25 December 2008

Zichrono Livracha: Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

Nobel laureate, and tremendously influential absurdist playwright, Harold Pinter passed on Wednesday. Perhaps someone should throw a Birthday Party.

I remember seeing The Birthday Party when I was in high school, and have been a fan of Pinter's work - and those who were influenced by him, including Tom Stoppard and David Mamet - ever since. It was his use of language, silence, and the nuance of spoken interaction, that enabled him to probe the depths of the human condition:
Pinter once said of language, "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."

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23 December 2008

More on How Does an Organization Scale?

In response to one of my Emerging from the Mists of the Data posts, How Does an Organization Scale?, Joanna noted this comment: "As an aside, reducing redundancy requires an expenditure of resources that does not directly contribute to the purpose or objectives, and thus is counter-productive to the BAH organization." She then asked, "Please, expand - I need to read that post! It might help me understand or form an effective strategy for change. I responded in the comments, but I think the answer merits its own post.

Admittedly, Joanna, I have not yet worked out a detailed argument that offers an appropriate alternative - that's yet to come from the research. However, the first part of the argument - that reducing redundancy is an act of externalizing expense based on a preconceived functional decomposition - is fairly straight-forward. And, I might be able to provide some guiding thoughts for the second part, as well.

In a BAH organization, the purpose or objectives are predetermined according to conditions at the time and place when and where the organization is called into being, with occasional reviews from time to time. The requisite tasks, workflow and resulting hierarchical structure are decided, and the (supposedly) best people are hired to fill those legitimated offices, according to teachings derived from principles of scientific management, and the unholy trinity of Taylor, Fayol, and Weber. Expansion via acquisition means that there will be multiple people filling what is legitimately one office, and considerable effort (read: expense, cutthroat internal competition, and manipulative game-playing - one of my participants called it a "feeding frenzy" - all of which are counter-productive) must be made to determine which of the supposedly redundant people to shuck off. That effort and expense does not directly go to fulfilling the purpose or objective of the BAH organization; rather it is a non-productive, but deemed necessary, expenditure that transfers the expense of soon-to-be-former employees to other organizations (e.g., the state via unemployment insurance payments, one's family via digging into savings, etc.).

A Valence Theory analysis of this situation suggests that this need not be the case. For example, scaling by extending effects may not necessitate acquisition of another organization and cold, calculated divestiture of suddenly dehumanized people. This is a model used quite successfully by one of my participant organizations. Since purpose and objectives in a more-UCaPP organization are emergent from the relationship connections, the new (combined) organization may want to either discover new objectives, or facilitate a spin-off organization as part of its new (emergent and reciprocal) obligations that come from the ba-aspects of the various valence relationships.

What this means in terms of praxis for change is two things, I think. First, all the valence relationships need to be carefully considered and given equal priority in any merger or acquisition. In my experience, this is never, ever the case: economic considerations based on the nominal purpose and the so-called requirements of investors always take priority, with any other emergent considerations or opportunities taking second, or third, or tenth priority. Second, (re)developing ba rarely, if ever, is among the priorities of the merged organization. Instead, fungible aspects of the various relationships are almost exclusively emphasized, creating a mercantile atmosphere among people who are, at the very least, psychologically and emotionally displaced. Such a mentality may encourage the "feeding frenzy" and survival-of-the-most-ruthless mentality, but, in the long run, does not make for a great or sustainable organization.

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Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! (And Everyone Else, Too)

Gary pointed me to this article at EMusic, describing how that timeless classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, came into being, featuring the wonderful music of jazzman, Vince Guaraldi.
It was also 1965, of course, and the hormonal juggernaut of rock & roll was detonating not only American music but the very tempo of American life — the Beatles were going supernova, Bob Dylan released "Like a Rolling Stone" and youth culture seemed destined to revolutionize the entire world. Guaraldi's gentle, genteel jazz leapfrogged Schulz's show out of the frenzy, perfect for the story's anti-commercialism theme. More subtly, jazz provided a light, safe allusion to the existential alienation of the hep-cats and beatniks of just a few years prior, a precursor to Charlie Brown's eternal "why me?"; the music's Latin and African-American influences reflected an increasingly cosmopolitan society.

To all my readers and friends, I wish you a very happy holiday season, and a bright, healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.

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15 December 2008

EMD III: Dealing with Disagreement, Dissent, and Outright Opposition

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

How does an organization, and its leadership, deal with disagreement, dissent and outright opposition to decisions and processes in the organization? When does “drinking the Kool-Aid” become mandatory in an organizational culture, and when do opposing viewpoints cause a leader to question whether the dissenting individual is “playing on the same team?” The semantic of “dealing with” itself needs to be unpacked and probed: in what contexts does “dealing with” necessitate ensuring compliance, as opposed to finding a way to create consensus, as opposed to being able to manage polarities and hold tensions? Under which circumstance is it important for specific, pre-conceived objectives, approaches or outcomes to prevail, irrespective of secondary (or tertiary) effects, as opposed to those circumstances for which a new, synthesized approach, objective or effect is appropriate? Are there characteristic behaviours relative to this situation of dealing with disagreement, dissent and outright opposition that distinguish BAH and UCaPP organizations?

It would seem to me (and indications are emerging from the data that inform this intuition) that more-BAH organizations, used to processes of control and deterministic outcomes, would seek to resolve ambiguities that lead to opposing views through whatever means might be necessary. A somewhat enlightened BAH organization might strive to create such means that are close to espoused theory, be it the legitimate leader making a final decision after some process of consultation, or an attempt at consensus-building (either authentic or passive-coercive). Diverse opinions may be sought in such an attempt either by honestly considering differing contexts and meaning-making, or as part of an engagement designed to flush out dissenters and convert their opinions to something more acceptable. On the other hand, a more-UCaPP organization might be comfortable with allowing the ambiguity to remain, allowing guidance to emerge over time – holding the tension of the polarity, as Barry Johnson (and Marilyn Laiken) say.

Dissent or opposition can be distinguished by its target – it is either directed at the fungible forms of valence relationships, or against their ba-aspects. This, in turn, translates into “dealing with” dissent or opposition to either (a) the objectives, goals or outcomes of the organization; (b) the effects or intentions of the organization; or (c) both. In the latter case, the individual is clearly a member of the wrong organization. The other two cases are far more interesting; the chosen resolution of each of (a) and (b) may prove to be characteristic of the more-BAH or more-UCaPP organization. In particular, an attack on the ba-aspects might well be anathema, not to mention fatal, to the UCaPP organization in ways that the analogous attack on the fungible-aspects might be survivable by the BAH organization.

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EMD II: How Does an Organization Scale?

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

There are two ways to scale an organization, depending on whether one wants to scale the objectives, goals, outcomes and purpose, or the effects of that organization.

