workers of all collars that is, unemployment, underemployment, decreasingly skilled work, and relatively lower wages. (Book review, The Jobless Future, Michael Stack) In Amazon's world, the low-level worker is actually being phased out: "Last year, the company spent $775 million to buy a manufacturer of robots that it plans to eventually deploy in its warehouses." What is going to happen to all the people who lose their jobs because of technology? Where will they live, how will they eat, and who will feed, clothe, and educate them?

4. Shortchanging Education To Serve The System: A subsequent work by Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (2001) pointed to the shifting role of the university. Instead of promoting critical thinking by exposing students to a wide array of coursework outside a particular field, the college experience is a "training" environment where students learn to memorize and spit back rather than to think. In today's world, students can teach themselves to code, but this is limiting in so many ways. Engaging critically with what is generally known as "The Canon" -- the classical works of history, philosophy literature, social sciences, and so on -- spurs innovation at a larger level. It helps you think in terms of the bigger picture. Is the project worth doing, if you look at the mission critically? Is it serving shareholder value or stakeholder value, and is that the right way to go? Is the organization itself helping or hurting society? Sure it's fine and good if you can get a job freelancing "right now," but do we really want our children to settle for being well-paid drones in a system?

5. Orwellian-speak: In thinking about the role of unions, a key factor for Amazon has to be cost savings. Yet responding to union concerns in Germany, they say the opposite: “This really isn’t about higher wages...It isn’t a cost question for us. It’s about what our relationship is with our people.” One of the fundamental issues associated with automating people out of a job, is what people will do once their job has been eliminated. There is no pretty way to talk about this issue, but people can handle a mature debate. What they cannot handle is being fed poison and then told it's chocolate syrup.

* As always, all opinions are my own. (On the quote, I support the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace, freedom and security as the Jewish homeland and the right of the Palestinian people to nationhood with the same human rights and dignities.)

Whose Acceptance Do You Need?

Photo by Gerard Stolk

The other day I chanced on a classic clip from Woody Allen's movie, "Hannah And Her Sisters."

In it his character, who is Jewish but experiencing a religious crisis, tries to join Catholicism and then Hare Krishna in turn. Ultimately none of it works out too well. He can't find respite in his own faith nor anybody else's.

Woody tries to explain to his flabbergasted parents but it's no use. It's death that's got him worried.

"Who thinks about such nonsense? When I'm dead I'll be dead," his father says.

"But never to exist again?"

"I'm not gonna worry now about what's gonna be when I'm unconscious."

Allen's earnestness and anxiety, their casual dismissiveness - it was so relatable I just had to laugh. It's bad enough when you're going through a tough time. But it's a thousand times worse when the people closest to you don't get it.

Self-acceptance begins with somebody else accepting you. That somebody else may be G-d, or a group or even just one person. It may even be words in a book, that validate what you feel. Paradoxically, nobody finds selfhood without community.

People confuse "acceptance" with "approval," but it's not. 

* Acceptance means you are welcomed unconditionally.
* Approval means you are judged to be "right" or "wrong."

Being accepted frees you to make whatever changes you need to based on self-love, not self-hate.

Don't be fooled. Often people who hate themselves are successful in the eyes of the world. They are so determined to make up for their perceived loathsomeness that they will do almost anything for a trophy.

But that kind of achievement doesn't have a long shelf life. It generates toxic stress for that person and everyone around them. It does not generate energy for new leaders to emerge and carry the torch forward. It becomes a ticking time bomb with a pretty plastic face.

If we want to promote lasting innovation, the first thing we ought to do is accept people as-is. It's a total mindset change. There is no "right way" to look, learn or live but rather many ways, and each of them can teach us something.

Some people will succeed in any kind of system, no matter how oppressive and conformist. Maybe it matches their capabilities - hooray! Or it doesn't but they can adapt well enough to master it.

The problem with conformity, though, is that it tends to produce a lot of ticking time bombs. And while they may seem unobtrusive for awhile, ultimately they do tend to blow up in your face.

“I am not a number; I am a free man.” - Patrick McGoohan

* All opinions my own.

Friday, August 23, 2013

From "OpenGov" to "MyGov"

 photo igoogle.jpg 
Photo via abhinavhaibbindaas at Photobucket

It's pretty simple.

Right now the "one government" paradigm is a portal which you can access for comprehensive information --, GOV.UK, and see also Singapore's website.

Imagine a different scenario: MyGov.

MyGov would be similar to iGoogle in that you have an account that enables you to access the portal. It would be as simple as choosing a username and password -- this could be keyed to your social security number for identity verification.

The government would be responsible for

  • Developing the portal
  • Hosting it
  • Posting data sets online

The portal would be an empty shell that could be populated by "gadgets," or modules, of an infinite number and type. These could be created by

  • Government
  • Private companies
  • Citizens
...and either free or paid - similar to an app.

Data would be "verified" with a certain "seal" so that the public would know that it comes from an authentic source rather than a hacker.

Rather than having to hunt for information on a central website, the citizen would have ultimate control over their portal and would be able to access those services they use most frequently.

Additionally, the portal would interface with social media feeds such as YouTube and Twitter so that the person could follow what the government is posting and what is being posted about the government.

Whether the user works with or for the government, accesses government services, or wants information that the government has, this kind of setup would be much easier to use and would likely also boost trust in government.

