Category: Culture

When Social Networks Are Not Social

A sharp article, “Pompon girl for feminism“, by Maureen Dowd from New York Times about Sheryl Sandberg’s social campaign draws some interesting observations about social networks and marketing. I am not going to dwell on the merits or otherwise of Sheryl’s agenda. However, I have an interest in the way she runs her campaign for world domination because she is such a powerful figure at Facebook.

Pompon girl for feminismImagine Mark Zuckerberg initiating a movement to support a cause that involves a large number of people.  Suddenly, many Facebook member would become nervous or uneasy. In a perfect world where there is no ulterior motive, this would mean nothing, but in our world when someone with access to the data generated by a social graph with one billion people has direct plans for a large group in our society, that makes a different story.

Sheryl Sandberg wants to create a large community made up of circles of 12 peers who meet monthly to discuss education modules. It is not clear how this community will be built although we know that heavy advertising is planned in the months ahead, but there is a Facebook question in there.  Are they going to network outside Facebook, are they going to be initiated, discovered, marketed in a separate environment?   Will the Facebook Search Graph going to be used? We will have to wait and see.  In the long run, if she is successful this project will make her position at Facebook difficult.  Perhaps this is an indication that she has plans beyond the social network giant.

People with high levels of energy who are using their authority to demand others to follow their way, will inevitably be attracted to the idea of applying pressure from the top down to “convince” the group members to adopt the prescribed practices.   The philosophy of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is based on ad-hoc connections and individual laissez-faire. In contrast, the Lean In Circles requires rigorous discipline with unforgiving rules designed filter out the “flakes”.

As Maureen Dowd  observed: “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself”. This is a great point. The difference between a social network and an organisation is determined by its social vector representing the diffusion of influence. If the social vector goes top down and if it has a goal drafted by their leaders, then we are dealing with a vertical organisation. If it goes from bottom to the top and it has no pre-planned agenda, then the formation is a horizontal organisation. Lacking hierarchies, self-organising around emerging patterns, needs and motivations, such structures describe what we loosely define social networks.

Why Are We So Opinionated About Public Education?

Why is education an open field for public opinions where so many with no training in teaching are convinced their views are as valid or competent as the professional educators’?

Perhaps deep down we believe we are experts at educating children because the human race has practiced simple forms of education over millions of years of evolution. Humans have the longest childhood among all species. A necessary requirement for becoming an adult is learning how to operate in a complex environment. We are born with instructions that demand us to teach our children how to walk, speak, use tools, and understand social norms.

Parents take pride in the way they “educate” their children at home. This learning period in anyone’s life is deeply emotional. Early years of parental education is a period of attachment during which children and parents establish strong bonding.

In contrast, as a recent invention in our long history, school is an artificial extension of a social relationship created and nurtured beyond the family home boundaries. Teachers never achieve the same status of trusted relationship with children not only because they missed the early opportunity to imprint attitudes, but also because their institutional goals serve a different purpose. Despite the dedication of millions of teachers, the connection between children and school is very thin and fragile. Schools are meant to serve a different master whose interest is to produce a workforce capable of supporting its socio-economic domain.

Many educational initiatives attempt to describe themselves as “student-centric”, or caring for “children’s wellbeing” don’t’ tell the entire story, which is the fact that they are designed to comply with the demands of the political system that funds them, and which in turn are separated by so many levels of bureaucratic layers from the individual families. They want to be close to the students, but the gap between individual families and state-wide social systems is so wide, they cannot ever achieve the ‘kinship’ status.

The relationship between schools and parents is difficult and the main reason it has worked so far is because of its practical value. This invisible contract worked for a few hundred years despite many difficulties because the parents and schools in the end served the same master. As children learned skills they need as members of the future workforce in a society representing their ‘natural’ habitat, parents have no choice but to accept the school’s role in preparing their children to survive as adults. Plus, parents need to go to work and someone has to mind their children while they are away from home; they have to outsource the education to people outside the immediate family.

How can schools give their students life skills? What worked in the past two hundred years doesn’t necessarily work in the next fifty years. In Australia the unemployment rate is now 5.4%. If you think this is a good rate, compare this with the unemployment rate in 1970: 0.9%. In 1951 it was even lower: 0.3%! In absolute numbers, we have 656,400 unemployed people today versus 78,000 unemployed people then. Schools were doing wonders; if you had education you got a job, no question asked. Today, good school education does not give any guarantees.

The lack of certainty plays on one essential evolutionary concern: our children have strong bodies and sharp minds that can figure out how to solve problems during their adult lives (in line with the culture they belong to). There is no other profession, other than medical care, that is so directly linked to our survival as a species. Medicine has been a mysterious secret protected by a few since the dawn of mankind. It needs access to scarce materials and know-how and it cannot be practiced at home. Education, on the other hand, that is another story. Key to survival of the individual, the tribe and its culture, it has remained a part of us as probably the oldest occupation that we still practice without even knowing. This is why people are so passionate when it comes to education.

