Category Archives: Language

On good writing

I was reading the Sunday Canberra Times a couple of days ago over a morning cup of tea.  A short syndicated article in the Sunday Focus section alerted me to the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of the death of British writer, Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell).  George Orwell is one of my favourite authors; up there with Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Milan Kundera, Wallace Stegner, and Patrick White.  Funnily enough, all those writers might be termed under the heading, “classic” fiction, establishing my literary preferences very clearly.  I do enjoy the odd contemporary novel but for the most part, I enjoy the story and the writing of my classic literary heroes.

I first read George Orwell at school when our English class studied the novel, Nineteen Eighty Four.  I later re-read the book and saw the film starring actors John Hurt and Richard Burton. I also went on to read Animal Farm and Keep the Aspidistra flying.  I enjoyed all three novels immensely.  I will have to find these three books at home for a re-read.  One thing I can say, is that all three novels were brilliantly written and totally absorbing. 

Each story had a significant message.  I always found the message in Nineteen Eighty Four as being equally applicable to the communists (the focus for Orwell) as for the “democracies” when it came to influencing and manipulating public opinion through various methods of propaganda, political “spin”, and news bias.  And Animal Farm was, and still is, quite a metaphor for management science as well as for politics!

A feature of the writing was its quality.  The Canberra Times article (“Orwell still packs a punch”) lists six qualities that Orwell recognised as being indicators of good writing:

1. “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print
2. never use a long word when a short word will do
3. if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out
4. use the active rather than the passive
5. never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
6. break any of these (above) rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”

These are sound writing principles, albeit I see some scope for compromise depending on the appropriate context in which one writes.  Nevertheless, Orwell’s six writing principles essentially say to write for your reader – your audience – so that they have no difficulty in understanding what you have to say.

I think the principle of making what we have to say understandable to our audience is very good advice indeed.  The challenge for all of us is to keep good writing principles in mind in all our communications.

And so off to the bookshelves at home to search for my Orwell novels to be read again….sometime in the near future!

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On communication, language and meaning

Last night I watched a movie on DVD called Where the green ants dream.  The film came out in 1984 and was directed by noted German director Werner Herzog.  I remember seeing the movie at the cinema back then and not quite fully coming to terms with the storyline.  When I saw the DVD of the movie in a shop recently, I bought it to have another look.

The film is about a land claim by a clan of Australian aboriginals of a sacred site in an area where a mining company is prospecting and drilling for uranium.  The aboriginals claim the land is sacred because it is where the green ants live until they are ready to fly east, after which the cycle of renewal begins again.  The story is couched in terms of birth, death and rebirth.  The mining company, with all their drilling and explosions, are at risk of waking and disturbing the green ants and breaking the dreamtime cycle.

The first observation about the land predicament is the difference in the explanations given by the aboriginal people and the white mining company representatives concerning the importance of the land in question.  For the aborigines, the land is a sacred symbol of life while for the white man, the land is something to be exploited and used for riches.  The meaning surrounding the same patch of land is totally different and dependant on the contextualised stories of each group – the green ant story from the aboriginals and the development and progress story of the white people.  This is a common point of difference between indigenous populations and settler groups in North America and Africa as well.

This isn’t a film review, so I just want to point out one particular scene in the film when the aboriginals and the mining company representatives are in court.  They are in court to settle ownership of the land in question.  At one point, an elderly aboriginal man stands up and walks to the witness box in the middle of another witness’s evidence.  The witness steps down and the aboriginal elder takes his place and starts to speak in his own language.  The judge is confused but sympathetic and asks if the man can speak English or whether anyone can translate.  The judge looks at his notes and identifies the elderly aboriginal man, saying “I thought this man was mute!”.

One of the other aboriginal men, one of the plaintiffs, stands and tells the judge that there is no one in the court room, or in the country, or in the world that can understand this man – he is the last living survivor of his language and that is why he is referred to as mute.

If we cannot understand what people are saying (or writing for that matter) we do not have communication. Unless somebody can translate the meaning for us, it will be as if we are mute.  In all our communications, we must try and put ourselves in the shoes of the other so that we can find the best way to ensure the meaning of our message is understood.  At the same time, when we try to put on the shoes of the other person, there will be times when we also have to look beyond just the shoes, but to consider the whole contextual environment in which those shoes have walked.  This is not always easy and usually forgotten in our rush to speak.

