Change, wickedness, being connected and thinking different

Transcript of talk at Leaders of Change, Canberra, 31 October 2012.

I’m working with a group of students – undergrads and postgrads – at the University of Canberra, helping them imagine the future of a connected world. What are the social, political, cultural and work implications of a changing globe where being connected is becoming a part of who we are? It’s no easy task; as their educational, social and business experience has taught them to think in a very structured way.

I’m trying to encourage them to explore new possibilities and complex issues that need demystifying and description. I want them to be t-shapers – people with a depth of skill and the capacity to collaborate across disciplines. I want them to be synthesizers, with the ability to distil information and articulate it in a way that creates action and consensus. I want design thinkers who can generate new ideas from complex, disparate sources and remain focussed on the humans at the centre. I want them to develop pattern recognition so they can see the order in the chaos.

In the words of the old Apple ads, I want them to “Think different”.

I want different thinkers in your organisations too. And, if they’re already there, I want you to recognise them. Who are your t-shapers, synthesizers, design thinkers and pattern recognisers. And what are you doing with them?

I believe you need these kinds of people.

There’s no denying that for both the private and public sectors, the pace of change we have to deal with continues to grow; often it’s so fast that we don’t see those changes coming before they hit us.

We face the kinds of problems that seem to get more ambiguous and complex the more we look at them; that seem to have no definable, fixed answer – climate change; real success in placing our nation in the context of The Asian Century; improving socioeconomic conditions for our disadvantaged; the public health conundrum that is obesity; the real reasons behind asylum seeker arrivals; the best combination of people for an organisation and how to find them now and for the future; our hyperconnected society and what that means for business, government, and for us as humans.

Wicked problems.

You can let change roll over you, overwhelming you, your organisation and people, and your capacity to participate effectively. You can hope an incremental approach gets you there eventually. Or you can choose to play an active, positive part, moving with purpose. Life is too short for anything but.

There’s usually a pretty substantial gap between where leaders and organisations feel comfortable and where they could be doing great things if only they allowed themselves to do them.

Not for a moment will I try to suggest that I know the one true way to deal with wicked problems. But what I do know from years of working in and with organisations dealing with change, with design of programs, policy and products, with communication, with engagement and with hyperconnectedness, is most organisations just aren’t tooled up to manage complexity and design for change in any meaningful way.

In spite of the best efforts of the people involved, in spite of the right words being said at the top about readiness for major shifts, most organisations are culturally, structurally, and in the skills and personalities of the people involved, capable of no more than incremental shifts. At best.

Most organisations are tooled up to produce and maintain reliability – reproducible, structured work that will generate the same product, or the same kind of predictable results over and over. They’re a bit like factories. But that’s okay; it allows accountability.

Organisations that work like this have built success on producing work based on an established a way of doing things; demystifying the activities they do and making work manageable. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach.

But working this way suppresses the capacity for change and risks process slavery rather than adaptability.

Where we want to do business as usual, that’s just fine. But it doesn’t encourage innovation or support work that deals with complexity because in the vast majority of cases, we try to shoehorn change into the standard way of doing business.

We create a project. We appoint a project manager and an analyst. Maybe a communicator. And an organisational change manager. It’s the stuff of square peg, round hole nightmares. Change, especially complex change, simply doesn’t fit the mold. So why would we try to treat it like it does?

As just one puzzle among many, the growing proportion of society connected to each other online, even in the developing world, is a prime example of exactly this problem. Management literature, written for the rational, business thinker, is veritably awash with advice on integration of business and the online world; on any given day hundreds of articles are published – some opinion, some backed by solid research.

Even the World Economic Forum has hyperconnectedness and the use of personal data identified as issues. Davos is exactly the wrong kind of organisation to be trying to solve this issue; it’s tooled for reliability and its community represents far fewer than the top one per cent.

10-odd years down the track of the mainstream’s move online, organisations – both public and private – are getting there too. Some are asking the public to help. Sometimes the public is helping itself and governments to open up and put accountability in the public sphere. The massive economic engine that is open data is enough of a puzzle itself without the additional complexities that accompany open government.

Very few are well along the path, and for most of them, being online is a marketing exercise at best.

Some remain solidly behind the 8-ball; our foreign service is notable for its apparent reluctance to meet the 21st Century head-on and engage in ediplomacy, in spite of its equivalents elsewhere leading the way in this regard and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommending just this week that a dedicated ediplomacy effort be rolled out.

In the absence of different thinkers, they remain a long way from the possible. We could be conducting active program and policy R&D with an engaged public, employing a dispersed global workforce made up of the best people working from wherever and whenever they might be needed, and using the tools and workstyle of the online world to undertake truly effective collaboration and public engagement.

When the ground is shifting, when complexities such as hyperconnected society come into play, something else needs to happen, and we need a different kind of person in our business and active leadership support for them.

That person is someone I’ve seen described many ways, most of which make leaders, and particularly managers, pretty uncomfortable – maverick, catalyst, rebel, geek. But those people are completely necessary if we’re to deal with complex change.

These people can struggle to fit into regular organisations. They’re full of ideas. They read meaning and see patterns. They enjoy spending long hours building understanding. They push back against business-as-usual, looking for a better way.

It’s exactly these kinds of people that can help organisations dealing with complex problems. They’re exactly the kind of people I’m trying to develop in my class. They’re exactly the kind of people I hope you go looking for today.

Their particular skills allow them to see the possible, several steps ahead of where the people in most organisations operate. They’ll explore and exploit the possibilities. They’ll envisage shifts in the way you do business in the physical and virtual world, and imagine the what could be and how to get there.

Exploring and exploiting new opportunities. Translating the complex into the doable. Taking what looks risky and difficult and moving it towards the everyday. These people will be the ones that make real change possible – the type of change that can look too large without this kind of thinking.

It’s these kinds of people that should be designing how to implement the Gonski Review, blending those ideas with those of people like Salman Khan, Sir Ken Robinson and other innovative educators.