Is Hard Work Stupid?

In a recent article titled “Virtually Exhausted” William Deresiewicz, editor at The American Scholar, suggested that believing hard work is a way to achieve is “one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief“.

In this notion he refers to the Protestant religious system that has elevated hard work to the status of virtue which, Deresiewicz argues, has infiltrated the work ethics of America with presumably with some terrible consequences, one of them being wide spread exhaustion. According to him, working hard to reach a dream couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Deresiewicz, because distribution of talent is “undemocratic” and hard work is futile, just an illusion of choice for the naïve masses.

This elitist view calmly dismisses any hopes that one has for changing less fortunate circumstances. It begs the question of what is talent. It must be something you are born with, something that takes you to through an Ivy League college and gives you secure employment for life. It’s a privilege that cannot be acquired through hard work.

Just last week, whilst on the other side of the planet, Gina Reinhart, the Australian mining magnate, caused a furore when she said that if you want to get wealthy “spend less time drinking, or smoking, or socialising, and more time working”. This may sound like a good tip to the wasteful, but it is nothing more unsettling than having a person that inherited a fortune of billions of dollars to give this kind of advice to the populace in general. The thousands of people, who work hard deep in the mines owned by her scratching the guts of the planet in search for minerals, don’t make themselves wealthy. They make her wealthy. In this context, the message has the opposite meaning, because the reality in the mine can be used to prove the point that hard work doesn’t make you rich, luck does.

So far, this idea of hard work does seem trivial. Who would want to labour when in the end there is nothing to celebrate, there is no change, but just more struggle when the genes won’t let you have it?

And yet, there are many who have no doubt that hard work is necessary to make it in life. Research studies show that if you concentrate your efforts through hard work you can master almost any skills. It is estimated that you need to invest ten years to achieve mastery in your chosen domain, if you put in the long hours. People who were born without such talent can succeed when initial evidence suggests otherwise. The legendary Wayne Gretzky comes to mind as a brilliant example. Against all odds, he became the best of all those who were deemed to be ‘talented’.

There is a common element of caution that we can learn from what Deresiewicz and Reinhart said: hard work without creation does not pay well.

If Deresiewicz remembers well, the core philosophy of The American Scholar is based the eponymous speech delivered almost 200 years ago. In that speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks brilliantly about the need for each of us to aspire to become One Man, as someone that is not subjugated to routine of his craft. For a scholar, that is to become a Man Thinking, not just “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. He goes on to say “History and exact science must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create”.

We suffer for too much hard work as a drill, not as a creation. We should question the mindless long work hours, but not the hard work driven by passion and desire to create something better. Replace the industrial factories with creative studios, repetition with innovation, and slavery with freedom.

Hard work is encouraged in schools. It is one of the character traits that are most valued as a prerequisite for individual and social improvement. Try to tell a teacher that talent is to be praised and not the effort! If we raise our children with the belief that hard work is an illusionary key to success, then our future is bleak.

Need for Skills: Unrabble-ing The Temptation of the Perfect Resume

To cut costs, a job needs to be standard and be aimed at standard workers, so that recruiters can look for candidates using keywords and quick screening methods. As one job ad attracts huge number of responses, standardisation means less time is spent on filtering. As a consequence, the role of recruiters is reduced to simple clerical work, which is the code for it-can-be-automated.

Unrabble.com does exactly that: take the pain out of recruitment process into the pleasure of ticking online boxes. Recruiting now is fun. Or, is it?

Like many fresh innovative and promising start-ups the solution looks really good. The data entry screens, the filtering algorithms, the graphs & charts are bliss. It’s a pleasure! You have evaluation tools, collaboration tools and productivity tools. You have everything.

Unrabble looks really great. It is online, it’s clean and it is clear. The problem starts when it comes to translation. Not to be too negative, but this is a bit like the Heidelberg theory of uncertainty which says that you cannot measure simultaneously space and time with precision. The equivalent theory of recruitment uncertainty is that you could not simultaneously be precise about activities and personal skills in the same time. If you focus on activities using exact measures, then you lose clarity about what the real skills are. If you focus on personal skills, you lose clarity on activities, which is the problem with resumes that have “fluffy” narrative. Personal skills could be described by putting together activities and outcomes presented in a certain light. Same activities could determine the formation of multiple skills. By using precise time based descriptors, only one picture can emerge, which is eventually quite inaccurate impression of who you are, or what you can do. This prevents the candidates from highlighting the skills used during the experience that are relevant to the job.