It is all well and good to make information more available to the public, but at the end of the day that information is useless unless people actually do something with it. While advanced technologists can manipulate datasets, citizen service is about including everybody.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

7 Ways To Make Open Government Real

1. Begin with internal communications and radiate that outward. Understand that open government is a fundamental change in mindset for most long-time government employees. They are used to a completely different attitude: "We have the data, you'll wait." Tell them what you're going to do, and then tell the rest of the world. 
2. Get out of the stovepipes - establish an Open Government council.  Organizational change has to be more than just talk. If you want to make it real, build an alternative culture that draws people in and puts them to work doing things another way. The physical manifestation of culture is an actual council that draws from every arm of the Agency. It establishes goals, metrics and standards and most importantly celebrates and champions success. 
3. Define the term "Open Government" repeatedly. People tend to put their own spin on buzzwords. That is not always a good thing. Tell people repeatedly "what we're doing here." 
"Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight." - Wikipedia
Open Government requires three things to work - per the President's Executive Order:

  • Transparency - expose the inner workings of the government, its data and processes
  • Participation - make it possible for me the citizen to respond and have an impact
  • Collaboration - work with partners inside and outside government to be more effective
4. Explain repeatedly the distinction between "Open Government" and "Leaking Classified Information." This is not an obvious or irrelevant point when you consider the pop culture lionization of figures such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. The government has been pretty tame about making its case, but I am not sure why --  our national security obviously depends on the protection of classified information. Read Marine Sergeant Jon Davis' response to the Bradley Manning question and you'll see what I mean.
5. Educate senior and mid-level executives in connection with their peers. In my experience, executives are comfortable with concepts that their peers are comfortable with. What was once foreign, undesirable and a waste of time becomes exceedingly interesting and important once the competition factor rolls in. You have a great brand - I want a great brand. You are doing social media - me too. You've got an Open Government page - I want one just like that. Plan events at which executives can hear from experts and network with each other to compare notes in person.
6. Establish processes for the release of open data. People are willing to do the work if there is a clear and reasonable process associated with it. This means that the individuals who will be engaged in identifying, preparing, and checking data sets - as well as those who will be doing supporting work for this - must collaborate. Work smarter not harder; it doesn't have to be torturous to be transparent.
7. Think positive rather than painful. Transparency saves a lot of time. Instead of answering individual questions piece-by-piece and getting those cleared, the public can visit a website and never have to deal with you (hint: they don't want to, anyway!) In addition, the public is extraordinarily innovative and will do amazing things with government data if only given the chance. At the end of the day, you want to spend as much time actually running the Agency as possible. Customer service sometimes means getting out of the way.
* All opinions my own.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Are You A Visionary or a Leader? Ask Steve Jobs

The new movie Jobs is out and has crashed and burned on impact at the box office. Even Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak weighed in with some tepid criticism: "I was attentive and entertained but not greatly enough to recommend the movie."

Television has done a better job. This weekend I watched "Pop Innovators Presents: Steve Jobs" on E! It presented, in a nutshell, the highlights of his life, his personal philosophy, his business vision, and his leadership style (or the lack thereof).

The continuing fascination with Steve Jobs is the desire to copy his unique brand of magic. But it's important to point out that he had vision, not leadership ability.

See for example this comment from Steve Wozniak in Gizmodo about the new biopic:

  • "I will add one detail left out of the film. When Apple decided not to reward early friends who helped, I gave them large blocks of my own stock. Because it was right. And I made it possible for 80 other employees to get some stock prior to the IPO so they could participate in the wealth."

Way back in 1987 the book Accidental Millionaire documented Jobs' erratic behavior and abusiveness. See excerpt from a book review in The New York Times:

  • "Many of those Mr. Butcher interviewed, including Mr. Wozniak, say that by the early 80's Mr. Jobs was widely hated at Apple. Senior management had to endure his temper tantrums. He created resentment among employees by turning some into stars and insulting others, often reducing them to tears. Mr. Jobs himself would frequently cry after fights with fellow executives."

In "The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs," his biographer, Walter Isaacson, noted that the business leader excused himself from acting with basic professionalism:

  • "The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism."

Isaacson actually had a conversation with Jobs in which Jobs excused his own behavior on the basis of his business results:

  • "I asked him again about his tendency to be rough on people. 'Look at the results,' he replied. 'These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don’t.' Then he paused for a few moments and said, almost wistfully, “And we got some amazing things done.'

Personally I am moved by Jobs' personal beliefs, and his vision. Who cannot recall the 2005 Stanford commencement speech, which brought me to tears:

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

But I am not moved by the way Jobs treated people.

It is true that the iPad, the iPod, the iMac, and so on have transformed our lives for the better.

But you can't be a leader and also be an abusive person.

"Have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition."

No matter what kind of genius you are, it is not OK to mistreat people. There is no excuse.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

10 Ways Technology Will Change Your Personal Brand

1. You will master the art of selective connectivity - meaning, you'll be reachable when you want to be and you will use this selectivity as a display of power.

2. You will develop the ability to switch tools rapidly and without excessive handholding.

3. You will develop confidence to question the usefulness of the tools even as others are more fluent in them - to see beyond the gobbledygook.

4. You will consider the world your workspace and disavow a dedicated office, chair and door.

5. You will create your own work:life balance, because technology will make it too easy to work all the time.

6. You will master technology programming to the point where it really does become your virtual assistant.

7. You will network virtually as never before, and it will be hard to tell your work colleagues from your business partners.

8. You will routinely be ranked and rated by the people who interact with you. Your composite score will determine your employability.

9. You will be empowered to start a new business as never before, and disrupt the entire marketplace.

10. You will be largely self- and community-trained and schools with teachers and walls will become a thing of the past.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Curse of the Boring Leadership Blog & How You As A Communicator Can Fix It

Too often blog posts are only a token item on the leaders' busy and important agenda, and as a result people inside and outside the organization fail to understand what they're trying to accomplish. While media interviews can provide some visibility, only the unfiltered lens of social media can really allow the leader to share their priorities with the world.

