Archive for October, 2010

[2b2k] Once again, my writing lacks integrity

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article I don’t know what to do with about why integrity has become the main characteristic of business leadership. Read just about any of the business memoirs or books about leadership, and they all put integrity at the top of the list of what makes a person a leader. And they don’t mean “integrity” in the “I don’t take bribes” sense. Rather, they’re talking about a type of humble authenticity: Know who you are, don’t put on airs, don’t believe the butt-kissers who work for you.

Obviously integrity is a desirable characteristic, but it’s weird to put it at the pinnacle of leadership. It used to be about courage, resolution, and worlds like that. “Integrity” is like saying that what made Richard the Lion-Hearted a great leader was that he felt good about himself, or Churchill was a great leader because he was a generous tipper. So, I wondered how that happened, and came up with an hypothesis:

You read a book like Jack Welch’s memoirs and you feel bad for the guy. He’s a chemical engineer who becomes CEO of General Electric, and feels completely out of his depth. (That’s not what he says. It’s how I’m reading him.) He has to make decisions about everything from nuclear reactors to whether Leno or Letterman should get the Tonight Show. He can’t possibly know enough — modern corporations are too big to know — so he sees in himself an uncanny ability to pierce through the old assumptions and the BS. Integrity lets him see the truth. It also lets him eat the Hegelian cake Americans require of their leaders: A leader has to be someone special, but has to be just like us. Integrity lets you be special by seeing just how limited and ordinary you are. Perfect!

I keep trying to find places to put this idea. It comes with an entertaining reading of the Welch book. So, I opened Chapter 8, on decisions, with it. And then came back to it toward the end. Chapter 8 is supposed to be a second proof-of-the-pudding chapter (the first is on science) that asks if all the previous blather about ambiguous knowledge falls away when you have to make a hard yes-or-no decision. Or, is decision-making taking on network properties? After three weeks of writing, I thought maybe it worked. Its joints were wrapped in rhetorical duct tape, but maybe no one would notice.

I put the chapter aside for a week after finishing it, and then re-read it. Nope. It sucks.

I’ve spent the past 48 hours compulsively re-writing it, over and over, each time thinking that I see how I can make it work. I’ve outlined what I think it should say and I’ve outlined what it does say, and none of them are right.

So, I just went through it and tore out all of the integrity stuff. I’m left with a clearer argument with fewer problem areas. But I still don’t know if it works.


[2b2k] Deadline looming

I’ve been working let’s say rather intently on getting Too Big to Know done in time for my Nov. 1 deadline. I have a concluding chapter to write, a fairly drastic re-write of Chapter 8 (on decisions), and then a run through of the whole thing. If I weren’t on the road for two weeks this month, I’d be a little more confident, but I think I’m actually in pretty good shape, so long as I can get Chapter 8 done. That chapter needs cutting, re-arranging, and re-focusing on its main point. If it comes together without too many tries over the next couple of days, then all will be well. Otherwise, ulp.

I also have an idea about how to write the final chapter. It won’t have new examples (I don’t think) or require much research, so it might go fairly quickly…again assuming that I don’t have to re-do it many times. I purposefully left this last chapter unplanned, because you never know what path a book will take. Now it’s time.

I’ve also been thinking about the subtitle. The publisher will have a very heavy say in it, so I’m not worrying about what the subtitle actually will be. Rather, it’s a good way to think about, well, the Twitter version of the book. You’d think I’d know that going in, but just as novelists sometimes say that the characters they invent can take over the story, nonfiction books can also have a narrative that develops itself.

Well, it will be a busy three weeks.


[2b2k] Smithsonian Commons

The deadline for my book is looming, but I spoke today with Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, and I’d love to include his idea for a Smithsonian Commons.