It’s these kinds of people that need to breathe life into the ideas posited just last weekend in the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. Why not take some of those ideas, grab them by the scruff of the neck, and vastly exceed expectations in the next two to five years? If not, we risk taking another 20 years to implement the shifts proposed, many of which were initially raised during the Hawke Prime Ministership, or earlier.

Even in complex change, we often settle for small steps forward; a game of inches, applying analysis and rationality to safely declare the way we do things in certainties and truths. That’s all very well if we’re only doing business as usual, but change is about business as un-usual.

We need to make it easier to move ideas tackling complexities into just what we do around here. Not in finance, where regularity and order prevail. Not in HR where the rules have to apply. But definitely in the work where complexity exists.

Go out and find different thinkers – the t-shapers, synthesizers, design thinkers and pattern recognisers. Encourage them. If you don’t have any, find some and bring them in. Get them involved solving your difficult problems, in designing for your complex change.

The last time I had my students do an exercise in design thinking, I had them look for themes in their major project – a response to a DEEWR requirement for a new system for high-needs job seekers. The range of discoveries they made, across human, service and system needs surprised them. The common threads, the interconnections and the outlier phenomena all indicated the need for significant shifts in the existing approach.

Universally, my students – undergrad and postgrad both – said to me that they had never approached a problem this way before. More surprising is that most people I work with on solving problems this way, have never used these techniques.

In your organisations, no matter what the problem, no matter how complex, you could discover new ideas this way. You could be fostering this kind of thinking.

I don’t want any more students that say “I’ve never done anything like that”, when I throw problem solving exercises at them.

What I do want is people working with you that can tackle change head-on with creative, different thinking.

TEDxSummit workshops

At TEDxSummit, I had the privilege of being asked to impart some of my experience in organising TEDxCanberra to my peers from around the world. In doing so, I was asked to run a short talk plus Q&A for newbie organisers and a longer, one-hour interactive workshop for intermediate level organisers. Embedded below are the slides and sketchnotes I used as my resources for these sessions.

TEDxSummit 2012 Newbie Talk – Ticketing and registration

Workshop 1 - Ticketing and registration (1-4)

Workshop 1 - Ticketing and registration (5-6)

TEDxSummit 2012 Intermediate Workshop – Building a great Volunteer Team

Workshop 2 - Building a volunteer team (1-4)

Workshop 2 - Building a volunteer team (5-7)

I hope you find these assets useful.

Rethink. Reimagine.

I gave the opening keynote yesterday at Michael Specht’s HR Futures conference. Michael asked me to speak on the recent trip I made to the US to attend TED and reflect of the experience, what I learned there and it’s applicability to business and HR. I was only too happy to help Michael out. He’s a friend, a great guy and I was interested in the subject matter.

While I’ve given a closing keynote before, I’ve never opened a conference. I felt more than a little challenged and worked really hard on the presentation. A Slideshare embed doesn’t do it justice.

Unlike previous talks I’ve done, I didn’t tightly script this one. Instead I used thematic notes. I had many themes I wanted to touch on, an activity I wanted to do with the audience, and the ability to riff off their reaction to what I was saying. I think this arguably worked better than previous talks I’ve done.

So, the “transcript” below doesn’t really reflect exactly what I said, more the themes I talked about.

In the world of business, we’re facing some major dilemmas. Openness, engagement, trust, motivation – these are big issues. Today is about these things. Today, during every talk, I want you to do something you don’t always do – in work or in life. I want you to be present. To the speakers. To the subject matter being discussed. To each other.

So, it’s time to…

Think and then rethink. Imagine and then reimagine.

From the TED web site:

“TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.
The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).”

Let’s take a look at a video showing what TED is all about. You can’t have these 4 minutes back, but you won’t regret it either.

The apparently unreasonable expectation you build in your mind about the power and buzz at TED actually isn’t close. It’s incredibly empowering to spend four days immersed in people that believe all things are possible, that “no” is not an option, that all problems are fixable. And the attendees are diverse – scientists, politicians, artists, actors, marketers, environmentalists, philanthropists, techies and yes, HR practitioners.

These people are switched on to something important, and what it is is a belief in their own power and the power they have as a group to effect change.

They are also notable for one other thing – they are present. To each other, the topic and something else (but we’ll get to that shortly).

Now, let’s look at three of what I consider the most important talks at TED this year…

First, Juan Enriquez on The Ultimate Reboot. How is a life scientist relevant to business, you ask? It’s about this.

We live in a time of massive, rapid, nearly unmanageable change. Politics. War. Markets. Climate. How do we cope? We change too. We reboot. Everything – law, policy, business, family, government. Everything. But how do we cope?

Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, offers hope.

(At this point, I did the Happy Birthday to You exercise we did at TED. Lucky it was nearly Miriam‘s birthday. Smiles all around.)

What is this all about? What does it teach us? What it teaches us is about choice. In all situations in life, says Benjamin Zander, we essentially have three choices. The first is anger. It’s not constructive. It’s immensely destructive. As is the second option, resignation. There is in fact, only one positive choice we can make, and it’s this…

Possibility. In all things, to be successful, we must see the possibility. We must ask, “what can I do to make the situation better?” To improve the world. Help someone. Achieve a result.

Anger and resignation seem to rule much of the world of business. The carrot option is far too rare – reward, achievement, recognition, outcome. The default is stick – penalty, put-down, layoffs. Or possibly worse – the curse of business as usual, where we just step along, never seekeing to be better, or change what we do. They are the wrong choices in almost every case.

Barry Schwartz delivered one of the final talks of TED 2009. It was my favorite talk of the entire conference. He also proposed a reboot. A reboot of business.

We’ve all heard that common sense is not so common. And so it is with business. We operate in an environment where bureaucracy rules. Largely for the sake of bureaucracy and to perpetuate control in the hands of irrelevant feifdoms – of petty controlling fools who control for the sake of their own fragile egos.

Barry Schwartz says we need to reboot all our businesses to operate with a new morality. One where bureaucracy no longer reigns. Where a kinder, practical wisdom guides us to the right decision, not the decision the policies say we should make. Practical wisdom, as defined by Aristotle, is:

“The capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.”

