Generic musing

A much classier category than “uncategorized”

Sep 142014
 

an leabhar beag gormMy ancestors were all Scots–MacDougalls, MacLeods, MacLennans, MacFarlanes, MacIsaacs, Rankins, Macdonalds, and more than one who spelled my last name MacFhearghais–and so I’ve followed the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is a question for the voters of Scotland, and I don’t pretend to have advice on how they should vote. In the social media streams I follow, though, I’ve seen many remarks to the effect that, despite excesses here and there, discussions in Scotland have had a high level of seriousness.

Just today, on the Facebook page for an artist I follow who’s an ardent advocate for Yes, a person planning to vote No was invited to a public discussion. He felt secure enough to ask with an emoticon wink, “Will I be safe?”

Ordinary individuals are exploring, considering, pondering, which is a good thing for any democracy.

What this post is about is not a Yes or No vote in the referendum, but the thoroughness of one organization firmly on the Yes side–Wings Over Scotland, a political website focused on the media.

What I mean by thoroughness is their approach to communicating with potential readers. I only happened to notice this because I came across a link to An Leabhar Beag Gorm, the Gaelic edition of their publication, The Wee Blue Book(I don’t know much Gaelic, but I knew all four words in the Gaelic title, so it caught my eye.)

wee blue bookAs Wings Over Scotland explains in their introduction to The Wee Blue Book, none of the 37 national or daily papers  available in Scotland supports independence.  “Newspapers have no duty to be fair or balanced, but… the press being so overwhelmingly skewed to one side is a problem for democracy.

“Our website…is biased, too. We support independence…”

To that end, they’ve collected a great deal of information and assembled it into the Wee Blue Book.

What’s impressive is how they’re offering it up. You can see on their August 11 post that the book is available:

And, as you’ve seen, in Gaelic.

But wait! There’s more!

Wings Over Scotland has a print-ready edition–and when they say “print,” they mean A6 paper, self-cover, CMYK, saddle-stitched, with a 3mm bleed, on 130gsm stock, so you can “just hand the PDF to a printing company.”

Finally, they have a “low-colour, ink-saver version” for home printing, with instructions, so if you want to run off a couple yourself, you can.

I’ve never met the Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs the site, but I’m pretty sure he’s a lot smarter than the average social media guru whose self-promotions rain down on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Jun 092014
 

The other day a project manager was remarking on the early stages of large projects and the inevitable changes that occur as those projects unfold.

I’m no project manager, so I was doing internal translation. I see a big project’s requirements document as like the initial design for a kitchen remodeling: in the new inventory system, we want to have glass cabinets,  a wall-mounted oven, an island with its own sink, and on the south wall, bigger windows (for greater visibility into the supply chain)Only later in the process do you discover you won’t have the time, or the money, or both, to move Finance’s plumbing.

Financial flowYou’re facing some rethinking, but that doesn’t mean starting the project requirements from scratch.

If  right now you’re wondering why Finance has a sink, then my analogy failed. Or, you recognized adjustments that you’ve seen, or that you can imagine, even though the project you’re thinking of didn’t involve inventory, Finance, or a kitchen, then I think I made my point.

A larger point is that, when it comes to improving performance, what’s crucial about an analogy is not how clever it is, but how effective.

The goal of an analogy is to help someone make a connection or reach an understanding that he hadn’t yet made. You can’t guarantee that your analogy will do that, though you can road-test it and modify it so that it’s more likely to.

Cleverness carries a risk that you’re focusing on surface elements, or on outside references that don’t apply to the immediate situation. Shakespeare’s plays are as full of analogies as O’Hare airport is full of wheeled baggage, but many of those analogies rely on references that in the twenty-first century we don’t understand.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

 — As You Like It

It might be clever to work Shakespeare in, but if this one’s your choice, you’ll likely connect only with committed theatergoers and unreconstructed literature majors.

I tried a different line once, as a lead-in to a course on vendor-managed inventory.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me…

 — Macbeth

It might not work for you, but I managed to avoid using a stock-art photo of a warehouse dock. More important, the inventory people saw the connection  to the topic.

That helped me escape the too-clever trap, although technically this wasn’t an analogy, just an indirect lead into the topic. Banquo was not in this scene struggling with inventory control–but he was interested in knowing what the future might hold, which is a true, on-the-job concern for warehouse managers.

