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Streamline Training & Documentation: September 2009
Streamline Training & Documentation
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The US National Park System on PBS
I've been enjoying the Ken Burns series on the US National Parks being broadcast this week on PBS, but hadn't been planning to mention it on the Streamline blog until tonight, when one of the topics turned out to be the fine service provided over the years by the Park Rangers.
Shelton Johnson, a Park Ranger at Yosemite, who speaks eloquently in Ken Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea (National Park Service)
One thing that caught my ear were some examples of surprising questions park visitors have asked the Rangers. Some of the questions quoted on the show were among those compiled by Debra Shore in a brief item published in the May 1995 issue of Outside magazine. My favorites from Shore's list:
At Grand Canyon National Park, "Is the mule train air-conditioned?"
At Mesa Verde, "Why did they build the ruins so close to the road?" and "Do you know of any undiscovered ruins?"
At Carlsbad Caverns, "How much of the cave is underground?" and "How many Ping-Pong balls would it take to fill this up?"
At Yosemite, "Can I get my picture taken with the carving of President Clinton?"
At Denali, "What time do you feed the bears?" "How often do you mow the tundra?" and "How much does Mount McKinley weigh?"
Debra Shore also compiled some amusing anecdotes of visitor misadventures in the National Parks. I haven't been able to find the original source online, but the anecdotes have been posted at a number of websites, such as that of Bob Brooks, a diligent collector of comic material who works at Computing Information Services at Texas A&M.
A couple of Shore's anecdotes: In 1993 a woman called 911 from the top of Half Dome using her cellular phone. According to dispatch, she reported: "Well, I'm at the top and I'm really tired." The answering ranger asked if she felt sick. "No," she said, "I'm just really tired and I want my friends to drive to the base and pick me up."The dispatcher explained that she would have to hike down the trail she had ascended. The visitor replied, "But you don't understand, I'm really tired." What happened next? "It turned out we got really lucky," the ranger said,"her phone battery died."
A group of European visitors came into the Wawona ranger station in Yosemite National Park and said, "Our car is parked at the trail head and it's been blown up by terrorists." Though rangers expressed some doubt, the visitors insisted that a bomb had exploded in their car and that they could see powder residue from the explosives. Investigating rangers indeed found that a door had been torn off and a powder-like substance pancake flour was strewn about the car."They were quite embarrassed when we showed them the bear prints," the ranger said.
Now-retired professor Geert Hofstede of the Netherlands is renowned for his development of a five-dimensional model of culture at the national level. His model is based on research he conducted while employed at IBM (the first four dimensions) and on subsequent research done by Chinese scholars (the fifth dimension).
It is important to note that Hofstede's data are averages across individuals within a particular country. He readily acknowledges that any given individual may depart significantly from the averages for his/her country.
Hofstede's five dimensions are:
Power Distance Index (PDI) "... the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally."
Individualism (IDV) vs. Collectivism "... the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty."
Masculinity (MAS) vs. Femininity "refers to the distribution of roles between the genders ... The IBM studies revealed that ... men's values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women's values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women's values on the other. The assertive pole has been called 'masculine' and the modest, caring pole 'feminine'. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men's values and women's values."
Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) "deals with a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity ... It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. ... Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth ... The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side."
Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus Short-Term Orientation "Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's 'face'."
If you visit www.geert-hofstede.com, you can review graphs of how various countries stack up on Hofstede's dimensions, some assessed using the four-dimensional model, others using the five-dimensional model.
The graph directly below shows the overall average levels, on a scale of 0-100, for the five-dimensional model. Then, as examples of the national readings, I've reproduced the graphs for China and the USA, two countries increasingly involved in bilateral dealings, both commercial and governmental.
The Harvard Business School Version of Participant-Centered Learning
Harvard Business School has made a collection of video and text materials available that elucidate the school's approach to helping students develop skills and powers of judgment that business managers need in order to be effective. This resource was produced in 2004, drawing on sessions of a colloquium on participant-centered learning that the business school continues to offer every year.
There are three sections to the resource:
"A Case Study Teacher in Action" The teacher in question is David Garvin.
A 34-minute video clip making the case for participant-centered learning, along with eight shorter clips (all less than three minutes) dealing with such topics as two-way learning, advice for first-time teachers, and qualities of effective teachers.
Fourteen short clips (the longest is just over four minutes) offering advice on how the teacher and students should prepare for classes that use the participant-centered learning approach.
A nine-minute clip on the challenges of implementing participant-centered learning, along with six short clips (all less than four minutes) offering further advice on how to adopt and support the technique. There is also a compilation of challenges a school faces in introducing participant-centered learning, and a collection of comments about their own experiences in transitioning to participant-centered learning that members of the colloquium offered.
The fabled course on "Justice" (aka Moral Reasoning 22) that Michael Sandel has been teaching at Harvard since 1980 is now available in a video version that you can access online or on PBS. Harvard and WBGH Boston co-produced the series of twelve hour-long episodes.1
Each episode is divided into two half-hour segments, as summarized in the listing below. Please note that the brief descriptions I give here the barest sketches of the content. Fuller synopses are provided at the "Justice" website. The dates in the listing let you know when a particular episode becomes available online. The first two episodes are already available, and a new episode will be added each Sunday through November 29.
The Twelve Episodes of "Justice"
9/13 The Moral Side of Murder Would you kill one person if you knew doing so would save five other people?
The Case for Cannibalism Is the principle of utilitarianism right? Should we always do what ever will produce "the greatest good for the greatest number"?
9/20 Putting a Price Tag on Life Is it possible to put a price on a person's life? If so, how exactly do you do it? Do you follow the principle of utilitarianism? some other principle?
How to Measure Pleasure Is John Stuart Mill right that utilitarianism is compatible with protection of individual rights?