In the former case, the organization adds resources under the control of legitimated leadership that augment the functional ability of the organization to accomplish its purpose. This can be accomplished either by internally growing resources – adding people, raising capital, increasing production capacity and ability – or by acquiring an already existing organization that has an appropriate suite of resources, ideally with a minimal amount of redundancy. (As an aside, reducing redundancy requires an expenditure of resources that does not directly contribute to the purpose or objectives, and thus is counter-productive to the BAH organization. It is akin to externalizing waste products. A Valence Theory reading of the notion of “reducing redundancy” might provide BAH-managers with more productive options, but that’s for another post.) In either case of internal growth or external acquisition, there is a necessity to control the deployment of those resources to ensure the successful accomplishment and growth of the organization’s objectives, goals, outcomes and purpose.

To scale the effects of the organization in a relational context, that is, a Valence Theory conception of scaling, one can internally or externally add resources, bearing in mind the wider choice of integration options available in a Valence Theory paradigm. Alternatively, the organization can create the appropriate relationships with other organizations that can enable, create, or both enable and create the desired effects in the respective local contexts in which the relationships of the organizations in question are constructed. This alternative necessarily requires all participants to cede overall control while simultaneously requiring all to participate in strengthening the mutual ba-space that they jointly occupy.

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EMD I: Questions of Legitimate Leadership

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

What do we mean by someone being a legitimate leader, that is, how do we understand the notion of legitimation in the context of organizational leadership? Traditionally – that is, in a BAH construct – legitimation is created through mutually agreed-to processes that often are created through functional decomposition of overall objectives, agreement on the necessity of control over each of the offices created by that functional decomposition, and the bureaucratic appointment of people to positions that are so-legitimated.

Many of us take the pre-existence of legitimated positions (read: bureaucracy, or “rule by the office”) for granted – whether one enters an existing position, or participates in the creation of such a position, the position itself is pre-eminent. Even a person who is playing a particular role outside of bureaucratic recognition is not legitimated until the position is “officially” created. In a so-called equitable BAH organization, people are often made to compete for a newly legitimated position, even if that position has been created specifically for them, according to the specification of the role they have already been performing (one of the unfortunate outcomes of the collective bargaining process that suggests the obsolescence of unions in a UCaPP world, but that's a post for another day). Part of the process of legitimating a position requires a demonstrated business need for the position; that is, functionally rationalized, and justified according to the objectives and outcomes of the organization. Irrespective of whether a person has been playing a role that, according to the common understanding, contributes to said objectives, if the position cannot be rationalized and justified according to the pre-existing functional decomposition of the business (a.k.a. the business model), the position cannot be legitimated.

Thus, legitimate leadership presupposes a functionally and objectively justified need to lead (read: control) whatever processes occur farther down in the functional hierarchy (read: bureaucracy) of the organization. The converse is automatically presumed to be true in a more-BAH organization: that there is a de facto requirement for a legitimate leader to exercise control. That functional hierarchy is often presumed to map directly to a hierarchy of class and status in a BAH organization - those that exercise control belong to a higher class, possessing a greater status, than those who are being controlled. Not surprisingly, this is a direct throwback to Frederick Winslow Taylor, and scientific management, circa 1911.

In a more-UCaPP organization, legitimation is collaboratively constructed through a process of emergent (near-)consensus that combines all aspects of the valence relationships. In this context, a legitimate leader is one who people will “follow” without the need for external coercion or reward, or necessarily the legitimation of office. For example, someone who is considered a “thought leader” in contemporary jargon possesses many aspects of UCaPP legitimation. Referent leaders – prominent exemplars might include people like Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, and arguably, Barack Obama – possess UCaPP legitimation, even if they additionally enjoy BAH legitimation as well. Interestingly, a UCaPP-legitimated role does not necessarily have to be functionally justified relative to the objectives of the organization, but must contribute to the intended effects of the organization, according to effective theory. Note as well that this explanation accommodates both traditional organizations and non-traditional, emergent forms that occur daily in unexpected places, often enabled by UCaPP technologies like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Meetup, and good-old-fashioned email.

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Emerging from the Mists of the Data [EMD]

Update (1 March 2010): The research and thesis are now complete, with the full text available here. Two paragraphs down in this post is a brief primer. The thesis wiki site delves deeply into these concepts, discussing a 3,000-year history of organization, a brief treatise on why positivist and deterministic approaches to researching human systems are inherently limited, a description of each of the five participant organizations ranging from über-BAH to ultra-UCaPP, a detailed exposition of Valence Theory (the five valence relationships, two valence forms, and Effective Theory of Action), and guidance for organizational transformation, collaborative leadership, and consistency among organizational constituencies.

I am currently in the process of deeply analyzing and massaging the research data contributed by eighteen individuals from across five organizations. Two of these organizations I would consider to be more-BAH, two are more-UCaPP, and one is enjoying the UCaPP aspects that seem to characterize a contemporary entrepreneurship while simultaneously and inexorably being pulled to crystallize into something more traditionally isomorphic – in other words, to become more-BAH. These next three posts emerge from the mists of the data, as it were, to explore questions that I think are key to understanding some of the differences between those organizations that are more-BAH and those that are more-UCaPP in nature.

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels. A very quick primer: BAH is an acronym representing Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical organizations, essentially the Industrial Age model. UCaPP describes contemporary conditions of being Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate. Organizations are rarely, if ever entirely BAH or entirely UCaPP, but tend to have tendencies and behaviours that are more consistent with one or the other end of a spectrum delineated by these two polarities. Valence Theory of Organization defines organization as being an emergent entity whose members (individuals or organizations) are connected via two or more of five valence (meaning uniting, bonding, interacting, reacting, combining) relationships. Each of these relationships – Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological – have a fungible (mercantile or tradable) aspect, and a ba-aspect, the latter creating a space and place of common, tacit understanding of self-identification-in-relation, mutual sense of purpose, and volition to action. Organizations with more-BAH tendencies will emphasize the fungible valence forms, and primarily tend to focus on Economic valence; more-UCaPP organizations tend to emphasize ba-valence forms, and are more balanced among the relative valence strengths.

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08 December 2008

A Lesson for Mr. Harper

No, I'm not talking about the bullet he dodged last week. On the night of President Obama's election (yeah, I know he doesn't officially assume office until mid-January, but he is the President) the Prime Minister said that his team would be closely examining and analyzing Obama's success. Of course, Harper was thinking simply of Obama's stunning victory. What Harper is unable to learn is that Obama did it by engaging honestly with people, by listening to advice, and by paying attention to the critique of his detractors and correcting course. Harper has proven himself to be incapable of any of these acts. And now, have a look at this analysis, and the remarkable way Obama is remaking the process of setting policy - by actually being open, and inviting commentary and participation.

Referent leadership is the most powerful form of leadership. I would argue that it is the only sustainable form in a UCaPP world. Demagogic leadership by intimidation cannot succeed, save for a very brief time. And most certainly, our country deserves better than the small and petty man who now occupies 24 Sussex Drive.

