Books That Link Analytics, Big Data And Leading Change

Last week, at the end of my class in Analytics and Leading Change, one of the required courses in Columbia University’s Masters Program in Applied Analytics, my students asked for books I’d recommend that provide more detail than we could cover in the course. It turns out that others are also interested in a good library of books about analytics from the viewpoint of an organization’s leaders.

You’ll see that these are not textbooks about analytics or machine learning techniques – there are plenty of those. Instead, this reading list is the next step for those folks who understand the techniques and now want the insights from their work to have an impact on and provide value to their world.

Although most of these books were published in the last decade, there are also some classics on the list going back fifty years. And I’ve chosen mostly popular books because frankly they are written in a compelling way that is accessible to all leaders.

With that introduction, here are my recommendations.

1.     On the experience of doing analytics and seeing its impact:

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

The movie, Moneyball, starred Brad Pitt as the hero of the first and most storied use of analytics in professional baseball. For people in the field of analytics, what could be better than a movie about your skills helping the underdog. But like all movies, it tended to gloss over or exaggerate situations for the benefit of a good, simple plot.

The book that Lewis wrote originally is subtler and is a good case study of the human side of introducing analytics in a tradition-bound field. Tying it all up, his more recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, is the story of the collaboration between Kahneman (see below) and Tversky.

The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t by Nate Silver

Nate Silver is probably the best-known analytics practitioner by those not in the business themselves, due to his work over the years, especially for the New York Times and in relation to high visibility elections. This is his review of the ups and downs in using analytics, offering lessons especially from sports and politics.

Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg

Although sometimes a bit over the top and now five years old, it is a thorough description of the use of analytics in election campaigns. Election campaigns are good examples of analytics because they are both well-known and there is a huge amount of data concerning elections and the voters who determine their outcomes.

Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity — What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves by Christian Rudder

The author is the co-founder and former analytics lead for OkCupid. Not surprisingly, much of the book is about dating choices, but he goes way beyond that to uncover insights about various social attitudes, including racism, from the large amount of data he had in his hands both at his former company and elsewhere.

How Not To Be Wrong: The Power Of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Since analytics is essentially a mathematical art, Ellenberg’s book about mathematical thinking is important preparation for the field. It also provides numerous examples of how to present quantitative insights in a way that non-experts would understand.

2.    On expanding the normal range of analytics:

Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences by Eugene Webb, et al

I’ve added this fifty year old classic to the list because even in a world of big data we don’t necessarily have all the data we need, either in our computer systems or in the physical world.  This book reminds us to observe indications of phenomenon that are not already available – such as the influence of an individual measured by the wear and tear on the entry to his/her office space. It also points out the need to always include metadata in our analysis since that is often revealing.

How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business by Douglas Hubbard

Somewhat picking up the same theme, this book helps both the business executive and the analytics practitioner to be more creative in measurement, especially when it comes to things that people haven’t so far been able to offer good metrics for.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

This is a book about how social networks influence us in ways we hadn’t considered before. As they say: “How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you think, feel and do.” I suppose a good example is how their observation that you’ll gain weight by being connected to overweight people in a social network has itself become a meme. In its own way, this book is an interesting work of analytics.

Just as important is its elaboration of how to study social networks since an understanding of the network of influencers in any organization is essential to anyone who wants to change the behavior of the people in that organization.

Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

The author was part of Google’s analytics team, which is the analytics equivalent of working at the Vatican if you’re a Roman Catholic theologian.  Her emphasis in on how to show the insights of analytics work and to tell a story about those insights. In a world of all kinds of data visualization tools and fads, her advice is clear and evidence-based.

3.    On the way that the human mind perceives the insights of analytics and might or might change as a result:

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely

Professor Ariely, formerly of MIT and now at Duke, is one of the more creative experimenters in psychology and he quickly reviews both his own and others’ research results. The theme of this short book is that the payoff which often makes a difference in human behavior is not necessarily a financial reward and that sometimes financial incentives even backfire. This is important for leaders of change in organizations, particularly big corporations, to understand.

Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I’ve written about the work of Nobel Prize winner and Princeton Professor Kahneman before, most recently in “What Do We Know About Change”. This describes what Kahneman has learned from a lifetime of research about thinking and decision making. His work on how people process – distort – quantitative statements is especially relevant to analytics experts who need understand the cognitive biases he describes.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

The Heath brothers, popular business writers, have done a good job in this book of explaining what’s been learned in recent psychological research – see Kahneman and Ariely, for instance – without dumbing it down so much that the key points are lost. In doing that well, they also provide the leader of change and analytics some good ideas on how to present their own results and getting their organizations to switch to a more analytics-oriented outlook.

4.     On the strategic linkage between leading change and analytics

The Dance of Change by Peter Senge, et al

This is another classic that goes beyond the usual cookbook approach found in most books on “change management”. Yet, Senge and his colleagues anticipated the more recent approaches to change management which is about something more than just getting a single project done. For Senge, the goal he established was to help create learning organizations. While he does not focus on analytics, this book should particularly resonate with analytics professionals since they now have the tools to take that learning to new and more useful levels than in the past.

I could easily expand this list, as could many others, but this “baker’s dozen” books will provide a good rounded education to start.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved @NormanJacknis

Campaign Analytics: What Separates The Good From The Bad

Donald Trump, as a candidate for President last year, expressed great skepticism about the use of analytics
in an election campaign.  Hillary Clinton made a big deal about her campaign’s use of analytics. Before that, President Obama’s campaigns received great credit for their analytics.

If you compare these experiences, you can begin to understand what separates good from bad in campaign analytics.

Let’s start with the Clinton campaign, whose use of analytics was breathlessly reported, including this Politico story about “Hillary’s Nerd Squad” eighteen months before the election.

However, a newly released book, titled Shattered, provides a kind of autopsy of the campaign and its major weaknesses. A CBS News review of the book highlighted this
weakness in particular:

“Campaign manager Robby Mook put a lot of faith in the campaign’s computer algorithm, Ada, which was supposed to give them a leg up in turning out likely voters. But the Clinton campaign’s use of the highly complex algorithm focused on ensuring voter turnout, rather than attracting voters from across party lines.

“According to the book, Mook was insistent that the software would be revered as the campaign’s secret weapon once Clinton won the White House. With his commitment to Ada and the provided data analytics, Mook often butted heads with Democratic Party officials, who were concerned about the lack of attention in persuading undecided voters in Clinton’s favor.  Those Democratic officials, as it turned out, had a point.”

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Of course, this had become part of the conventional wisdom since the day after the election. For example, on November 9, 2016, the Washington Post had a story “Clinton’s data-driven campaign relied heavily on an algorithm named Ada. What didn’t she see?”:

“Ada is a complex computer algorithm that the campaign was prepared to publicly unveil after the election as its invisible guiding hand … the algorithm was said to play a role in virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made, including where and when to deploy the candidate and her battalion of surrogates and where to air television ads … The campaign’s deployment of other resources — including county-level campaign offices and the staging of high-profile concerts with stars like Jay Z and Beyoncé — was largely dependent on Ada’s work, as well.”

But the story had another point about Ada:

“Like the candidate herself, she had a penchant for secrecy and a private server … the particulars of Ada’s work were kept under tight wraps, according to aides. The algorithm operated on a separate computer server than the rest of the Clinton operation as a security precaution, and only a few senior aides were able to access it.”

While the algorithm clearly wasn’t the only or perhaps even the most important reason for the failure of the campaign, that last piece illustrates why the Clinton use of analytics wasn’t more successful. It had in common with many other failed analytics initiatives an atmosphere of secretiveness and arrogance – “we’re the smartest guys around here” so let us do our thing.

The successful uses of analytics in campaigns or elsewhere try to use (and then test) the best insights of the people with long experience in a field. They will even help the analyst look at the right questions –
in the case of the Clinton campaign, converting undecided voters

The best analytics efforts are a two-way conversation that helps the “experts” to understand better which of their beliefs are still correct and helps the analytics staff to understand where they should be looking for predictive factors.

Again, analytics wasn’t the only factor that led to President Obama’s winning elections in 2008 and 2012, but the Obama campaign’s use of analytics felt different than Clinton’s. One article went “Inside the Obama Campaign’s Big Data Analytics Culture” and described “an archetypical story of an analytics-driven organization that aligned people, business processes and technologies around a clear mission” instead of focusing on the secret sauce and a top-down, often strife-filled, environment.

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InfoWorld’s story about the 2012 campaign described a widely dispersed use of analytics –

“Of the 100 analytics staffers, 50 worked in a dedicated analytics department, 20 analysts were spread throughout the campaign’s various headquarters, and another 30 were in the field interpreting the data.” So, there was plenty of opportunity for analytics staffers to learn from others in the campaign.