Here are some thoughts on the leadership assumptions that perpetuate the problem, and how communicators can help to remedy it.

7 Faulty Leadership Assumptions

  1. Communications is not important, the work is (read: any time spent on this is truly wasted; that's what I pay communicators for; I'd rather say in my comfort zone, which is technical mission execution).
  2. If we do communicate, we're talking to our "primary audiences" (read: the people we usually talk to, the ones whose names we know) and they can "decode our jargon" (read: normal people don't have to understand).
  3. Senior executives have to sound important (read: diplomatic rather than human).
  4. All negativity is bad, including -- offending anyone, sounding negative, or getting negative press (read: it's better to speak in a confusing and unclear way than to be direct, admit problems and mistakes, and possibly generate bad headlines).
  5. People hear from us so rarely that we can pretty much write whatever we want and it's all good (read: we're not accountable to the audience, because what do they care about one blog post, anyway?)
  6. Silence is usually golden (read: Whose stupid idea was this blog in the first place?)
  7. Even if we did care about blogging, you can't prove what a good one is or who has time to read blogs? (read: The communicators aren't giving me metrics that make sense to me and nobody in the senior staff meeting is interested in whether I blog or not.)

10 Ways To Ensure All Web Content Is Better

UK's The Guardian published an excellent blog on this subject by Rob Weatherhead, head of digital operations at MediaCom: "Say it quick, say it well – the attention span of a modern internet consumer." Weatherhead writes:

"In a world of instant gratification and where an alternative website is just a mouse click away website owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across. If you don't, their cursor will be heading to the back button and on to a competitor in the blink of an eye."

Here are his topline tips for writing engaging web content that apply 100% to blogs:
  1. Grab the user's attention -- to me this means a strong headline
  2. Bottom line up front and easily understandable
  3. Keep the word count short and hyperlink to secondary pages as needed
  4. Take them through your argument logically - beginning, middle, conclusion
  5. Focus is key - you don't need to tell the audience every aspect of the issue -- what do they need to know right now?
  6. Use bulleted lists, people follow them
  7. Use very descriptive subheads
  8. Include videos, slideshows, graphics, etc. for those who prefer them
  9. If there is an action you want the audience to take, make that easy and clear
  10. And for goodness' sake use any metrics you can to determine how many people viewed, shared, and interacted with the content and how long they spent reading it.
Of course what makes a blog different from other kinds of web content is that it's a human voice. On that note here is some advice from a variety of experts interviewed for a recent article in Federal Computer Week, "How to Write a Great Government Blog," and from a related post at FCW on the worst government blogs.

5 Tips For Great Blog Writing
  1. Have a strong and distinctive voice for the blog - it should sound like a person.
  2. Strike a balance -- you don't want to be so mission-focused that it's dry and boring, but then again you should avoid being so conversational that it sounds inappropriately "fluffy" or personal
  3. Respond to the concerns of your audience rather than just saying what you want to say
  4. Of course you should allow comments, and moderate them
  5. Keep to a schedule. It doesn't have to be the most frequently updated blog in the world, but it should be somewhat predictable.
In an age where we seem to come up on a new technology for communication every day, blogs are an enduring, simple, free and powerful tool for senior leaders. They show that there is a thinking, competent person at the helm of the organization. And they translate what are frequently abstract goals into language that the general public can comprehend.

Yes, very often if you talk in a real way the public will take issue with you. That is part of the process. It is actually helpful. And there is no way to communicate around that.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, August 16, 2013

So You Have A Dead Intranet, Now What?

Yesterday's post on Intranets focused on control issues and how to resolve them. It consisted of notes from a keynote presentation at Drupal4Gov featuring a three-year case study on this subject.

For the sake of focus I left a very important piece of the talk on the cutting room floor, and so will expand on it a bit in this post. This is the implementation portion of the engagement piece: How do you go from a website nobody visits or uses, to one that engages the workforce?

The basic idea is to think of your job as starting a conversation. "Encourage participation and don't interfere...start a discussion, build momentum."

You may think that not enough people are participating in the space but it takes time for people to work up the courage. Peltzer suggested the 1-9-90 rule: 
  • 1% are the talkers
  • 9% are the commenters
  • 90% are the watchers
"Whatever happens on user generated space, everybody will be watching."

But how?

It starts with the user profile: Make it extensive and make it consist of things that are both useful and easy for people to post -- not to mention conversation starters.
  • Skills
  • Hobbies
  • Colleagues
  • Projects
  • Experience
Expanded user profiles aren't just a nice-to-have but a way to build a Linked-In style database so that people can connect with other people who have the skills they need for a particular project. So make sure these functionalities are in place:
  • When the user posts something online, it should link back to their profile page so that peers can get an expanded sense of who they are, what they do and what they're good at.
  • Endorsements (voting), just like in Facebook. The fact that people can add "likes" is not trivial though it "may seem insignificant and small." The rationale is that "not everyone is brave enough to blog or add a comment, but a crowd of people is willing to vote." 
  • Skills pages - e.g. you can note that you are an expert in project management. Important: Link those skills to an aggregate page where you can find all the individuals who have tagged themselves with the same skill. 
  • Opt-in mentoring - on the user profile include a checkbox next to the individual's skills so that they can indicate whether they're willing to mentor others in it. That way when you visit the skills page, all of the people willing to provide in-house training at no additional cost are listed at once.
It's important to show stats on endorsements, said Peltzer, so that people get credit for popular content:

"Pride is a big motivator - give credit and visibility to those who share their ideas. they want to know people are listening, makes them want to post even more."