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03 December 2008

A Letter to the Leaders of the Four Federal Political Parties

[This letter accompanies a copy of my letter to the Governor General]

To Messrs. Dion, Layton, Duceppe, and Harper,

I am forwarding you a letter that I wrote to Her Excellency, the Governor General of Canada, concerning the current parliamentary situation. As I suggest in the letter, the time now is not for a coalition of power, but a collaboration of ideas and diverse contexts. Mr. Harper, your actions of late indicate that you are unwilling to live up to your election night pledge, in which you said, "This is a time for us all to put aside political differences and partisan considerations and to work cooperatively for the benefit of Canada. We have shown that minority government can work, and at this time of global economic instability we owe it to Canadians to demonstrate this once again."

Specifically, Mr. Harper, your Finance Minister's Fiscal Update, and the subsequent backpedalling, suggest that your interest is solely in retaining power, and not listening to the overwhelming majority of Canadians that did not put their trust in your leadership or policies. You had a chance to engage with other parties, to collaborate in the way Barack Obama is demonstrating in the U.S., and truly live up to what we now know was a fictional image shown during the election campaign. Such behaviour is beneath a man of your intelligence, and avowed love and care for this country and all Canadians. Please do not further damage your image or your legacy by living down to the low expectations of those who would call you "coward" for being unwilling to face the House in a timely fashion.

To the leaders of the putative coalition: I encourage you not to back down on forming a collaborative government via a coalition (please pay close attention to that wording - collaborative government). Equally, however, I encourage you to extend an olive branch to Mr. Harper, to enable his active participation in developing the economic strategy for this country, assuming he is willing to truly collaborate. Although the majority of Canadians mistrust both his actions and his motives, there is still a sizable minority who look up to Mr. Harper for his vision, his passion, and his principles. A true collaboration invites those who can bring diverse contexts into an environment of active and dialogic engagement. The process is far more complex than debate (or worse: the type of public grandstanding that passes for debate in the House of Commons), and takes careful listening and understanding.

Gentlemen: It is redundant and obvious to point out the unique situation in which the entire world finds itself. What seems to be less than obvious is that the approach we must all take - including every citizen of this great country - must, of necessity, be different than those attempted in the past.

Welcome to this side of the break boundary.

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A Letter to the Governor General: On the Matter of a Potential Coalition Government

Her Excellency
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., C.D.
Governor General of Canada

Your Excellency,

I am writing, with respect, to express my hopefulness and optimism for the future of our great nation. I do not presume to be a constitutional expert. I can only imagine that you are seeking counsel from the best that Canada can offer to navigate these challenging times. However, I do claim some expertise in understanding the historical context of change, and in particular, the effects of the technological context that defines our conteporary world. This is the area of my research at the University of Toronto, and a topic on which I have written and spoken many times around the world.

We are living in a world that is ubiquitously connected, and therefore we all feel the effects of being pervasively proximate. We have, as a society, recently passed through what I would describe as a "break boundary" between a cultural epoch that was defined by industrialization and power hierarchies that relied on a singular authority, and the current epoch that is defined by the juxtaposition of multiple contexts and emergent stability from complex interactions.

Although U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is hailed as the first "Internet President," the crisis facing our country can indeed be characterized as being consistent with this notion of juxtaposition of multiple contexts, with the opportunity to create emergent stability from complex interactions. According to the research that I have done that identifies some of the most effective organizations in a contemporary context, the ability to create collaborations among people who bring diverse contexts, and to accomplish the objectives that emerge from that complex collaboration, is determinant and characteristic of organizations best suited for, and consistent with, contemporary times.

Canadians have the opportunity to be the first in the world to enjoy such collaborative governance. The ability to meld such diverse contexts into a functioning government is a rare chance to face the global crises in an innovative way: not only the immediate economic crisis, but the ecological, peace-building, and social justice crises that plague the world, as well. As President-elect Obama is assembling a Cabinet and advisors that will inform his policies from diverse contexts, so too will Canada have the benefit of non-doctrinaire, non-ideologically driven leadership from among the three parties now proposing what is technically called a coalition government, but in fact could be the first collaborative government.

Unlike minority governance situations that have occurred in other countries, ours is not so much a matter of achieving power through coalition, but rather a matter of being able to achieve progressive objectives through collaboration.

According to news reports, you have already received a formal letter indicating that the current Government does not enjoy the confidence of the House, and that there are sufficient members who will be able to govern with that majority confidence. Together, they do represent the majority of Canadian voters. Additionally, you may soon be asked by the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament. It is now eminently clear that this request is being done for the sole purpose of avoiding a confidence motion that will inevitably come sooner or later. I respectfully suggest that such an action by the Prime Minister demonstrates a blatant disrespect for Parliamentary will, and equally, a cynical disrespect for the 60% of Canadian voters who did not vote for the Conservative Party.

As you are well aware, our country and the world at large are facing multiple crises of unprecedented proportions. To allow Mr. Harper to defer the ability to deal with these crises for yet another month for the sole purpose of retaining power - power that he has recently demonstrated his government will irresponsibly wield - would be, I suggest, tremendously unfortunate for our country, and especially for those who are the most vulnerable to economic turmoil.

I urge you to deny any request by the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament. Instead, require that he follow the Constitution and ask for the confidence of the House as soon as possible.

With respect,
Mark Federman
Ph.D. Candidate
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto

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02 December 2008

The World's First UCaPP Government

The United States may have elected the first Internet President - one who seems to truly understand the messages of the UCaPP* world. Canada, on the other hand, is about to form the very first UCaPP government in the world - one that appears to be problematic when viewed from a BAH perspective, but very much in tune with a Valence Theory reading.

If one considers this situation with a fogey mind, the proposed coalition government between the Liberals and NDP, with the support of the Bloc Québécois, appears to be an act of political opportunism, with the objective being the acquisition of legitimated power (i.e., the Prime Ministership and Cabinet posts) for the sake of power. Particularly for those who support our now hapless Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, the game has always been about acquiring power, and wielding paternalistic influence to create a right-wing, reactionary, neo-liberal government.

Sorry... my political biases are showing.

But those who consider the world from today's perspective - with the eyes of the 21st century, rather than the 19th - a collaboration among three political parties that have each put aside their purposeful objectives and carefully considered each other's contexts, is entirely consistent with the dominant effects of a UCaPP world. Valence Theory can explain the emergent government-in-waiting through the five valence relationships that are now strengthening and binding what otherwise might look like strange bedfellows. They are indeed strange, but strange in the vocabulary of complexity theory (the precise mathematical definition, from Wikipedia):
An attractor is a set to which a dynamical system evolves after a long enough time. That is, points that get close enough to the attractor remain close even if slightly disturbed. ... An attractor is informally described as strange if it has non-integer dimension or if the dynamics on it are chaotic.
It does sound a bit like our political situation, doesn't it?

Seriously, though, collaboration is the name of the game in a UCaPP world, and creates the most effective organizations that are, in fact, the most democratically representative. With the small plurality that he achieved, Stephen Harper cannot lay claim to a unitary mandate from the people. His pseudo-moral position that, having lost the confidence of the House, a coalition is somehow undemocratic, rings hollow - the last gasps of a desperate man who can no longer get what he wants through bullying and political cynicism, justifying his actions on deceitful technicalities.