And the organizational culture was molded to make this successful as well –

“barriers between disparate data sets – as well as between analysts – were lowered, so everyone could work together effectively. In a nutshell, the campaign sought a friction-free analytic environment.”

Obama’s successful use of analytics was a wake-up call to many politicians, Hillary Clinton included. But did they learn all the lessons of his success? Apparently not.

Coming back to the 2016 election, there is then the Trump campaign. Despite the candidate’s statements, his campaign also used analytics, employing Cambridge Analytica, the British firm that helped the Brexit forces to win in the UK. Thus, 2016 wasn’t as much of a test of analytics vs. no analytics as has sometimes been reported.

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But, if an article, “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked”, published two weeks ago in the British newspaper, the Guardian, is even close to the mark, there is a different question about the good and bad uses of analytics in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns. In part scary and perhaps in others too jaundiced, this story raises questions for the future – as analytic tools get better, will the people using those tools realize they face not only technical challenges.

The good and bad use of analytics will not just be a question as to whether the results are being executed well or poorly – whether the necessary changes and learning among all members of an organization take place. But it will also be a question whether analytics tools are being used in ways that are good or bad in an ethical sense.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved. @NormanJacknis

Analytics And Leading Change

Next week, I’m teaching the summer semester version of my Columbia University course called Analytics and Leading Change for the Master’s Degree program in Applied Analytics. While there are elective courses on change management in business and public administration schools, this combination of analytics and change is unusual. The course is also a requirement. Naturally, I’ve been why?

The general answer is that analytics and change are intertwined.

Successfully introducing analytics into an organization shares all the difficulties of introducing any new technology, but more so. The impact of analytics – if successful – requires change, often deep change that can challenge the way that executives have long thought about the effect of what they were doing.

As a result, often the reaction to new analytics insights can be a kneejerk rejection, as one Forbes columnist asked last year in an article titled “Why Do We Frequently Question Data But Not Assumptions?”.

A good, but early example of the impact of what we now call “big data”, goes back twenty-five years ago to the days before downloaded music.

Back then, the top 40 selections of music on the “air” were based on what radio DJs (or program directors) chose and, beyond that, the best information about market trends came from surveys of ad hoc observations by record store clerks.  Those choices too emphasized new mainstream rock and pop music.

In 1991, in one of the earliest big data efforts in retail, a new company, SoundScan, came along and collected data from automated sales registers in music. What they found went against the view of the world that was then widely accepted – 
and instead

old music, like Frank Sinatra, and genres others than rock were very popular.

Music industry executives then had to change the way they thought about the market and many of them didn’t. This would happen again when streaming music came along. (For more on this bit of big data history, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nielsen_SoundScan and http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-08/entertainment/ca-85_1_sales-figures .)

A somewhat more recent example is the way that insights from analytics have challenged some of the traditional assumptions about motivation that are held by many executives and many staff in corporate human resource departments. Tom Davenport’s Harvard Business Review article in 2010 on “Competing on Talent Analytics” provides a good review of what can be learned, if executives are willing to learn from analytics.

The first, larger lesson is: If the leaders of analytics initiatives don’t understand the nature of the changes they are asking of their colleagues, then those efforts will end up being nice research reports and the wonderful insights generated by the analysts will disappear without impact or benefit to their organizations.

The other side of the coin and the second reason that analytics and change leadership are intertwined is a more positive one. Analytics leaders have a potential advantage over other “change agents” in understanding how to change an organization. They can use analytics tools to understand what they’re dealing with and thus increase the likelihood that the change will stick.

For instance, with the rise of social networks on the internet, network analytics methods have developed to understand how the individuals in a large group of people influence each other. Isn’t that also an issue in understanding the informal, perhaps the real, structure of an organization which the traditional organization charts don’t illuminate?

In another, if imperfect example, the Netherlands office of Deloitte created a Change Adoption Profiler to help leaders figure out the different reactions of people to proposed changes.

Unfortunately, leaders of analytics in many organizations too infrequently use their own tools to learn what they need to do and how well they are doing it. Pick your motto about this – “eat your own lunch (or dogfood)” or “doctor heal thyself” or whatever – but you get the point.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved. @NormanJacknis

Augmented Reality Rising

Last week, I gave a presentation at the Premier CIO Summit in Connecticut on the Future of User Interaction With Technology, especially the combined effects of developments in communicating without a keyboard, augmented reality (AR) and machine learning.  I’ve been interested in this for some time and have written about AR as part of the Wearables movement and what I call EyeTech.

First, it would help to distinguish these digital realities. In virtual reality, a person is placed in a completely virtual world, eyes fully covered by a VR headset – it’s 100% digital immersion. It is ideal for games, space exploration, and movies, among other yet to be created uses.

With augmented reality, there is a digital layer that is added onto the real physical world. People look through a device – a smartphone, special glasses and the like – that still lets them see the real things in front of them.

Some experts make a further distinction by talking about mixed reality in which that digital layer enables people to control things in the physical environment. But again, people can still see and navigate through that physical environment.

When augmented was first made possible, especially with smartphones, there were a variety of interesting but not widespread uses. A good example is the way that some locations could show the history of what happened in a building a long time ago, so-called “thick-mapping”.

There were business cards that could popup an introduction and a variety of ancillary information that can’t fit on a card, as in this video.

There were online catalogs that enabled consumers to see how a product would fit in their homes. These videos from Augment and Ikea are good examples of what’s been done in AR.

A few years later, now, this audience was very interested in learning about and seeing what’s going on with augmented reality. And why not? After a long time under the radar or in the shadow of Virtual Reality hype, there is an acceleration of interest in augmented (and mixed) reality.

Although it was easy to satirize the players in last year’s Pokémon Go craze, that phenomenon brought renewed attention to augmented reality via smart phones.

Just in the last couple of weeks, Mark Zuckerberg at the annual Facebook developers conference stated that he thinks augmented reality is going to have tremendous impact and he wants to build the ecosystem for it. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/technology/mark-zuckerberg-sees-augmented-reality-ecosystem-in-facebook.html

As beginning of the article puts it:

“Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has long rued the day that Apple and Google beat him to building smartphones, which now underpin many people’s digital lives. Ever since, he has searched for the next frontier of modern computing and how to be a part of it from the start.

“Now, Mr. Zuckerberg is betting he has found it: the real world. On Tuesday, Mr. Zuckerberg introduced what he positioned as the first mainstream augmented reality platform, a way for people to view and digitally manipulate the physical world around them through the lens of their smartphone cameras.”

And shortly before that, an industry group – UI LABS and The Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) – united to plot the direction and standards for augmented reality, especially now that the applications are taking off inside factories, warehouses and offices, as much as in the consumer market. See http://www.uilabs.org/press/manufacturers-unite-to-shape-the-future-of-augmented-reality/

Of course, HoloLens from Microsoft continues to provide all kinds of fascinating uses of augmented reality as these examples from a medical school or field service show.

Looking a bit further down the road, the trend that will make this all the more impactful for CIOs and other IT leaders is how advances in artificial intelligence (even affective computing), the Internet of Things and analytics will provide a much deeper digital layer that will truly augment reality. This then becomes part of a whole new way of interacting with and benefiting from technology.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved. @NormanJacknis

Interactivity For An Urban Digital Experience

This is the third and last of a series of posts about a new urban digital experience in the streets of Yonkers, New York. [You can the previous posts, click on part1 and part2.]

As a reminder, the two main goals of this project are:

  • To enhance the street life of the city by offering delightful destinations and interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
  • To engage, entertain, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historic center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents

We started out with a wide variety of content that entertains, educates and reinforces the residents’ understanding of their city. As the City government takes over full control of this, the next phase will be about deepening the engagement and interactivity with pedestrians – what will really make this a new tool of urban design.

This post is devoted to just a few of the possible ways that a digital experience on the streets can become more interactive.

First, a note about equipment and software. I’ve mentioned the high-quality HD projectors and outdoor speakers. I haven’t mentioned the cameras that are also installed. Those cameras have been used so far to make sure that the system is operating properly. But the best use of cameras is as one part of seeing – and with the proper software – analyzing what people are doing when they see the projections or hear something.

The smartphones that people carry as they pass by also allow them to communicate via websites, social media or even their movement.

With all this in place, it helps to think of what can happen in these four categories:

  1. Contests
  2. Control of Text
  3. Physical Interaction
  4. Teleportation

Contests

What’s your favorite part of the city? Show a dozen or so pictures and let people vote on them – and show real time results. It’s not a deeply significant engagement, but it will bring people out to show support for their area or destination.