What is policy but a guiding framework? There are always exceptions to rules. With our newfound practical wisdom, we do the right thing before we do what the policy says.

We must change the rules of the way we do business. Pacific Brands showed this week they do not understand this. A $150M loss and 1850 jobs and lives flushed down the toilet. It’s not just the global financial crisis. Something has been rotten for a long time for those number to come into play. Where was the practical wisdom?

So what does this mean for you? For your business? You probably need a reboot as well.

Engagement is key. You. Your people. The work your company does. Engaged and making decisions tempered by practical wisdom. And here’s why.

So what attributes do we need in our businesses to make this a reality?

We need leadership. Impassioned, visionary leadership. Leadership that takes us on a journey with them to a place the entire organisation can share. It’s much more then the ducks in a row management (somethimes that’s badly done, too) that many mistake for leadership. I want a Gary Vaynerchuk or a Sir Richard Branson far more than I want a Jack Welch.

We must empower our people to make decisions, to take actions and to resolve issues without having to negotiate a maze of pointless rules. We must trust them to behave like adults and not treat them like children. Treating people like children – blocking actions, imposing needless rules – encourages them to behave like children.

We must make work deeply meaningful. Both in terms of it’s larger meaning in the world as well as on the micro scale of the job. Context in and context out. In isolation, nothing works properly. The pre-9/11 intelligence community and the discoveries since are a prime example of decontextualised busy work leading nowhere (or, indeed, to disaster).

We have undergone a fundamental economic shift from making to knowing. We need creative ideas to continue to improve. We need to look at ourselves and our employees in terms of the value they are yet to create, not the value they have already created (and has been paid for). We need to reach the edges and explore our organisations for undiscovered ideas and insight.

We must remove “dumbplexity” from business. Most meetings and even projects have no defined resolution or action – except to have another meeting. This is not wise. Nor purposeful or useful. Change it.

The greatest hurdle to progressive business today are siloed organisations and kingdom keepers. Get rid of them. And you will if you shift your business. Change your DNA. Make openness a feature. Allow connection to take place. Inside and outside.

We are trained to fear failure and don’t experiment at work. But what if the next idea was the best one ever. The aprocyphal story goes that the successful version of the incandescent light globe was Edison’s 1000th attempt. In business, we must be like Edison and fail gloriously many times.

Never, ever forget that people are your greatest asset. Pacific Brands did. As have every other organisation working only for the mighty dollar and laying off large numbers during current times. So what do we do?…

We must do everything in our power to empower and encourage the conversation. Without it, we lose our humanity. With conversation, we can come together in small numbers and collaborate. We work together for a better outcome today. A better project tomorrow. A better company next month. A better world.

Once we collaborate, we can learn to live in that world and have community. People working together. Playing together. Wanting to be together. Motivated, engaged, loyal. It’s always about people.

Without people, the community that is our workplaces fail and we have no companies. Without our people, we can’t serve our clients or stakeholders. Without our people. Our community. We fail. At everything.

I want you to take everything I’ve spoken about today and return to work with it in your minds. Nothing is unfixable. We don’t always need to retrench, we need to operate morally. Anything is possible if we care about it enough.

What I want you to do in every situation is imagine then reimagine. Think and then rethink.

Connect.ed – The story of a girl

My closing keynote from eLearning08, the primary event on the NSW Australian Flexible Learning Framework calendar.

I want today to tell you a story. Like many stories, our hero is a young girl. She will face challenges and adversity. But she will also achieve great things. She might even find herself a humorous sidekick.

So who is this girl? And what is her journey? She is girl on the verge of the journey into adulthood. A journey that will take her through high school and perhaps to university or vocational training of some sort.

That girl is my daughter, Hannah. She is 11 years old. She is about to finish 5th Grade. In 2010, Hannah will enter high school. It will be the six years she spends there that are perhaps the most important years of her time in formal education, for they will establish the foundation of the skills she will need to carry into further education, into the world of work and beyond into her career and any additional education she might choose to undertake.

As Hannah’s parent, as a business person with more than 20 years of work experience, and as a potential employer, I am only too aware of a number of issues surrounding her education and the working world she will ultimately join that concern me greatly.

Not least of those issues is how the education system and governments in Australia – Federal and State – are dealing, or indeed not dealing, with the increasing need for students of today to have an education that is connected. An education that focuses on the tectonic shift in the nature of society transformed by the emergence of the World Wide Web. An education that understands that the global economy and work were transformed fundamentally in the late 20th Century from an economy of making things to an economy of knowing things. An economy of conversation, collaboration and community.

Society is now connected in a way that changes the game. The village is truly global and even in the Third World hyperconnectedness is making waves. More than this, the classroom and the material taught there is losing relevance as students everywhere, from primary through to post-graduate and vocational education take control of their own learning experiences, collaborating with each other and in social networks that foster creativity, innovation, big thinking and independence of viewpoint.

Educators and education policymakers risk increased marginalisation and further irrelevance if they fail to move quickly. To adapt and adopt to a world that is streaking away from them as the connected – from primary school students to Indian Ocean fishermen – follow the links and learn from each other in a true global village that empowers and permits them to be as productive and innovative as they can and forgives or even ignores the notion of being wrong in favor of the idea of failing fast, cheap and often.

At Kansas State University, Professor Michael Wesch runs a digital ethnography program that explores the changes being wrought upon our culture by the Internet. Let’s take a look at something he and his students made about a year ago.

The quote from Marshall McLuhan at the start of the video is particularly relevant. Let’s look at it.

“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th Century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects and schedules.”
Marshall McLuhan, 1967

1967… That’s the year before I was born. So what’s going wrong and what’s happening now?

When Hannah went into class this morning, the environment she entered was fundamentally little different to that which my grandfather experienced in his first day of school in Wellington, nearly 100 years ago. Or that of my father in Devonport 60 years ago. Or mine, in 1974. Chairs, desks, silence, the tools that keep you connected turned off or at best scarce, the teacher in front of the class.