I agree with the Conservative talking points on one issue: now is the time to put Canada and ALL Canadians first, ahead of political power games. Mr. Harper: Jim Flaherty's Fiscal Update was a political power game. Proroguing Parliament is a political power game. Organizing anti-coalition rallies is a political power game. Calling for another general election is a political power game. It is time to put Canada first, accept the inevitable non-confidence vote quickly, and step down.

Like George W Bush set the stage for, and ushered in the world's first UCaPP President, you will have the historical fame for ushering in the world's first UCaPP government. And that, indeed, puts Canada first.

*A note on acronyms: BAH is Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical, which characterizes most organizations to a greater or lesser degree. I argue that BAH structures and their consequential methods of management became dominant in the Industrial Age, and remain to this day, albeit gussied up with names like "best practices" and "knowledge management."

UCaPP abbreviates the concept of being Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate, which is the way that I characterize the massively interconnected world in which we live. Because we are, or soon will be, connected to everyone and all available information (ubiquitous connectivity) we feel the effects of being next to, or proximate to everyone and all available information (pervasive proximity). This condition changes one's direct experience of the world relative to those of us born before the 1990s (approximately), especially for those who are born directly into that experience.

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01 December 2008


Schadenfreude [noun]: Taking delight at another's misfortune. See, Stephen Harper. Related: hubris, Roman Emperor Nero

And just to add to the enjoyment, here's the great number, Schadenfreude, from Avenue Q:

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29 November 2008

Big Ideas: No Educator Left Behind

It's a weird feeling, watching yourself giving a talk. I-the-watcher felt tremendously nervous since I was unprepared to give the talk I-the-lecturer was about to give. Strange, no? Fortunately, the guy on the TV was indeed well prepared, and didn't do that bad a job, if I do say so myself. TVO describes the talk like this:
"No Educator Left Behind" is the title of this lecture by Mark Federman. In it Federman contends that, as a result of the changes the internet has brought to the way students communicate and interact, universities, if they are to remain relevant, must move from the current model of education as skills centered to one that is more focused on connectivity.
. If you missed the live broadcast, you can download the video.

Update: If you'd like to pass the link around, here is a more manageable URL: http://snipurl.com/noeducator

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The Downfall of a BAH Leader

Repeat after me, boys and girls: In a UCaPP world, the most powerful form of power is referent power. The only sustainable form of leadership is referent leadership. A leader who might well have legitimacy because of a board-of-directors appointment, or say, the outcome of a first-past-the-post election, might not be considered a leader by those whom he is supposed to be leading. Attempting to assert power - especially through coercion wielded through BAH mechanisms - is a recipe for disaster.

And so, our über-BAH Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is facing political disaster. Winning the election with a substantial minority of the popular vote means that he does not have a clear mandate from the people to implement his party's ideological agenda. And thus, when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rose in the House this week to deliver the ideological agenda wrapped around a Fiscal Update, Harper's narcissistic arrogance and political cynicism came shining through. Fuzzy sweaters or no, Harper's fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to cooperate - let alone collaborate - creates a wonderful parliamentary drama, worthy of any prime time series: we could call it, Centre Block.

Despite the Conservative talking points, questioning the legitimacy of the opposition to form a coalition (of which there is no question - it is both democratic and constitutionally legitimate for a group representing two-thirds of the electorate to form a government), now is the time for true collaborative leadership to come to the fore. And I'm not merely talking about the worldwide economic crisis that Harper and Flaherty think can be beaten back by denying civil servants the right to strike, and women the right to pay equity. This is a UCaPP world that needs UCaPP-style leadership. The lessons from south of the border are quite clear: those who are willing to consider the multiple interconnections among diverse contexts, and engage in productive dialogue rather than partisan debate, are those whom the people will follow. They are the referent leaders. And, Stephen Harper, you are no Barack Obama.

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27 November 2008

$0.05 of Knee-Jerk Stupidity from City Hall

Why am I not surprised that Mayor Miller and crew have once again taken a serious issue and reacted in a BAH way? The plague of the plastic bags, that suddenly has become environmental enemy number one, is to be dealt with through coercion, consultation only with privileged interests, and a justification that reinforces one of the major structural dysfunctions of the modern business corporation.

Miller announced a 5-cent charge that is to be paid by consumers for each plastic bag used in, say, a grocery store. Most of these plastic bags end up in the garbage (most often used for containing the garbage), and this is seen as a Major Problem for solid waste management. The problem is that the profit from the sale of plastic bags ends up in the pockets of the grocery stores, who claim that they will use the windfall for things like "staff training" (presumably on how to handle customers who are upset at the increase in their grocery bill.

The modern business corporation is a very efficient externalizing machine. In other words, it is designed to slough off as many of its own costs as possible onto others, be it consumers, or society as a whole. With this announcement Mayor Miller has given them a holiday gift: the ability to collectively profit by approximately 3 cents a bag for between 400 and 500 million bags a year. The number of plastic bags is unlikely to be reduced significantly: as one anonymous spokesperson for the city pointed out, the additional cost is unlikely to be a burden to families. That, of course, means that it's unlikely to induce a change in behaviour.

With a paternalistic mentality of coercion and non-collaboration that Miller has displayed throughout his term, a much more progressive alternative seems to have been completely ignored. He could work with the retailers to shift over to oxy-biodegradable plastics for bags. They then could be combined with the organic waste and composted - after all, the majority of plastic grocery bags are indeed used to hold waste. I'm sure there are other alternatives available as well - both to garbage issues, as well as to the Mayor and many of his sycophantic councillors.

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26 November 2008

Flying Solo, and Big Ideas

Well, it seems as if this is a big TVO week for me. Last spring, I sat down with producer Wodek Szemberg for a long conversation about a wide variety of topics. This conversation (as well as conversations with many other people) are being sliced and diced into a series of minute-and-a-half interstitial clips called Flying Solo that will be broadcast on TVO throughout the day. My first is on The Future of Belief, and will be on-air tomorrow, November 27 at 21:50:15. But you can see it here first:

And, even more exciting is the broadcast of my lecture, No Educator Left Behind, on Big Ideas this Saturday and Sunday, November 29 and 30, at 16:00. This was a keynote I did for Centennial College back in June (and will be repeating at Ontario University Institute of Technology next February), and was also the Bill Murphy Distinguished Keynote address at the National Extension Technology Conference in Raleigh, NC last April.

If you tune in, please let me know what you think!

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21 November 2008

I Got Q's Letter of the Day!

Yesterday, on Jian Ghomeshi's show, Q, Jian interviewed playwright Jonathan Reynolds. Raynolds maintained that contemporary theatre is too left-wing, that artistic directors are too timid, or too politically motivated, or both, to mount productions of plays that have a more conservative or reactionary bent to them. Playwrights and directors, on the whole, tend to be liberal and sit toward the left end of the political spectrum. Thus, potentially controversial plays that question the so-called progressive doctrine (like Reynolds's own Stonewall Jackson's House, for instance) are rarely seen. It's a far-left conspiracy, dontcha see? It's a clear case of cause and effect.