It took a long time for "confidence to build" in the intranet project: "People wanted to see, where is this going to go....started seeing that it wasn't that bad."

At the end of the day the point of the Intranet content + connection:
  • "Content is connecting people"
  • "Connecting people around your mission. Project, services, corporate activity, all the mission activity is documented and there - networking overlaid on that. Connecting people around your mission. Increase collaboration."
Having a system that facilitates collaboration helps to overcome the negative associations people have with collaboration, said Peltzer: Traditionally "collaboration is a dirty word."

The problem is not the technology: "Lots of tools exist." Rather, it's finding and recruiting the right collaborator: "I was in government for 13 years. All of my ability to pull off projects is because I know who to call when something goes wrong." 

  • "If we can give this capability (collaboration) to everyone in the organization, that's where collaboration is going to thrive."
  • "The web itself can provide this functional type of collaboration that can't be found in some other tools."
  • "It has to be available to all - merit based - and self-organizing."
  • "If we try to force people to work together, we rarely successful but if we can self-organize and those who contribute the most get recognized, you'll have the most success."
  • "It's about engagement."
  • "People want to be part of a common purpose and make a difference."
  • "By creating together you can achieve what's impossible on your own."
And so the ultimate business case is:

"Integrating corporate content with user-generated content leads to strong corporate engagement and keeps collaboration focused on the mission."

* No endorsement expressed or implied. All opinions my own.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The #1 Intranet Problem That's Already Been Solved

Intranets are somehow not communicators' favorite project but they are critical to collaboration and communication among knowledge workers.

Today's opening keynote at Drupal4gov was a multi-year (2007-2010) case study with Jayson Peltzer, founder of U7 Solutions on building an intranet, based on his experience at the National Defence (sic) of Canada.

For the purpose of this post I'd like to highlight just one item from the extensive talk -- the #1 issue that keeps executives from sleeping at night and the one that, when resolved, allows the rest of the Intranet to flow:


Executive worry about:
  • Employees publishing unauthorized material about their functions.
  • Excessive socializing.
The core of the issue is this:
  • Executives want to control who says what. But the more barriers and censorship, the less engagement. "People need to believe they will be able to do the things they want, even though it's built by corporate."
  • To work, employees themselves must take ownership. This depends on the employees having control: "If you let people create it they will take ownership and make sure it's always up to date."
The way to solve the problem:
  • Passive content moderation: "Flag as inappropriate"
  • Published netiquette guidelines, & netiquette committee
  • Expiration date on old content, with warnings
The bottom line concept is:
  • "You have to trust your employees" BUT
  • Be ready for bad behavior, which "will happen, but not as often as you think." AND
  • "If it does happen, it's not the end of the world."
If you want to understand the process step-by-step, the full presentation and screencast with audio is available here and my notes with some audience edits are on Hackpad. It's well worth studying if you're working on an Intranet project.

* All opinions my own. No endorsement expressed or implied.

A Call To Gov 2.0 Drupalers

Upstairs at Drupal4Gov2013 there were donuts and coffee aplenty to fuel the work going on downstairs, where the Drupal community is working on a way to help government agencies post open data sets quickly, easily and consistently. Photos by me.

It's Day 2 at Drupal4Gov 2013 and one of the most important sessions taking place today is not actually a session but rather a collaboration aimed at helping federal agencies post their data sets more easily on the free, open-source Drupal website platform. 

The all-day event is called "Project Open Data Code Sprint" and it was led by some Drupal community volunteers who also work at Acquia, who apparently brainstormed with New Amsterdam Ideas (no endorsement etc. etc.) All are welcome to help out, whether onsite today or virtually tomorrow or anytime.
  • The goal is to create a "module" (building block) in Drupal that agencies can use to catalogue their data sets to meet the requirements outlined in the May 9, 2013 White House Executive Order and accompanying OMB memorandum. 
  • The benefit for the many federal agencies that use Drupal is that such a module would make life much easier as they could simply snap it into their website (like a Lego piece, as someone said) and start adding information about the datasets.

How will the module work? Very simply, easily and at no cost. It will have standardized fields that meet the government's requirements for the kind of information that has to be catalogued and released. It can do this in one of two ways:
  • If it has a data catalogue function already: Simply add on to an existing Drupal site.
  • If it does not: Add it, but connect the new module with the old system using a "bridge" module that allows them to speak to each other.
If you're not a techie all this sounds like a bit of a yawner but you have to understand the vision to really get excited about it. Because we are looking at true participatory democracy here.
  • In the past the government assumed certain roles on behalf of the citizen and generated data in the process of doing so - then held the data - and it was difficult for the original citizen-owner to get back.
  • In the future the the government will be operating with its intestines literally turned inside-out. Data will be stored with future use and re-use in mind, not just internally but by other agencies, by organizations outside government, and by private citizens.
It gets even more exciting.

Agencies are required to put their own data sets catalogues, and data, on their own pages. But once the information is made available in a standardized way, citizens will not only be able to find datasets more easily and download them. They will also be able to aggregate multiple datasets across agencies to create a comprehensive catalogue.

In the future, we can look for the data itself to become standardized, enabling citizens to compare information across agencies and also create "mashups" comparing different types of data. This will require:
  • Common fields, or information categories.
  • Common taxonomies, or definitions of the same word.
It is an exciting and important project and hopefully there will be people reading this who want to help out. You don't need to be a Drupal genius, just willing to assist. Join the community "sandbox" by clicking here

* This blog is intended for educational purposes. All opinions are my own. No endorsement expressed or implied. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fitting People Into The Open-Source Equation: Observing Drupal4Gov 2013, Day 1

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." 
Ferris Bueller

I wanted to try and write this while the experience was still fresh in my mind. So I hope that you'll forgive me if the words seem raw and unpolished. It's my way of respecting what is going on in the world of government, technology, and open data: Everything I thought I knew is not-so-slowly going by the wayside.