It was then and is now a largely disjointed, form-and-function driven environment where at best, only the very finest teaching draws a few of the virtually countless contextual threads together. It’s an environment designed to produce compliant, 19th Century factory workers. Workers who were a part of a model where one held the same job for life, where creative and lateral thinking were discouraged and where you were expected to simply do and follow orders.

But the world doesn’t work that way any more.

Today, Hannah’s learning environment is the entire world. Arguably it’s larger than that. More specifically, it’s this – Hannah’s learning environment is the hyperconnected world she finds herself a part of on a constant basis. She’s connected continually to experiences and groups from which she learns and contextualizes. Most of those are not mediated in a classroom environment, and many of them are amongst her peers. This will become more so as her ability to socialise and collaborate with her peers increases in complexity and becomes more refined.

As a group they, and others like them, are entirely collaborative, conversational and community focused. She’s connected into these learning experiences on a constant basis through mobile phones, her iPod, the tools she uses like wikis, blogs, online bookmarking and social networks, and any one of the several ‘Net-connected devices she encounters during the course of her day. Often, those experiences are massively parallel – IM and text, while reading or editing something online and listening to something else or conversing with the group in the room. Hannah and her peers are a part of an environment beyond the classroom that empowers them and puts them in control. That allows them to follow the white rabbit down the hole of connectedness until their curiosity is sated. This form of learning is also multi-directional. Hannah teaches as much as she learns. The network responds to her as much as she to it. They are, as Don Tapscott puts it, “the ‘Net Generation”.

Arguably, her learning experiences in the classroom are becoming progressively more irrelevant as the learning experiences she undertakes beyond the class – deliberately or coincidentally – more directly prepare her and equip her with the skills she will need to successfully tackle the 21st Century. She is more connected to, and more contextually so, to what digital ethnographer Kevin Kelly termed “The One” than any generation before her. In generations to come, this will be seen as natural. Right now, it presents an enormous challenge to many educators and education policymakers in the political arena as they struggle to keep up with those wacky kids.

It is a challenge for which they seem ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Consequently, we are seeing significant resistance amongst some educators and politicians to the paradigm shift that must take place in order to build the education system we need. Just this week, we saw further evidence from government and educators of the chasm of misunderstanding of the new paradigm for learning.

With new funding approved, the NSW Government is only too happy to give a laptop to every child in years 7 to 12, taking advantage of the Federal Government’s laughably misnamed Education Revolution. But what is NSW Education Minister Verity Firth crowing about? She’s crowing about the fact that these machines will, in effect, be crippled by preventing the students who have them from connecting to their peers and social groups – where they do the vast majority of their learning. She took singular delight in noting:

“We don’t want these kids to be using these computers for the not-so-wholesome things that can be on the net. And they won’t be able to because essentially the whole server is coming through the Department of Education.”

How wrong Ms Firth is. And how deliciously ill-informed.

Of course, this will fail. The blocking systems will be subject to Gilmore’s Law within days, if not hours. The kids will figure out a way to route around the damage so that they remain connected. And what about when they are in cafés, or at home, or public institutions beyond school walls?

And people like me? We’ll encourage and help the kids break the security. Why? Because it’s when we are connected to each other that we are at our best as a species. When we are engaged in a conversation with our communities, our collaborators, that we are able to most actively seed fertile minds. To reach into the hidden spaces and draw forth the intangible and form it like clay into ideas, and innovations, and the next big thing.

Let’s look to our young hero, Hannah, again for a moment. Hannah began using the Internet at two years of age. She has had her own email address, unchecked by me or her mother, since she was eight. She has administrator level access to the network at home and unfiltered connection to the Internet. And she knows how to use that access.

Contrary to the rantings of Stephen Conroy, of the views of moral stormtroopers like Clive Hamilton, former Executive Director of The Australia Institute, or of Minister Firth, Hannah has never encountered any of this “not-so-wholesome” content on the Internet. She has never downloaded a virus, encountered an unwanted person, viewed porn inadvertently or deliberately. Yet she uses the Internet every day, so by the estimation of some, she should be repeatedly traumatised by inappropriate material, be stalked by a veritable crowd of unsuitable individuals and be someone who is incapable of coherent thought, of spelling or stringing a sentence together and of engaging with others in face-to-face situations.

Of course, this is demonstrably not the case. Hannah is an engaging young person, able to hold her own in conversation with adults and her peers alike. She speaks, spells and writes and does math above her grade level. She enjoys socialising – online and off. Her ability to do most of these things has less to do with her classroom (although many of the fundamentals were taught there) and more to do with her natural affinity, like many people of her generation, to engage with each other in a more human, more village-centric style of conversation, collaboration and community.

Of course, this engagement is mediated via a different tool set than it was before the Industrial Revolution, when humans last really engaged this way. Back then, it was the mead hall or the village green. Now, it’s a much larger place – the Internet.

It’s my view that, generally speaking, the education system is falling a long way behind in terms of providing learners of any age with the type of education they need. I’d like to look specifically at a number of the issues I believe need resolution.

Connected and unfiltered.

From the time the World Wide Web became a public reality rather than a cool toy of the military research establishment, education has become progressively more connected. Yes, our schools are largely online, but the interpretation of online used in education is pretty much a joke.

When our kids walk into the class, what do we do? We tell them to disconnect! We make them turn off their mobile phones and give them limited access to a network that is so tightly filtered it verges on censorship. We force them into a structure that no longer reflects the way society operates. This approach fails to use the way students today learn to enhance the learning process. Rather, it disconnects and decontextualizes the experience.

We take away that which defines our students and the way they live – their hyperconnectedness. Legitimate resources are blocked because they contain words referring to genitalia, or are blocked because they fail to pass someone’s appropriateness filter. What if I want to study the ethnography of White Supremacists? What if I need to research sexual health issues?

Educators often seem to find themselves behind the 8-ball. It appears that there is a serious lack of the right sort of teacher training in using online resources. I don’t believe this is deliberate; more a matter of knowledge, time and understanding. But it is an issue of note.