The Smithsonian Commons would make publicly available digital content and information drawn from the magnificent Smithsonian collections, allowing visitors to interact with it, repost it, add to it, and mash it up. It begins with being able to find everything about, say Theodore Roosevelt, that is currently dispersed across multiple connections and museums: photos, books, the original Teddy bear, recordings of the TR campaign song, a commemorative medal, a car named after him, contemporary paintings of his exploits, the chaps he wore on his ranch…But Michael is actually most enthusiastic about the “network effects” that can accrue to knowledge when you let lots of people add what they know, either on the Commons site itself or out across the whole linked Internet.

Smithsonian Commons goes way beyond putting online as much of our national museum as possible — which should be enough to justify its creation. It goes beyond bringing to bear everything curators, experts, and passionate visitors know to increase our understanding of what is there. By allowing us to discover connections, link in and out, and add ideas and knowledge, what used to be a “mere” collection will be an embedded part of countless webs of knowledge that in turn add value to one another. That is to say, we will be able to take up the objects of our heritage in ways that will make them more distinctly and uniquely ours than ever before.

Let’s hope Smithsonian Commons goes from idea to a national — global — center of ideas, creativity, knowledge, and learning.

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[berkman] Beth Kanter and Allison Fine on networked nonprofits

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on their book The Networked Nonprofit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Allison says that over the past few years, the question has emerged: What can nonprofits do with the new tools? The number of non-profits has grown over the past year. Non-profits now the tenth largest employer in the country. But the complexity of social problems is outpacing the capacity of any single organization to solve them. How could non-profits working through networks solve these problems?

Non-networked non-profits work in silos, behind non-porous firewalls. Networked non-profits work up their professional networks within the organization. The institution becomes more porous. The insiders are allowed to get outside the institution to connect with others to solve complex problems. But, Beth points out, this sort of institutional change is difficult.

Some nonprofits have networking in teir DNA. E.g., the Surfrider Foundation. It’s not afraid of letting go of control. For example, they allow local chapters to play with the logo. They can put together 50,000 people within an hour, so who cares about the logo?

Other non-profits are more entrenched, and it can take years to make the transition. The Red Cross, The Humane Society, and Planned Parenthood are now in the process of opening themselves up. They need to “be” before they “do”; otherwise, they’ll try a social media experiment and it will likely fail. Traditional non-profits are usually like fortresses, whereas networked non-profits are more like spongers: thousands of gallons of water moves through them, and they hold on to what they need. “When organizations are immersed in social media … we begin to see what goes on in side,” says Allison. “That kind of transparency builds trust with people, not just outside but also inside.” They don’t trust their own people. But, within a network, where everything is more open , the focus becomes simplicity: “sticking to what they do best, and networking the rest.”

Q: How to simplify to make time to do social media?
A: “You have too much to do because you do too much.” Also, look at using your social network to help accomplish your tasks.

Q: If every social medium is asking us to help a cause …? Also, do people maliciously infiltrate the porous infrastructure?
A: We are seeing a palpable sense of cause fatigue. The non-profits that will succeed are the ones that build relationships, get to know their supporters.
A: If you’re asking if these are early adopter wins, a couple of years ago I would have said yes. But I’m starting to hear lots of stories of small wins. E.g., SurfRider tweeting for two minutes to get someone to do some PhotoShopping. Or the Humane Society. And, yes, people will use social media for evil. (Evgeny Morozov has a book coming out on this, Beth says.)

Q: How do you handle global branding in a networked age?
A: People worry about losing control when using social media, but they never had that much control anyway. It’s all a matter of where you want to invest your energy. The amount of energy organizations spend policing people internally and externally is a huge wasted opportunity. E.g., my synagogue, says Allison, spends too much energy deciding on who can be a member.
A: The orgs not doing an effective job with social media are the ones who don’t have a communication plan. The ones who start later have an advantage because they can start with a clean slate.

Q: How about organizational leaders who have been able to make the transition?
A: It does start with leadership. They need to get their hands dirty. They need reverse mentoring. But there are lots of myths about social media: “We’ll make a mistake, it’ll create info overload, it’ll eat up the time of sr mgrs.” You can’t use those as conversation stoppers, but as conversation starters.
A: Social media are a contact sport (says Allison). People need to sit down and go through the real concerns. And, they need to keep doing what they’re doing, e.g., cultivating large donors. But find a place to experiment, build relationships, just listen. That’s how CEOs inch their way in.