Or people can be asked: what are your top choices in an amateur poetry contest (which only requires audio) or the best photography of the waterfront or a beautiful park or the favorite item that has been 3D printed inside the library’s makerspace? Or???

Even the content itself can be assessed in this way. We can ask passersby to provide thumbs up or down for what it is they are seeing at that moment. (Since the schedule of content is known precisely this means that we would also know what the person was referring to.)

People could vote on what kind of music they would want to hear at the moment, like an outdoor jukebox, or on what videos they might want to see at the moment.

Contests of this kind are a pretty straightforward use of either smartphones or physical gestures. Cameras can detect when people point to something to make a choice. It is possible to use phone SMS texting to register votes and the nice thing about this use of SMS is that it doesn’t require anyone to edit and censor what people write since they can only select among the (usually numerical) choices they’re given. SMS voting can be supplemented with voting on a website.

Control Of Text

Control implies that the person in front of a site can control what’s there merely by typing some text on a smart phone – or eventually by speaking to a microphone that is backed by speech recognition software.

People can ask about the history of people who have moved to Yonkers by typing in a family name, which then triggers an app that searches the local family database.

This kind of interaction requires that someone or a service provides basic editing of the text provided by people (i.e., censorship of words and ideas not appropriate for a site frequented by the general public).

Physical Interaction

With software that can understand or at least react to the movement of human hands, feet and bodies, there are all kinds of possible ways that people can interact with a blended physical/digital environment.

In a place like Getty Square where the projectors point down to the ground, it’s possible to show dance steps. Or people can modify an animation or visual on a wall by waving their arms in a particular way.

Originally in Australia, but now elsewhere, stairs have been digitized so that they play musical notes when people walk on them. These “piano stairs” are relatively easy to create and actually don’t really need to be stairs at all – the same effect can be created on a flat surface and it doesn’t have to generate piano sounds only.

In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, there is an installation called Lightfall, where a person’s movements control the lighting. See https://vimeo.com/192203302

Pedestrians could even become part of the visual on a wall and using augmented reality even transformed, say into the founder of the city with appropriate old clothes. Again, the only limit is the creativity of those involved in designing these opportunities.

Teleportation

The last category I’m calling teleportation, although it’s not really what we’ve seen in Star Trek. Instead with cameras, microphones, speakers and screens in one city and a companion setup in another, it would be possible for people in both places to casually chat as if they were on neighboring benches in the same park.

In this way, the blending of the physical and digital provides the residents with a “window” to another city.

I hope this three-part series has given city leaders and others who care about the urban environment as good sense of how to make 21st blended environments, how they might start with available content and then go beyond that to interaction with people walking by.

Of course, even three blog posts are limited, so feel free to contact me @NormanJacknis for more information and questions.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Digital Content For A New Urban Experience

Last week, I posted an overview of a new urban digital experience in the streets of Yonkers, New York.

With the ability to project anything you want on a large wall of a highly-trafficked site or on the ground of the historical center square of a city, how do you kick off something like this?

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In this post, I’ll outline the approach we took for the first phase. (Next week, I’ll describe the more interesting and engaging future.)

The two main goals of this project are:

  • To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
  • To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents

With that in mind, we looked for certain kinds of content. Because many residents of the city and an even larger percentage of visitors know little of its history, we wanted to give them some background. Here are some examples:

  • We worked initially with the public library to obtain the front page of the main city newspaper of a hundred years ago. In addition to projecting the front page on the wall of the Riverfront Library building, we created a kind of old time radio news summary of that front-page news, sandwiched between appropriate sounding news bulletin music from years ago. Even when there was daylight and the front-page graphic couldn’t be seen, people could still hear the news headlines. As it turns out, with a Presidential election and the onset of America’s entry into World War I, the days’ news from a hundred years ago was pretty interesting.
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  • We also had a variety of short documentaries about the history of the city that were part of a regular weekly program. This included items related to special events. For example, when the annual Yonkers Marathon was run, you could see video of the previous year’s marathon as well as a Pathé news reel about the marathon in the 1930s.

    There was footage from a drone.

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  • We also included features about the business of the city, called Made in Yonkers, that enables residents to see inside the buildings that are normally closed to the public and to learn about the interesting things going on. Indeed, this kind of venue allows people to see inside any buildings that are closed – museums that are closed at night can still show their contents. It is also possible to show how a part of the city has changed in the last hundred years or even recently or how it will change in the future – just by overlaying a projection of the past or proposed future.
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  • We identified the great musical artists and other performers who had lived in Yonkers – from WC Handy (of early blues/ragtime), to Gene Krupa (jazz drummer) to the singers Ella Fitzgerald and Steven Tyler (local high school grad and originally lead singer of Aerosmith) to the famed comedian Sid Caesar, among others – and put together shows that informed the public of their work and their relationship to the city.
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  • Then we wanted to celebrate the creativity and artistry of current residents. One of the first organizations to cooperate with this project was the Yonkers Philharmonic. On Wednesday nights, you can see them perform if you’re just walking down the street. You can also hear them many mornings, while you wait for your train.
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  • The relatively new Westchester Center for Jazz and Contemporary Music made an album available.
  • Similarly, Friday nights are usually devoted to musical shows from the two local theater companies and performances from the schools. Yonkers also runs its own Idol contest and the most recent edition of that is also shown from time to time.
  • Yonkers, like other cities, runs various festivals during the year – from Friday night Jazz on the waterfront in the summer, to Riverfest that features folk music, to Hispanic and other ethnic group events. The best performances from those are also shown periodically.
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  • As a side note, there is some reassuring about seeing a summer jazz festival
    or a flower garden

    when it’s the middle of February and the streets still have snow. It cheers you up!

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  • Yonkers is also the home of Sarah Lawrence College and an outpost of Purchase College, both of which are especially strong in the arts. The Westchester Community College also has a branch in the city and its Digital Arts program was an early contributor to the content. These local colleges then provided and even created content especially for this project, including animations, documentary videos and new music.

This is only a partial list. If it had to do with Yonkers, if it happened in the city and helps residents appreciate where they live, then it became part of the content library. That library is still growing.

Visual projections on a big concrete wall are pretty straightforward. For the projections on the ground, the same kind of videos won’t quite work all the time and there more emphasis is given to animations, graphics and text.

Obviously, visual projections are limited to nighttime. But the speakers are on all day. So, there is a program for the morning and evening rush hour – usually a sample of what had been played the night before.

And, for a little fun and to liven up the street, during the middle of the day at random times, pedestrians hear little clips of musical sounds or other ambient sounds, like elephants roaring. Huh? I’m walking in Yonkers and I hear an elephant? That will wake up people who have stopped paying attention to their environment.

From some of the examples I’ve given, you also get the sense of how you can transport people mentally. You can show them what’s happening in a different part of the city. You can show them the sunset from yesterday or the flowers of spring when it’s still winter. All of this can uplift the mood of a city.

Clearly the focus of the content I’ve described was on this city – Yonkers – but any city could do the same. People, even city government folks, were surprised at how much content there was about the city. Your city too has much to show. You just need to look and be a bit creative about it.

But even what I’ve described here doesn’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to create new street experiences. More on that next time.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

A New Urban Digital Experience In Yonkers, New York

Over the last several years, I’ve written about the value of blending digital and physical spaces for cities so that they can create new exciting, delightful destinations that will inspire and attract people. This was one part of the work I did for the US Conference of Mayors on a strategy to ensure the viability of American cities — especially mid-sized and smaller cities — in a post-industrial, digital age.

Mayor Mike Spano, an innovative public leader and dedicated son of Yonkers, New York, saw one of my presentations at an annual meeting of the mayors and thought it would fit well with the revitalization program he had initiated in his city.

That’s how I got started helping the City bring the “Yonkers Digital Experience” to life.  (The picture below is from the press conference launching the project.)

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There’s a lot to this project so this will be a series of posts — an overview in this post and then later more detail about the content and future direction of the project.

Yonkers is a city of about 200,000 people, on the northern border of New York City along the Hudson River. It was founded in 1646 during the Dutch colonial period, but grew dramatically during the industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century. For example, it was the birthplace of the Otis Elevator Company. But like many other similar cities in the US and elsewhere, it suffered during the long decline and out-migration of industrial jobs.

