Monday, November 30, 2009

Telling the Truth Through Children's Books

I was at my sister's graduation from medical school over twenty years ago, and the keynote speaker was an expert in children's literature. My sister graduated just fine, by the way. As she says, "I didn't trip or anything." Besides finding out that my sister graduated near the top of her class (apparently a well-guarded secret), I was convinced that children's literature is often ahead of the adults in providing cultural indicators and trends for our society.

I wonder if that speaker was Dr. Sandra Williams.

I was thinking of that speaker and what she had to say when I wondered how to describe government's interaction with the public. Jim Diers warns us not to confuse public apathy with alienation. I do encounter those who believe the worst in our government, applying sinister motive or applying various conspiracy theories. Distrust in government is rampant. I counter that the situation is worse than they think. No-one is in charge, and those running the show are no smarter than you and me. The injustices and failures that people see are not sinister, but accidental.

I envision an entity built so large, it has forgotten it's purpose.

Which brings me to a children's story, "Jonathan Cleaned Up - Then He Heard a Sound" by Robert Munch. You can hear the story by following the link. In the story, City Hall makes a mistake and runs the final subway stop through Jonathan's living room. Jon marches down to city hall and runs in to various officials - and the computer - to try and solve the problem. He discovers the whole show is being run by a lone little man behind the computer. "Don't tell the Mayor the computer is broken. He spent ten million dollars for it." Jonathan solves his problem by applying a little blackberry jam.

There are so many truths in this little tale, I don't want to ruin it by explaining them all. I do think the story does hint at where the solution lies. We have to snoop around and acknowledge what we see as the truth. Something this big won't be fixed right away, but individual heroes can fix what they see. We have to find ways to make big government small - not by literal downsizing - that little man was mighty lonely and mighty hungry - but by bringing the services closer to the people.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Privacy laws bite bid for doggy justice

A Calgary dog owner seeks damages after her border collie cross was attacked by another dog. Trapper was left with a gaping chest wound but has recovered after about $1,300 in vet bills. Shirley Poole, Trapper's owner, seeks compensation. Calgary bylaw officers will not release the name of the attacker's owner, citing the FOIP Act. Shirley's son, Phil Towler, sought legal advice but he was told that the costs of identifying the owner through the FOIP Act is prohibitive.

My best wishes to Trapper for his full recovery. For Shirley and her son, I do hope they find the attacker's owner is so that they can seek some compensation. It should not be so hard to find out who the other owner is. Outside of the FOIP Act, there's a long history in law that courts are to be open to the public, and that our rights to court information supersedes any right to privacy. The principle behind this is that justice cannot be perceived as being just and fair unless it is open to scrutiny. Shirley and her son are obviously interested members of the public, and are entitled to this information.

All they have to do is attend court on December 3 and look for names and courtrooms for the related charges.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has given greater recognition to the constitutionally protected right to open courts than to the fundamental value of privacy. Discussion Paper, Judges Technology Advisory Committee on Open Courts, Electronic Access to Court Records, and Privacy, May 2003 (See 5)

See also FOIP Guidelines and Practices, Section 1.5, Records Excluded from the Act

Friday, November 27, 2009

Torture Resonates with Me

I am responding to an editorial by Peter Worthington on November 26 in the Edmonton Sun that issues of torture would not resonate with the Canadian public. I would like to go on record that this issue does resonate with me, and I am deeply ashamed of our military and our government. Until the news of this latest cover-up came to light, I was in support of Canadian presence in the war in Afghanistan. I was convinced by an ethical giant in our country, Sen. Romeo Dallaire. His position for being there is that we were invited through United Nations. Dallaire’s lesson, which I am unsure we have fully accepted in this country, is that we must never step away from a moral fight. Oppression, if it is allowed to exist, degrades all of humanity; even if it is perpetuated in the farthest corners of our world.

Worthington in his editorial suggests that “…as long as our own guys don’t indulge in abuse, we don’t have much control over what Afghans do…” and “Nor should we put ourselves in a position where we dictate cultural behaviour.” Tolerance of abuse is not cultural. It is always wrong - even if we are not participants but passive observers. With that reasoning, the world allowed the Rwandese genocide to continue unabated, ignored.

Besides the murky moralilty of turning a blind eye to torture, I am also deeply concerned that this information was first covered up, then denied. I can guess at the motivation. Our leaders wish to maintain the Canadian mythos of an army that extends the olive branch and works with the locals to improve conditions to raise confidence in democratic intervention. With this shameful breach in ethics, however, the locals know the truth. The Canadian soldier has an olive branch in one hand and a blindfold in the other. How could the common people trust that anything can be any better in their country, if we have given away the moral high ground?

The only resolution is for our government to come clean, take it’s licks, and reform. I also wonder if the trust has been breached in Afghanistan to such a degree that we might consider withdrawing.

