The Knowledge Futures Blog Turns 3

August 22, 2009

Well a lot has happened in those three years.  Back then, I would never have thought that I would now be living in Dubai and that this blog now has 170 posts.  So to both of my readers out there, Happy Birthday to my blog!  We are now out of the terrible 2’s and into the thriving 3’s.

Alternatives to Executive Decision-Making

August 19, 2009

A number of articles from the latest What’s Emerging  newsletter from Paul at Emergent Futures piqued my interest in the combined topics of decision-making, Powerpoint and creativity.

The first article describes the views of a retired Marine Corps officer who laments the rise in the use of Powerpoint for decision-making by corporate and government leaders.  He claims that the use of powerpoint dumbs down complex topics into simple bullet points, forcing the decision-makers into perusing lots of information of dubious quality to make quick decisions.  Organisations that favour powerpoint breed a culture of having their leaders make more and more and faster decisions which often would be better made at a lower hierarchical level and  which could end up being wrong.  In the past, complex issues would be distilled into briefs that would analyse the topic and provide the decision-maker with time to consider their decision, and offer them the chance to “sleep on it”.

And sleeping on it increases the chance of successfully solving problems as research in this second article finds. Not just any problem but particularly those problems that are new and require creative problem-solving. And not just  sleep but REM sleep is required with the researchers believing that this allows the brain to form new nerve connections without the interference of other thought pathways that occur when we are awake or in non-dream-state sleep.

And so finally, the issue of creativity leads to the last article which explores creative people who Gordon Torr highlights have different biology (they think differently in a less inhibited, more dreamlike and weird manner), different motivation (ideas and expression are more important than money) and different personalities (impulsive, sensitive and ambitious). This is often a totally different character set to that of many senior managers who are often more controlling and target-oriented.

So if we are seeking creative solutions to problems by our decision-makers, many of us are using the wrong instrument.  Managers need to be more receptive to creative solutions and encourage an environment that requires them to make less decisions and focus their attention on the more important decisions.  Can you see your senior manager doing that?

So next time you are asked to prepare a Powerpoint for a decision-making meeting, suggest an alternative tack and prepare a considered two page brief, proffer creative solutions, and let the manager consider the paper well before the meeting. The major problem you are likely to face is if they can make the time to read it before the meeting!

You Get What You Measure

August 16, 2009

Working in the education space, my interest is piqued by articles such as this one looking at how measures are used for the benefit of the education system, which in this case is to get the best students into the more demanding and higher quality university courses.  But the simple measure, the ENTER score in Victoria, is a blunt instrument.  The article makes the point that students from schools with lower average ENTER scores perform better at university than their counterparts from higher performing secondary schools. Other measures should be used to augment the ENTER score for universities including aptitude tests to determine capabilities, personal essays to demonstrate interest and ambition, and expanded special entry schemes.

Put simply, simple measures are not always effective.  There’s often underlying aspects that mask important variations in the data that need to be uncovered and incorporated to make concrete and longer lasting system improvements.

Progressive Anti-Americans

August 15, 2009

Lots of various cultural studies have examined the role of the media in forming and informing the social customs of the time. This has evident links with politics and elected leaders attempting to influence debate towards the principles behind their policies. Yet too often this is portrayed in black and white terms, left and right, liberal and labor, democrat and republican, rural and urban, free market versus anti-globalisation.  The world is far more complex than simple dualities.

Which brings me to a look at a recent John Pilger article on anti-americanism.

What is most extraordinary about the United States today is the rejection and defiance, in so many attitudes, of the all-pervasive historical and contemporary propaganda of the “invisible government”. Credible polls have long confirmed that more than two-thirds of Americans hold progressive views. A majority want the government to care for those who cannot care for themselves. They would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone. They want complete nuclear disarmament; 72 per cent want the US to end its colonial wars; and so on. They are informed, subversive, even “anti-American”.

This links with the earlier work of Paul Ray on cultural creatives and progressives in US society; the “moral majority” who are often portrayed as conservative traditionalists but more often than not are informed social progressives. The people who are:

feminist, ecological, anti-globalization, pro-civil-rights, pro-peace, pro-health-care, pro-education, pro-natural/organic and even pro-spiritual movements that together make up the New Progressives.

From a political point of view, who is representing these people? And do they care sufficiently to make concrete changes in their world, to transform their views from personal beliefs to a social movement?

This article from The National has a different take, questioning whether the rise of disaffection in right-wing traditional areas of the US as a result of the GFC, declining standards of living, globalisation concerns with a loss of manufacturing jobs in the heartland, long-running wars and the election of Obama to the US presidency, could lead to a rebirth of nativist sentiment fuelled by shock-jocks and the tabloid press.

From this uncertainty, one thing is certain though.  The future will be decided by how these cultural forces play out rather than by external technological drivers.  Will there be a sufficient groundswell of public support for progressive points of view embracing social responsibility, ecological sustainability and a love of foreign cultures to overcome traditionalist perspectives that promote fear of the unknown?  Whose spin will win?

Senate Independence and Government Control of Information

August 9, 2009

A great little quote from a report by Harry Evans who has been Clerk of the Australian Senate for at least the last 20 years. Now that is what I call experience!

More than ever before, independence in the legislature depends on the ability to obtain information that governments would rather conceal. Knowledge has always been power, but the management of information has become the key to government. The executive wants the public to receive only the information favourable to it, and strives to manage the release and the presentation of unfavourable information, and to keep much secret. A functioning legislature is essentially an instrument for breaking down that information management in the interest of the public’s ability to judge governments. It is in this role, however imperfectly, that the Senate, with its committee system and its culture of independence, has performed.

I have always appreciated the Upper House in Australia as a legislature of review or as Don Chipp said “to keep the bastards honest”.  As Australia has a very strong executive government that controls the votes of its backbenchers, this is even more important. The role of parliamentary clerks should not be underestimated as they provide senators with assistance and advice in a professional and apolitical manner in the interests of parliamentary oversight and transparency. These checks and balances strengthen the honesty of governance by asking the “inappropriate questions” that the government may wish to not be raised.

In places like Dubai where I currently reside, there is no bicameral system of government or a form of Westminster system.  The checks and balances cannot come from a Senate-type equivalent which raises the profile of both the media and the public service to promote transparency and provide information to the public so that there is greater awareness of local topics of interest.