Category Archives: Books

On experiencing context

I want to talk about experiencing context.  I want to investigate what it means to experience something that is really going on rather than what is supposed to be going on.  I want to see what happens in practice as distinct to what the theory might suppose.

I am reading the classic book on urban planning by Jane Jacobs, called The death and life of great American cities.  As a lapsed economic geographer, I am always drawn to the intersection between economics and space and how in practice these two dimensions work.   The first observation, certainly if you are from Sydney as I am originally, is that there is a dark nexus between property developers and urban development.  Much has been made about the power of developer influence on government planning, for instance.

In fact, I recall one big developer wanting to concrete over the beautiful Kuring-gai Chase National Park in the north of Sydney to build more multi-dwelling housing!  The worst part, of course, is that besides giving the developer more profit and more power, the architecture of said multidwelling housing leaves a lot to be desired with their prefab look and feel.

In the introduction to Jane Jacob’s book, she cites an example of a so-called slum in Boston (in the 1950s) called the North End.  To much of Boston, and certainly the city planners, North End was a major slum.  Yet when Jane Jacobs visited the place before a future-planned “redevelopment”, she was amazed by the life and vitality of the place.  She rang a planning friend who confirmed he thought it was a slum, albeit a slum with pretty good health and socioeconomic statistics behind it.  Moreover, her planner friend actually visited North End and found it to have a “wonderful, cheerful street life”, even better in summer.

Jacobs says: “Here  was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for the city neighbourhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him that the North End had to be a bad place” (page 15).

The story certainly tells me how important it is to experience the context.  I doubt whether it will always be good enough to just look at the theory, or the statistics, or the expert opinion, without experiencing the context for oneself.  More importantly, however, is the finding out about the experience from the people active within it.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in many areas of our professional lives where we have to make decisions, we often rely solely on past experience, our previous training, and the thinking that pervades ourselves and like-minded colleagues.  This is quite insufficient.  We need to explore other ideas and other people’s views, especially the views of the people involved – the real stakeholders.  And if we can break these patterns, either through our own determination or allowing some disruptive thinking to break through from elsewhere, then we can at least look at the world in a different way.

If we can experience context, and include the contextual experiences of those involved, we can make more informed choices and decisions that reflect the real context as distinct from our personal-world-view context.


On the internet and books

Just a quick post on this news story I read today about Nobel prize winner for literature, Doris Lessing, and her tirade against the internet.

Doris Lessing is one of my favourite novelists, The grass is singing being a particular favourite of mine. And I have a lot of respect for her views on quality literature and her reverence for the printed word in books.

However, I don’t agree that because there is a lot of junk on the internet that this is something unique to the web platform. After all, there are also plenty of junk books out there – it’s a matter of opinion. And opinion can probably see the difference between “quality literature” of the Lessing variety as distinct from, shall we say, the Mills and Boon variety of formula publishing.

Individual preferences remain paramount so we need to look at why people read what they do and why people are spending more time on the internet than reading books (this latter point being an assertion from Doris Lessing herself).

Lessing’s contention that people today know nothing of the world is arguable. I would say that the internet has enabled a far greater reach of knowledge and information than a publishing platform based on the book. Quality will vary in both domains.

I love books and I love the internet. How I determine quality and what’s right for me is certainly up to me to decide. But I can say this to you Doris, I won’t be reading any novels of literature quality on the internet. The book is still my preferred mode of reading when it comes to that!

On the wisdom of crowds and volunteering

My latest Knowledge@Wharton newsletter has this article about a new book called: We Are Smarter Than Me: How the Wisdom of Crowds Can Help Businesses Succeed by Barry Libert and Jon Spector. It’s a timely reminder that networked knowledge has a significant place in the competitive world of business. I recommend the article and the book to you.

The article is also very timely for me. Yesterday I sat in on a debrief given by Dave Snowden about narrative and the wisdom of crowds in relation to a major project on volunteering that is currently under way. The project is being funded by the NSW Department of Disability Ageing and Home Care. My colleague, Chris Fletcher, has been involved with the project and blogged with some detail about it in August. It is still possible to contribute to the project via the survey.

My next blog post will look at yesterday’s debrief and how the project is developing.

On information research

The latest issue of the e-journal, Information Research, is now available.

There are some really interesting papers, especially the paper by Marcia Bates on browsing behaviour and the paper by Judit Bar-Ilan on librarian blogs.

There are several book reviews too, including this one on David Weinberger’s book, Everything is miscellaneous (a book I am currently reading).

 All in all, a range of articles and reviews well worth a look!

On icebergs

Icebergs? Yes, icebergs.

I have just finished reading “Our iceberg is melting: changing and succeeding under any conditions”. The book is a story (fable) about a colony of Emperor penguins (one of my favourite animals) who live on a particular iceberg in Antarctica. The story is about how the penguins respond to the claim that their iceberg is melting and that the iceberg is in danger of breaking apart.

The story is based on the eight steps of successful change management by John Kotter. These steps are: create a sense of urgency; establish an effective team to guide change; establish a vision of change and what the end result will look like; communicate clearly and obtain buy-in; empower people; create short-term wins to demonstrate success and counter the doubters; continue the change process; and make it stick by creating a new culture.

The fable re-articulates Kotter’s eight steps in a very simple story and in a very obvious way. There is no sense of discovery here! I recommend that serious readers of change management read John Kotter’s Leading Change.

It was clear from the penguin story that the “facts” were insufficient to create a sense of urgency in order for action to take place. What was effective was in creating a picture of what was likely to happen (the repercussions) if the facts came to pass and nothing was done. The picture helped to create an emotional response that the factual information supported to reinforce the message.

Well, creating a visual image to stoke up the emotions has been the bread and butter of newspapers, movies, and political spin-doctors for decades. Images can be manipulative (the children overboard affair was a classic case) just as much as they can be positive.

The important message, however, is not the image and the emotional response alone. The evidence, or the agrument, has to have sufficient merit too. In all cases, the context will be critical to the success of the story and what the responses will be toward it.

In recent exchanges on the actKM discussion forum, the contention that knowledge management has been unsuccessful at change management has arisen. Once again, success or failure will notably be affected by context.

On everything is miscellaneous

I have been discussing podcasts recently. I have also been doing a bit of long-distance driving. One benefit of the driving has been listening to podcasts.

One good podcast I listened to yesterday afternoon on my MP3 player was a recent interview with Dave Weinberger, author of the book, Everything is miscellaneous. Weinberger discusses web 2.o, web-based participation and user ownership, and the miscellaneous nature of knowledge in the rapidly changing digital world. Very interesting and well worth listening to (and reading the book).

On books (31/07/07)

I have a “to read” pile of books that I try and work my way through every month. I always have more books in my reading pile than I can actually find the time to read, including any new books purchased that month as well.

At the end of each month I rotate the books from the “to read” pile that I haven’t read to a “pending” spot on a bookshelf from where I will get back to them in a couple of months. I always have new books and pending books in my reading pile at any one time. It certainly sounds very structured but I can safely say that the structure is very fluid and very messy!

It’s the end of the month so I have grabbed some books from my pending pile for the “to read” pile for the month of August.  The five books are:

1) Free culture: the nature and future of creativity by Lawrence Lessig
2) Conversations on consciousness by Susan Blackmore
3) Made to stick by Chip and Dan Heath
4) The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power by Joel Bakan,
5) The assault on reason by Al Gore

Hmm, writing this short list reminds me that I haven’t updated my books in LibraryThing yet. So much to do, so little time…….