I borrow the picture from General Brock's blog.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Putting all your eggs in one basket

Here's a phrase I'd love Fred Shapiro of Freakonomics to parse, "putting all your eggs in one basket". I've used it to describe my decision to put my calendar all in one place - first on my Palm, and later my Blackberry. Not that the phrase is the best choice when you think about it.

I imagine the smart farmer's daughter would not want to risk transport of her entire investment in one basket. Better to split up her product in to smaller bundles, in the hope that most would make it to market in one piece.
But when it comes to calendars, I love my big basket. On my e-calendar, I can put in re-occurring events like birthdays without fear of skipping a year. When work life and home life complexified ten years ago, and I was living off my Outlook calendar and my Day Timer, I was missing personal appointments during work hours, and skipping work assignments during home hours. I could no longer operate off two books. Kind of like my financially challenged friend who tried to take charge of her finances by purchasing not one, but two beautifully bound cheque registers. You can imagine what happened next.

(Picture of the Saskatchewan Palm Pilot, borrowed from Ollie's London Pub Choice,
When I got my first Palm, it was the new thing on the block. People wanted to know why I bothered switching. I would use the phrase, "put all my eggs in one basket", to describe that glorious master calendar that watched over all the events of my life.

"What happens if you lose your Palm?"

"No problem," I replied, "because of sycing, all I need to do is buy a new Palm, and may calendar is downloaded again." We'll cast a blind eye for a moment to the heartbreaking loss of an attractive asset, and the lurking fear that my password would be breached.

So perhaps one basket is not the best way to describe the joy of the mobile electronic calendar, because in the electronic world, there never is just one copy. There's my PDA, of course, and the mainframe for backup. The mainframe in turn is backed up regularly. Backups upon backups protecting my eggs.

I see the attractiveness of one basket in other places. My IT buddies tell me the mainframe is coming back (one big basket). Personal PC's become dumb terminals, or thin clients, logging up to one big beast. From a maintenance point of view, the IT guy's job just got a lot easier. Put everything in to his big basket, and watch that basket.

It happens in the world of bulk purchasing, too. The idea is that the corporation offers an exclusive contract. It is expected that vendors will be motivated to offer the best price in exchange for the big score. My dad offered this cautionary tale from the seventies. His company (Bell Canada) accepted an exclusive bid from a hotel for all their conferences in Montreal. They received a very competitive rate. Dad says the outcome was horrible. Having snagged exclusivity, the hotel was no longer interested in providing quality service. After all, they had captive customers. Besides, the hotel wasn't making that much on each individual sale.

So are we better off putting consolidating all our valuables? In the e-world at least, the risk is low. There are copies upon copies of our basket squirreled away in those mysterious places that backups go. For things like eggs and hotel rooms, though big, exculsive contracts might just get us egg on our face.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Psychology of Waiting in Lines

A twitterer, Jess McMullen, twigged me on to a paper on this very topic. I am thrilled! The paper is by Don Norman, and I've also found a fine review by Bryan Hurran in his blog, "Social Graph Paper". Aside from the strong odor of mansweat from three male minds, the concepts are a sweet breath of - - - goodness - - - reality - - - looking - - - caring about the little things that make or break our day. It's more than just a line. It's where people gather and interact.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Invigorating Organizations

What happens when two great ideas collide? We could get a new element or a nuclear explosion. The two great ideas that came together for me was when I was considering the problem of invigorating an organization that is disempowered and hobbled by age and size.

I'm speaking generally, of course, of a pattern of any organization of a certain size that is old enough and battle worn enough to have lost it's way. Individual employees simply do not believe that or understand how they contribute to the whole. Leaders are flummoxed by the scope of problems, and are tempted to throw bandaids at them. Flying bandaids don't exactly inspire the staff, but the staff also have no voice to say so.

The revelation when considering the problem is a combination of ideas from Jim Diers and Malcolm Gladwell when they consider community. What if we were to view an organization as a collection of communities with assets that can be harnessed for the greater good?

Why assets?

Asset based assessment is based on the idea of energizing a community to contribute what it can, rather than pouring resources in to it's weaknesses. The first step to reform is to find out where our great assets are in the community and engage them. People are involved, rather than passive participants. I compare this to the traditional organizational assessment where it's weaknesses are identified. Any one of us could go home depressed if our weaknesses are exposed and analysed. Not to say that such assessments have no value. We do have to take stock once in a while. But the trick is that resolution is not based on what we don't have, but on what we do.

Why community?

What does an organization have in common with a community, and why would we engage communities rather than, say, indivitual change champions or consultants? Organizations have a lot in common with communities. It is a collection of people with common (sometimes) interests, gathered at a place and time. Gladwell and Diers point out that communities can be nurturing places that allow people to be great. In his book "Outliers", Gladwell shows how apparently "self made men" and women were given a great boost by the environment they were raised in. Communities make a great contribution towards individual health and development. Revitalized communities attract.