Well, not so clear in my book. Looking at this cultural issue through a McLuhan lens allows us to see the effect-and-cause aspects of it, and that led to me writing to the show, and being selected as (cue the David Byrne and Brian Eno loop of "Regiment") Letter of the Day:
I think that your guest, Jonathon Reynolds, was (sort of) right, but for the wrong reason. Yes, it's probably true that most playwrights, artistic directors, and artists of all types are more left-wing in their political, and especially social views. But it's not *because* they are politically and socially lefty that their art reflects progressive topics, subject matter and critical approaches. Rather, it's the other way around: their art allows them to probe the ills and dysfunctions of society and their humanity moves them to cry out as latter-day Paul Reveres: "To arms! To arms! The greedy, the selfish, and the liars are coming!"

Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian media philosopher (who gave us "the medium is the message," and "the global village") had great respect for art and artists as probes into the nature of our society:
"The job of art is not to store moments of experience but to explore environments that are otherwise invisible." (from McLuhan Hot & Cool)
"The artist makes new perception that changes all the social ground rules." (from Take Today: The executive as dropout)

As McLuhan observes, artists have the uncanny knack of being able to probe society as it is, to find human dyanamics that are hidden from the most of us, and turn it into public spectacle for all to see. It's not that they are necessarily politically left-wing. It's that so much that robs us of our humanity has been created, and obfuscated, by those who are politically right-wing.
Thanks for choosing me. It's an honour. And, sorry about hurting your brain with this one!

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17 November 2008

SusCamp '08: Ryan Taylor and the Fair Trade Jewellery Company

Ryan Taylor is an interesting guy. He's an adventurer, explorer, miner, and goldsmith. He is also the founder and proprietor of The Fair Trade Jewellery Company (whose website - ftjco.com - is not quite public yet, it seems). His business creates made-to-order custom rings from gold, platinum and diamonds that are ethically and sustainably produced. The diamonds are Canadian, but that's not the interesting part of the story. The metals are mined using indigenous knowledge and artisanal mining techniques from the people in the Choco forest of Colombia, working in conjunction with Oro Verde Corporation (literally, "green gold"). He uses what he terms a "family supply chain business model," in which his company works directly with the miners' village to ensure safe, sustainable, and ecologically responsible retrieval of the precious metals.

He described some of the problematics of the Free Trade Labelling Organization, and the certification infrastructure that has been created. FTLO has become a very large bureaucracy (and that brings its own issues), and the licensing expense has already increased the economic barrier to entry so that only large corporations are able to effectively participate. Equivalently, contracts are typically made with landlords - the individual workers and their families typically have little say. The inspection and certification process itself has become bureaucratized, so that inspectors who have expertise in one area - say, cacao - are asked to inspect forest harvesting, without having sufficient knowledge to properly adjudicate sustainable practices. As well, Fair Trade primarily guarantees a fair financial return for the indigenous workers' labour. The people typically have no knowledge or stake in what happens to the product once it has been taken to the wholesale commodity market. For those who legitimately say that a credentialing organization is the only way to ensure that claims of fair treatment and payment are true, Ryan points out that it becomes a matter of providing sufficient evidence - video footage and the relationship with NGOs like Oro Verde - to develop trust. Besides, in today's environment of emergent transparency, one's reputation is easily destroyed in the case of malfeasance.

Taylor's approach deals directly with the village, its existing social structure, and the individual families. The workers are engaged and care about the product that their commodity helps create. The entire life cycle of artisanal mining becomes a concern of the jeweller, and of the end consumer as well. Taylor's company pays a premium for the commodity, facilitated through Oro Verde, and then re-invests his company's net profits back into the village. Currently, his re-investment rate is 25% of net profit as his business is getting off the ground. By next year, his plan is to re-invest 100% of net profit back into the village.

This is what I would call making a respectful, as opposed to "respectable," profit!

For their part, the villagers are terraforming the land that has been mined once the precious metals have been extracted. The land is restored and replanted with trees, to eventually create an income source from timber. As well, children are educated, well-fed and housed, and see a future for themselves in the village. Ryan says that this may not be the most super-scalable business model, but that's not his interest. Rather, it is creating a sustainable model for the community in an industry that is inherently anti-sustainable and environmentally damaging.

For me, Ryan Taylor's Free Trade Jewellery Company is a perfect example of the Valence Theory assertion that suppliers, producers, and consumers are all full members of a valence organization. It doesn't matter whether people come to the same "building" (in either physical or cyber-space), or if they happen to be on the payroll. So long as there are multiple valence relationship connections linking the members, every member has a stake in the entire organic organization.

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SusCamp '08: Lina Srivastava and Sean Howard

Although they may not realize it themselves, Lina Srivastava and Sean Howard are organization development practitioners working in the realm of social change - the sort of stuff that OISE's new Collaborative Program in Workplace Learning and Social Change focuses on. They facilitated an example exercise that addressed a real problem in the emerging world, that of waste pickers in Delhi losing their livelihood due to commercialization of waste disposal. The situation was simplified for the purpose of the session, and relatively little guidance was provided to the individual break-out groups at the outset. We were challenged to seek to understand how individual perspectives could be changed that would change behaviours, and subsequently lead to systemic change in a societal setting. (Howard is a marketer by background - his method was more-or-less OD; his vocabulary was marketing).

Having an OD guy in our group (me) enabled us to navigate the problem using a systems change approach. We asked "who's perspective are we talking about," and that led us to identify the various stakeholders and their particular interests. We then observed the complex interconnections among the interests - themes that would undoubtedly be problematic, through which feedback and feedforward loops would be created, causing ripple effects throughout the system. We then realized that the only way this complex issue would be resolved is by creating a space of engagement, in which all parties concerns would be heard and respected, and that the interrelationship polarities and tensions could be explored.

There's that "space of engagement" notion again - the basic principle of ba. In dealing with situations as complex as those that arise in an organization, or throughout the larger community, it is vitally important to be able to create a common space in which all parties can engage. Effectively, we are creating the conditions for a valence organization to emerge from among a group of individual constituencies, each with their own interest. Identifying and exploring the nature of the potential valence relationships becomes a means through which dialogue can be facilitated, and that, in turn, creates the ba space from which resolution can emerge.

Thanks to Lina and Sean for inspiring what has turned out to be an interesting line of thinking for me, taking Valence Theory from philosophy and theory, to praxis.

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16 November 2008

Sustainability Camp '08

I spent the day today at Sustainability Camp '08, an unconference held in Toronto, Ontario that enables deep and meaningful discussions and the collaborative sharing of practical ideas about sustainable community building in a creative economy. It certainly was a well-spent day, providing me the opportunity to engage with many interesting people and ideas. Even more important, it was an inspiring day, hearing about some of the fantastic initiatives that challenge conventional thinking about organizing, creating businesses, and approaching environmental issues.