With that background, there are two main goals of this project in Yonkers:

  • To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
  • To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents

As befits a smaller city — and one that didn’t want to have this supported by commercial advertising which would detract from quality of life — the project was very built on a very economical budget. Instead of huge LED displays, like Times Square, it uses high quality projections and outdoor speakers. When it’s dark, the video is seen and engaged. During the day, there is only audio. The projectors are attached to existing street lights and are relatively unobtrusive.

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While the cost of all this technology has come down dramatically over the last few year, it is still not a trivial technology project to implement. The complete system that takes the contributed digital content and ultimately displays it consists of several independent components of technology that are not always simple to integrate.

For the initial roll-out, two different kinds of sites were selected and handled quite differently.

The first site is the large concrete wall of the big Riverfront Library, which is across the street from the main train station and a big city park (with the Saw Mill River running through it). It is also very near the more upscale apartments that face the Hudson River and the Palisades. This is already an attractive area with lots of pedestrian traffic. It is ideal for the presentation of past and current performances, history, and the like in a fairly conventional way.

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The second location is Getty Square, which was the center of the city a hundred years ago, but is now not quite as important.  In this location, there are two projectors with speakers that are aimed at the ground in the center of the “square”. This is an edgier location and one that is expected to be the center for more non-traditional experiments in art and interaction.

While there have been projections on walls in various cities around the world, especially in Europe, these have usually been limited to the few days of a festival and have mostly been opportunities for graphic artists to use a building wall as a canvass – rather than to create a new permanent urban experience.

From what I’ve seen and read, the closest project to what Yonkers is doing has taken place in Montreal. But in Montreal, the program has been fairly static and solely visual, without sound, the impact on passers-by is limited. Nor does it seem they have any longer-term plans to enable interaction with residents on the street.

So, the Yonkers Digital Experience is an early experiment in urban design, technology and engagement.

The next post will be a review of the kinds of content that is currently part of this project. The final post will highlight where this kind of project can go, as it uses some fun digital technologies.

If you’re interested in the previous blog posts on this general subject, they can be found here:

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Adventures In Translation On The Road

I made a recent two-week trip to Europe in four countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany.  A large part of the trip was in the countryside where, generally, a smaller percentage of the residents speak English well.  (Actually, the Netherlands is sort of an exception to this rule as a large number of people speak English everywhere and Dutch and English even have similar sounding words.)

In presentations, I’ve been highlighting the improvements over the last few years in real-time translation between different languages, especially the phone apps intended for this purpose.  So, I thought this would be an ideal test to see how well they worked in the real world.

I chose the two leaders – Google and Microsoft – and took them on the road with me.  I used these primarily to read menus, signs, information and the like in the foreign (non-English) language and translate into English.  I also used it to translate my written English into the foreign language so that a non-English speaker could I understand what I was asking for.  I tried a couple of times to use the speech recognition and speech synthesis capabilities of these apps, but that was limited for reasons I outline below.

Anyway, here are the results of my adventures in real time translation on the road.

Although not as smooth as the videos from the companies would have you believe, these apps generally worked pretty well.  Frankly, whatever the limitations, I would have been in deep trouble and frequently lost without these apps.

You should check how well each works in a particular country.  Google Translate did a better job in France and Microsoft Translator a better job in Germany.

Google bought the company that produced the original WordLens app that allowed you to hold your phone’s camera over non-English text and see it in English – a nice example of augmented reality (AR).  That software is still embedded in the Google Translate app.  It’s really cool, when you can hold your phone still over foreign text in good light.  As a practical matter, this isn’t always the case.  

That’s where Microsoft Translator has the edge because it doesn’t try to do the AR thing.  It just uses the camera to take a photo and then provides an alternative photo in English.  It was a nice way to create an English language menu.  Apparently I hadn’t been the only ones to do this since waiters usually just shook their heads in recognition – another American making English versions of printed menus unnecessary.  (Not really, of course, at least not yet.)

The speech and voice recognition capabilities in both apps require having a good internet connection, something that is not all that widespread when you’re interacting with people who don’t speak English.  In hotels, museums and offices where there is available wi-fi, most people speak English well enough.  It’s elsewhere that you need the translation capability and it seems there is a correlation between the availability of wi-fi and the percentage of people who speak English in a foreign country – or putting it the opposite way, you usually won’t have wi-fi when you need it to carry the translation duties.

So, it is best for both apps to download the complete file for whatever language you’re going to need.  For me, that meant downloading fairly large files of Dutch, French and German.  If you don’t download, then you’re going to need wi-fi even just for text.

As with any useful technology, you want it to get out of the way and become invisible.  While neither is invisible magic yet, Google Translate helps with a nice little trip.  If you type in English and then hold your phone sideways (horizontally), it shows the foreign language translation in big letters.  This is very useful in explaining to baristas and clerks in mini-marts what you want.  Microsoft has a similar capability, but requires an additional step to make it happen.  Here is what it would look like in Spanish if you type “please give me a large latte to go”.

One nice feature of Microsoft Translator is its phrase book.  This has many of the basic questions and requests that a tourist is likely to want to communicate.

All in all, I’m never going to travel in a non-English speaking country again without these apps.  This area of computer science has advanced rapidly over the last few years and I only expect it to get better, especially for offline use.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Rural Summit Of Europe

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The first of its kind European Rural Summit was held in Eindhoven, Netherlands on March 22 and 23.   This conference was hosted by the Netherlands’ Brabant Kempen region in collaboration with the Intelligent Community Forum.  

Attending were a couple hundred public officials, rural entrepreneurs (farmers and others) and experts in economic development, rural development, technology and telecommunications.  

Although proximity guaranteed a number of Dutch would be there, participants came from many European countries, including nearby ones like Denmark and Germany, as well as those much further away like Slovenia and Russia.  There were even a few Americans and a Canadian.  

I was asked to set the tone for the conference as its initial keynote speaker.    My themes, familiar to readers of this blog, were that:

• The increasing importance of the digital broadband-connected economy offers rural areas new opportunities that had been precluded by the industrial era’s requirements for mass, density and physical proximity— requirements far better satisfied in urban than rural areas.  This will be especially clear as full video interaction becomes more common, but it’s already starting.   As an example, since 2000 the rural population of France has increased after 150 previous years of decline.

• While broadband alone is not sufficient, if a rural area is connected, there are all sorts of applications to improve life — re-invigorating Main Street with augmented reality and new retail technology, tele-health, online education, precision farming and the like.  

• With a bit of creativity and flexibility in both technology and organizational structure, rural broadband is not an insurmountable challenge.  Indeed, under the umbrella of the KempenGlas cooperative effort, broadband is being installed not far from the site of the Summit in the more rural areas of the region

Although this message about the potential for a renaissance in the countryside has not been the one generally portrayed to city dwellers, it resonated quite well with the attendees who work with and in rural areas.  And these themes were picked up by other speakers.

Also at several points over these two days, people emphasized the interdependence — and, as I have noted, even the convergence — of rural and urban areas.    Drs. Elies Lemkes-Straver, General Director of ZLTO (Southern Agriculture and Horticulture Organization) took up this idea. Her organization of 15,000 farmers, operating under the motto “farmers connect and innovate”, has established relationships with green entrepreneurs, consumers and social organizations.

Although all the presentations were interesting, one particularly unusual talk was by Professor Nico Baken, professor at Delft University of Technology, focused on the changing nature of the economy and our current failure to properly measure what’s going on since we still use industrial era concepts.   He passionately advocated for not being limited by traditional measures of return on investment and instead considering the value of broadband in rural areas for the lives of people there and in cities.  This pleased many there for it makes it easier to get broadband deployment in the countryside.  

It may be surprising, as well, that one of the presentations at this rural conference was on AI and robotics, courtesy of Professor Maarten Steinbuch of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

Since I was in the Netherlands, I took the opportunity to do some exploration of the countryside in relative nearby areas of the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium.  The story in Europe, as elsewhere in rural areas of advanced economies, was one of increasing contrasts between the rural communities that are already showing strong evidence of growth and those that lag.  

While I had heard stories of abandoned farms from some participants, from what I could see along country roads, most of the arable land seemed to be under cultivation and the residents appeared to be relatively prosperous.  It helps that this area is a major wine producer, but that wasn’t all that farmers were growing or doing.  

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Aside from rural tourism in a land of chateaux/castles and the kind of manufacturing that is often placed on the far outskirts of cities, it was hard to tell whether the nascent digital economy seen in the rural US has a counterpart in Europe.

The Rural Summit wasn’t only for speeches, workshops and the various side trips attendees took.  There was also a strong desire to take action by establishing a network of rural leaders across Europe to help each other.  