We need consultants, too. Sometimes we need those kind outsiders to gently point out what we already know. But anyone who has worked on a project with a change champion or with a consultant will know; reporting or consulting on the problem, and coming up with a list of recommendations, is only the very start of the show. We still have an organization to engage. And they haven't been invited to the party yet. All they've seen so far is flying bandaids, and how do they know that this time it will be any different? How do we engage every person in the organization towards positive change?

What does community do better?

When I heard Jim Diers speak this week, he gave a handy list of what communities do better.

  • Care for the earth

  • Power to prevent crime

  • Care for one another

  • Demand justice

How could this translate to an organizational community? Well, right off I could see that energized groups of staff would be great at:

  • Implementing green solutions in the workplace

  • Increase compliance with internal checks and balances (reduce white collar fraud)

  • Care for one another (more positive interactions with the public)

  • Alert their leadership to weaknesses within (before, say, it gets public)

I am reminded also of the principles of Kaizen, where individuals are engaged to make small, incremental changes in areas they can control, and leadership is engaged to promote the large scale innovations that will help the organization leap forward. Middle management, as usual, are in the middle, helping both groups stay engaged.

Ideal Size and Bumping Places

A spin-off idea from all this is in the engaging and implementing of such an idea. What is the ideal size of an organization or community so that individuals are engaged? In Gladwell's book, Tipping Point, he suggests the ideal size is 200 people. Jim Diers says the ideal size of a community is about 6,000 people. Any bigger, and people are not engaged. Within that community, however, there must be gathering places, or bumping places, where we see the same faces and meet the same people on a regular basis. It's this sense that we are part of a larger community that helps people be engaged rather than be a faceless sojurner.

I'm running out of time but not ideas. I must pick up this thought and expand on it. Where, in a large organization, can the communities of practice bump in to each other and engage? I don't know about you, but the idea of energizing a large organization, as Diers did so effectively in the city of Seattle, inspires me. I think we've got a new element here. Not an explosion. And certainly not flying bandaids.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Civility and Humanity

I've just finished Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. If you are unfamiliar with the book, Griffin modified his skin color to walk as a Negro in the deep south in 1959. He journalled his experience, and his deeply moving account is described in this book. What struck me is the dehumanizing effect of withholding simple civilities like a smile, a hand-shake, eating together, cautions (watch your step), and looking a man in the eye.

Withholding economic opportunities also, no matter how politely rebuffed, oppresses ambition. I once witnessed a native couple walking hand in hand, initially hopeful, making their way down a row of apartment buildings displaying vacant signs. When I exited my building a couple hours later, they were walking dejectedly, less hopeful than the start. How many times must a person face rejection - or worse, the "hate face" as described in Griffin's book - before he gives up and believes the lie? I am reminded again of Gladwell's comments on meaningful work. Griffin also describes in detail how the persecutor demeans himself by stooping to cruel behavior. To deny another his humanity is to diminish your own.

An afterword in the book describes the violent upheaval a scant decade afterwards, in the race riots of the late sixties. Mr. Griffin describes the pattern of oppression and explosion, as whites heeded rumor rather than the blacks in their on community and in the white community's reaction to a phantom threat, sparked the black communities in their midst. In the subtext is a suggestion that a lot of this could have been avoided with simple communication. In helping the black man, ask him. Provide an atmosphere where he will be honored and heard.

I can't help thinking in the general neglect, the failure to offer simple courtesy, and the polite refusal to allow a sub-group access to good housing and good jobs, that we as Canadians continue to do a disservice to our native communities. I overheard Shawn Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) that it is the First Nations responsibility for instance, to develop a response to the H1N1 virus. I think he is talking about upending the paternalistic response to "the problem" (As Griffin speaks of in his book), and allowing this community to speak for itself and take care of itself.


On another note, I stumbled across this article while investigating online acquisition of queue. Guess what? Other people took it before me. At, a Canadian IT company, they speak about Customer Relation Management (CRM). Like most things, it's not the tool that makes the company, but the application. Guess what? Just like community interactions, a company will also be much more successful if it listens to it's customers, and is willing to make changes to their process in order to make it better.

The technical issues with CRM are not unlike those of any software development project. First, objectives and specifications must be well defined and documented. Tools and technology must be selected based on relevant criteria (features, cost, etc…). Implementation milestones are then set according to business timelines and availability of resources. A significant testing phase is recommended to ensure functionality, so problems can be corrected on schedule. Final delivery of the application should also be accompanied by a maintenance plan for regular housekeeping issues (backups, synchronization with remote locations, database maintenance, etc…). E-CRM is not EASY by Alex Lee, 2002