There isn't a big crowd here this year. I'm actually surprised that there aren't more people (especially when you consider that there is free food). It's probably because we're in Bethesda at the NIH, rather than in midtown DC like last year (at Commerce). But the energy level is very high. It's like a drumbeat charging slowly and steadily throughout the place.

Not only that. The geekery is truly amazing. I like to think that I am geeky. In the normal world this is true. But observing the interchange here is something else. The banter is just going to a whole other level. I can follow it conceptually. But the speed at which people seem to be thinking and conversing back and forth is much faster than even last year. Something is happening.

It's about the meta-conversation. 

Take one talk, "White House API Standards," with Bryan Hirsch. It was critical subject matter but for me the essence was not the subject matter. It was the President joking "What the heck is an API?" and then making the White House a platform for throwing open the gates to even the most seemingly esoteric computer wizardry.

Nobody owns this house, but everybody owns it. Once you open the gates, you can't close them up again. The people have the power.

Another talk, "Growing Communities Around Your Code," featured GitHub's Ben Balter talking about how to foster growth rather than "manage" it (i.e. shut people down). Everything about the discussion showed how far and how fast we have come in such a very short time. Old-fashioned blogs are so uncool just like telling people what to do is. 

We have to figure out how to grow people. There are new challenges associated with a work environment where some people get paid to do open-source work during the day while others are laboring deep into the night for not a cent, just contributing. And all the variations of work arrangements in between.

There are no models for these discussions, at least not that I am aware of. 

(You can see the whole thing online here in Prezi and I encourage you to check it out.)

Everyone seemed pretty happy here today. I felt good just being around this vibe. It made me want to learn more, and I truly felt my age and my ignorance. I don't mind admitting to being a beginner of sorts in this brave new world. I'd rather admit it, start from where I am, embark on an unpredictable new journey.

* All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

5 Ways To Crush A People-Hating System

The other day, I was headed out the door when I heard a woman's voice in the hallway. Her voice was muffled but she was clearly yelling. I heard a child's quiet voice in response.

Didn't want any trouble and it did not sound like there was abuse going on, so I quietly left when the hallway got quiet. But there they were, downstairs. A little toddler not more than three, and an angry and frustrated caregiver. "Get off that curb!" "Stop it now!" "I'm warning you!"

They weren't words of love. The woman was spewing hatred at that child and it made me sick to my stomach.

Another time, in the nursing home, I was walking past a semi-closed door. Heard two people talking to each other inside, and a resident talking but being ignored. Stopped and listened, and the employees were talking to each other about other patients. They said almost nothing to the resident at all.

In my heart I felt what was going on - contempt - and again I felt that terrible feeling.

Children and the elderly can't help themselves, and the people they rely on for the most basic things so often treat them without the most basic shred of human decency.

The situation is no different at work. We think that employees are adults and that they should know how to act with basic human decency but unfortunately adults at work often treat one another sadistically. A 2010 study commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (carried out by Zogby International) showed that more than 1 in 3 workers, or 35%, have experienced it directly.

And yet - we do not live in a perfect world; there is no such thing. Bullying by caregivers and employers is clearly not the norm. And statistically, any bucket of people will have good apples and bad apples alike.

So what can we do to fix it?

Go a level higher. Go to the social structure within which people operate. Fix the structure and the individual behavior will improve.

For example, corporate America. So far there are 203,000 views of Bruce Kasanoff's slideshow "Profits Before People" on Slideshare. Last week it was among the top 5 presentations viewed. It's nothing new, but it's something to see. The extent to which companies use, churn, and dump people out for the sake of the almighty dollar.

If you set up a structure that puts money first and people second, it is inevitable that the individuals operating within that structure will treat people accordingly.

We can change our social institutions so that it pays to treat people better. Here are 5 principles for change, offered in very general terms:

1) Leadership By The People, For The People and Of The People 
  • Old way: Look to the top for a single leader to set direction.
  • New way: Direction should be distributed among self-organizing cells aligned against a central goal (the mission/brand). 
2)  Embrace Holistic Strategy Through Cross-Sector Integration and Partnerships
  • Old way: Isolate organizational function in one sector (e.g. business, government, education, healthcare)
  • New way: Situate function across multiple sectors of society (e.g. make the workplace child-friendly and make the school system a place for teaching workplace skills from the youngest age)
3) Transparency Through Release Of Data and Key Performance Indicators
  • Old way: Hold, massage, and then release selected "dead" information with your framing of the context or narrative
  • New way: Make the data available for others to consume, absorb and re-display in a way that suits real analysis and customer need
4) Opportunity For Employees To Engage and Be Rewarded
  • Old way: Hire good people and then hold them in place till you need them
  • New way: Hire good people and then get out of the way while they seek opportunities to contribute to the bottom line; point and reward system through 360 peer and customer review
5) Technology To Make It All Possible, Simply
  • Old way:  Buy multiple expensive technology products and services without understanding them, and then avoid training and change so as to use the "old-fashioned" stuff as long as possible
  • New way: Begin with the premise of the automated workplace and hire, train and retain people to use technology simply and intelligently. Reduce clutter and leverage available tools. Set employees up to work independently of supervision as much as possible by collaborating virtually and without undue censorship.
The fundamental problem of society today is the power imbalance between the lone individual and the continued streamlining and consolidation of its "big" institutions, one of which is "big data." Such a system is inevitable for a lot of reasons - cost efficiency and personal security among them. 