Without good communication in all its forms, there can be no knowledge management.

On the power of telling a story

It is impossible, in this historic time, not to comment on the US Presidential election. In particular, the significance and style of President-elect Barack Obama’s “Change has come to America” speech in Chicago, Illinois. The full text of the speech is available here. Mark the date in your diary – an historic day – the 4th November 2008 (US time).

It wasn’t the normal political speech, although no doubt constructed with the same careful consideration. Obama’s speech was personal – it reached into the personal experiences of all who were listening but also connected us to the future – the future of our kids.

The obvious story in the speech concerned the theme of change and hope personified in the life of a 106 year old woman from Georgia (USA) – Ann Nixon Cooper. Obama could have gone through a series of historical events over the past one hundred years, as if reading from a history catalogue. The Nixon Cooper story personalised a number of significant historical events that led to change. History and hope were embodied in a real person, something each of us could imagine more personally than any history lesson. Just think that this one person had lived through so many historical milestones and so many changes; and now, another historical milestone with the election of an Afro-American President of the USA.

The Nixon Cooper story also connected the theme of change from the past to the potential for positive change in the future. The Nixon Cooper story gave an historical context for Obama’s call for change, his confidence in change, and his hope that the rest of America could feel and want that change. After all, hadn’t Ann Nixon Cooper already seen tremendous change in one lifetime and seen change for the better? And if our children are still alive at the turn of the next century, Obama asks, what changes will they have seen in a hundred years in a lifetime just like that of Ann Nixon Cooper? Obama wants to initiate change and wants people to feel part of that change, participate in it, and not be afraid.

Leadership is about sharing a common purpose and direction with your people. Leadership is not just managing, as anyone who has tried to initiate change will know. We might not have the oratory skills or personality of Barack Obama in our desire to change and lead in our working lives, but the power of narrative and anecdotes to connect with people are no less important.

The speech from Barack Obama was a wonderful demonstration of the power of words and the power of storytelling to convey a powerful and meaningful message. The speech defines the leader, but the leader will still need to deliver. Obama has started his leadership journey saying all the right words.

On Cognitive Edge (2)

I have finished tidying up my notes from the Cognitive Edge accreditation course I did in Sydney last week. There was plenty to go through but I feel the notes only just scratched the surface! Dave Snowden certainly covered a lot of territory!

I have listed some key knowledge fragments from the course that I particularly liked:

  • correlation is not causality
  • a complex system is always different from its parts
  • retrospective coherence gives us the benefit of hindsight but not the benefit of future-telling
  • with complexity, one can replicate starting conditions but not outcomes
  • using safe-fail in the complex domain, “go forward, probe and experiment”, because we don’t know the answer
  • amplify “good” weak signals
  • we use “ritual” to trigger identity (and we each have multiple identities)
  • archetypes are collective representations, not caricatures
  • metaphors are good for human understanding
  • humans use pattern recognition intelligence; we are not an information processing machine
  • any time a measure becomes a target it is no longer a measure
  • and my favourite line, “cynics are people who care”, since they are the ones looking for a better way to improve their organisations (hear, hear!).

There was much more from the course, and plenty to reflect upon. I will do some more reading, thinking and writing. For now, I am chasing up some of the author references in my notes (Sutcliffe, Thom, Kaufmann, and Klein, among others).

On cognitive edge

I have been very busy of late so my blogging has suffered. I start the new financial year here a tad late, but afresh with some key insights from recent educational learnings.

Most recently, I have just completed the Cognitive Edge accreditation course with Dave Snowden in Sydney. The three days were intellectually intense and fascinating. Whilst I have seen Dave perform at a number of conferences before, and read many of Dave’s research papers and Dave’s blog (now added to my blogroll), I have a far better understanding of his work and his personality than I did before.

As an aside, whilst I don’t doubt his passion for his beloved Wales rugby side, I do doubt his judgement on their abilities! I guess we will have to wait and see how the Australians go in the rugby Tri-Nations (against New Zealand and Rugby World Cup holders, South Africa) to see if the Wallabies can show some top tier talent.