Of course, I encouraged the leaders gathered in Eindhoven to go beyond that and help create a Virtual Metropolis that would connect their residents — and rural residents outside of Europe — for mutual economic, cultural and educational benefit.  This too received a positive reaction and do I’ll be moving forward to build the platform to make this possible.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Seeds Of Rural Economic Growth

I’ll be speaking at the Rural Summit for Europe to be held in Eindhoven, Netherlands tomorrow — I’ll be writing more about that later.  Coincidentally, last Friday, the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group and Rural Development Innovation Group hosted a very good panel on rural entrepreneurship in the US.  

In addition to the Aspen folks, the panel consisted of:
• Lupe Ruiz, Co-Owner, Wing Champs
• Ines Polonius, CEO, Communities Unlimited
• Dennis West, CEO, Northern Initiatives
• Jeffrey Lusk, Executive Director, Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority

There are many potential entrepreneurs in the countryside.  If you think about it, the family farm is an example of entrepreneurship.

Even more so today, entrepreneurship is essential for the economic viability of rural areas in the face of the relatively shrinking rural population in the US because the traditional approaches aren’t working well.  

Two or three decades ago, some manufacturing plants moved to rural areas to save costs, but then manufacturing shifted further to low cost countries.  And now, with the increasing use of robotic devices, factories aren’t big employment generators.

Moreover, the use of incentives to get big companies to move to rural areas has been shown to be of limited and ever decreasing value in helping long term economic development.  Unlike multinational businesses that rural areas have tried to attract, local entrepreneurs are committed to their communities.  

Ms. Polonius noted that every dollar of sales that go to local entrepreneurs is spent several times over before it leaves the area, whereas sales at multi-national companies in rural areas leave much more quickly.  As a case in point, Mr. Ruiz noted that when it came time to build his restaurant, he felt an obligation to buy lumber from another local entrepreneur rather than make the drive to Home Depot or Lowe’s where he might have saved a few bucks.

The panel went on for than an hour, so I can only highlight what struck me as the most critical points.

First, without any prompting from me or anyone else, the panelists stressed the importance of broadband for both local business success and also being able to reach markets beyond the local area.  Mr. Ruiz was especially proud of the fact that his small town of Raymondville in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas had better broadband than the state capital of Austin did.  The service is provided by the Valley Telephone Cooperative – in yet another example of how cooperatives have moved broadband forward in rural areas as the big telecoms companies abandon those areas.

Second, creativity and counter-intuitive thinking are necessary to turn around rural areas.  Mr. Lusk pointed out how his area of southern Virginia had a concentration of some of the longest lasting poverty-stricken counties in the US.  Where once extraction industries, like coal mining of the mountains, provide some boost to the local economy, that had been on a downturn since the 1950s.  Local people wanted to have factories come there, but highway transportation wasn’t great and the land wasn’t flat – it was the Appalachian Mountains after all, very pretty, but not great industrial territory.

They finally turned things on their head and realized that the thing that was preventing industrial development – the mountains – was the basis for future growth of rural tourism.  Mr. Lust described the ingenious ways that the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority went from ATV off-road trails to encourage other economic development.

Third is the need for risk capital.  Although local business folks often think first of going to the bank for funds, there are many fewer local banks around and banks of any kind aren’t generally in the business of helping startups.  So, other sources of funds are needed.  That’s where non-profits like Northern Initiatives come in.  The non-profit organization proclaims that it

“provides loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs in Northern Michigan that might not qualify for loans from traditional banks for a variety of reasons.”

Fourth, the development of rural entrepreneurship cannot end with the money, also needs training and coaching.  Communities Unlimited offers a cash flow tool to keep entrepreneurs on an even keel.  And, as with Wing Champs, they provide a variety of other services to help new business get over the inevitable rough spots.  

Similarly, Northern Initiatives puts it this way:

“Each one of our loans comes with access to business services which includes a suite of practical trainings, tools, and resources on topics that matter to every business owner.”  

And they even provide a coach to each company they give money to.

Mr. West also noted that some coaching comes from modeling – seeing other local people making money by starting businesses provides both encouragement and education to potential entrepreneurs.

Although these efforts don’t have quite the focus on gazelle second-stage growth companies that the Economic Gardening movement does, they share in common the idea that long term economic growth comes from entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs need help.

Here’s the overall lesson of this panel:  

The seeds of entrepreneurship are in the countryside already.  For economic growth, those seeds need to be fertilized by the combination of broadband, creativity/counter-intuitive thinking, risk capital and training/coaching.

[You can see a recording of the event at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMIjJMEbzsI  ]

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Bumpy Transition To Video Meetings

As internet bandwidth gets better, we’re seeing more people communicate by videoconference. Facetime and Skype are now quite common ways for family members and friends to see each other when they are physically separated. Video conferencing has been around for a while in big multi-national corporations.

More slowly, we’re also seeing the adoption of videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies.  There are various reasons for the slow adoption.

  • Public agencies are unfortunately often populated by the less technically savvy part of the overall population or whose members are just more comfortable with physical than virtual face-to-face communication.
  • Or their members may have had a bad experience with video conferencing a few years ago, when neither the software nor the bandwidth was sufficient to become invisible and not interfere with free-flowing conversation. (Of course, there are still examples of bad videoconferences even now. I mention video products I’ve used successfully below.)
  • Public bodies are also subject to various open meeting laws and rules, which haven’t always caught up with changes in technology.

But things are changing, so I went on a search of the video conferencing practices of government bodies. Here’s some of what I found.

Since the latter part of last year, the City Council of Austin, Texas, has allowed the public to speak at their meetings via video so that citizens aren’t forced to come downtown for this opportunity.

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A bigger step is virtual attendance at meetings of the members themselves.

This is important especially when distances are large or obtaining a quorum is hard to achieve. It may be unusual for a city council or a state legislature to fail to have a quorum, but there are tens of thousands of other public bodies who can’t get their business done because not enough members can show up. This affects school boards and libraries and water districts and state advisory boards, etc. (By the way, the problem isn’t new – the first session of the US Congress was delayed for some time while members arrived very slowly.)

Video conferencing that would enable members to participate remotely would seem to be a natural solution. But as in all other aspects of the public sector, things aren’t so simple and policies seem to be the first obstacle to overcome.

Over the last few years, the Wyoming’s State Legislature has developed its video policy, which still seems be somewhere in the middle between those without full confidence and those who want to use it. Approvals are needed for committee use of video, as the policy states: “With prior consent of the committee chair, a video conference may be held for legislators unable to attend a meeting at the official meeting location.”  More generally, “An entire committee can meet via video conference at the direction of the chairman.”

Since 2013, the State of Missouri has allowed those elected to public bodies (mostly local) to vote and participate by video. But the Missouri Municipal League felt it necessary to a model policy for videoconferencing. It particularly emphasizes such guidance as: “a member’s use of video conference attendance should occur only sparingly.”

Following a change in the Illinois Open Meetings laws, the Schaumburg Library in 2009 adopted an official policy on this subject. They require a quorum of members at the physical meeting, not counting members participating via electronic means. Once that quorum is established, the remote participants have full rights although their votes are recorded as being remote. The policy also lists the acceptable reasons for wanting to participate remotely – employment, board business, illness, or family emergency.

In Texas, school boards also can use videoconferencing, but with somewhat similar requirements for a quorum. Whereas, public bodies in Pennsylvania can count remote participants as part of the quorum.

The State of Florida has empowered condo boards, which are a major form of local governance there, to use video. The State allows board members to be counted as present and vote remotely via video conferencing.

In New York State, which has some of the strictest open meeting laws, the State has allowed members to participate in meetings by video, but not phone conference calls. The idea is that, as in a traditional physical meeting, everyone has to be able to see all members’ reactions at all times.

In addition, New York State looks on video participation as a remote extension of the physical meeting, so public bodies using video must list all locations in its public notices – both the main physical meeting as well as any location where a member is using video. Presumably, someone in a hotel in, say, Florida or France, would have to allow any interested citizens to come into their room and also see what’s going on.

I’m on a number of public boards and they have different policies. Some boards are reluctant to use video at all. Another board has just had a completely virtual meeting that worked very well using Fuze and will be repeating this at least twice a year. I’ve also used Zoom successfully for meetings with large numbers of people.

Like most adoption of technology, transitions are not smooth and the old and the new exist together. In the streets of cities a hundred years ago, there were accidents between automobiles (then still relatively new) and horses pulling carriages.

Why should we expect video conferencing to be different?

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/158159631752/the-bumpy-transition-to-video-meetings]

Affective Computing

One of the more interesting technologies that has been developing is called affective computing. It’s about analyzing observations of human faces, voices, eye movements and the like to understand human emotions — what pleases or displeases people or merely catches their attention.  It combines deep learning, analytics, sensors and artificial intelligence.