But we don't need, don't want and can't allow a system to arise in which the power of the individual is crushed. 

We can use efficiencies of scale to purposefully establish a "big" system that balances the weight of its individual players, promotes individual freedom and development, and institutionalizes accountability. The first step though is to decide on our top priorities for society. 

For most of us, the #1 requirement is that we use the power we have to take care of each other.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some Thoughts On "What Does The Boss Want" - 5 Things

1. See things from boss's point of view - yes!

You don't have to drink the Kool-Aid but try to understand their perspective.

2. Communication - yes, qualified. 

Boss wants to know where you are getting stuck. Boss wants status of project. Boss especially wants to know about crises and how you are managing them.

3. Passionate - not so much. 

Boss does not need your passion so much as your absolute motivation and engagement to deliver results against what THEY are passionate about.

4. The stepping stone issue

I take it for granted that any employee is looking to advance and so the key is for employees to align their ambitions with the boss' success. 

For example of you want to be chief editor of the magazine, show how you can get the writing team organized without exercising direct authority. Boss will be happy to let you take on that responsibility - one less thing to worry about - feather in your cap.

That said - the boss is the boss. You should never try to undermine them or steal the limelight.

5. Stay positive even in bad times.

Joel Osteen gave a great sermon today about the woman who said "all is well" even though her son was dead. She was speaking in faith. She believed that G-d could resuscitate him. Believe that the workplace can be revived. Don't spread negativity.

I love these two positive words from those who do work for me:

"Will do."

Saying "will do" shows that you are a loyal soldier. Be a loyal soldier and your boss will help you further your own career down the road, by mentoring you, inviting you to meetings and to join projects, and giving you that critical reference letter.

* All opinions my own.

On Slideshare: "Internal Branding: Does It Improve Employees' Quality Of Life?"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Telling Your Story In A World Of Half-Truths

This week I read a wonderful blog by Penelope Trunk called "How To Tell A Tidy Story Of An Untidy Life." (Google it please, as I am writing this on my mobile.)

She concludes her post, which as always mixes apples-and-oranges self-observations, with this:

"I am still that girl who wants a friend, and a job, and a place that feels safe. That’s my story."

Reading that line brought tears to my eyes. Deep down inside aren't we all the same. It is so simple but how quickly things get complicated, and then later we can't quite put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This is of course the essential branding question too. Given that...

--we are judged by what people see of our behavior (the partial view, the half-truths)

--we are complex beings

--we play different roles in life

--we evolve over time

--circumstances sometimes force our hand do we explain our personal or corporate brand (mission+values) simply, coherently and compellingly?

On a broader level, how do we give context to the corporate or agency narrative when the world is quick to make judgments? And those judgments can easily become part of reputation,whether true or not?

This is not a small question nor an irrelevant one. In many ways, your reputation is all that you have. Without it nobody will willingly interact with you in any significant way -- because all significant interactions involve trust.

The answer I think is to insist on telling your story a little bit at a time, over an extended period of time. A book will not do it. This is blog material, Tumblr time, YouTube. And even traditional media interviews. 

And you talk when times are both good and bad. You never try to act mistake-free. You emphasize that the journey is to learn.

The point is to show your underlying consistency, even as you may do different things. People do not care whether you have a perfect story. In fact I think the opposite is true, that as the saying goes, "only a cracked vessel lets in the light."

Fine. But if you have no social persona, it can be hard to make clear how your zigs and zags are all part of a master plan.

If you take the time to build a coherent and consistent presence in advance, the result is a personal or corporate brand narrative that makes sense. 

Your brand is an insurance policy. It is there for you when bad headlines strike, because your audience asks, "Is X person or organization really the type to do this?" (Hopefully those headlines are wrong - branding cannot keep the lipstick on a pig.)

No matter who you are, or what you have been through, you have a consistent story. You have journeyed from Point A to Point B. You should not shy away from telling it.
* As always, all opinions my own.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Building The Government Enterprise: What's Missing Is The Brand

Screenshot of the 9 recommendations from PPS modified by me to ask a key question: Where's the brand?

Yesterday I stumbled upon a C-Span program of intense interest. It aired August 8, 2013 and featured a presentation of recommendations in in a joint report by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton: "Building the Enterprise: Nine Strategies for a More Integrated, Effective Government."

The report has the usual common-sense recommendations that taxpayers normally agree to (i.e. combined purchase of janitorial supplies to keep prices low) and that Washingtonian civil servants typically roll their eyeballs at ("Yeah right, sounds good but we've tried all that before and it will never happen here.")

As if to anticipate the myriad objections their report might generate, Speakers Lara Shane (PPS) and Ronald Sanders (BAH) said some things of a supposedly calming nature. No we are not saying to centralize everything. No we are not trying to add new requirements to your already onerous workload. 

Let me say that the audience did not look all that worked up. I have a friend from New York who always calls me to make fun of the fact that I live in D.C. She thinks it's very humorous to say things like, I was watching C-Span the other day...not a very lively crowd.

I have to agree with her. Washington does indeed seem fairly anemic, especially when you consider the amount of power and money that changes hands here.

From my perspective, the problem is not that Beltway folks are dull. Rather, the inhabitants of this town are bound together, yet driven by opposing needs -- almost like the destructive, co-dependent couple Eminem described in "Love the Way You Lie": we are "what happens when a tornado meets a volcano."

The Partnership for Public Service issued a reasoned and visually appealing report that makes a lot of sense. But in their vision of a federal-wide enterprise that is more than just a "holding company," they're missing something vital -- the vision of a corporate brand.

