Category: Social

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.

Innovation is Local and Adoption is Global

Successful innovation is difficult because it is not enough to have a bright idea. Everybody has one, including me. What separates the boys from men is the implementation. The road to heaven is paved with hard work from the initial blueprint until the finalised product, and its successful adoption which requires team work, focus sustained over a long period and ability to execute and deliver.

The core team that innovates successfully is the equivalent of a queen bee starting a new colony: it produces ideas continuously while surrounding itself with a growing team that takes on tasks derived from those ideas, all of them orchestrated into a collective effort to build a long-lasting product enterprise.

At the beginning, there is no light around innovation, but just a faint white star shining in the distance. There is little information, no training classes and no user manuals. Could your normal team or business units do it? Not likely. They are not suitable for this kind of undertaking because there is no documented process or job description. You need a special team: a small community of practice whose members are innovators.

A community of practice is made of people who have frequent face-to-face meetings; they meet around the water cooler and talk and pick-up clues from little things to spark a creative chain of thoughts. The members of such community are highly skilled, they have knowledge far beyond what is required by the standard job description and they thrive on uncertainty.

Creative enterprises know this very well. Valve’s HR (blasphemy!) induction manual is an interesting case of encouraging teams to work as small communities of practice. It is all about having strong relationships that work, are creative, productive and fun.

Adoption however, although it still depends on communities of practice to figure out how to use the innovation, relies on large social networks to fire-up the spread of the idea.

In fact, the adoption works best if the network is a huge collection of groups linked through weak connections. This is because the networks of strong ties are usually small due to impossibility of individuals to maintain strong relationships beyond say 20 people. Great networkers may go up to 150, but for the average person, even maintaining 10 strong relationships is a struggle. This means that if a community of practice adopts your innovation, you shouldn’t rush to pop that bottle of Don Perignon yet. Settle for a Stella Artois and a barbecued shrimp for the time being.

Mark Granovetter coined the term ‘weak ties’ to describe lose connections in a social group. His research led him to the conclusion that these types of connections are actually the ones that make a personal network very effective. Christakis and Fowler demonstrate in Connected that weak-ties are great for finding fresh information, aka code for new habits.

So, if your Facebook is limited to close friends that think like you, you are missing on a great opportunity to learn something new and useful you and your close friends never thought of before. Better ‘like’ someone different soon!

Globalisation is the other side of localisation. They are like yin and yang, embracing each other.

Two consequences derive out of this:

  1. The local innovators need to have access to great networks to spread their ideas. If the innovators are not great communicators and if they don’t have network bridges, their innovation will be lost in anonymity and dry
  2. Innovators and adopters need to think alike as they need each other, but both need to influence a lot more people to get the network going. If the growth in adoption doesn’t keep growing to reach about 16%, they are doomed. They fall into the chasm, Moore’s chasm.

In a recently published book, The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti says that despite the popularity of the global social networks, the vast majority of the phone calls and web traffic is local. The most innovative cities and regions are based on small, tightly knight, and local communities. With other words, the secret of global success of Silicon Valley is local, very local.

This is also why the local economies’ prosperity depends so much on innovation and free trade.

Grinding Times, Turbulence and the Death of Stocks

The problem with our times is that it doesn’t give us any clear clues about what will happen or what will need to happen so that all of us can finally relax and go to the beach. But when was the last time it did? Most probably never. I asked a friend of mine who has worked for the same company for over twenty-three years what he thinks about changes in his organisation and industry in general and after a thoughtful pause he said “I prefer the old times”. Always for people who lived long enough to be able to claim they reached the controversial middle age, the old times have an irresistible appeal.

If things don’t look good now, some of us may suspect this is just plain winging. If you really dig into the issues, the good ol’ times, aren’t that good and actually the present is as bright as it can be. It is in our nature, some would say, that we like the old times because we were young then and the experiences as we remember them are thrilling, surprising and full-on. And yet, our history hasn’t been a linear script. It is easy to look in the past and say “oh, those times were terrible because so and so” and even feel a bit baffled thinking why those people could not figure out the issues from the beginning, but when you are in the middle of that time, it is difficult to recognise the type of period you are in. However, the history it giving us clues and some of them are telling us that the present may be one of those grinding, nerve-racking, and turbulent periods.

Bill Gross, the PIMCO investment manager who oversees the world largest bond fund, describes the economic outlook as the “new normal” when growth is sluggish and spectacular returns are a thing of the past. Last week he went even further and declared that stocks are dead. People will have to work much longer to maintain their standard of living.