9/27 Free to Choose What are the arguments for and against libertarianism?
Who Owns Me? Is progressive taxation defensible?
10/4 This Land is My Land How valid is John Locke's view that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property?
Consenting Adults Is Locke right that tax laws passed by a majority, but not by 100% of the people in a society, are legitimate?
10/11 Hired Guns Should a nation's army be formed via conscription, or on a volunteer basis?
Motherhood for Sale Is surrogate motherhood OK?
10/18 Mind Your Motive Is Kant right that a good act has moral worth only if it is done for the right reason, namely out of a recognition of duty?
The Supreme Principle of Morality Is Kant's concept of the categorical imperative sound? (The categorical imperative directs us to "identify the principle expressed in [an] action, and then ask whether that principle could ever become a universal law that every other human being could act on.")
10/25 A Lesson in Lying When, if ever, is lying OK? When is being misleading equivalent to lying?
A Deal is a Deal Is John Rawls right that we can derive fair principles only if we do so by imagining ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance" that prevents us from knowing our own personal socio-economic position?
11/1 What's a Fair Start? Is Rawls right that the only fair distribution of income, wealth, and opportunities is one that is equal for all members of society?
What Do We Deserve? A recap that compares libertarianism, the meritocratic principle, and John Rawls's views concerning the distribution of income, wealth, and life opportunities.
11/8 Arguing Affirmative Action What are the pros and cons of affirmative action?
What's the Purpose? Is Aristotle right that "justice is a matter of fitting a person's virtues with an appropriate role"?
11/15 The Good Citizen Is Aristotle right that "those citizens who contribute most to the purpose of the community are the ones who should be most rewarded?" What is the purpose of any given community?
Freedom vs. Fit Does Aristotle give too little consideration to individual rights?
11/22The Claims of Community Do people have obligations to their community, above and beyond obligations to humanity in general?
Where Our Loyalty Lies Can obligations of loyalty to a community or country outweigh universal duties?
11/29 Debating Same Sex Marriage How do you decide if same sex marriage is OK?
The Good Life "Is it necessary to reason about the good life in order to decide what rights people have and what is just? If so, how is it possible to argue about the nature of the good life?"
The video for each episode is accompanied by a number of collateral resources:
Synopses of the two segments
A public discussion circle (forum)
A particular justice or fairness issue on which you can vote Yes or No
A quiz to help you review
A short list of related readings
Two discussion guides, one at the beginner level, the other advanced
Teaser questions for the next episode
If you'd like to watch a trailer for the "Justice" course, with beautiful footage shot in Harvard's Sanders Theater, you can go here.
"Passion" Isn't Actually Required to do a Good Job
It was with a real sense of gratitude that I read Alina Tugend's "Shortcuts" column in today's New York Times. I have never been comfortable with the popular admonition that people should do their darndest to bring "passion" to their jobs. As I indicated in this blog's first post, I certainly agree that it's best for people to be working in jobs they truly care about, but I can't help thinking that "passion" has connotations that generally fit private life best.
Tugend's quarrel with the call for "passion" at work, is not exactly like mine. Her question is:
Are we falling into a trap of believing that our work and indeed, our lives, should always be fascinating and all-consuming? Are we somehow lacking if we're bored at times or buried under routine tasks or failing to challenge ourselves at every turn?
Following her own line of thought, Tugend goes on to discuss the ideas of various thinkers who have addressed the questions of what mental state or attitude is best suited to achieving satisfaction at work, and what employers and employees can do to encourage arriving at this preferred state.
As it turns out, the advice Tugend's informants offer is quite consonant with my own (by no means unprecendented) thought that people should aim to be employed doing something they can embrace wholeheartedly (while also recognizing that just about any job has tiresome aspects). Similarly, managers should aim to get people working on projects that particular individuals find inherently interesting and that tap the employees' strengths.
You can both learn about how Google has structured its AdWords search advertising program, and see a good (but not flashy) teacher in action, by watching the ten-minute video below. The teacher is Hal Varian chief economist at Google (on leave from his professorship at Berkeley).
The video explains how the price of an ad is determined, how ad quality figures into the ranking of ads, and, in overview, how ad quality is measured.
Google provides detailed guidance to people interested in the AdWords program at adwords.google.com/support/. Google also offers online training here. Some of the topics covered in the tutorials are presented in videos on YouTube here.
Al Roth, an economics and business administration professor at Harvard, has put together an informative post linking to further sources of information on Google's ad auctions and on Hal Varian's work.
Taking a look at the support Google provides to AdWords users not only helps you get up-to-speed on a method of reaching prospective customers that may be suitable for your own business, but also offers a model of how to build sales by helping customers make optimum use of your services. You may very well see things you would do differently in your own approach to providing customers with online support, but Google's set-up serves as a benchmark.
As a follow-on to my June post quoting some of what John Muir had to say about climbing Mount Rainier, I must share this spectacular photograph of the volcano that NASA took in 2005. The photo is one of a series of thirteen that Betsy Mason and Hadley Leggett posted today at wired.com.
The Criteria for Serving as an International Reserve Currency
The value of the dollar gets close scrutiny for, among other reasons, its role as an international reserve currency. A reserve currency is one that is held by countries and institutions as a store of value, for managing exchange rates, and for carrying out some international transactions.
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has a helpful article in today's Moscow Times that lays out the criteria a country must meet in order for its currency to challenge the dollar, the euro, the pound, and the yen for status as an international reserve currency.1 (Aslund's immediate reason for walking his reader through these criteria is to show that Russia's aspirations for making the ruble a reserve currency are pie in the sky for the foreseeable future.)