I mentioned in a previous post that employers are increasingly looking at prospective employees as actors joining a crew in a movie set. How will Unrabble help employers recruit the people that really fit with their business culture and work style?

It seems that we are induced to cultivate a set of standard quantifiable skills that could be easily employed in freelance/crowdsourcing model, in which project teams are assembled based on these quantifiable skills. We are becoming virtual characters with digital attributes, measured, manipulated and moved around in a huge real-life Moneyball movie set. The ugly side of crowdsourcing is that we become numbers. The good news is that this is not the whole story. Innovation needs creativity and creativity needs human skills that are hard to quantify, free flowing individual expression, knowledge and intuition, and human relatedness that are essential in creating great teams.

If I had a crystal ball, and I was a good reader, I would say the future employment is a combination of the two. We will need to be able to find short term opportunities for which our skills are a perfect match and which are discoverable over Internet using standard definitions and indicators, but we also need to explore opportunities based on personal relationships in which we work as part of a team creating new products in a start-up style. This may lead to the creation of other jobs, and if the venture succeeds it will either become large or it will be assimilated by a larger organisation. Growth will lead to clear labour division and the future employees will be the ones hired on the basis of standard skill set.

How would employers evaluate your suitability of the traditional resume structure is too rigid to be used as a good measure? The answer is your online identity, your personal brand that is being created over the years through layers of interactions, contributions to discussions, publications, opinions and associations. This will trump the resume as an indicator of who you are. A perfect resume can be written in one day, but the identity takes a life time to build.

Your online expressions are gradually painting a complete picture of you, a much more comprehensive description of your skills as a potential cast member in a creative project. Employers will use virtual identity that to evaluate your suitability. Is that scary? Maybe not, because of the variety of needs and circumstances, there will always be something out there that suits our personal expression and ability to solve problems in a creative way.

What happens if you don’t have a public online identity? I suspect that over the next decades the answer to that question will be: you don’t exist.

Modern hiring is about casting, not filling

I am the first to admit, that I am not a public performer, and yet it doesn’t take to be an Oscar trophy holder to recognise that nowadays excellence in customer service is more than just a scripted process in which anyone can learning by memorising the steps and procedures after one day training. A great customer services needs people with emotional skills with attitude. This trend is not purely driven by the supply side, but also by the demand: you and I respond much better to people who can show empathy, are good story tellers and have a great smile.

I was watching Mentor on Bloomberg and following the conversation between the Jamba Juice CEO James D. White and Drybar CEO Michael Landau. As James entered first time into the Drybar salon, Michael was explaining to him how the business operates. James has an incredible experience in business having worked for Coca-Cola, Gillette and Safeway stores with expertise in brand management and marketing. Michael was reporting in a happy, passionate but measured demeanour how they struggle to cope with demand. The design of the salon limits the number of seats to eight which is not nearly enough to satisfy all those who want to buy their service. The key aspect of Drybar’s business is to offer to their customers a great experience, which is not only about having the hair done well, but make them feel as if they go to a bar where you order your service off a style menu. It’s all about the experience

Michael said they hire people carefully to make sure the best experience is created. He explained to James that the recruitment process is more like casting. Those who are hired have to have the right attitude. James acknowledged the comment and said that at Jamba Juice the staff is selected based on the idea that they are performing in front of an audience and they have to feel comfortable in that role and be good at that. The staff needs to have the right energy level.

This simple exchange of experience suddenly made me realise, that in fact this is what we want from any service, not just those that have an obvious artistic element. This is what Howard Schultz noticed when he studied thousands of coffee bars in Milan, Italy when he was really intrigued not only by the professional knowledge of the bar owners, but by their chatty, familiar and almost theatrical relationship with their customers.

We talk a lot about knowledge and competency when we evaluate a person, but we do recognise later that the ability to work in a team is important. Somebody once said that there are three questions you really need to answer when you face a job interview: can you do the job, do you want to do the job, and can you work with the team (or can the team work with you). I think this should be extended to include your clients: can they work with you?

Performance is about the ability to create a positive emotion that unlocks motives, passions and readiness to connect. This is not only about closing a monetary transaction, but an emotional deal too. It is a healing process. When your customer has a positive experience, the stress level just goes down by a notch and for that, he or she is ready to do business with you and come back at another time.

Knowledge is not enough. Performance needs to be added into the mix. This is a bit tricky, because performance cannot be learned by reading a manual. It is attached gradually through life experience. It depends on the environment you lived in when you grew up, the people in your entourage and your cultural fabric.

The Lesson from South Carolina

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.

In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:

“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”

There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.

If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.

The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.

There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.

A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.

This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.