When times are tougher the contrast between the left and right sides of the political spectrum becomes sharper. This is could be an indicator that we are entering into turbulence. Deresiewicz wrote in his column at The American Scholar (“In League”) about a similar period preceding the New Deal marred by vicious confrontation between political sides supported by bankers, industrialists and businessmen promoting a Darwinian system and liberal politics represented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow. The bad news is that great ideas and daring reforms do not come quickly and they are not designed by the mind of one hero. It takes time and public impetus to drive the change. Progressive steps are taken under the socio-economic pressures and they may look random and imperfect, but then over many years of public exhausting debates, loss of hope, arguments and confusion, a moment will come when everybody throws the towel into the ring and declare ready for a big change. Thus, the New Deal came at the right time only after many years of preparation.

Deresiewicz concludes that we are only beginning the grinding progressive period. We are comparatively in the year of 1882 which was the start of a process that culminated with the New Deal.

Will it take the same time to arrive at a new beginning for prosperous times? The chilling detail in the grinding period that gave birth to the New Deal is that we had to go through two worldwide wars before we settled.

Today, the political landscape is different. US political culture and socio-economic institutions are only a part of the global scene which all of us are part of now. Europe needs time to settle, Asian countries have to come to terms with new trading conditions that dampen their traditional export enthusiasm. The demographic forces are in full swing worldwide. Will migration patterns remain the same? This is a key question because when migration stops, a new order needs to be installed, and when that happens everything is on the table for negotiation.

We are in for a long soul-searching period. As Deresiewicz put it “for now, there is only blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

The New Bing Adds Social Component

Microsoft is about to releas a ‘new’ Bing which promises “Transforming Search from Finding to Doing”. It will be rollout in US in early June over the course of few weeks. There is no word if these features will be made available to the rest of the world. Microsoft calls this the most significant upgrade since the Bing launch three years ago. It may be one of the most significant changes in the online search industry.

What is so different with the new Bing this time?

The page layout is changed. The left bar where you have Related Searches, Search History and Narrow by Region is gone. Instead the page has now three columns: the search results, the snapshot and the social. Microsoft says that the search engine will return more quality results which will be less cluttered by irrelevant data. That remains to be seen, but while it is not clear how much of the engine was changed, the two new columns are interesting.

The snapshot is meant to display right there in the middle essential information, the most pertinent response to your query, packaged in a way that describe the findings from multiple angles. I don’t know how they do this because it could be that they re-packaged the old Bing with a different appearance or it may be they went deeper and changed the rational side of the Bing’s brain by adding a brand new semantic map builder. The example given by Microsoft is a classic case of a user who wants to find a hotel. Bing tries to build in the snapshot a story around this subject, so it displays a map, room rate, some links to related services, and traveller recommendations collected from various web sites. This sounds like the old Bing. However, if beneath the hood the software ‘thinks’ about the meaning of the hotel and uses a semantic graph to pull in related information, the prospects are completely different. This is how I read into what Derrick Connell, the Bing Corporate Vice President, said when he referred to a new scalable technology. Connell says that Microsoft will expand the snapshot to include more and more attributes around searched subjects. I guess that when a search command is issued, parallel searches are run automatically based on the semantic graph, even if the user doesn’t mention any of the inferred attributes. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

The most interesting bit though is the social bar. I am very pleased to see this. My research on knowledge behaviour around adoption of innovation indicates that people rely a lot on social networks, even when they don’t call on friends for help explicitly for help or advice. When information is not searched but stumbled upon, that is a case of serendipity. This type of accidental finding has been ignored most of the time in the past, but it is increasingly obvious that it has a key role in knowledge behaviour.

Where is Microsoft going with this is not clear yet. I am not sure if this is a Facebook only feature or if it is a social aggregator. But the fact that you could ask your friends about what you are looking for combined with serendipity (the lower part of the social screen has that role) is a very interesting development.

Certainly this looks very good for Facebook. It is very good for Microsoft because it suddenly it creates a social opportunity in response to Google’s ambitions in social networks.

Microsoft did something clever here: it removes the social content from the search results going in an opposite direction from Google. I think this is a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, the relevance could be a problem if the results include your social status updates, and secondly, people are a bit off about the idea of mixing social activities with search. The reaction to Google’s decision to mix Google with Google Plus and Gmail was not enthusiastic to say the least. But if you have two separate areas that work side by side and you are the one that decides when to use the social features, it looks more appealing.

The snapshot and the social bar have the potential to change the face of online search. One hint is the appearance of ‘Like’ in the social bar. The synergy between search and social activities could take many forms here with profound consequences, because each of these two represent aspects of our persona that until now have been separated. Facebook does not have a search engine and Bing does not have a social network. On the new page they are still separated, but you can make the connection. The ‘Like’ is about your friends and their preferences. In the future other social signals could be used: location, recommendations, photos, music, etc. The possibilities are barely visible at this stage.

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.