It’s often the case that the kids are ahead of the teachers in their skill level at finding and exploiting online resources. This was driven home to me this year when it was made apparent at parent-teacher interviews by Hannah’s teacher that she was far and away amongst the most online- and tech-savvy students in the school. None of those skills were learned in class.

Use of online resources is limited by computer availability. Students are afforded time online or even just on a computer in a strictly limited way. In the worst of cases, there are too few computers in a school for there to be several in every class. This execrable situation is arguably the stuff that should be solved by the Federal Government’s Education Revolution. Only, with approaches like those of Stephen Conroy and Verity Firth, it doesn’t look too revolutionary to me. It’s barely evolutionary.

Putting this into perspective for Hannah, she and her peers are being denied frequent enough access to what may be the most revolutionary, most paradigm-shifting cultural change in human history – hyperconnectedness. Without adequate access to online information and connectedness between individuals and groups, they risk emerging into the workforce lacking core skills in discovering and consuming knowledge, in collaboration and in wide-ranging critical thinking.


In a world where knowledge is the stuff of most jobs – including jobs like artist, farmer, fisherman and coal miner – the ability to rapidly contextualize and draw wide-ranging conclusions about information is critical. We need to see the big picture

We must be willing to be and accept others like Alice – insatiably curious followers of the white rabbit down the hole. For it is down the rabbit hole where the bigger picture that will really build our understanding of problems lies. It is there, amongst the talking flowers, the Cheshire Cat and all the madness of the Tea Party and the Queen that the exploratory learners will see the bigger picture and draw in the diverse threads that let them discover the next big idea.

Knowledge workers in today’s world need to be fuzzy and T-shaped. That is, having a core of strong, deep skills, but having a wide ranging and insatiable thirst for more information, wider-ranging skills and more context and meaning for what they do. These skills, fundamental to the new economy of the 21st Century, aren’t being taught enough. Granted, the question of how to make a fuzzy person is a tricky one to solve, but immersive, contextual, connected education is a starting point for making it happen.

I want Hannah to be as fuzzy and T-shaped as she can be. I want her to be able to look at a problem and see the 10 other problems that define it. To try things just so she can get what a problem or person is all about. For her to be able to gather the threads together in a storm of fuzzy, apparently illogical thinking to solve problems in an innovative and creative way, unfettered by thinking either inside or outside of any theoretical box. In fact, she should throw the box away entirely as Step 1!


The classroom, tutorial or lecture theatre is still largely run on an Industrial Age model where learners are taught to behave like factory automatons. The classroom environment makes them ready for a job on the production line, or in a faceless cube farm. It’s anti-creative and busywork focused and not at all designed to equip our children for a world where bursty thinking, creative knowledge work is ever-increasingly the norm. Take a look at Sir Ken Robinson’s talk from TED 2006 if you’re not convinced.

A parallel issue with classroom engagement is that of kids who are unsuited for one reason or another to structured, classroom learning.

My friend, Harriet’s son is gifted. Not dramatically different from other kids, he is able to attend a normal school, has friends, engages with people quite normally most of the time. Yet, in a blog post she wrote responding to an early version of the thoughts in this talk, she describes a child nearly destroyed by an education system that fails to engage him or engage with him:

“The… imagination which creates such complex images, stories, songs and machines is becoming a problem. If you can’t fill in worksheets then you can’t be intelligent. As a result, the small sparkly boy  escapes to more interesting places in his imagination.

He is officially becoming a ‘problem’.”

“…parents “INFORMED” that sparkly boy is eligible for gifted education – but there’s a small problem… disorganisation. It is apparently impossible to be intelligent without being super organized, being able to multi-task, track multiple subject areas, and reference officially.”

“By learning to build bridges he is able to use his intelligence and skills to connect people.  The world is once again an intriguing and fascinating place. He has confidence in his ability to make a difference.  He feels his own place in the world and works collaboratively on issues which he feels are important to his world and himself… His adventures and his risks are real, exciting and relate to the future he is constructing for himself.”

But it’s not just our kids, it’s us too. I began and abandoned Masters’ studies this year because the classes failed to engage me adequately. By being connected and engaged beyond the formal frame of the course, I already had more information of more relevance and more currency, direct from world-recognised subject experts, available to me than that which was being presented in class. And when I attempted to introduce the leading thinkers and their work to the class, I was met with stunned silence or an “I don’t quite get it” response.

I’m not the only one. I know several people for whom the formal education process, either at school or in tertiary study, simply wasn’t viable. They were or are too curious, too well-read, “unstructured in their thinking”, unable to complete written tests, disorganised in a classroom situation. Too fuzzy. At least one of those people is now a an internationally known academic in his field.

To quote another of my colleagues, Nathanael, who is one of the smartest web development minds I know:

“I did Year 8 to 11. [I was] home-schooled for the first seven years. [I was] mostly self-taught; microbiology, quantum mechanics, [and lots more]. My four years at school and college made me dumber, stunted my creative growth and blunted my potential.”

So once more to Hannah. What does engaging mean for her? I can’t think of the number of afternoon’s I’ve asked, “Tell me about school today,” only to be answered with, “Normal,” or a low-detail description of a few activities. Yet, there are also times when I get a detailed, blow-by-blow description of everything! That should be the norm. Education needs to be exciting and relevant to each and every student. In the collaborative, hyperconnected world, everything is relevant, because everything encountered and learned from is a deliberate choice.

Dynamic, diverse and passionate.

Literacy and numeracy are unarguably critical components in a well-rounded education. But it’s not enough for several reasons. The target shouldn’t be functional literacy and numeracy, it should be deep, contextualised expertise.

As well, the notion of creative and arts subjects as lesser to literacy and numeracy is madness. In all schools, the aim should be to produce graduating students that are not only appropriately educated in many subjects, but to do so in such a way as the students are invigorated and excited by the things they are taught. And taught in such a way that during and after school, they remain insatiably curious about their worlds and what their place in it could mean.

We need more Leonardos, more Isaac Newtons, more Jared Diamonds. We need to graduate more people like polymath, Ben Dunlap, President of Wofford College in the US. Ben is a man so passionate about the diversity of the experiences he has had and learned from that you can’t help but be inspired by him. His talk at TED 2007 is truly incredible and something that all educators should watch.

