Apr 21

The Dark Side of Community

It’s been a week of somewhat downbeat posts. I was thinking we should put together something more positive to end the week, when I saw Barbara Steinberg’s link on the Online Facilitation Community of Practice to a speech by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez yesterday. It’s dark, but it’s also a reminder of how we human beings have the capacity to turn everything good that we have towards darker or outright evil ends.

Gonzalez was making a speech to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He points out that the internet has provided an environment for child pornographers and pederasts to “find community”, not merely in a passive sense; the power of the group creates a dynamic that actively encourages them and incites escalation.

“Before the Internet, these pedophiles were isolated—unwelcome even in most adult bookstores. Through the Internet, they have found a community. Offenders can bond with each other, and the Internet acts as a tool for legitimizing and validating their behavior in their minds. It emboldens them.

And this is where the Internet’s vicious cycle leads to the trends I mentioned above. The pedophiles seek to build larger collections of photographs and videos, as a license into their community. As they become de-sensitized to the images they have, they seek more graphic, more heinous, and more disturbing material.

At some point, the pedophiles meet strong incentives not just to collect images, but to produce new ones themselves. Part of it is the desire to see novel and more graphic images, with younger and younger children. And today’s technology makes it easier and less costly for anyone to produce these images and distribute them widely.”

Read the full speech here (thanks for the link Barbara).

Gonzales’ point resonates with a comment made by the owner of a Japanese suicide website in a 2004 report by the BBC on the growing phenomenon, especially in Japan, of websites where seriously depressed people gather to share information on ways of dying, and company to die with.

“It’s a virtual world where you can talk about subjects you can’t discuss in real life. There are some vicious sites which really encourage people to die, and when you get in a group there’s a momentum which makes it hard to stop – people become irrational. But my site is not like that. I started it because I had tried twice to kill myself. I think it has saved my life – because it has enabled me to open up about things online. And I believe it can help others too.”

So my question is this: if the potential of the technology, and the human drive towards community is so strong among truly evil people, and those who are alienated and lost, then why cannot large organisations leverage it for good? Yes, we have good examples, shining examples, but sometimes it feels like a terrible, slow struggle. Why do pornographers and suicides find this stuff so easy, and the rest of us do not?

I look forward to more positive notes next week. Promise.

Apr 20

Immunising Ourselves Against Knowledge Sharing

Edgar’s post “A Lamentation” of today reminded me of an old story about Mithridates the Great of Pontus, who ruled in Asia Minor just as the Roman empire was aggressively pushing eastwards. They were tough times, and Mithridates, by all accounts was a tough character. He succeeded to the throne at age eleven, but had to flee into hiding, because his mother was attempting to kill him. He returned several years later to do her in, along with several other family members, and scores of other enemies.

Mithridates was an aggressive opponent of the Roman expansion eastwards and resisted them successfully for decades, as well as expanding his hegemony over other neighbouring kingdoms and ruthlessly putting down opposition closer to home. In this dangerous climate, he was obsessively fearful of being poisoned, so the legend goes that he took a small amount of poison every day, increasing the doses over the years to immunise himself against lethal amounts.

Finally, in his old age, he was defeated by the Roman general Pompey, and desperate to avoid capture and humiliation, attempted to commit suicide by taking poison. Alas! his strategy of immunisation had worked only too well, and he suffered no more than severe stomach cramps. He was forced to get a slave to kill him with his sword.

We know why organisations like the one that Edgar described, do what they do. They want to immunise themselves against over-dependence on individual members of staff. That’s how all bureaucratic cultures work: depersonalise the job function, and then you will be able to work very much as though you are a machine with interchangeable parts. Charles Handy calls this a “role culture”.

The problem is, when you suddenly discover that knowledge sharing, trust and informal networks are critical elements to your adaptiveness and ability to survive as an organisation, you will find, like Mithridates, that you have effectively immunised yourself against the very thing you now want to do. As Edgar suggests, it’s really not at all easy to undo decades of immunisation built into the culture. Perhaps, like Mithridates, it takes a more radical solution to resolve the need.

Apr 20

Is Corporate Blogging REALLY The Next Big Thing?

It was about a month ago that I stumbled upon a book entitled “Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers”. I had heard of blogs about a year ago but thought it was very much the preoccupation of people who were bored with life or people who were lonely and needed to talk to someone and it didn’t matter who. So reading the book really made me excited about finding what seems like the next big thing in knowledge management.

I was even more excited when I heard that the guest speaker at the iKMS talk I was about to attend, a Professor Peter Keen, was going to do a presentation on knowledge mobilization, with corporate blogging as a key theme. (Picture the pride on my face when I pulled out the book the moment he mentioned it!)

I vaguely recall that Scoble and Israel said in one of the chapters of the book that in the same way that the Internet was ignored and almost dismissed in the early 90s but had gone on to be so powerful an influence on people’s lives, corporate blogging would be looked back on years from now and people would realize that it had been more powerful than was earlier envisioned.

My excitement has diminished somewhat over this last week though as I begin to wonder if organizations are just going to fulfill this prophecy by starting to blog. Oops, we have too! But really, my question is will it happen because it is right thing for businesses to do or because every one else will be doing it. Would everyone be jumping on the bandwagon for fear of missing the boat and being left behind? Every one influences every other one and there we have it – corporate blogging is indeed the next big thing – a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Apr 20

A Lamentation

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting a group of young employees at a workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to find out what kind of support new employees at this organisation need in their first few weeks of work. The preamble to all this was the results of a previous engagement that we had with this organisation, where we found that new employees were often thrown into the deep, shark-infested sea right from the start. And they either sink, swim or get eaten.