As Aslund explains, a reserve currency country must meet the following criteria. It must have:
low inflation and a stable economy
a large economy
financial depth, i.e., large market capitalizaton (the total value of securities issued within its borders), substantial availability of securities for trade on the securities markets, and a non-politicized banking system
a good regulatory framework and strong rule of law
network externalities, "which include various international uses [for the country's currency], for example, for pricing, invoicing, or transactions outside the country"
Aslund concludes by noting the importance of "the power of incumbency," by which he means the self-reinforcing nature of choosing to invest funds in securities denominated in a reserve currency. These securities are favored because they are liquid, and, in turn, the purchasers they attract help maintain liquidity.
Aslund cites Barry Eichengreen, an economics and political science professor at Berkeley, as our leading scholar of reserve currencies. You can read some of Eichengreen's recent commentary on the international role of the dollar here.
__________ 1 Aslund reports, "In the last decade, the euro has emerged with 27 percent of global currency reserves, while the dollar still holds two-thirds. Sterling and yen account for 3 percent to 4 percent each, leaving less than 1 percent for other currencies."
There are a couple of short articles by Kevin Gray on BNET.com today that describe the contrasting experiences two organizations had with pay-for-performance compensation systems.
The not-so-hot case of pay-for performance was tried at Hewlett Packard in the early 1990s. As Gray explains, managers at thirteen HP worksites got approval
to adopt a pay-for-performance model, hoping to boost productivity and encourage a focus on team rather than individual performance. They designed a plan that tied 10 to 20 percent of their workers' pay to their team's performance.
Unfortunately, the results were not good, even after managers made a series of adjustments, trying to tune the system so it would work as intended. The basic problem was that the existence of contingent pay meant workers' motivation was skewed and their morale was depressed. Employees:
were resentful when circumstances beyond their control, such as slow delivery of parts, slowed them down.
"refused to allow workers they saw as less experienced join them. Less movement between teams meant that less knowledge was shared or transferred among employees."
found, if they missed their numbers, that they had trouble servicing mortgages and car loans whose size was based on the their income gross of bonus.
Needless to say, disgruntlement set in. The system didn't even reach its third anniversary before being discontinued.
The moral of the story, Gray concludes, is that "Success is never merely about numbers, so don't turn your reward system into a numbers game." Instead, think about such performance issues as whether your compensation system is compatible with solid inter-group collaboration and steady talent development.
Oddly enough, the success story Gray writes about was largely a numbers game, but one that was set up in a context where employees and colleagues were satisfied that the numbers captured fully meaningful information.
In 2003, NSLIJ agreed to participate in a pay-for-performance study organized by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The goal was to see whether the pay-for-performance arrangement would improve the quality of patient care. Gray explains:
The rules were strict. The staff was given 30 measures to assess the treatment of thousands of patients. Heart attack victims, for example, had to receive aspirin within two hours of arrival, beta-blockers at discharge and smoking-cessation counseling. Pneumonia patients required flu screening and an assessment of the amount of oxygen reaching their blood. And surgery patients required antibiotics one hour before the first incision. The hospitals were graded on each criterion and given bonuses based on their performance.
A big part of the reason NSLIJ succeeded with the program was that they invested the considerable time and effort required to get it up and running properly. They trained their staff, they created the necessary documentation, and they ensured that results were monitored by people with authority to make any needed adjustments.
Although Gray focuses on the experience of NSLIJ, he reports that the entire cohort of 275 participating hospitals registered encouraging results. For example, the program was credited with saving the lives of 2,500 heart attack patients in its first three years.
So, now, what's the moral of this contrasting pair of pay-for-performance stories? Most obviously, defining performance appropriately is essential for a program to pay off. What's appropriate in one industry and organization is going to be different from what's appropriate in a different setting.
But it also matters whether bonuses are awarded at the individual level, the team level (the HP case), or the organizational level (the NSLIJ case), which is not something Gray addresses.
I would argue that what is significant in this regard is the degree and nature of the linkages among individual, team, and organization performance. The tighter any linkage, the more important that a pay-for-performance program be directed at the highest level involved. For example, if work is largely accomplished through effective team performance, then well-formulated team bonuses are appropriate. Conversely, where linkages are loose, e.g., where a number of individual contributors are doing the work (as in many sales situations), individual bonuses are appropriate.
Training Law Enforcement Professionals at Art Galleries
The October issue of Smithsonian has an article by Neal Hirschfeld about training New York City police that I find encouraging in a number of ways, but two in particular I'd like to mention here.
The first point I'll discuss is what you can learn from Hirschfeld's article concerning use of training exercises that aim to simulate key on-the-job responsibilities without duplicating any but the most immediately relevant features of participants' day-to-day working environment.
Specifically, Hirschfeld describes how Amy Herman, Director of Educational Development at Thirteen/WNET, uses art to help policemen and other law enforcement, security, and military professionals hone their observation and communication skills by using art as practice material to be scrutinized and analyzed.
Looking at art, such as the painting of Madame X by John Singer Sargent featured in the Smithsonian article, is not something members of the NYPD do on-the-job, but the process of concentrating on the details that are there to be seen if you're paying enough attention, and then articulating a precise description of what you've noted, emulates in an essential way what police do when they assess a crime scene or potential crime scene.
As Herman explains in a 2007 Museum Newsarticle, she asks participants to look closely at works of art she has selected for their richness of subject matter and formal elements, and to try to reach consensus on answers to the basic investigative questions, Who, What, Where, Why, and When.
Only after practicing on paintings and sculpture, do the participants go back to working on material close to their actual day-to-day experience:
Following their session in the Frick's galleries, participants return to the conference room, where they view a series of photographs of crime scenes, urban landscapes and portraits of individuals. Asked to articulate in descriptive language similar to that utilized when looking at paintings, the officers respond by describing, in detail, what it is they see before them.