It’s no longer enough to graduate people from education at any level who just get through. The world today, even in business-as-usual, needs more passionate, driven, widely experienced, contextualized life-long learners to drive the agenda – politically, socially and creatively.

Hannah’s interests are diverse. Like many 11 year old girls, she’s a fan of the Veronicas, loves cats and dresses like her friends. But she’s also an emerging explorer. I see in her a growing curiosity about the world. And I actively encourage her to follow the white rabbit wherever it may lead her.

Collaborative on as many levels as possible.

The notion of truly collaborative learning – between students, between teachers and students, between classrooms, between different schools, between different countries – began to emerge when I was at school. We had the concepts, we had the ideas, but the technology was a massive hurdle. Now, the technology has caught up and exceeded those ideas. A massively collaborative, constantly hyperconnected education is a practical and technical reality.

So why isn’t education like this completely pervasive? Why are we still mostly stuck in the classroom? Why is the entire experience not a multifaceted, collaborative, global village of contextualised learning within individual institutions and across any grouping that might be worthwhile? I think it is the very concept of education as an institutionalised practice that holds us back.

It’s things like online gaming that is teaching us leadership and team building skills. It’s editing pages on Wikipedia that help us to learn to reach consensus. It’s the always-on network of text messages, email, social networks that is helping us to build a village where everyone is our immediate neighbor. The power to collaborate easily with anyone and to make it a viable and valuable cultural and learning experience is here. Now.

For Hannah, this world just is. For the rest of us, it’s sink or swim. Too many of us, too comfortable with a world where hyperconnectedness didn’t exist seem to be choosing the sink option, or we are trying to ignore a problem we hope will go away. It’s too late. Society is connected and changed already. It’s time to join in.

My final thought is that education needs to be targeted at producing graduates equipped for 21st Century society.

In Australia and many other places, there is a massive skills shortage across many industries. It’s arguable our schools, from primary school to universities, are not adequately considering the needs of society in preparing graduates for work and worthwhile, functional participation. Issues such as the shift to knowledge work in much of business, the need for creativity and innovation, the apparent schisms between worker generations are all issues I feel are at times inadequately dealt with.

As a potential employer and more importantly as a human, I am less interested in whether someone has formal training in a particular field than if they are engaged and engaging, a big thinker, excited about their world, insatiably curious and prepared to jump in and try something new. It is far better to fail and learn from the experience than to not try and play it safe.

In today’s world, willingness to take a risk in the name of learning and broadening experience is a key factor in building a successful life and business. Too many rest on their past success and hope that this will maintain them. Meantime, the hyperconnected continue to pull ever more rapidly away as our lives become an experience in constant, connected learning and personal and cultural growth.

I want Hannah to take risks. To learn and grow from them whether those risks were successful or not. She will never be told “no” by me if she wants to try something and has a well-reasoned argument for doing it (provided it’s not illegal or a risk to her health).

My view is that there is just one critical question we should be asking our educators and the politicians responsible for education policy and programs:

“What are you actually doing – now, tomorrow, next year – that will ensure our children are equipped with the best connected tools, inspired and engaged by the diversity of their education, taught by the best possible teachers and equipped with all the right skills to enter society as a valuable, contributing, collaborative member?”

For Hannah’s sake, for the future of the type of education I believe she needs to thrive, I’m not interested in policy exploration, white papers, committees and the like. I’m interested in positive, measurable action.


Slouching towards intertwingularity

UPDATE: and now, there’s video! Thanks to the guys at StickyAds and MediaHunter.

These slides and the accompanying text are my presentation from the PubCamp events in Sydney and Melbourne. Enjoy!

If you’re listening in, apologies for how fast I talk. I was on the clock!

Through the Looking Glass

So, the Internet’s a teenager now – 16 years old and quite the rebel. As it hit puberty, we all started taking real notice of how it was behaving. Not all that notice was good. Traditional media – television and newspapers – have made a point of highlighting that the ‘net is apparently full to the brim of pedophiles after your kids and scammers trying to expatriate your hard earned dollars to Nigeria.

But really, if we take a long, hard gaze into Alice’s looking glass, what we see is neither a meadow full of flowers nor a dark wood full of impending danger. What we do see is a tool, perhaps more powerful than we have ever had before, for connecting people and leveraging the almost infinite power of those connections. . The power of, as my friend Mark Pesce puts it, hyperconnectivity.

Let’s first wind the clock back a little for some perspective. Just five years ago, most of the social networking tools I rely on in my business today didn’t even exist – LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Twitter, Dopplr, Slideshare. Just five years ago, pretty much all I had was web browsing and email.

Now, the web and email were pretty powerful tools, but not nearly as powerful as the social networking tools I now use all day, every day. One of the very greatest benefits these new tools have afforded me is to be able to connect with a vastly greater number of people who think like me, do work like me, like the same things I like, than I ever could before. The thing is now, that group I connect to – that I used to have to attend a monthly meeting of eight or a dozen of the same people every time and ultimately get bored by… That group is now spread over the entire planet. Despite that geographic dispersion, I get the distinct privilege (and frankly, enjoyment) of working, collaborating and just gossiping with them every day of the week using social networking tools like Twitter.

Humans, ever since the earliest of us could communicate with each other, have banded together in social networks. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. But now we have, literally at our fingertips, a network that truly makes our village global. With no more difficulty than stepping next door to my neighbor’s house, I can connect with people that share interests with me – professional or personal – no matter where they are in the world. And I do.

Now, with a lot of those people, my connection is pretty loose. This type of connection is known as a weak tie and was initially described way back before the Internet, in 1973, by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter. What Granovetter was describing is a loosely connected network, bridged by two or more people who know each other mostly in passing, rather than intimately. At first blush, this doesn’t look like something that can induce an “a-ha” moment. But if you look a little deeper at weak ties, you discover something a little earth shattering. And it’s something we should all be paying attention to, particularly in the context of the businesses we work in.