I had the good fortune to lead a session early in the day, enabling me to share up-to-the-minute thinking about my Valence Theory research. Many of the ideas I presented are still in in the very formative stage of having just emerged from the empirical data, and I appreciate the opportunity to try them out on such a diverse and thoughtful group of people. The notes for my talk are here, and include some brand new thinking about the -ba and fungible- forms of the five valence relationships. I would love to hear your responses and reflections on what I presented.

Tom Williams of GiveMeaning.com provided the keynote for SusCamp. He provided a great framing for one of the elusive valence forms, namely Economic-ba, referring to his concept of "Return on Generosity": how people feel the effects of their contribution, no matter how small that contribution might be in absolute terms. A person could, for example, be the "$5 philanthropist" (an expression of Identity-ba), and through what Tom calls "the power of plenty," the pooling of small contributions can have enormous effect (as we saw in the Obama campaign). Tom profiles some of the current public discourse that pits the Economy against Environmental concerns, and astutely asks why an artificial construct, the collectively constructed fiction called The Economy should trump the reality of the place in which we live and that sustains us, that is, The Environment. I would explain this as Economic valence connections tying to fungible-Identity and fungible-Socio-Psychological valences in a status oriented culture such as ours. (If this is entirely Greek to you, download my talk notes.) I think that being able to understand the human dynamics that inform this sort of question may provide some clues to discovering how to resolve the challenges of this sort of framing.

Tom rhetorically asks, why choose the environmental movement as opposed to any other issue to rally around? His answer is that the environment affects so many people in so many ways that it has the power to bring people together for collective action. But we have seen the same sort of galvanizing effect with the Barack Obama presidential campaign. (When I mentioned this during the conversation, Tom pointed out that the presidential campaign was still relatively close, with only 52% of the electorate choosing Obama. What I didn't have the opportunity to say in the public session is that the 52% only reflects US politics; from the perspective of galvanization to common cause, Obama support worldwide was four times that of McCain, according to a BBC Poll). In the emergent Support-Obama valence organization, I would suggest strong Economic-ba, Identity-ba, and Socio-Psychological-ba which is similar to environmentalism, and potentially similar to any other arbitrary issue. But the laws of complexity mean that this dynamic cannot necessarily occur without having the "right" strange attractor (i.e., the issue), coupled with the "right" critical mass of people - enough people asking the same questions at the same time (without necessarily requiring the same answers for all).

More on the SusCamp '08 in subsequent posts.

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15 November 2008

John Williams is the Man

And now a musical interlude. An a cappella, Star Wars themed tribute to the music of John Williams.

The person in the video is not actually singing, but lip-synching to the singing of Moosebutter, a professional comedy singing group based in Provo, Utah. The lyrics are here.

And now for something completely different (as if that wasn't different enough), here's a ukelele, pennywhistle and tuba cover of the Star Wars Imperial March.

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09 November 2008

Complexity on Film: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche: a figure of speech that presents a part for the whole, or the whole for the part; for example, “hands” for sailors, or “the law” for police. A reproduction of a life, for the life. Or, in some cases, a reproduction of a reproduction of the life. Mirrors within mirrors. A theatrical Mandelbrot set in which characters play the characters playing the characters within a film.

Such is the brilliance of a film that is itself a case study in complexity, Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The story itself is simple. Theatrical director, Caden Cotard, played by the always mesmerizing Philip Seymour Hoffman, wins essentially unlimited funding that enables him to reproduce his life over a lifetime in a massive warehouse. In the process, he is forced to reconcile his feelings and relationships with the various women in his life – his wife, daughter, assistant, and others. A simple enough story. Yet, complex systems are built from simple elements. It is the recursion of both feedback and feedforward loops, and the small, seemingly insignificant, perturbations that result in massive systemic changes out of which emerges this cinematic masterpiece.

Apparently, people’s opinions on this film are split: you either love it or hate it. Synecdoche is not mindless entertainment that allows an audience to escape everyday reality. Kaufman makes his audience work to engage with his characters. It is a textbook example of a McLuhan cool medium, needing the audience’s active participation to complete the work. If you plan to see it – something I heartily recommend – plan also to spend several hours with an intelligent companion mulling over its absurdist roots and surrealism. (Metaphysics homework assignment: answer the question, what’s with the burning house?) Plan as well on seeing it at least twice, if not three times, to begin to capture the various fractal twists and turns through the warehouse of Cotard’s life, even as he cleans up the mess left behind by his vanished wife, Adele, subletting Capgras’s apartment. If, as is said, the unexamined life is not worth living, Caden Cotard’s life has indeed been recursively worthwhile. And so too is spending at least two hours with Charlie Kaufman's magnum opus.

(And if I ever have the chance to teach a course on complexity, this film will be on the syllabus.)

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04 November 2008

31 October 2008

Web Therapy

"I'm Dr. Fiona Wallace, and this is Web Therapy." So begins each episode of a hilarious and very clever web comedy series, starring Lisa Kudrow. The premise is that most psychoanalytic work occurs in only three minutes ("once you get past all the talk, and the dreams, and the emotions and stuff"), and hence can be offered via webcam in only three minutes. Kudrow as Dr. Wallace is brilliantly dysfunctional, and the comedy sneaks up on you in her portrayal played against various patients. So far there are seven episodes posted - each is a gem, and together, I think, they herald a long-needed fork in the genre of episodic comedy. Well worth three minutes a week!

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An Inquiry into ba, BAH, and UCaPP Through the Ritual of Lunch

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to catch up with a friend I had not seen for at least five years. I met Ariel Garten during my years at the McLuhan Program, when we were collaborating with Steve Mann for the Deconferences, and in particular, our Brainwave Music happenings. She’s a neuroscientist by training, a psychotherapist by vocation, and a wonderful artist/designer and performer by spirit, soul and practice. As I was describing my Valence Theory research and the idea of creating ba as a distinguishing factor between BAH and UCaPP organizations, she asked an intriguing question: Does creating the space from which the common values, intentionality, and mutual understanding emerge also involve enacting ritual? (I’m paraphrasing here.)

A fascinating question. I would answer with a qualified yes, at least from the little I’m beginning to understand of Nishida Kitaro’s writing on basho – the place of engagement in which self recognizes and engages other, and both paradoxically cease to be and come into existence simultaneously (as in, what do you get when you cross Western existentialism with Zen?). Ritual in the sense of Nishida’s “pure experience,” may indeed create basho out of what he terms “absolute nothingness.” In the Introduction to the translated version of Nishida’s, An Inquiry into the Good, Masao Abe writes, “in pure experience, knowledge, feeling and volition are undifferentiated. Ultimate reality is not merely known cognitively but also felt or realized emotionally and volitionally. The unity of intellectual knowledge and practical emotion-volition is the deepest demand of human beings , and it indicates the living ultimate reality” (p. xviii).