Corporate branding is more than just a logo. It is the process of adding meaning to the activities you pursue in unison. The federal civil service, if it is ever to adopt an enterprise-wide approach, must embrace the concept of the U.S. government-wide brand.

As Sanders pointed out in the talk, working as an enterprise does not mean eliminating its parts in favor of a mothership-like Headquarters that pulls the strings. It does mean intelligent coordination. The first step in this process, however, should not be identifying dollars and cents savings. That's been done a million times before, and it's never gotten off the ground.

Rather, we should start by winning the hearts and minds of the federal civil servants who contribute to this envisioned enterprise. We should show them what it is we're going after - the meaning of it all - and how they can have a place in the new system rather than be elbowed aside.

As usual when business plans are introduced, the communicators tend to get forgotten and left back. But brand-based communication, together with a solid change management and organizational development plan, is the only thing that can make this effort really work.

In the end, government is a business, and every business begins and ends with a brand.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Open Data Model For Talent Management

Over the years I've been blessed with some brilliant managers. They had varying levels of technical skill but an outstanding ability to understand and harness human capital. And one of the things they always had in common was this:

They never held people back.

These managers understood the true inner logic of talent management, which is:

Find out what people do well and then let them do it.

Unfortunately some managers think they're supposed to "retain" people at all costs. But if there is a poor fit between employee and role, the organization only suffers from their demoralized and disengaged presence. Think about a married couple that can't stop fighting, and then put that into the workplace -- who does this model serve?

Instead of retaining the wrong people, help them find another position where their talents will be well-utilized.

Other managers have a traditional (old-fashioned) view of the employer-employee relationship that says, we hire people for life. But why? Again to use the marriage analogy, if two people make that commitment and it does not work out, isn't it better for them to walk away on good terms? Rather than be unhappy and toxic to others till the end of days?

The open data model says that we share information freely and take what we need for the purpose that suits us uniquely. The same model should go for talent management:

Open the door to the organization so that people with the right skills can help you get results. 

Open the door between departments so that people can join groups that appreciate them.

Open the door between projects so that people can jump in and help out at will.

How do we do this? Take a deep breath for some of them:

Internal talent registries - what skills do our people have that we didn't know about?

Aggregated, anonymous rating tools - what is it like to work in that department?

Aggregated, anonymous 360 degree feedback tools - what is it like to work with that person? 

Often managers feel that they do not have control over their workers' productivity, even though others think they do. They are caught between leadership and sometimes irrational dictates at the top, and the difficulties employees face in actually executing on tasks with effectiveness and engagement.

The open data model improves the manager's lot with its strict yet friendly logic. It's impersonal but fair, just the way that data is.

A manager's real job is to identify and harness talent, and for moving or removing employees who are not contributing sufficiently. 

The employee is responsible for contributing real value according to organizationally defined results.

The sophisticated organization establishes an infrastructure that makes it possible for manager and employees to take responsibility for these roles.

It does this by defining itself not as an end in itself, but rather as a talent management platform that abides by the rules of the brand (thinking of brand as the organizing principle of the business).

This requires that three things be in place, written down, and actually lived (see "Internal Branding: Three Documents You'll Need): 

1) Culture, or the basic belief system about what is important, meaningful, and why we're here
2) Consistency, or the strategic plan - a set of priorities that is consistently espoused and followed throughout the organization
3) Communication, or rules for expressing what the organization is about

Management is a critically important job in any workplace. It is the manager who works directly with an employee to ensure they are on the right track -- not only delivering value but also thriving. 

An open data model for talent management supports the manager. It facilitates the correctly aligned and engaged workforce. It makes the most of the organization's investment in people. And it cuts to the quick unnecessary costs associated with employing the wrong people, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Thinking About The Bezos Acquisition Of The Washington Post: What Does It Mean For Federal Communicators?

When you consider that 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the United States it becomes clear that we have entered an entirely new world of communication. For government communicators, here are three consequences of this consolidation:
  • There are no isolated stories about the agency but rather there is an overarching narrative and every story feeds into it. So within the agency it is not OK to have one group working on Initiative A and another group on Initiative B and they are connected in the public's mind yet internally the people are not talking to one another. Public Affairs has to be that connecting linchpin working between Groups A and B to insist that the narrative be made whole.
  • Similarly there are no isolated news outlets or platforms on which news is delivered but rather one always connects to the other. So it is impossible to say, we'll do a press release but avoid social media; or we don't want to get involved in mobile now; because the reality is, your content is going everywhere. The people responsible for sending out content to the public must be working across platforms to comprehensively assess and then report back on the impact of particular stories and on the general tone of coverage across traditional and new media.
  • Finally in the Bezos model as in the Huffington post model, the user is king and so there has to be much more respect for and engagement with the unfiltered and uncensored comments from the public. It's no longer enough to say "whoa, that's astroturfing and I'm not going to respond" - you have to get in there, roll your sleeves up and talk to people. (Of course you have to identify yourself as an Agency representative.)
This relates to my post yesterday on branding the platform, which talks about Amazon at some length.

On a related note I think it is important to point out as I try to do periodically that no matter what communication outlet we use, it is illegal to use appropriated funds for propaganda. 

The law does not specifically say what that word means but over the years, it has been interpreted pretty clearly and the Legal Information Institute at Cornell offers a brief guide. Essentially Agencies:
  • Can: "inform the public about its activities and programs, explain its policies and priorities, and defend its policies, priorities, and point of view"
  • Can't: 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" (also known as "puffery" or promotional talk that "no 'reasonable person' would take literally" and that can't be verified for accuracy - e.g. a sales pitch 2) promote a political party or candidate - e.g. communicate for “purely partisan purposes,” and 3) issue “covert propaganda” - meaning Agency materials issued to a non-government outlet without disclosing who made them.
On the concept of journalistic objectivity, or any objectivity, I am of the school of thought that says it is impossible, although striving for accuracy is not. As Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who broke Edward Snowden's story) states:"The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective."