The second point I think particularly worth highlighting is how well Herman's approach has stood the test of time. Her first art-based training program actually dates back to 2000, when she was director of education at the Frick Collection in New York. She worked with the Weill Medical College of Cornell University to help medical students strengthen their observational skills. (You can read a New York Times article about the program here. The article also describes precedents for Herman's program dating back at least to 1998.)
Participant evaluations, officer feedback, and repeat business from participating organizations all indicate that Herman's program is successful in meeting its objectives of improving observational and communication skills.
For example, in Herman's Museum News report on the Frick/NYPD program she ran for a number of years, she explained that all participants
complete a written evaluation ... which specifically asks them to rate, on a numeric scale, the relevancy of the program, its applicability to their daily responsibilities and the efficacy of correlating between paintings and photographs of crime scenes. ... The vast majority of evaluators wax enthusiastic about the concept of enhancing observation skills in a setting removed from the daily work environment and praise the methodology used by museum educators to refresh their perspective on acute observation.
Specific performance improvements cited in the Smithsonian article include:
the head of the New York Police Academy now giving more specific orders to investigators.
the officer who coordinates the NYPD Grand Larceny Task Force of plainclothes officers now providing more detailed descriptions of suspected pickpockets, handbag snatchers, shoplifters, and other burglars.
an undercover agent on a task force investigating organized crime's involvement in garbage collection in Connecticut reporting that Herman's program helped him "sharpen his observations of office layouts, storage lockers, desks and file cabinets containing incriminating evidence," information that "led to detailed search warrants and ultimately resulted in 34 convictions and government seizure and sale of 26 trash-hauling companies worth $60 to $100 million."
As for repeat business, Hirschfeld reports that the program has been picked up by a range of agencies involved in law enforcement and security, including the US Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, the Strategic Studies Group of the Naval War College, the National Guard, and the Metropolitan Police of Scotland Yard.
I'm usually not up late enough to watch Charlie Rose, and I'm not particularly fond of his interviewing style anyway, but I happened to have him on in the background last night. When Frank Bruni came on, I suddenly found myself riveted.
Bruni was the restaurant critic of the New York Times from April 2004 to August 2009. He has included his experience in that job, along with an account of growing up in a loving family that attached great value to good and ample meals, in his recently published memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater."
What had me so entranced by his conversation with Charlie Rose was not the subject matter of his book per se, but rather his manner of conversing, which had the most gracious air that I personally could remember witnessing on TV.
Bruni seems such an exemplar of graciousness that I want to pass along links for watching and listening to him in action. The Rose interview isn't yet available online, but I did locate the video below, a portion of a September 1 interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC. The audio of the full interview is available here.
Another interview is from Thursday, when Bruni sat down with Stephen Colbert. You can watch it here.
You can also get a clear sense of Bruni's manner and conversational tone from reading transcripts of interviews, such as his September 14 interview with Julia Reed. One final sample of his style is the online Q&A the Times ran in October 2008, which you can read here.
Why Systemic Risk is Relatively High in the Financial Sector
If you'd like a refresher on the causes of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has published an accessible recap in the September/October issue of their Review.
"Systemic Risk and the Financial Crisis: A Primer", by the St Louis Fed's CEO, James Bullard, and two economists at the Bank, Christopher J. Neely and David C. Wheelock, also explains "why the failures of financial firms are more likely to pose systemic risks than the failures of nonfinancial firms," and discusses remedies that have been suggested to better manage systemic risk in the future.
Because understanding what's unique about systemic risk in the financial sector is important for evaluating proposed policy changes affecting the sector, that's what I'll focus on in this post. The whole article is only twelve pages long and well worth a look.
First of all, here's the definition of systemic risk that Bullard, Neely, and Wheelock (BNW) use:
the risk that a triggering event, such as the failure of a large financial firm, will seriously impair financial markets and harm the broader economy.
BNW cite three reasons why the level of systemic risk is relatively high in the financial sector:
Interconnectedness among firms The volume of inter-firm lending and trading transactions is high, the speed of transactions is rapid, and the "complex structures of many banks and securities firms make it especially difficult for a firm to fully monitor the counterparties with which it deals, let along the counterparties of counterparties." The upshot is elevated settlement risk "the risk that one party to a financial transaction will default after the other party has delivered."
Firms' high levels of leverage Financial firms finance a significantly higher percentage of their assets (e.g., holdings of mortgage-backed securities) through borrowing than do typical nonfinancial firms. The upshot is that financial firms are highly vulnerable to insolvency if their assets experience a downward slide in value due, say, to bursting of a real estate bubble.
Financing relatively illiquid investments with short-term debt For example, commercial banks finance much of their lending, for which maturities are measured in years, by customer demand deposits (checking accounts), which are generally subject to withdrawal at a moment's notice. The upshot of this mismatch between the maturity of assets and the maturity of debt is that financial firms face elevated interest rate risk (the risk of having to pay a higher interest rate as existing short-term debt matures and is replaced with new borrowing) and liquidity risk (the risk of having to raise cash by selling assets during a period when asset prices are depressed, perhaps because buyer confidence is low).1
As BNW explain in a footnote, "Systemic risk constitutes a 'negative externality' in the sense that the actions of one firm harm others. ... Negative externalities are an example of a market failure that may require government intervention to ameliorate." Proposals for changes in the regulatory regime for the financial sector will be under active discussion for the foreseeable future. BNW's article helps laypeople understand the issues and market dynamics that are at the heart of the discussion.
__________ 1 During a financial crisis, lenders may withdraw from the credit markets entirely due to uncertainty about counterparty reliability and solvency, future interest rate conditions, and collateral values. In this situation, which we have seen during the current crisis, new borrowing is effectively impossible.