While interest in affective computing hasn’t been widespread, it may be nearing its moment in the limelight. One such indication is that the front page of the New York Times, a couple of days ago, featured a story about its use for television and advertising. The story was titled “For Marketers, TV Sets Are an Invaluable Pair of Eyes.”

But the companies that were featured in the Times article are not the only ones or the first ones to develop and apply affective computing. IBM published a booklet on the subject in 2001.  Before that, in 1995, the term “affective computing” was coined by Professor Rosalind Picard of MIT, who also created the affective computing group in the MIT Media Lab.

In a video, “The Future of Story Telling”, she describes what is essentially the back story to the New York Times article.  In no particular order, among other companies working with this technology today, there are Affectiva, Real Eyes, Emotient, Beyond Verbal, Sension, tACC, nVisio, CrowdEmotion, PointGraB, Eyeris, gestigon, Intel RealSense, SoftKinetic, Elliptic Labs, Microsoft’s VIBE Lab and Kairos.

Affectiva, which Professor Picard co-founded, offers an SDK that reads emotions of people at home or in the office just by using web cams.  Here’s a video that shows their commercially available product at work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFrSFMnskI4

Similarly, Real Eyes also
offers a commercial product that analyzes the reactions of what people
see on their screens. Here’s their video about real-time facial coding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WF4eG1s44U&list=PL1F3V-C5KJZAxl8OGF0NjbG8WHTTE6_hX

The
two previous products have obvious application to web marketing and
content. So much so, that some predict a future in which affective
technology creates an “emotion economy”.

But affective computing
has longer term applications, most especially in robotics. As human-like
robots, especially for an aging population in Asia, begin to be sold as
personal assistants and companions, they will need to have the kind of
emotional intelligence about humans that other human beings mostly have
already. That’s likely to be where we will see some of the most
impactful uses of affective computing.

Over the last couple of
years, Japan’s Softbank has developed Pepper, which they describe as a
“social robot” since it aims to recognize human emotion and shows its
own emotions. Here’s the French software company behind Pepper  — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQFgGS8AAN0

There
are others doing the same thing. At Nanyang Technological University,
Singapore, another social robot, called Nadine, is being developed.  See
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXg33S3U_Oc

Both
these social robots and affective computing overall still needs much
development, but already you can sense the importance of this
technology.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/157863647250/affective-computing]

Creativity Versus Copyright

In the Industrial Age, the fight between labor and the owners of industry (“capital”) was the overarching political issue. As we move away from an industrial economy to one based on knowledge that debate is likely to diminish.

Instead, among the big battles to be fought in this century, will be about intellectual property — who controls it, who gets paid for it, how much they get paid, who owns it and whether ideas can properly be considered property in the same way we consider land to be property.

I’ve written about this before, but a recent story about the settlement of a suit by Star Trek was settled recently, as reported in the NY Times, brought this to mind, especially as I came across an interesting series of posts that provide some new perspectives.

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These were written at the end of last year and the beginning of this year by the former chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, Rich Haridy.

His aim was to “examine how 21st century digital technology has given artists a set of tools that have dismantled traditional definitions of originality and is challenging the notions of copyright that came to dominate much of the 20th century.”

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Here’s a quick, broad-brush summary of his argument for a more modern and fairer copyright system:

  • Not just in today’s digital world of remixes, but going back to Shakespeare and Bach and even before that, creative works have always been derivative from previous works. They clearly have originality, but no work is even close to being 100% original.
  • The tightening of copyright laws has undermined the original goal of copyrights — to encourage creativity and the spread of knowledge.
  • This reflects the failure of policy makers and the courts to understand the nature of creativity. This is getting worse in our digital world.
  • While the creators and distributors deserve compensation for their works, this shouldn’t be used as a reason to punish other artists who build and transform those works.
  • The enforcement is unequal. While bloggers and artists with limited financial means are easy targets for IP lawyers, the current system “while [theoretically] allowing for fair use, still privileges the rich and powerful, be they distributors or artists.”

It’s worth reading the series to understand his argument, which makes a lot of sense:

Haridy is not proposing destruction of copyrights. But if arguments, like his, are not heeded, don’t be surprised if more radical stances are taken by others — just as happened in the past in the conflict between labor and capital.

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/157274980178/creativity-versus-copyright]

The Virtual Metropolis Moves Forward

The NTCA-Rural Broadband Association held its annual meeting and expo this week in San Diego with more than 2,000 people in attendance.

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I was on a panel to discuss the idea of a Virtual Metropolis, a topic I introduced to the Rural Broadband Association and have written about here.

The idea is simple. In the pre-internet days, cities — especially big cities — brought together lots of people. Because these peoople were near each other and could casually interact, these cities became hotbeds of innovation and economic production.  Along with increased agricultural productivity, this led to the shift of population from rural to urban areas that has threatened many small towns.

As a sort of last gasp, after World War II, many small outlying towns tried to substitute factories as a source of employment.  In the face on increasing automation and cheaper labor markets elsewhere, that strategy crumbled too. In the last couple of decades, the drop in small town and rural population has increased. Many bright, ambitious young people can’t wait to move away to a big city.

And, if you’re an entrepreneur with some great new product or service, it’s easier to start up in New York or Silicon Valley or some other equivalent place. Why? Because no single person has all the skills they need to succeed and it’s easier to find skilled people in those cities than in your small town.

When I write this, you may be thinking about high-tech entrepreneurs. But the historic limitations of small town life affect everyone, even artisans or those in other low-tech businesses.

This all may sound bleak and many people share that bleak outlook.  Even some of the members of the Rural Broadband Association can be overwhelmed by this picture.

But what I’ve described is about the past, not the potential for the future. In this digital age, if you’re connected by broadband you can live anywhere. If you enjoy country living and love the quality of life there, you no longer need to compromise your economic prospects by continuing to live in the country.

We’ve seen some of the positive impact that broadband can have on those rural communities who have invested in broadband, but that impact has not been widespread enough for people to take notice.

Partly this reflects the lack of reasonably priced broadband in many rural areas.   The Rural Broadband folks are working hard to fix that.

More important, there hasn’t been a digital platform devoted to the needs of people in the countryside that would provide a substitute for the casual face-to-face interactions and the breadth of the skill pool that people in big cities take for granted.

That’s where the Virtual Metropolis comes in. We are building this platform to make it easier for people in small towns and rural areas to see and talk to each other about how they can work together for mutual economic benefit.

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Broadband makes this possible because it provides the bandwidth that’s necessary for visual chat. Visual chat is especially critical in helping to establish trust, compared to email, messaging and other forms of communication that are limited to text.

The shared small town experience is also an essential basis for mutual understanding and trust.  That common experience gets drowned out in the overwhelmingly urban outlook of much larger social media and job services.

If even 10 or 15% of the people living in more rural areas join in for business purposes, they will be virtually part of a metropolis of more than five million people. In that way, they can achieve many of the same benefits of physically residing in a big city.

(While my focus is on economic opportunity, broadband will also give these folks access to great educational, cultural and medical resources.)

In addition to creating and setting up the technology for a Virtual Metropolis, we need to build a community — to get people to participate.

In part, that’s where the NTCA plays a key role.  They can reach out to the early adopters, the innovators in their regions and let them know that the days of isolation are over. Clearly, from a business viewpoint, the Virtual Metropolis provides their customers and potential customers with a strong business justification for increasing their bandwidth.

One of the panelists, Dusty Johnson of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell, South Dakota.  Despite Mitchell’s selection among the ICF’s Top 7 most intelligent communities in the world, he was initially skeptical as a self-described “cranky old man.”  But as he thought about others in Mitchell, particularly his own children and other young people, he realized the value of the idea.

The other panelist, Michael Burke, CEO of MTA, the local broadband provider for 10,000 square miles of Alaska is already an unusually innovative leader. MTA goes way beyond merely providing connectivity in many ways, for example providing customer training on new technology and funding coding classes in the schools.

Mr. Burke quickly championed the Virtual Metropolis. Of course, considering the distance from the lower 48 and the nature of winter in Alaska, the necessity of being part of a much larger virtual community is crystal clear.

[If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.]

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/156987590937/the-virtual-metropolis-moves-forward]

Team of Teams

The book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”
by retired General Stanley McChrystal and his associates Tantum Collins,
David Silverman, and Chris Fussell has been out for
more than a year. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it partly because I
wasn’t sure I wanted to read what I thought would be yet another
general’s exercise in self-promotion.   I’ve also been through too many
conferences filled with speeches from high ranking executives that are
essentially war stories in which they are the heroes of the story.