I reflect on four examples of ba, characterized in organizational practice by a common and tacit “knowing what to do,” without necessarily requiring responsibility, accountability or project management typical of getting things done in organizations. There is the example of Inter Pares that has a lot of what I might call ritual around their hiring, welcoming, and initiating processes for new members. Unit 7 has its game metaphor, with an owner, customer, and co-collaborators for each initiatives, and both required and forbidden moves. (Both Inter Pares and Unit 7 are participant organizations in my research who have given me permission to reveal their identities, so there’s much more to come on them and their unique practices.) Yesterday, I heard about Campbell’s personal values exercise. And, my own department used World Café to create an experience of ba that led to all sorts of completed projects and initiatives after everyone unanimously said that they would take neither responsibility nor accountability for undertaking any project or initiative.

In each case, the embodied experience of the particular enacted ritual had to do with explicitly articulating personal values and aspirations in a collaborative environment, and using those to provide guidance to the organization as a whole. Contemporary “fast capitalist” discourse, however, goes the other way: In general, fast capitalist texts co-opt “high-moral-value” words, such as “liberation,” “empowerment,” “trust,” “vision,” “collaboration,” “teams,” and the like as mind-numbing clichés that allow workers to serve corporate ends without critique. Visionary leadership attempts to appropriate the definition of “core values” and moral agenda from their traditional institutional homes in society – church, school, university, government. Fast capitalism represents, in this way, an imperialist agenda, attempting to impose its own vision of a new world, based on its own closed rationale (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996).

Is the direction of values alignment perhaps another differentiating characteristic between the contemporary BAH and UCaPP organizations? Do BAH organizations tend to align employees’ and customers’ values with corporate (so-called) values, while UCaPP organizations tend to align organizational values with those of its members, the latter made explicit and articulated through more-or-less authentic, embodied ritual? Neat questions to contemplate.

Man, was it worthwhile to hook up with Ariel again!

  • Gee, J. P., Hull, G., & Lankshear, C. (1996). The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  • Nishida, K. (1990). An inquiry into the good (M. Abe & C. Ives, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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30 October 2008

From BAH to ba at Toronto OD Network

This morning I attended a workshop hosted by the Toronto Organization Development Network, a group of both internal and external consultants and practitioners involved in OD, organizational change, learning, culture, and similar endeavours. Among the presenters were two that, for me, captured practices of two extremes represented by my research – the BAH organization and the UCaPP organization.

Eric Cousineau described his thirty years of experience enables him to create a strong, instrumental focus on outcomes, responsibilities, accountabilities, and especially quantitative metrics to essentially ram through change. (“You have to amalgamate 5 different and distinct bureaucracies into one, eliminating redundancies and accomplish it all within six months. Go!”) He described how every significant organizational change can be framed within a project management construct, and how 99.9% of everything that is important to know about the success of the organizational change can, and should, be measured. I’m not engaging in satirical hyperbole here – that’s essentially what he said. Of particular interest to me was his description of how he handled the organizational change aspects of a large employee restructuring project in a Fortune 50 company in a way that created trust among the staff, through the visibility of helping dislocated employees find jobs elsewhere in the company. It all sounded wonderful, save for the inconvenient truth that I happened to be talking to employees of that company at the same time, who were unanimously telling me about the environment of fear, paranoia, extreme lack of trust, and the undermining of business productivity that Cousineau’s project was creating. I guess fear, paranoia, trust and motivation fall into the 0.1% of what’s important.

Cousineau’s anecdotes and extreme focus on individual accountability, instrumental project management approaches to human systems, and the supremacy of measurable outcomes represent a classic BAH – Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical – approach to OD. It’s not at all surprising that Cousineau appealed to credentialism – his accountancy and industrial engineering backgrounds – as “proof statements” to support the validity of his approach. And, from a BAH outcomes perspective, it all makes perfect sense: people are largely interchangeable and therefore, largely irrelevant, so long as the instrumental purpose is served.

In contrast, we also heard from Nick Evans, a leadership coach, facilitator, and organizational effectiveness consultant for Campbell’s Soup Canada. Evans described the remarkable transformation of Campbell Canada that took the company from a relatively successful, but very stable (read: boring results) company, into a positive-growth, increasingly profitable organization whose model of transformation is now being adopted globally. Evans described a process that began with people (actually, the leaders within the company) understanding and articulating their personal values, that enabled the collective values and vision for the organization to emerge. They then engaged among themselves, and with the rest of the company to probe how they were “living the vision,” critically challenging in-use theories that deviated from the espoused. One poignant example focused on nourishing and wellness as an espoused value being in conflict with the relatively high sodium levels in their products. Providing authentic leadership (another value), Campbell’s quietly began to reduce the sodium in their soups over a period of several years in order to “retrain” the palate of Canadians. Now, after they have successfully aligned values without compromising economic considerations, they are trumpeting their success in a series of advertisements.

The values exercise helped enable ba – an emergent space of engagement and relationship collectively occupied by all whom the organization touches – which is a key aspect of my Valence Theory, and seemingly (from how I'm reading my research results) characteristic of UCaPP organizations. Organization conceived according to this new philosophical and theoretical foundation, provides its members a wider range of questions that can reasonably be asked of practical situations. Perhaps more important, Valence Theory with a balance among the valences, and a ba orientation provide a substantial, humanistic range of options for decision making that are not readily available to BAH managers.

By the way, if anyone has the lyrics, or even better, a link to a video, of the old Campbell’s Soup commercial – the one that starts, “if every you have wondered what / to serve for lunch that’s piping hot. Campbell’s got an awful lot / there’s thirty soups and more, they’ve got…” –I’d love to see it again!

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21 October 2008

Good News and Depressing News

Now that I'm on the job market for an academic position for the 2009/2010 academic year today's PhD Comics resonates.

The good news is that I can anticipate earning something closer to the salary for untenured professor, rather than less than the average for grad students (and we just received a personalized letter from OISE, informing us that our stipend was being increased this year so that it would achieve the lofty earnings level of less than the average). The depressing news? Why, oh why, didn't I go for football coaching? That way I could give 110% without worrying about the mathematical hyperbole of it all!

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20 October 2008

Workplace Learning and Social Change: What's the Link?

This year, I am doing a Graduate Assistanceship in the brand new Collaborative Program in Workplace Learning and Social Change. It is a joint program between the Departments of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, and Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, here at OISE. The program
caters to students interested in developing their understanding of work and learning trends in Canada and internationally with a focus on social change.
Essentially, this program enables its participants to
situate workplace learning within broader social trends such as globalization, neo-liberalism and organizational restructuring [while] exploring connections between learning as an individual and social phenomena, [and] identifying learning strategies that foster social change through greater equality of power, inclusion, participatory decision-making and economic democracy.

If you, or someone you know, might be considering a graduate degree - M.Ed., M.A., or Ph.D. - with a dual research focus in in workplace or organization, and social change or activism, this might well be the program for you. You can find out more by joining us next Wednesday, October 29, 2008, from 17:00 to 19:00 for our opening reception: Workplace Learning and Social Change: What's the Link? It's being held at OISE, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto in room 5-250. You'll have the opportunity to meet some of the professors and students involved, munch some nibblies, peruse some of the ongoing research, and participate in a small adult ed-y sort of happening.