Laughter is the Best Medicine XXV: Black Humor on the Financial Front
Depending on your mood and financial situation, the "Devil's Dictionary Financial Edition" Matthew Rose published in today's Wall Street Journal will strike you as more or less entertaining. I'll just note a pair of my favorite definitions and invite you to peruse the entire collection. DEFICIT, n. For the party in power, at worst a minor irritant and at best a precondition for economic growth. For the minority, the gravest threat to the stability of the Republic.
QUANTITATIVE EASING, n. A regulatory approach based on the point in Western movies when the sheriff, having fired all available bullets, in an act of final desperation throws his gun at the bad guys. See also INFLATION, HYPER.
The concept of "mindfulness" has numerous definitions in writings on psychology, business management, and self-help.1 While I'm interested in any useful insights people have to offer on achieving "mindfulness" through meditation techniques, or through following such suggestions as, "When you are stuck in traffic, pay attention to your breathing, or the sky, or the sights around you,"2 etc., what I want to focus on here is the notion of mindfulness developed by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard.
Langer defines mindfulness as "a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context" (The Power of Mindful Learning, 1998). As an example of how this type of mindfulness can be cultivated, you can have a look at the report (pdf) on training of tourism managers that Gianna Moscardo, a professor of business studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, published in the Journal of Tourism Studies in 1997.3
Moscardo investigated whether she could use exercises aimed at increasing mindfulness to produce more flexible thinking and effective problem-solving in students.
Her experiment involved four groups, which ultimately became three when the two experimental groups were combined. The experimental groups were given the following exercise: I would like you to think of yourself as the manager or director of a regional tourist authority whose responsibilities include promotion and development of the tourist products available in your region. You have been asked by your board of directors to consider opportunities in your region for the “seniors” market, that is people over the age of 65. The following questions are about the development of activities for this group of visitors.
1. Make a list of tourist activities or experiences that you believe could be appropriate for “senior” travellers.
2. Can you think of any advantages that “senior” travellers have over other travellers for enjoying their holidays? Please list them below.
3. Can you now list below any restrictions that might exist for “senior” travellers.
4. Finally, I would like you to imagine yourself as a “senior” traveller and I would like you to write a paragraph which describes your ideal holiday. Remember this is your ideal holiday for when you are 65 years or older.
The experimental groups were then asked to:
consider the region that you have been studying in the previous practicals and I would like you to design a two day tour in your region for a small group (8-12 people) of “senior” visitors. Write out the itinerary below and include information on the type of transport you would use, the accommodation, the places to be visited and the activities that would be available.
Three further tasks were similar. One involved identifying problems a group of disabled travelers and their families "might have in enjoying a holiday in your region." The next asked for solutions to these problems. The final task was to mock up a brochure with suggestions for how tourists could spend their time enjoyably if they were caught in a spell of bad weather.
The control group was given the same set of four tasks, but without the preceding exercise.
There was also a comparison group that was asked to "design a two day tour in your region for a small group (8-12 people) of visitors." Their responses were used to garner "baseline data on the range and type of activities on offer in the regions [the students were studying] for tourists in general."
Though the results did not uniformly support the hypothesis that "mindfulness training exercises would encourage more flexible, less stereotyped thinking about a range of tourist situations," the overall pattern was consistent with the hypothesis.
The moral of the story is that you can expect better results in terms of flexible thinking and creativity if you take active steps to get learners to think afresh about what categories are appropriate for sorting information in a particular situation, and to consider the issues in the situation from the perspectives of all relevant parties.
__________ 1 You can get an idea of the range of definitions of "mindfulness" from a 2008 post on Delany Dean's blog.
As indicated in a number of previous posts, I'm quite interested in learning what I can about the nature of improvisation.1
Among other things, improvisation an important aspect of handling problem situtions in which time is of the essence, which means developing skill at improvising is important for businesspeople. Indeed, a good working definition of improvised decision-making is that adopted by Mendonça, Wallace, and Beroggi:
reworking knowledge to produce a novel action in time to meet the requirements of the given situation.2
In June of last year, Aaron Berkowitz, then a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Harvard, and Daniel Ansari, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, published a paper reporting the results of research investigating which regions of the brain are active during musical improvisation.3 The Harvard Gazette published a summary of the research in February.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Berkowitz and Ansari identified three regions of the brain involved in melodic and rhythmic improvisation:
The inferior frontal gyrus seems to be activated for generating musical-motor sequences. It is an area "known to be involved when people speak and understand language. It's also active when people hear and understand music." Now Berkowitz and Ansari have produced evidence that "it's involved when people make music."
The rostral cingulate zone of the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be activated for selecting the musical-motor sequences to use. It is "a part of the brain that appears to be involved in conflict monitoring when you're trying to sort out two conflicting possibilities ... It's involved with decisionmaking ..."
The dorsal premotor cortex is seems to be activated for executing the musical-motor sequences the improvising musician has selected. It "takes information about where the body is in space, makes a motor plan, and sends it to the motor cortex to execute the plan."
In talking about his findings, which were part of his dissertation research (he received his Ph.D this year), Berkowitz emphasizes that not only do we now know more about where in the brain the act of musical improvisation is processed, but we also know more about the functions of the three regions that fMRI indicates are involved.
2 David Mendonça, William A. Wallace, and Giampiero E.G. Beroggi, "Development of a Decision Logic to Support Group Improvisation: An Application to Emergency Response," 35th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (January 7-10, 2002), Vol. 8 (2002), p. 220b.
3 Aaron L. Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari, "Generation of Novel Motor Sequences: The Neural Correlates of Musical Improvisation," NeuroImage, Vol. 41, No. 2 (June 2008), pp. 535-543.