I have to complete the rewriting of my notes (they are a scrawl!) and chase up some references before making comment here about my Cognitive Edge experience. I expect to make some observations about the learning from the course next week. Suffice to say, the course was well worth the effort and the money!

On purpose and language

I want to emphasise the importance of defining and understanding purpose, as I touched upon in my blog post from yesterday. Defining and understanding purpose is critical for information architecture, communication strategies, knowledge management and communities of practice.

One of the difficulties in looking at purpose – the reason why – is from whose perspective one looks. And here, purpose is what will identify that perspective.

When designing a communication strategy, for example, you need to know your audience. Your audience is who you define to be the people you want to communicate the message to, or interact with. No good trying to communicate to vegetarians that a T-bone steak is a hearty meal! Define your target or market segment.

Sometimes the target market selects itself. When I established communities of practice at Rabobank Australia I recognised the target market very quickly from establishing a good understanding of the business and the people who worked in the business. I could see that there was enormous potential to leverage the intellectual capital of the organisation throughout its disaggregated office network and three internal organisational pillars. But now what?

In establishing communities of practice I needed to define the purpose in terms of my target market. What do they need and what would they get out of a community of practice? From the perspective of the target group (and with whom I actively communicated and participated with), it was clear that there was a need, there was a culture of support and helpfulness, and there was a strong interest in particular subject knowledge corresponding to business and client needs. The purpose was therefore to connect knowledge and knowledge needs within specific business domains through the use of communities of practice.

At the same time, I had to make sure I was using the language of my target market when discussing their knowledge and information practices and needs. The term “communities of practice” was not going to work. Instead, I used a metaphor that was easily understood and represented the social and conversational context that was at the heart of my communities.

By defining purpose and using a language the target groups could understand, the establishment and early adoption of communities of practice by a critical mass of participants meant that we were on track from the start for a successful knowledge management initiative.

Purpose should be at the heart of our knowledge management and information architecture conversations, as it should be in most things.

On what’s in a name?

You may have heard that in the high definition DVD format “war”, Blu-ray has emerged victorious over its rival HD DVD format. In fact, HD DVD is in its death throes. Anyone left holding a HD DVD player is trying to offload them on to ebay.

The popularity of Blu-ray discs over HD DVD in Australia (and elsewhere) is substantial, despite the fact the Blu-ray format maintains the ridiculous regional coding of the movie DVD racket, yet HD DVD is regional coding free. There are other technical differences. However, for the average consumer there is little between the two high definition formats and the real issue has been a battle for the consumer mind,  much the same during the 1980s with the Beta and VHS video tape format duel back then.

In a completely unscientific manner, I surmise that Blu-ray has largely won the war over HD DVD based on the name – Blu-ray. Blu-ray is so-called because the beam of light that reads the high definition movie discs is a blue coloured ray – nothing too spectacular there. But Blu-ray sounds innovative and new. Blu-ray more easily captures an image in the mind that a two-plus-three letter acronym fails to generate. Blu-ray is 21st century.

The alternative HD DVD format, pushed by Toshiba and allies, is just another bloody acronym that competes for attention in the human brain space with all those other acronyms. For all we know, HD DVD could be an abreviation for a hard drive with a DVD player installed. In other words, there is nothing special about the name HD DVD, nor is there much else to visually associate with the name to give any impact to the actual marketing of the format. HD DVD as a name for an innovative, new consumer digital product is a dud.

The implication should now be obvious (certainly if my unscientific hypothesis is correct). Words and names really do count!

When I introduced the communities of practice at Rabobank Australia I deliberately avoided calling them by that torturous and largely unheard of name. I called my virtual communities “pubs” – a name well recognised to my target groups and symbolic of the informal, conversational spaces in which people were familiar and that I hoped to replicate in the virtual communities. Moreover, by initially marketing the communities using images of pubs (and running a competition each week in the weekly newsletter), the images gave visual recognition and support to the name “pub” and the concept behind it. I had managed to create rapid awareness and recognition for the project that encouraged the initial take-up of the communities and thereby create critical mass in a short space of time. The “pub” name for the communities spread quickly via word of mouth and this informal communication channel enhanced the spread of the message and further take-up.

Putting the effort and the thinking into selecting the right words and names to help drive home the message can really make a difference, IMHO.