During the workshop we conducted an anecdote circle to elicit the experiences of these new employees, and the things we heard were startling. This is an organisation with a world-class reputation and considered to be the best of breed, but the treatment that new employees receive is far from world class. Basic human needs are overlooked, eg, staff have to boil their own hot water because the water dispenser is “meant for guests only”. They don’t have pantries because all available space has been converted into offices. Pigeonholes are labeled not by the officer’s name, but by their designation. It’s probably more efficient for the organisation as they don’t have to replace the names of officers with the high turnover, but who wants to be known by a number code? Emails are addressed to the officer’s designation, not their names. As one of them said, “No Hi’s, no Dear’s”.

As I sat there listening to these young people tell their stories, I silently lamented the damage the organisation was doing to them. The energy, the enthusiasm and the positive spirit in that room that day will die a slow death until frustration and bitterness finally take over. This dark cloud will hang over them for the rest of their working life, and they will in turn infect newer colleagues unless, perchance, something wonderful happens to break this vicious cycle. Our client recognises this, and has embarked on a journey to break this cycle, but how many more organisations out there are still breaking spirits everyday?

Apr 18

Successful Change Management and Effective Sponsorship

One of the critical success factors for successful change management in organizations is effective sponsorship. It seems like most Sponsors, however, believe that appointing the project team, providing sufficient resources and approving the project plan are all that they need to do. Effective sponsorship is about being visible, not just at the start and the end of the project, but throughout the project.

How do we help Sponsors realise this without making them feel/think that we do not understand that they have other priorities and commitments? How do we let them know that their project team needs them to be around every now and then without having to be asked, and most teams do not ask. They do not want to look incapable or they view the Sponsor’s time as too valuable for their internal deliberations.

I recall in the first BPR project I was involved in, the Executive Sponsor (who was the CEO) asked to be put down as a Core Team member as well of one of the working teams. While he did not attend all the team meetings, he made it for the important ones – the ones that required critical decisions. It made all the difference. The team felt empowered and seemed confident about making recommendations that would radically change the way services were to be delivered to customers. It turned out to be one of the more successful project teams when it came to implementation as well.

What do you think?

Apr 18

Visualising Complexity

For those interested in visualisation of complex information, or the visual power of mapping networks, here’s a wonderful resource unearthed by my iKMS colleague Kong Heng Sun.

It’s a collaborative enterprise sustained by donations, and it collects a stunning array of representation techniques, including a drawing by one of my favourite information artists, Mark Lombardi, and vivid illustrations of social networks.

Albert Laszlo Barabasi, author of Linked, also has a gallery page including other network images, including a whole range of internet maps… beautiful as artefacts, but the gallery itself lacks commentary on what the maps mean.

Both galleries give hyperlinks to the original project sites if you want to pursue them further.

For a different take on what network visualisations can tell us, take a look at this fascinating 2002 project from the Social Media Group at MIT Media Lab (another treasure trove), “Fragmentation of identity through structural holes in email contacts” – unwrapping the various email identities of a recent graduate “Mike”, and how they connect (or don’t connect) to each other.

Back on more practical social network analysis ground, here’s a set of studies by Valdis Krebs, looking at an innovative range of SNA applications, complete with illustrative maps that tell interesting stories.

Apr 18

Defining “Taxonomy”


Yesterday I made the claim that a taxonomy cannot be defined by its shape, which is mostly how it does get defined eg “A taxonomy is a hierarchical arrangement of terms blah blah blah...”. I argued that taxonomies should be defined more by their purpose and use, less by the structural form they happen to take (which can vary according to circumstance).

What would a more useful definition be? To start with, we need to go back beyond Linnaeus and the rather narrow sense of “taxonomy” developed by biologists. Let’s go back to the Greek roots and see what they deliver.


Apr 17

What Shape is a Taxonomy?

One of the big problems about taxonomies (there are many) is that we keep getting kicked back to the biological definition of what it should look like and how it’s structured. In particular we are told a taxonomy needs to have a hierarchical tree structure following some very strict rules about how each branch relates to its peers but particularly to the concepts above it.


Mar 22

Inhibitions in Anecdote Circles

Last week, I conducted four anecdote circles for an organisation with whom we’re working. At the end of the 3rd, one of the participants came up to me and said that there were some things she’d have liked to share but she held back because she didn’t want to incriminate the characters in the anecdotes. I told her that she could share with me separately on another occasion.

Generally, we begin an anecdote circle by reassuring participants that anything they say within the circle will be kept within the circle, and nothing they share can be attributed to specific individuals. On one occasion, in an anecdote circle that my colleague Patrick Lambe facilitated, the participants made their reservations known right at the beginning of the anecdote circle, and Patrick then got all of them to promise one another that they would not repeat outside the room anything that was said inside. That worked out fine. But in my case, I was only aware of this reservations at the end of the circle. To think of all the good stories that the group had missed! Need to think of a better way to avoid this next time. Thought about doing what Patrick did, ie, making the participants promise each other discretion, but it seems too much of an overkill to do it right at the beginning of a circle when the participants haven’t quite warmed up. That might have the opposite effect of putting their backs up.

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