C.K. Prahalad on Managing in a Volatile Market Environment
You can get an overview of the thinking of C.K. Prahalad (Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan) concerning how firms should gird themselves to deal with a volatile market environment by reading the one-page column he wrote for the September 21 issue of BusinessWeek.
Prahalad's central point is that in today's environment firms must structure themselves so they are able to operate with agility and they must do so in a way that, however paradoxical it may sound, is compatible with maintaining a consistent strategy.
When you read the column, you will see the steps Prahalad would have firms take to protect themselves from the risks associated with volatility, such as conserving cash, converting fixed costs to variable costs, and focusing on core competencies. I would call particular attention to his comments on the type of human resource management that is required in order to have a flexible workforce:
To better handle the constant project turnover, employees are cross-trained in many different skills. This requires an arsenal of training programs. Employees are regularly tested, and the hallmark of the best of them is the ability to learn quickly.
Having this much flexibility in a staff, and within each staffer, forces these companies to equip their managers with instant access to data on what each employee can do and where they are physically and in terms of the finish date of their current assignment. All employees know they will be moved from one assignment to another, and in many cases across the world. It becomes the cultural expectation.
There is a clear affinity between what Prahalad is saying here, and the nature of needed employee capabilities and qualities in a "post-Fordist" organization discussed in last Tuesday's post.
When There is No Good Option, You Need to Prepare for Backlash
People with any kind of political instincts realize that having to choose among a set of unattractive options is going to open a decision-maker up to disgruntled flak, regardless of which particular option the decision-maker picks as the best of a bad lot.
Helping to confirm this intuition is a recent paper (pdf) co-authored by Justin Kruger (Stern School of Business at New York University), Jeremy Burrus (now at the Educational Testing Service), and Laura Kressel (a graduate student at the Stern School) which reports the results of two experiments in which participants were asked to evaluate decisions and decision-makers in just such no-win situations.
As explained in the paper's abstract:
In Experiment 1, participants read about a judge deciding to which of two seemingly unfit parents to award sole custody in a real-life divorce case. In Experiment 2, participants were led to believe that their partner in the experiment was forced to pick one of two unpleasant tasks for the participant to perform. [Specifically, the task was to wear a sign in public reading either "Long Live Osama" or "Free Saddam."] In both cases, the decision and decision-maker were evaluated negatively regardless of the alternative chosen.
An obvious question is how to minimize ill-will resulting from being forced to make an unappetizing choice. The key is effective communication, which means:
When announcing a downbeat decision, provide the facts that the decision-makers were grappling with.
Explain how pros and cons were considered and the rationale for the decision ultimately reached.
Discuss how employees' jobs and the work environoment will be affected. Explain your plans for mitigating the decision's negative impacts.
Take questions from your audience. Prepare for the Q&A in advance by discussing questions that are likely to come up and how to answer them honestly and constructively.
Finally, explain how management, with employee input, will be vigilantly assessing and acting on opportunities for maximizing positive results in the future.
As indicated in the graphic below, knowledge capture is the step that gets the knowledge tranfer cycle underway.
This graphic comes from an article in the September 2009 issue of Chief Learning Officer. In the article, Marty Rosenheck walks the reader through all the steps in the cycle.
In detailing how to handle knowledge capture, Rosenheck suggests two tools you can use in tandem to elicit the tacit knowledge that experts in your organization bring to bear in their decision-making.
The first of the tools is a card sort:
... a group of experts brainstorm problems, issues and typical situations that they encounter and write them on index cards. They then sort the cards into categories that make sense to them, and then subcategories, creating a tree structure, which reveals the way they organize their knowledge.
... For example, these experts organize problems by how they are solved, using categories such as “communication problems with subcontractors.” The sorting task also enables the construction of a taxonomy of cases, where typical situations are categorized and sequenced from simple to complex to serve as a model for initial learning for novices.
Once you have used a card sort to categorize the various situations your experts handle, you can move on to eliciting details of how exactly they complete tasks and solve problems. For this phase of knowledge capture, Rosenheck suggests drawing up a process table.
As Rosenheck explains, a process table walks your experts through the steps and sub-steps they take in each of the previously categorized scenarios.
For each decision or action, the goal is to elicit the implicit heuristics or guidelines that the expert uses. It begins with first asking, “Why?” Then, after the first answer, which just scratches the surface, keep asking why again ... until you have gotten to the bottom of the decision. Another method is to have the expert compare this decision [for a particular scenario] to decisions in other situations, to get at the distinctions in the expert’s mind.
The remainder of the process table captures the information, resources and tools the expert uses to accomplish that task or make the decision, and how they’re used. Finally, find which other people are involved at each step and what they see as common pitfalls.
For the story of how one company sought in a practical way to assess the success of a learning program, you can read the write-up available at corporatetraining.ie, an Irish education and training portal.
The company in question, identified in the narrative as "M Ltd.," is a manufacturing concern with 20 employees. M Ltd. undertook a leadership training program that combined classroom sessions with one-on-one coaching. The individuals trained were a production manager, a supervisor and a senior employee.
In assessing the impact of the training, M Ltd. considered outcomes at Kirkpatrick's Level Two amount of content learned and Level Three amount of on-the-job application.
Level 2 At an evaluation meeting, the training participants presented "individual 30-minute summaries of key ideas or skills acquired during training." The presentations were interactive, in the sense that the firm's general manager, who was the key audience member, asked the employees questions while they were speaking. (E.g., What was the most important skill you learned? What are the most common conflict-resolution styles that you see us using here at M Ltd.? How do you use the four basic communication styles with the people you supervise?)