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So, when I finally had the time to read it at the end of last year, I was surprised to find that this book is one of the best recent books on management. It has been criticized by some as not really having anything new in it and merely reflecting the undue length of time it has taken a general to figure out these things.

While there is some truth to that, the fact remains that most large corporate and public sector organizations operate in the old style that McChrystal finds inadequate for a new era of change, complexity, and creativity. This includes even highly touted tech companies who reach a certain size and stage of maturity, even while they profess to be using agile approaches.

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For General McChrystal, it’s a question of what the organization is designed to achieve. Traditional “Taylorism”, which has been the model of most large organizations, aims to maximize efficiency. As part of that goal, he writes “organizations have implemented as much control over subordinates as technology physically allowed.” That certainly sounds like the traditional image of the Army and many large corporations.

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Instead, he argues that in today’s world, adaptability is much more important. This is a necessary response to deep and widespread technological changes. He also notes that those same technologies make possible a more modern, more adaptable organization.

Although much of what it’s in the book isn’t exactly new, the authors synthesize the material and lay it out to build a story that should be compelling to any senior executive.

The value of teams and the use of the intelligence of team members, rather than considering them cogs in a large machine, is explained well.  But the real challenge in leading large organizations is how to scale those benefits.

That’s where McChrystal and co-authors make a real contribution.

Here are some the key take-aways:

  • A systems approach and a more organic rather than mechanistic view is needed by leaders when looking at large organizations whose units must work together. Each person in the organization needs to maintain a systemic perspective too.
  • Frequent inter-team communication – “shared awareness” of the environment that develops into “shared consciousness” – is necessary to prevent teams from doing things that run counter to the needs of the overall organization.
  • On the latter point, perhaps communication is too weak a word because it implies that each side decides when and what to say. The General found instead that absolute transparency between units (and teams) was necessary. And, as he noted, “In traditional organizations, this constitutes culture change that does not come easily.”
  • Although this has been well known to organizational researchers for some time, the practice of using physical space to encourage this kind of approach is not widespread. General McChrystal relates his own and other organizations use of common spaces. Of course, in a world of increasingly virtual organizations it is especially important to create continuously operating virtual spaces, with full video, to achieve the same effect.
  • Where people from different teams couldn’t be physically next to each other, he set up “embedding and liaison programs to create strong lateral ties between our units, and with our partner organizations. Where systemic understanding mirrors the sense of ‘purpose’ that bonds small teams, this mirrored the second ingredient to team formation: ‘trust.’”
  • The leader as mastermind or chess master is yet another old concept to be thrown away and replaced by the model of a gardener who enables the ecosystem rather than directing it. We should not “demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.”
  • In order to be able to react with necessary speed to ever changing situations, organizational leaders need to abandon traditional control because “Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.”
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This book is an excellent guide to effectively managing large-scale operations to implement a strategy. But, much like the wars that General McChrystal was part of, it doesn’t focus on whether the larger strategy makes sense. That’s not a criticism of the book, just a realization that there are important considerations beyond its scope.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/156356212937/team-of-teams]

A Picture Of The Last Year

It’s the end of the year and I won’t be posting anything new until 2017.

To close out this year, I thought I might create a word cloud from all of the posts over the last twelve months and here it is:

Happy Holidays and, no matter how this year was for you, I wish you a better one in 2017!

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Doing More Than Just Remembering The Forgotten America

Much has been written about how the results of this year’s Presidential election reflected the feeling on the part of people who live in rural areas and small towns that they have been overlooked and that the severe problems in those areas have not received sufficient attention by public and business leaders.

This Washington Post story, sub-headed “How an electorate fed up with the elite propelled Donald Trump to victory”, is a good example.

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Although we frequently hear that 80% of Americans live in cities now, that still means there are 60,000,000 Americans in the countryside – not an insignificant number as we saw last month.

Even the news stories that feature broad economic trends don’t highlight the uneven nature of those trends in these areas. For example, the decline in manufacturing employment was a standard talking point on the recent campaign trail. But many observers seem to have forgotten that many bigger manufacturing plants had long since departed cities for the countryside. So when manufacturing employment declined, it hit the countryside more deeply, even while that pain was less visible.

So, sadly, the feeling in rural America of being forgotten is not unfounded.

To make matters worse, in too many small cities and rural areas, many people speak negatively of the prospects for the area. This helps create a downward spiral by persuading the brightest young people to leave.

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As sociologists, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, wrote in their 2009 book, “Hollowing Out The Middle:

“The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay. A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave, usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or to continue building lives elsewhere. The fact that this small-town rite of passage should be so intimately bound up with the very future of the Heartland allows us to see how the hollowing-out phenomenon plays out in the lives and decisions of young people, and how their pathways are shaped by the communities and people who surround them as they grow up.”

“The Heartland’s most valuable export is not crops or hogs but its educated young people.”

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working with the Intelligent Community Forum helping these communities to take advantage of new opportunities open to them in a new century in which close physical proximity of millions of people is not necessarily the only strategy for economic success.

I’ve written before about how technology enables rural residents to take advantage of the kind of resources that you used to be almost exclusively available to residents of big cities — global economic connections, education and culture, even world-class health care — while maintaining the quality of life that draws them or keeps them in the countryside.

With all this on my mind a few weeks ago, I was asked by the Aspen Institute to keynote a community dialog in Sutter County (Yuba City), California. This was part of my participation in the small working group advising Aspen’s project on the future of libraries.

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Although Sutter County is not, by any means, among the most devastated of rural communities, it is still concerned about its future. My observation was that they had some strong assets that are otherwise underappreciated in the conventional economic development perspective.

First, I was impressed by the local leadership, which seemed to have its act together. Leaders who have vision and an understanding of where the world is going are essential for community development.

Second, they have a diverse population, with a variety of experiences including an understanding of entrepreneurial success. Like some other flourishing small cities around the country, Yuba City also has its immigrant groups. It is, for example, known all over North America and India for its long-established Sikh community, which draws tens of thousands of people to the city each year – and can be a connection to the global economy.

Third, they have a library that is prepared to play its role as the central institution of the knowledge economy and help the residents of Sutter County take advantage of new opportunities that I see in a new connected countryside. Much of the Aspen workshop/dialog was focused on the steps the library can take to make this a reality.

It will be interesting to see how well Sutter County achieves its vision and what other communities can learn from it.

And, perhaps for a short time, the situation in the countryside will get a little attention among public officials and the media. But even being remembered, once in a while, really isn’t much of a program.

While Sutter County and places like it across the country are trying to assure their future, it would be easier if national policy recognized and helped them respond to the socio-economic-technological challenges and opportunities facing them. More than merely reducing the sense of being forgotten, it could help accelerate a renaissance in the countryside.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/154180196592/doing-more-than-just-remembering-the-forgotten]

Prediction Markets To Predict Behavior?

In previous elections, prediction markets were relatively accurate and were touted as competitors to public opinion polling. So how did they do this time?

The Iowa Electronic market had two prediction markets concerning the Presidential election. One was for the percentage of the popular two-party vote, which over the course of betting predicted Clinton 50% and Trump 48%. [These were individual contracts, which may be why the numbers add up to more than 100.] According to the most recent actual vote count, the result of the two-party split was Clinton 51% and Trump 49%.

The other was for the winner of the popular vote, which over the course of betting was 97% for Clinton and 1% for Trump. This was correct as current estimates show her getting over two million more votes than him. 

Alas, winning the popular vote wasn’t enough this time and this was where the prediction markets seem to have run into a problem.

In one of the few markets that focused on electoral votes, a German betting market ended up predicting Clinton 300, Trump 237. (The real result was almost the reverse.)

PredictWise’s betting market had Clinton “winning” with an 86% probability. (In their defense, of course, that also means a 14% chance for Trump, which has to happen some time if we’re talking probability, not certainty, after all.)

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The folks at the Campaign Workshop observed:

“Polls aren’t perfect, but neither are political betting markets. Since these markets have gained credibility in predicting elections, they have started taking changes in public opinion polls less seriously. Overconfidence in betting markets makes the markets look misleadingly stable, and that false sense of stability makes it harder for them to predict events that shake up the status quo — such as the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or Trump’s success in the Republican presidential nomination process. As Rothschild himself has pointed out, ‘prediction markets have arrived at a paradoxical place: Their reliability, the very source of their prestige, is causing them to fail.’ ”

In looking at these markets and, more generally, crowd predictions of events, it’s worth going back to James Surowiecki’s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds”. He described both the rationale for prediction markets — which have been well publicized — and the characteristics of accurate prediction markets — which have received less emphasis.