Q: I’m surprised your language is so tame. We’re seeing tremendous disruption. If you were to start with a clean slate, what would it look like?
A: Non-profits too often hop into do-ing. That’s why they’re in business. But they should begin with conversations, building relationships, being a good sharer and generous, being a trust source…Don’t worry about metrics right away. Build relationships and understand your situation.
A: My son’s kindergarten class has a “I can make better choices” chair (says Beth). That’s a social media best practice! Non-profits that start out networked are great learners. E.g., one has funerals for ideas that didn’t work.

Q: Many of the fund-raising opportunities opened by social media come from corporations, and my group doesn’t take money from them. Any tips?
A: You’re a social media best practice. Consider how it its into your mission.< ?br>
A: There’s a myth in fund raising that orgs should have a mix of different revenue streams. A study showed that non-profits typically are good only as some types of fund raising. I’d try to build a stream from lots of small funders.

Q: Does this culture change bring changes outside of how these orgs work?
A: An example. A non-profit working on eradicating a disease heard got a backlash because of the talk of a possible cure arose on FB, making the org look like it wasn’t trying to prevent the disease. So they changed their mission.
A: Too many boards are packed with white lawyer guys and white finance guys. There are apparently plenty of them out there ready for board work. They develop expectations of annual growth for non-profits. Because of that, orgs become very focused on raising more money every year and hiring more staff. That can take people away from their mission. It can be a shock when you go out in the world and see people’s perceptions of what you are not achieving.

A: Professionals have felt that they’re paid to have the answers: to develop the plans and strategies. When they step out into the world with a plan, it’s done. “This is what we’re going to do, and this is the role of volunteer donors.” Instead, you can authentically ask people for their input, which means actually listening to them. You have to change the dynamic so that your individual donors become a really smart crowd.

Q: Could you talk about the Planned Parenthood example?
A: The leader told us that she’s not afraid of being uncomfortable. When talking to their online person, he said that on FaceBook they spend as much time wishing people happy birthday as talking about the issues.
A: Think about the amazing amount of courage of the PP leadership and board first to start building their own Web page and then move on to FaceBook. They decided the cost of not being on social media was too high. They moved from cramming urgent action alerts down people throats to building relationships.
A: Opening up comments helps to build loyalty. Their FaceBook has become an early warning system for telling them what’s going on. Their most enthusiastic FaceBook fans are evangelists.
A: Free agents are incredibly powerful, and keep crashing into organizations. Shawn Ahmed, creator of the Uncultured Twitter stream, has a million followers who care about ending global poverty. At a meeting with institutions, he said, “Social media is not my problem. It’s yours,” because they’re not taking him and his followers seriously. He blogged, railing against closed institutions. The Red Cross is now talking with him. Similar example: Hardly Normal.

Q: [ethanz] You’re talking about networked non-profits, but you’re talking about fairly centralized orgs that have figured out how to use networks. Are there cases of organizations making strategic decisions in networked ways?
A: I looked for examples and was stunned at the lack of examples. So we wrote about what governance could be.
A: [steve waddell] Wikipedia has done networked development of strategy.
A: [me] It’s perhaps in part because you’re looking at legally constituted orgs. But, if you define decision-making as not just the moment of decision, but the set of processes leading up to and from the moment of decision, those processes are becoming networked and distributed.
A: [ethanz] I ask because of the current debate about value of networks in political action [i.e., Gladwell]. The strong case for what you’re saying is not when the head of the Red Cross deigns to meet with Shawn, but Shawn’s ideas rise into the Red Cross early on in the process.
A: We are seeing some decentralized agencies and organizations.

Q: There’s anecdotal evidence but is the return on investment always as great as people think when they first start up their Twitter account. How much do you recommendation orgs devote to social media?
A: Start slowly with small, low-risk pilots. Measure. Reflection, relationship-building … The “being” side.
A: Keep the expectations of your board realistic that this isn’t a spigot for cash, and that building relationships takes time, but that’s where millennials live.


Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

It seems to me that Malcolm Gladwell’s debunking of the claim that the Net will empower political revolutions is right about one big thing, but wrong about a whole lot more.

Because of Gladwell’s often-emulated twisty way into a topic, here is my take at an outline of of the article, so that we can see its argument better.

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.

He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.

At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.

The more plausible belief is that the Net affects the most entrenched of institutions by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.

Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own are going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.

Further, Gladwell misses the point about strong and weak ties. He’s right that committed activism requires strong ties. But it doesn’t require many: Three like-minded friends can be enough to embolden a college student to risk sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter. Social networking services facilitate strong ties because strong ties come from weak ones, and because casual interactions among people with strong ties can strengthen those ties. Further, having lots of weak ties can encourage political action by making that action a common cause: Wow, everyone I know is going to the protest march!

Further, the effect of courageous activists (enabled through their strong ties to other activists) is magnified insofar as it emboldens and affects a far wider swath of the population. Networks of weak ties spread ideas, information, and enthusiasm faster and more effectively than letter-writing campaigns or newspaper ads. From these networks of loose ties come the new activists, the supporters of activists, and an engaged citizenry that can vote (or throw) the bums out. Courageous activists succeed within a population that is not as engaged or courageous.

Gladwell also, in my opinion, is mistaken to treat networks and hierarchies as if they were mutually exclusive. He points to the massive organizational effort it took to sustain the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. They created a large, efficient carpool service, and had a hundred full-time staffers. So, what exactly was the hierarchy required for? “Discipline and strategy,” Gladwell says, although his example also stresses organization. To this I have three reactions.

First, hierarchies are indeed good at some things. But hierarchies can work with networks. That’s how national political campaigns work in this country, for example. Hierarchies and networks are not exclusive. And networks can be powerful tools for hierarchies. Likewise, networks are never entirely flat. They can have a local center that makes decisions and organizes actions.

Second, Gladwell dismisses the contribution networks could have made to the bus boycott by pointing to the shallowness of tweets (vs. ML King’s messages from jail), the messiness of Wikipedia, and some unexplained problem with communicating through Facebook. This is sloppy from the likes of Gladwell. No one thinks MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech really would have been better if whittled down to 140 characters. But, tweets are a good way to drive people to read a longer work, and tweets are a good way of alerting a crowd when action is required. Gladwell is also wrong to say that Wikipedia is mired in a “ceaseless pattern of correction and revision.” And Facebook messaging is great for communicating among those with strong and weak ties. Three misses out of three, by my way of thinking.

Third, the strengths of hierarchies that Gladwell points to are not totally absent from networks:

Networks have their own way of making strategy: Someone puts it forward, and it catches on (including via networks of weak ties) or it doesn’t.

As far as organizing goes, there is a reason that every movement for political change now uses the Internet: it is superb for organizing. Think how much easier it would have been to set up the carpool system with its “forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations”? An online, on-demand system would have freed up the forty-eight dispatchers, and would have made a “pickup station” out of wherever you are. Further, it would have been written overnight, for free, and open-sourced so it could be replicated in town after town and country after country.

So, Gladwell is right that the Net by itself doesn’t cause tyrannies to fall. He’s right that activism requires courage and determination. He’s right that we — not all of us, but a group of us that includes me — over-sold the Net in this regard. But he’s picking on what’s now a strawperson, and, more important, his argument pays no heed to the truly important question: How the Net, in a real world in which old institutions aren’t going away so fast, is altering the context within which brave activism occurs, spreads, and has effect.


[The next day:] R.A on the Economist site reminds us that hierarchies are fragile while networks are robust and resilient. Good point. Gladwell’s model of political upheaval seems to assume a relatively open society that will tolerate a movement with identifiable leaders. In more repressive regimes, hierarchies are too easy to disrupt.