Level 3 "The employees reported that the training had enhanced their ability to communicate and listen. Evidence of improved communication at work was noticed in less time spent by the manager and the employees in locating materials, messages and equipment. Better communication also improved message flow and reduced lost time. For example, after training [the general manager] instituted 30-minute overlap meetings between day- and night-shift supervisors. Previously, shift overlap lasted no more than five minutes, which resulted in confusing or missed communication. With increased overlap, day- and night-shift problems related to scheduling, machine operation and personnel issues were minimised resulting in shortened lines of communication and a smoother turnover of work shifts.
"Other evidence that some classroom learning was being applied to workplace situations was the institution of Monday morning meetings among the general manager, the production manager, the supervisor and the senior employee to review issues and anticipate problems for the upcoming week. Prior to training, these meetings were sporadic and did not always include all key personnel."
The narrative closes with recommendations for enhancements to the training and for improving the Level 2 evaluation meeting. The most important of the latter recommendations was to explicitly assess what the one-on-one coaching contributed to the learning process.
I recently came upon a paper (pdf) presented in 2004 at the 12th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS) that offers an illuminating pair of case studies of how firms in a particular industry banking have pursued the goal of effectively using information technology and the Internet to accommodate diverse customer needs and preferences and, concomitantly, adjusted their employee recruitment and development efforts to build the type of workforce needed to execute their updated strategies.
Yvette Blount (Macquarie University), Tanya Castleman (Deakin Business School at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia), and Paula Swatman (University of South Australia in Adelaide), adopt a model which distinguishes three stages of work organization. The stages center on "Fordism," named after the assembly line method of mass production used by Henry Ford.1
The three stages are:
Pre-Fordism the era of craft production in which skilled laborers fabricated products using small-scale production methods. Individual buyers could routinely order on a bespoke basis.
Fordism selling standardized products, manufactured using large-scale production methods, into a mass market. Organizations in this stage "are rigidly organised, their processes are determined by their use of technology, and jobs are highly differentiated and typically deskilled."
Post-Fordism using flexible production to manufacture a range of versions of a company's products for sale into a segmented market. Organizations in this stage "are decentralised, participative and have flexible employees with differentiated and multi-skilled jobs."
The specific question Blount, Castleman, and Swatman (BCS) investigated was:
What are the employee capabilities and qualities retail banks must develop to satisfy both more sophisticated customers (who demand flexibility of interactions, responsiveness and convenience) as well as the organization's own needs (including expanded sales opportunities, cost containment or reduction and customer loyalty) when implementing eCommerce technologies?
As this question indicates, BCS are particularly concerned with the role of technology in driving the transition from pre-Fordism to post-Fordism. My own focus is on the schema of evolving employee development goals that BCS associate with this transition.
I would argue that this evolution in the goals of employee development can and should be facilitated in all industries that lend themselves to flexible production methods. By moving in the direction of upgrading employee knowledge and skills, firms enable productivity gains that are essential for long-term health in a competitive global economy, and they make it easier to respond with agility to changes in the market environment.
BCS enumerate the shifts in employee qualities and capabilities associated with transition from pre-Fordism to post-Fordism in banking as follows:
Pre-Fordist banking reliance on a network of branches, local knowledge, face-to-face interaction, traditional sociability.
Qualities of customer-facing employees
Fitting in with the community
Deference to superiors
Capabilities of customer-facing employees
Established relationships with customers; interpersonal skills
Fordist banking streamlined, IT-dependent, automated, mass banking; centralized back offices; workplaces organized as factories; closure of bank branches; do-it-yourslf telephone and Internet banking.
Qualities of customer-facing employees
Interchangeability of tasks and locations
Responsiveness to direction
Ability to deal with routine
Capabilities of customer-facing employees
Knowledge of IT related to back office processes and systems
Banking skills (product knowledge)
Speed and efficiency
Post-Fordist banking strong reliance on IT and Internet banking; adoption of IT applications such as decision support and customer relationship management (CRM); focus on individualized products, responsive customer service and relationship building, positive customer experience across all service delivery channels.
Qualities of customer-facing employees
Loyalty and organizational commitment
Customer focus and responsiveness
Independence and initiative in organizing work
Diversity of background
Capabilities of customer-facing employees
Individual problem-solving skills
Interpersonal skills geared to an IT-mediated environment
Understanding of Internet-banking and other sophisticated technology
Understanding of context and complexity in products and customer characteristics
Based on my own experience working on training projects for banks, I cannot emphasize too strongly how much potential there is for creating value by hiring and training skilled front-line employees. I'd also say that I have been happy to see substantial improvement over the years in how well many banks are handling their employee development.
__________ 1 It should be emphasized that BCS are using the pre-Fordism, Fordism, and post-Fordism stages as a heuristic device. These terms are also used in some Marxist analysis to characterize successive stages of capitalism. See, e.g., the Wikipedia entry on Fordism.
Anybody in the training field is familiar with the issue of deciding how best to evaluate a particular training program. Most training specialists take it for granted that evaluation is necessary, and then go on to investigate the question of what level of evaluation is feasible and appropriate in a given case.
What the typical training specialist doesn't do is entertain the idea that the evaluation step can be skipped entirely. But skipping evaluation seems to be all too common at the Department of Defense. The particular instance that got me going on this subject today is a column by Senior Chief Jim Murphy (USN, Retired) in the September issue of the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute.
According to Murphy,
For at least the past two years, every uniformed, civilian, and contract member of the Department of the Navy has been required to complete training on protecting PII [Personally Identifiable Information]. ... The new fiscal year likely signals another round of this so-called training. These "courses" are simple PowerPoint presentations that allow learners to click through the slides until reaching the end, signaled by a course certificate with blanks to fill in one's name and completion date.