And if you do attend, make sure you come by and introduce yourself! Hope to see you there.

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18 October 2008

Political Creativity

One thing to be said about the US Presidential race is how much ordinary people have become engaged in such a variety of creative participation in the conversation that is democracy. Here's a video by an improv group that illustrates the point.

Thanks, Christine!

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15 October 2008

Goodbye Stéphane, We Hardly Knew Ye

Well, I have to admit, Stephen Harper was right about one thing: Stéphane Dion is not a leader. He could not rally Liberal support in yesterday's election, could not see his way to bring the vast Liberal political machinery into play. Consequently, he suffered the worst defeat of any Liberal leader in the country's history: the lowest plurality since Confederation, and a seat count even lower than that of John Turner's disastrous performance. With that, Mr. Dion joins the Kim Campbell Hall of Shame for implosion of a political party.

True leadership, particularly now in our massively interconnected world, must primarily be referent leadership. Legitimate leaders - those who have been appointed or elected to a recognized hierarchical position - are all well and good. They have the right to exercise coercive power (that being, reward and punishment) within the bounds of their respective ground rules, be they corporate or political. But if they attempt to lead without being willingly recognized by those whom they would lead as worthy of leadership - by demonstrating values, vision, tactility, and instilling inspiration and energy among their membership - well, reward and punishment only go so far.

Stephen Harper is a legitimate leader - he won the most seats in our otherwise waste-of-time election. He has gained 18 months of clear sailing for his agenda, since forcing an election before 18 months to two years from now would be political suicide. Besides, the Liberal Party needs to find a new leader and regroup, and it will take all three parties working in concert to bring the House down. But for all the legitmation that Mr. Harper enjoyed last night, the question remains: is he a referent leader?

Clearly, the answer is a resounding NO!

He gained only a point in popular vote. Given that the turnout was a dismal 59% of those eligible - the lowest turnout for a federal election in history - Mr. Harper was endorsed by an equally resounding 22% of the electorate. More than three-quarters of those eligible to cast a ballot rejected Stephen Harper's policies, agenda and record by voting either with their pencil or their feet. All the fuzzy pullovers in the country weren't enough to warm the Canadian public to cold, Conservative divisiveness.

Is Stephen Harper truly a man of his word? To listen to his supporters - indeed, to listen to the man himself - he does what he says he will do. So here's what he said last evening during his very gracious victory speech:
This is a time for us all to put aside political differences and partisan considerations and to work cooperatively for the benefit of Canada. We have shown that minority government can work, and at this time of global economic instability we owe it to Canadians to demonstrate this once again.
To be true to his word, that he will work for the benefit of all Canadians, here's what I would suggest:
  • Work with Jack Layton on the issue of lost employment, and ensuring Canada's strong social infrastructure;
  • Work with Elizabeth May on the issue of climate change and the environment;
  • Work with Gilles Duceppe on the issue of preservation and encouragement of Canadian culture (including bringing Michael Geist in on the copyright reform file;
  • Work with Stéphane Dion on the issue of Canadian unity, and the problem of fractured regionality and disparity throughout this land; and finally,
  • Work with the new Liberal leader, whoever s/he may be, on an overarching economic policy and approach to globalization, both in trade and foreign policies
Sadly (and I'm willing to be proven wrong here), I don't think Stephen Harper has the courage to admit that in order to be true to his word, he needs to include the perspectives of those whose political and economic ideologies are different from his, but nonetheless represent the collective opinions of more than three-quarters of this country. If he can muster that inclusiveness and set aside his personal grievances with this country, he has the opportunity to become a real leader in a UCaPP world.

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08 October 2008

Bad Karma on the Kippur

So it's a mixed metaphor.

Gamar v'chatima tovah! May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Thanks Roberta!

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05 October 2008

Nuit Blanche Hangover

I'm sort of brain-dead today, nursing my post-Nuit Blanche hangover. Just not used to getting in at 6 a.m. anymore. At a meta-level, the performance art qua happening aspect of the annual event that brings nearly a million Torontonians out into the city in pursuit of art, culture and engagement is a magnificent success. (Politically, it sends a strong message to Stephen Harper - not that he's interested in strong messages from, you know, ordinary Canadians - that far-out, non-traditional interpretations of art are actually appreciated by ordinary people.)

Actually, I preferred my experience at last year's event more than this year's. There seemed to be more interesting things in Zone A, more closely clustered together than there were this year. And a couple of the installations and performance pieces didn't quite come off as advertised: The choral voices among the trees in Queen's Park turned out to be a drum circle around the central statue. Drum circles are nice and all, but not the same. And the artist building the book structure at McDonald Block was given only two days to complete a five-day installation project, so it was not as built as the artist had planned. Interestingly, an early visitor had collapsed part of the structure, so there was a pile of books beneath the "damaged" art - itself, a strong political statement according to my eye. And Blinkenlights, which transformed the office windows at City Hall into screen pixels (a marvel of techno-art logistics) was more or less wasted on a Pong game for the half-hour or so I was within viewing range of the venue. On the other hand, the plastic bottle waterfall at the OPG building was beautiful. Apparently, some of the best stuff was located in the least accessible part of the city, at Liberty Village.

So here are my suggestions for next year: First, the curators should try to increase the density of installations and performances in Zone A, like they had last year. Second, it would be nice if more advance publicity for "unofficial" participation could be encouraged, so that more individual performers of non-sanctioned artistic participation are motivated to get into the act. Third - and this is a big one - Mayor Miller should use the weight of his office to get the TTC more on board with this event. That the Bloor subway only ran between Christie and Broadview is awful, making it very difficult for people who live in the east and west ends to participate, and then get home reasonably afterwards. That the subway didn't go at least to Dufferin, with increased service southbound to the Liberty Village venues is remarkable for its short-sightedness. Additionally, there could have been express shuttles from, say, Union out to Liberty Village to help link up Zones B and C. Using the influence of the Mayor's Office to encourage a little more proactive participation from "The Better Way" would sure help a lot.

And to those who might ask the this is art? question, and want the $0.02 of their tax bill refunded because Nuit Blanche isn't your pretty-picture-on-the-wall, commercially-viable, sort of experience, here's what Marshall McLuhan would have to say about it. From a 1965 essay, “The Future of Man in the Electric Age”:
If we have used the arts at their very best as a means of heightening our awareness of the otherwise unconscious environment, then turning a whole skill to the making of the environment itself into a work of art, namely, of transcendent awareness, would seem to be the logic of this form. … The possibility of using the total environment as a work of art, as an artifact, is a quite startling and perhaps exhilarating image but it seems to be forced upon us. The need to become completely autonomous and aware of all the consequence of everything we’re doing before the consequences occur is where we’re heading.

I'm already looking forward to next year's incarnation!

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