Weak ties have a special superpower, you see. Because what happens when people that come together based on weak ties – a project team from across a company, for example – is pretty special. Those weakly tied individuals act as bridges between the various strongly tied networks each individual represents. These bridges perform a number of functions – they import new ideas, they foster innovation through diverse opinion, they solve problems. Much more so than strongly tied networks, which tend to homogeneity – a death knell for innovation.

The thing about weak ties, as opposed to strong ties, is they take very little effort to maintain. Consequently, there’s no reason to not make a lot of weakly tied connections with people. Social networks make this weak tied connection incredibly easy to do. The cognitive hurdle imposed by the Dunbar Number that limits your ability to maintain strong ties is mediated by your ability in a social network to maintain weak, but easily accessible ties to potentially hundreds, or even thousands of people that might be able to help you solve a problem (or you solve theirs) at any moment.

What you’re doing at a time like this, is engaging in what’s termed participatory culture. Participatory culture is a break from the Taylorist Industrial Age model many of us have become used to in our complacency – a culture where value is derived from what you’ve already produced, endlessly re-produce like a factory widget and are carefully protecting, hiding and resting upon in the vainglorious hope that others will continue to perceive your value based on your past.

This is not participatory culture.

What participatory culture is – whether at work or in our social, non-work lives – is based upon not only what we have established our reputations on given our ability to produce, and more importantly openly share in the past, but what our reputation in this new economy builds expectation for us as yet to produce. The economy of participatory culture is based on sharing, on distribution of expertise and knowledge and on social capital, traded amongst the geographically and informationally dispersed members of our communities as we exploit the power of our weak ties to solve problems, innovate and drive quantum leaps in knowledge.

Tick Tick

It’s a fact that the past few years have seen a marked drop off in the number of hours each week people are listening to the radio and watching television. Just a few weeks ago, NYU professor, Clay Shirky, described the past 50 years of Western humanity’s passive consumption of media as an enormous “cognitive heatsink“. I couldn’t agree more.

While TV certainly has its place – and I’m no stranger to vegging out on the couch – there’s probably no argument that passive consumption of media – TV, radio, newspapers – is pretty unproductive.

Shirky’s prime example was Wikipedia. Recent research has established Wikipedia to be as or more accurate than the previous gold standard, the Encyclopedia Britannica. And, for the English language version, it’s estimated that around 100 million hours of human effort have gone into its production. While that seems like a lot, it’s actually equivalent to just the number of hours Americans spend each weekend watching ads.

Does that make you feel a little ill? Because it does me. Think about it for a moment… Humanity in North America alone, could be producing work of the value of Wikipedia every weekend, if people just participated on subject matter in their area of expertise during the ads!

Our kids get this. They expect to be able to participate. To interact. They don’t respond to pushed messages. They produce their own media and post it to YouTube for their friends to enjoy. They watch measurably fewer hours of television than many of us did at their age.

It doesn’t much matter if today your 15-year-old is playing a few hours of Grand Theft Auto a week, because he’s also probably contributing to and sharing in a vast pool of player knowledge about it that others also share and contribute to. In a few short years he and his classmates of both sexes will be in the workforce – and the kids ahead of them already are – and they’ll expect to share, to participate and contribute and to build social capital and recognition through their ability to do this.

If your organisation isn’t geared up to let this happen, sadly, you’ll be well behind the 8-ball. You need to make it happen now – break down silos, encourage open participation, treat staff like grown ups and stop using the firewall as a stick to block access to social networking tools. The fact is, if you don’t encourage participatory behaviours at work, you stifle innovation, reduce employee engagement and risk huge value in tacit knowledge walking out the door as valuable employees leave in search of clued up employers who do encourage participatory culture within and across their organisational walls.


So, I’ve been rattling on about participatory culture, and social networking and how much value I think there is in all of this, but where’s the real world story? Well, it’s here.

Just last week, I attended a major conference on Enterprise 2.0 in Boston, Massachusetts. The conference covered issues, success stories and tools that can be used in business to forge the types of communication and knowledge sharing that many of us are already doing in our personal lives by using social networking tools. The 1500 delegates shared four fairly intense days together – hearing stories, seeing demonstrations and doing face-to-face social networking.

One of the major benefits to me was the chance to meet in person over 50 people I’ve been collaborating and communicating with online for as much as the past two years. These people came from as far away as the Canary Islands, Germany, the UK and across the USA. I didn’t need to meet them in person to be able to continue to collaborate with them, but the chance to do so was too good to pass up. It really was an opportunity to crank the dial to 11.

So, how did I meet these people in the first place? The answer, as you’ve probably guessed, is social networking and participatory culture. There’s a constant pulse of conversation, collaboration and participation with the people I consider, in some cases, my extended family – as I’ve forged relationships with them as strong as any I have in my local circle of friends.

When I get up in the morning, the Aussies are all rising with me – I get to talk to Ali, Jodie, Jed, Mark and a bunch of others here on the east coast. But at the same time, I get to talk to the Americans who are close to the end of their day – Tara in San Francisco, Laura and Chris in Boston, Paull in New York and others and, as the day progresses, I begin to encounter the Europeans – Luis in the Canary Islands, Mark in Germany, Justin in London. And every day is like this! It’s almost a privilege to be involved with all these smart, engaged and engaging people.

We heard a bunch of amazing, real success stories from organisations as different as the CIA (I met two real life CIA analysts), Lockheed Martin, Goodwin Procter (a 1500 person full service legal firm) and others. All of these organisations are realising tangible benefits by encouraging an open, engaged corporate culture where use of social networking tools is encouraged – sometimes completely inside the wall, sometimes across corporate boundaries.

And in your personal and professional lives, too, there are great stories to be told. Stories of experiences, knowledge, adventure, relationships.

You all have the power to return tomorrow to your organisations and communities and encourage people to start working this way. To build relationships, to establish weak ties, to share and participate and to build your reputations based upon the next big thing you’re going to come up with, rather than that which you’re resting on today.