To counter the problem of objectivity, it is helpful to offer raw data along with context and then invite third parties to analyze it, break it down and communicate about it their own way. Check out this template for a Social Media Press Release.

(Note - all opinions my own as always.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Implications of Platforming for Government

For government, the challenge of the trend toward branding the platform is the trust factor. According to 2013 research by Rasmussen, only 24% of Americans trust the federal government. That means 3 out of 4 people don't! Think about that for a second. The government is most importantly a platform upon which the rest of society functions. If trust is critical to a platform brands, and the federal government loses that trust beyond what Gladwell called "the tipping point," other platforms will arise to take its place. This is not an impossible scenario especially given all the divisive and sometimes extremist rhetoric we are seeing in public fora today.

If government does not regain the public's trust there is a significant risk from a business perspective that the brand will be discredited and the platform will be undermined and "disintermediated." Not only will people to go other platforms to get government information and services (which is already happening, and sometimes at an unnecessary cost), but they may also disregard accurate government information itself and trust only alternative sources. Far from the original data and the people generating it, biased with mistrust, those sources are inevitably going to be skewed.

All of this is why regaining the public trust is the #1 job of government right now.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Platform or Die

This week one of the top presentations on SlideShare is Jeremiah Owyang's presentation "What Companies Must Do When Customers Share – Rather Than Buy," with nearly 32,000 views.

Owyang is a partner at Altimeter Group, which helps companies deal with and profit from disruptive change and this presentation accomplishes exactly that. It's essentially a free and in-depth primer on the collaboration economy, bringing together trends that I first began following in 2000 working for futurist/trend spotter Marian Salzman, president at Young & Rubicam's The Intelligence Factory.

Salzman has spent at least a decade working through the consequences of "prosumption" for marketers. Her work begins with futurist Alvin Toffler's concept of the prosumer, or proactive consumer (1980), which was rapidly adopted and promulgated by mainstream marketers, such as Philip Kotler.

Beginning in roughly the late '90s, the new generation of consumer didn't just buy what marketers dreamt up but actually began to play a role in producing what they consume (pro + sumer). This could be through providing feedback (e.g. writing a book review on a blog) or by actually creating them (e.g. I continue to be fascinated by her efforts to show how prosumers continue to influence the marketplace.

Several outgrowths of prosumption take the original concept further and in different directions. One is "brand hijacking." From a marketing perspective this means marketers embed the brand in customers' lives (hijack their lives, hijack the traditional marketing process) as "alternatives" to corporate America (e.g. Napster). It also means customers authentically taking over a brand and making it their own, e.g. creating their own versions of Barbie dolls (no, Mattel was not happy). A third is when a corporate brand injects itself into the narrative of a separate popular brand to gain traction.

A related trend to prosumption is brand curation, or assembling many different voices into one. One example is The Huffington Post, comprised of many different bloggers yet the tone of the entire offering remains consistent. What's important about this is that the independent voices remain consistent (e.g. they are not blandified into a singular corporate image) but they are at the same time promoting a larger profit-making venture.

We tend to forget that customers are also workers and in a service economy, their engagement with their employers' brand and consequently the customer is critical and dependent on a well-run workplace. The "people" factor was recognized in marketing as the "Fifth P" back in 2001 by Gallup (along with product, place, promotion and price) but unfortunately remains deeply under-leveraged even today. Global research released in 2013 by talent consultancy Aon Hewitt shows that around the world, "4 out of 10 employees are still not engaged."

A critical aspect of crowd-based branding is trust in the underlying platform upon which the brand is built. We could also call this trend "branding the platform.", founded in 1994, is the prototypical platform brand. I remember way back when, approximately 2001, when we brand consultants argued over the viability of competing with yourself. How could Amazon offered books but let other vendors offer the same books cheaper? But it was not about the books, right? It was about the vision of becoming a trusted platform for all the things you want to buy.

Not incidentally, Amazon also mainstreamed the unfiltered customer rating system and accompanying in-depth reviews. They did it before it was cool, because they understood that unless the customer is completely empowered to share their experience with other customers, the trust factor is lacking.

Also not incidentally, Amazon customers have their own stores on the platform.

So the trend is toward individual customers becoming not just marketers but entrepreneurs who compete with corporations. They are helped in this by cloud computing where you essentially rent what you used to have to own, from platforms such as Amazon (yep) and Google, not incidentally top brands themselves. Cloud computing requires a tremendous level of trust. Instead of buying a car to get around, I'm joining a car service so that I can get "wheels when I need them" -- actually, that's the successful Zipcar car-sharing model.

In an extremely challenging job market where "a record number of U.S. millennials are forced to live at home" (36 percent or 21.6 million, according to 2013 research by Pew); employers are "cautious" about hiring; and newly created jobs are "disproportionately low-pay or part-time," young people have every reason to start their own businesses. The room-letting service Airbnb is a perfect example.

In the future, making things and buying things are going to be one and the same thing. Owyang's 79-slide deck is a primer on the collaboration economy -- what it is and how to survive and even thrive. The short version is this: The most powerful and wealthy companies of the future will not corner the market on any product or service. Rather they will be the trusted platforms (like crowdfunding venture upon which those products and services are sold -- the ones people turn to when they want to start their own business, and most likely out of the room they grew up in as a kid.