“The premise is that under the right circumstances, the collective judgment of a large group of people will generally provide a better picture of what the future might look like than anything one expert or even a small group of experts will come up with. … [Prediction markets] work much like a futures market, in which the price of a contract reflects the collective day-to-day judgment either on a straight number—for instance, what level sales will reach over a certain period—or a probability—for example, the likelihood, measured as a percentage, that a product will hit a certain milestone by a certain date.”

“[F]or a crowd to be smart, it needs to satisfy certain criteria. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs to summarize people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information and don’t worry about what everyone around them thinks.”

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Did the prediction markets in 2016 meet Surowiecki’s criteria? Not really.

One problem with betting markets is that they are not diverse, not representative of a broad spectrum of the population. As a CNBC report noted: “Another issue that may have contributed to the miss [on Brexit and now the US election] is the relatively similar mindset among bettors generally.”

Since all bettors can see what others seeing, it’s hard to argue that their judgments are independent. And while, in a way, the decisions are decentralized, to the extent they mirror the current polling results and news reports from national media, there is less decentralization.

So do we just decide that the results of this year’s election call into question the value of crowd predictions? I think not.

But rather than focusing on predicting who wins the White House or the Super Bowl or the number of coins in a large bottle, there is another use of prediction markets for business and government leaders — testing the likelihood that people will respond positively to a new program or offer.

No matter how much market research (aka polling) is done, it is often difficult to assess how the public will react to a proposed program. I’m suggesting that prediction markets be used to estimate the reaction ahead of time, as long as they match Surowiecki’s criteria and don’t depend on money bets. At the very least, this would require a large and diverse set of people responding and keeping their judgments secret (until “voting” stops).

Over the last year or so, there have been several reports that rates for Affordable Care (aka Obamacare) had to be raised because there are fewer young, healthy people enrolling than expected. Putting aside the merits of the policy and its goals, this is an ideal case where prediction markets could have helped assess the accuracy of an underlying assumption about the implementation of a very consequential piece of public policy.

Some experts are skeptical of prediction markets because the average person doesn’t have professional expertise. But this use of prediction markets draws on the perceptions of people about each other.

Implicit in the diversity of views that Surowiecki notes is that enough people need to care about the planned program or policy. The reason they care may be to win money, in some cases, but that’s not the only reason. They might care because the market deals with something that affects their lives.

And the nice thing about this is that if only a few people care about a planned program that also tells you something about that plan — or, at least, whether the range of outcomes might be something between a yawn and deep trouble.

It may well be that this more experimental basis to predict behavior will illustrate the deeper value of prediction markets. What do you think?.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/153863533555/prediction-markets-to-predict-behavior]

What Do We Know About Change?

[This is a follow up to my post last week.]

Even if we understand that what seems like resistance to change is more nuanced and complicated, many of us are directly or implicitly being asked to lead the changes in places of work. In that sense, we are “change agents” to use a well-established phrase.

Consider the number of times each day, both on the job and outside, that we hear the word “change” and the necessity for leaders to help their organizations change in the face of all sorts of challenges.

There has been a slew of popular business books providing guidance to would-be change agents. Several consultants and business gurus have developed their own model of the change process, usually outlining some necessary progression and steps that they have observed will lead to success.

Curiously, the same few anecdotes seem to pop up in a number of these, like burning platforms or the boardroom display of gloves.

While these authors mean well and have tried to be good reporters of what they have observed, change agents often find that, in practice, the suggestions in these books and articles are at best a starting point and don’t quite match the situation they face.

Part of the problem is that there has been too little rigorous behavioral work about how and why people change. (In fairness, some authors, like the Heath brothers, at least try to apply behavioral concepts in their recommendations on how to lead change.)

And on a practical level, many change agents find it difficult to figure out the tactics they need to use to improve the chances that the desired change will occur. In this post, I’m suggesting that we first need to understand the unique and sometimes unexpected ways that the human brain processes information and thus how we need to communicate.

(These are often called cognitive biases, but that is a pejorative phrase that might put you in the wrong mindset. It’s not a good idea starting an effort to convince people to join you in changing an organization by assuming that they are somehow irrational.)

As just one example, some of the most interesting work along these lines was that done by the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky.

They found in their research that people exaggerate potential losses beyond reality – often times incorrectly guessing that what they control (like driving a car) is less risky than what they don’t control (being a passenger in an airplane).

Moreover, a person’s sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements). Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

The estimate of losses and gains is also affected by a person’s reference point, which can be shifted by even random effects. The classic example of the impact of a reference point is how people react differently to being told either that they have a 10% chance of dying or a 90% chance of living through a major disease. The probabilities are the same, of course.

In general, they found that there is an aversion to losses which outweighs possible gains, even if the gains might be worth more.  

This makes it sound like change is very difficult, since many people often perceive proposed changes as having big risks.

But there is more to the story. Indeed, Kahneman found that there is no across-the-board aversion to change or even merely to risk. Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

As one summary states:

“When faced with a risky prospect, people will be: (1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains, (2) risk-averse over high-probability gains, (3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and (4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses.”

In just this brief summary, there is some obvious guidance for change agents:

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss. For example, the new system won’t cost 25% more than the old one, but it will just be an extra nickel each time it is used.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success – positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss by shifting their frame of reference, which determines their starting point.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks, which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other.  Behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off. A series of small innovations will help people to gain that experience and you will also find out which of your great ideas really are good. Since any innovation is an experiment, there’s no guarantee of success. Some will fail, but if the ideas are good and competent people are implementing the changes, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact is positive.
  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility. People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss of change is less than a bigger possible loss of not changing.

I’ve just touched the surface here. There other findings of behavioral and social science research that can also enable change agents to get a firmer grasp on the reality of the situation facing them and suggest things they might do to become more successful.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Resistance To Change?!

As I’ve been going through articles and books for the course on Analytics and Leading Change that I’ll be teaching soon at Columbia University, I frequently read how leaders and other change agents need to overcome resistance to change. Whenever we aim to get things done and they don’t happen immediately, this is often the first explanation for the difficulty.

Resistance to change is a frequent complaint of anyone introducing a new technology or especially something as fundamental as the use of analytics in an organization.

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The conflict that it implies can be compelling. You could make a best seller or popular movie out of that conflict, like that great story about baseball, analytics and change “Moneyball”.

There have been cartoons and skits about resistance to change — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTLyXamRvk4

This is an idea that goes very far back. Even Machiavelli, describing Renaissance politics, is often quoted on the subject:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

It’s all awful if you’re the one trying to introduce the change and many have written about the problems they saw.

But is that word “resistance” misleading change agents? Going beyond the perspectives and anecdotes of change agents and business consultants, there has been over the last two decades some solid academic research on this subject. And, as often happens when we learn more, there have been some important subtleties lost in that phrase “resistance to change”.

In perhaps a refutation or an elaboration on Machiavelli’s famous quote, Dent and Goldberg report in “Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’” that:

“People do not resist change, per se.  People may resist loss of status, loss of pay, or loss of comfort, but these are not the same as resisting change … Employees may resist the unknown, being dictated to, or management ideas that do not seem feasible from the employees’ standpoint. However, in our research, we have found few or no instances of employees resisting change … The belief that people do resist change causes all kinds of unproductive actions within organizations.”

Is what looks like resistance something more or something else?

More recently, University of Montreal Professor Céline Bareil wrote about the “Two Paradigms about Resistance to Change” in which she compared “the enemy of change” (traditional paradigm) to “a resource” (modern paradigm). She noted that:

“Instead of being interpreted as a threat, and the enemy of change, resistance to change can also be considered as a resource, and even a type of commitment on the part of change recipients.”

Making this shift in perspective is likely harder for change agents than the changes they expect of others. The three authors of “Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story” describe the various ways that change agents themselves have biased perceptions. They say that blaming difficulties on resistance to change may be a self-serving and “potentially self-fulfilling label, given by change agents attempting to make sense of change recipients’ reactions to change initiatives, rather than a literal description of an objective reality.”

Indeed, they observe that the actions of change agents may not be merely unsuccessful, but counter-productive.

“Change agents may contribute to the occurrence of the very reactions they label as resistance through their own actions and inactions, such as communications breakdowns, the breach of agreements and failure to restore trust” as well as not listening to what is being said and learning from it.

There is, of course, a lot more to this story, which you can start to get into by looking at some of the links in this post. But hopefully this post has offered enough to encourage those of us who are leading change to take a step back, look at the situation differently and thus be able to succeed.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/152378476173/resistance-to-change]