For our society to take the next big step, the power of participatory culture; a culture where everything is intertwingled, needs to be exploited. It’s not 2020 Summits that are going to fling us forward, it’s the power in the network of opportunity we immerse ourselves in.

Go forth and participate.

Conversation. Collaboration. Community.

Here you go… My talk from Interesting South 2008.
Unusually, I was incredibly nervous before and during this talk. I’m dreading seeing the video, as I don’t think it’ll be at all flattering or indicative of my usual style. I guess it was a combination of factors – really wanting to present at this event, being late in the schedule (which ran well over time), there being so many great talks on the night with me being third last and having so many people in the audience that I respect highly and whose opinions I value (thanks for being there – Jodie, James, Mick, Mark, Brad, Annalie, Jed, Kate, Gavin, Hans, Alan, Seth – you made the night for me, despite possibly adding to my terror).

By now, many of you will have seen Clay Shirky’s great Web 2.0 Expo keynote, Gin, Television and Social Surplus. The link is in the slides. If you’ve not seen it, you need to; it’s inspiring, transformative stuff. I’m actually a little cross at Clay. He obviously sent aliens to steal my ideas for this talk.

When Clay speaks about the collective societal bender we’ve been on, he’s talking about us failing to make adequate use of the cognitive surplus we all have and are wasting by failing to participate actively. That said, it’s my view that some of the structure business has imposed upon society’s activities since it took the form it currently has during the Industrial Revolution actively work to make it difficult for groups of people throughout society to come together in a meaningful, productive way.

Bastard children of the Industrial Revolution

As humans, we’re social creatures. Beyond core physical and safety requirements, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is largely about integration into society; love, esteem and self-actualisation. We crave association; a community of some form, with others through family, work, school, sport or other interests. Yet the structures that we’ve built into society post-Industrial Revolution belittle those needs. At work in particular and in groups of all sorts, the needs of people have been bastardised into a corrupt form that meets the supposed needs of the of group at the expense of individuals.

We’re dumped into cube farms, or onto factory lines and told to work as a team. Yet it’s often the case that in working this way, our ability to converse and collaborate effectively with our fellow beings is removed from us. They’re removed through the imposition of bureaucracy, through command-and-control structures we’re forced to navigate and through being given work that fails to engage us.

Often, too, the tools we’re furnished with work as if some Infernal power gleefully watches as we’re forced to work against logic and against the way humans are naturally inclined to function. The storyteller in all of us is subjugated in favor of the need for us to be “productive” and our community stops being smart and becomes another dysfunctional cog in some dark satanic mill. In this situation, getting anything done becomes an issue. Our ability to collaborate and have a useful conversation goes the way of the committee. We get wrapped up in the Hell of email and Word documents as track changes and minutia rule and we suffer the pain of never being able to know which version is the latest, or which decision the group has made. We become massively inefficient. We’ve had it hammered into us by our archaic, Industrial Revolution functional model that the org chart rules and bureaucracy is king.

I am not a number — I am a free man!

Communities, by their very nature, engage in conversation constantly. But community by committee is a death by a thousand cuts. Under this model, your community becomes Desperate Housewives; the cognitive heat-sink where conversation and collaboration go to die. Where innovation is consumed by the Cthulhu that is bureaucracy.

It need not be this way. Your community conversations can be amazingly fruitful if the DNA of your community is lightweight. By introducing a culture that facilitates communication, that flattens hierarchy and breaks down organisational silos so that anyone, anywhere in your organisation or business can easily work with anyone else you can route around the damage inefficient tools and process impose.

By rocking the boat a little culturally, engaging in a little organisational entrepreneurship and using the tools of participatory culture; social networks like Twitter, wikis and blogs for example, you can introduce an environment where individuals can converse, groups can collaborate and an engaged, active and productive community can flourish.

Making the leap

Here’s a really simple example of how this approach can work.

I’ve driven this change this year at my daughter’s school. I was elected to the school board at the end of last year and went through a minor level of Hell as I was inundated with emails and processes that were almost gleeful in their inefficiency. At the first meeting I attended, as the new Secretary, I simply declared my opposition to the inefficient, bureaucratic processes being used and noted I was going to show everyone a new way – using a wiki for documents and communication and using Google calendar for keeping track of school events.

I got a few knowing nods, a few “so show me’s” and three or four “what’s a wiki”. I asked for a week to show everyone and got agreement. In two days, they had full meeting notes – every member of the board had logged on, most had added comments or notes and in subsequent months, we’re down from 20 to two emails a month – a “thanks for coming to the meeting last night” from Mark, the Chairman and another from him the day before the next meeting reminding us to turn up.

By changing the tools and focus of the group, we’ve now got near-instant conversation. Much easier collaboration and a stronger community. The staff and board members are so excited by the opportunities this simple change has wrought that they are now seriously talking about expanding wiki use into the classroom and between teacher groups for professional development. This from a group of people who previously largely used computers for email, document writing and web browsing. Now, everyone’s involved and participating.

The Desperate Housewives heat-sink is being militated against by the introduction of a tool set that makes it easy for people to have a conversation; even though we all work in different places we can access it from the Internet. We can collaborate on action items and ideas and we have a stronger community as a result. And were making a difference for the school.

It’s just as easy to do this for the communities you’re involved in; whether they’re at work or somewhere else. Imagine the gains in productivity and engagement, in knowledge sharing and distribution and in the ability to work together effectively without bureaucracy if you did this.

The sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be.

I Am Knowledge Worker 2.0

My brain is very full ¾ of the way through Office 2.0. There are some amazing things being discussed here, and I think there’s enough of a business presence (rather than vendors and those who live in the Web 2.0 echo chamber) for some changes to take place. There are also some astounding new products on show – almost too many to take in in any sensible way.

I’ve just given my presentation – I am Knowledge Worker 2.0 – Hear me roar which went really well. I got some great feedback from the audience and lots of great questions. The video is already available at the conference site (choose the On Demand Video tab and select Knowledge Worker 2.0 and then look at some of the others, or go to the direct link).

The presentation discusses the work style, motivation and some of the issues around the modern knowledge worker and how they can be managed in your organisation.