Computer security instruction is not much better. DOD [Department of Defense] Information Assurance Awareness training, a separate annual requirement for all personnel, also misses the mark. In this product, information is presented in a lectured e-learning format with scenario-based questions on various topics. The training is problematic because it also allows clicking through the lecture, and worse, clicking through dialogue boxes, which explain incorrect responses to assessment questions. Also there is no retesting of missed topics. In fact, an e-learner can advance through the entire curriculum, miss every question, ignore every explanation, and still successfully complete the training.
Certificate of Completion awarded to personnel who page through the Department of Defense course on "Information Assurance Awareness." No proof of actual learning required. (US Naval Institute Proceedings)
Not surprisingly, Murphy thinks, at a minimum, the training in question should be evaluated through "formative assessments to certify comprehension" Kirkpatrick Level 2.
Murphy sums up in his conclusion: "Only through effective training development will the Defense and Navy Departments stop wasting training funds, prevent losses of PII, and secure our systems. It's time we get serious about these issues."
I can't say I endorse the USED (Understand, Show, Experience, Do) model taught in the course, since it's important for coaches to recognize that some situations are best handled by having the employee come up with his/her own approach.1
On the other hand, I am quite taken with the list of characteristics of effective coaches provided in the course materials. These characteristics (somewhat edited) are:
Establish a trusting relationship with all employees.
Listen more than talk.
Value and model continuous learning.
Recognize your own limitations.
Make an effort not to overuse your strengths.
Offer employees chances to take risks.
Remain curious rather than defensive.
Model accountability and ownership.
Meet others where they are and help them move forward.
Help others view mistakes as learning opportunities.
Help employees work on a few skills at a time generally, no more than three.
Meet individually with employees to identify ways to help them be more effective.
Use common courtesies, such as saying please and thank-you.
Apologize for mistakes.
Plan social events with co-workers.
Confront the issue, not the person.
Demonstrate friendly, positive, and upbeat behavior to others.
The NFSMI list above can serve as a checklist for self-evaluation along the same lines as the more general list of characteristics of an effective coach provided in this earlier post on the subject.
Note: If you would like to review the list of "Competencies, Knowledge and Skills of Effective District School Nutrition Directors/Supervisors" that guides NFSMI's training design and development, you can do so here.
__________ 1 Stated more fully, the four steps in the USED model are:
Understanding (the coach explains the task to the employee)
Showing (the coach demonstrates the proper way to accomplish the task)
Experiencing (the coach allows the employee to experience the task by practicing it)
Doing (the employee does the task while the coach observes/gives feedback)
Laughter is the Best Medicine XXIV: From the Newsroom
Peridically, I have a look around the Internet to see if I can turn up any G-rated office humor for my proudly staid blog. Invariably, it's slim pickings. Most of the amusement either isn't actually funny (a problem shared with the cartoons in the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal), or it's too racy to suit my purposes.
However, today I've hit paydirt. At the Facebook page "Overheard in the Newsroom," status entry #1686 reports this remark from a young visitor: Home-school kid on tour of newsroom to copy editors/paginators: “So basically... your job is a bunch of clicking.”
Several of the responses from "fans" of the page are also worth quoting: I had a fourth-grade kid on a tour ask "So if a guy shot someone's face off with a bazooka would you have a story about it?"
Designers just don't click ... They also draw boxes.
My wife used to ask why I came home tired after 8 or 10 or however many hours on the copy desk, "all you do is sit there and push a few buttons." Then she got a job there, too. She didn't ask anymore.
I always described being a graphic designer as doing 'executive colouring in'.
wow - remember when we actually *went* somewhere to do interviews??
The woman who gave tours at my former job told people all the copy desk did was cut and paste.
21st Century Journalism XXXVI: An Exemplary Article
I have found myself increasingly hard-hearted as I read about the declining fortunes of the news industry. As a news junkie, I am only too happy to find significant and accurate material in the various newspapers I check each day (online, except in the case of my local paper). Unfortunately, much of what is published is shallow and inaccurate. Why should anybody pay money for this?
More specifically, the news reports I read are frequently poorly sourced and poorly fact-checked. The whole idea of "enterprise reporting" seems to have become etiolated. Instead of pressing to "get the story," many reporters phone their favorite official sources (often anonymous) and simply transfer quotes into their articles, with no attempt to assess the accuracy of what they've been told, even though many of the sources in question have a track record of mendaciousness.
Feeling starved for reporting I can trust and learn from, I find myself responding with marked relief when I encounter a story that reminds me of the good old days of expert reporting.
Such an article showed up in the Financial Times on August 29. Written by Martin Sandbu, "The Iraqi who saved Norway from oil" recounts the career of Farouk al-Kasim, a man who has lived in Norway with his Norwegian wife and their chilcren since 1968. During that time, he has provided expertise, largely in obscurity, that has helped Norway develop its oil resources in a way that is contributing to the long-run welfare of the country's residents.
Sandbu's thesis, which he supports with evidence from the publicly known history of Norway's oil sector and from his own research, is that al-Kasim has played a major role in helping preserve Norway from the severe economic distortions other oil countries have experienced. The most significant of these distortions are inefficiency in the oil sector, insufficient investment in economic activity outside of oil extraction, and a skewed distribution of income among residents (resulting in part from corruption).
The encouraging health of Norway's oil business is an outgrowth of balancing state participation in the oil sector with involvement of private-sector oil companies. Al-Kasim provided guidance for this balancing act.
I encourage you to have a look at Sandbu's article to form your own opinion of its quality and, perhaps, to adopt it as a benchmark for other newspaper articles dealing with topics of substantial economic and social importance.
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew All that a speech can say About Democracy, And what dictators do, The elderly rubbish they talk To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism's face And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash Important Persons shout Is not so crude as our wish: What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart; For the error bred in the bone Of each woman and each man Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; "I will be true to the wife, I'll concentrate more on my work," And helpless governors wake To resume their compulsory game: Who can release them now, Who can reach the deaf, Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.