So the real test might not be whether you’re using an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile — but whether the way you present something new makes the aha! more likely.

CC-licensed kitchen sink photo by Steev Hise

Mar 042014
 

Four years ago I started using the WWDiary app to keep track of how I was doing with the Weight Watchers approach to, well, watching my weight. I never officially joined Weight Watchers, but my wife did, and I seized an opportunity for self-improvement.

I’ve written about this topic here, and especially here (my favorite), and most recently (if Oct. of 2011 is recent)  here.

I’m revisiting the topic in part because as I write this, it’s four years to the day since I started with that app, and I weigh 55 pounds less than I did then.

Another reason is that this anniversary, and how I reached what to me is a milestone, relates closely to the idea I came across today  in this tweet from Ruud Hein (@RuudHein):

ruud_hein_tweet_planning

The link in the tweet takes you to this post on Google+ and onto another of those virtuous cycles that make the hyperlinked world such a joy at times. I’m crediting Hein, who credits All Smith and Branko Zecevic with linking to a post on Inc.com by Jeff Haden.

(Got that?)

I want to highlight the excerpt that Hein highlights:

Commit to a process, not a goal….

We put unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule instead of worrying about big, life-changing goals.

When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.

Often in my life, to-do lists have just depressed me–especially the end-of-day or end-of-week carryover, as still-to-do items plodded through the calendar. There was the temptation to knock off a mess of low-priority things.

(Admit it; you’ve done it, too. The deadline is looming and you spend the afternoon fixing the transitions in PowerPoint.)

Looking at the process is a higher-level way of answering the question, “”What do you want to have happen?”

Four years ago, I started with “lose some weight” but reframed that to “get in good shape” (which I guess sounded better to me at the time than “be healthy,” if only for the active verb). That turned out to be a far better goal, because it was easier for me to identify some processes likelier to get me there eventually.

Anywhere is walking distance, if you have the time.

I don’t mean for a second to position myself as a expert on weight loss — but I’ve become a far better manager of my own systems. I’m a practitioner of things that tend to keep me on a path I wanted–and still want–to be on.

I’ve been at my new job four months now. I have coworkers I look forward to seeing, people who want to share, to experiment together, and with whom it’s a pleasure to figure things out. Even as my current project rushes to the delivery date, I find myself engaging more both with my face-to-face peers and, sporadically, the many virtual colleagues I’ve encountered.

That’s part of the practice I need to be practicing: not just connecting, but regularly and purposefully connecting. Not just reading, but regularly and purposefully reading. Not just thinking out loud, but regularly and purposefully doing that.

CC-licensed photo by Víctor Nuño.

 

 

 

Nov 122013
 

Between the corporate and academic worlds, the borderlands are wide and mostly ill-defined, but you can always rustle up a ruckus by asking, “What’s the difference between training and education?”

I’m not that big a ruckus-rustler, and nearly all my career has taken place in the non-academic world–at least since a Certain University bounced me, and other unworthies, from its adjunct faculty because we lacked what it referred to with a straight face as “the terminal degree.”

But even in the efficient system of a corporation (which, as Voltaire might have said, is at times neither efficient, nor systematic, nor corporeal) you can spark a decent-sized ruckus by asking about the difference between training and learning.

The main difficulty is that many people who’ve worked in what used to be called training and development have come to see that training as it’s been practiced can be:

  • Narrow in scope (the task, maybe the job, rarely the function)
  • Limited in timeframe (this week, this month, this quarter)
  • Modeled on the dreariest aspects formal education (classrooms, lectures, the semester contact hour)
  • Posited on the transfer of skill–and even more so on the transfer of knowledge

I think all of those are generally true, though I don’t think they’re generally evil.  For example, I see “transfer of skill” as a metaphor for a process through which someone who lacked a skill comes to acquire it.  I do not equate that phrase with “content dump,” though I’ve sat through more than one training class that held strictly to the knowledge-as-freight approach.

Still, the traditional (albeit diminishing) approach to training is a kind of freight train. There’s no steering wheel; someone else controls the signals and throws the switches.  To further overextend the metaphor, the suboptimal form of learning is–I don’t know, some solar-powered, personal flying car, powered by your innate desire to learn.

I’m all for learning, and in particular for learning the things that interest me, but I’m not delusional enough to think that I can necessarily maintain the standard of living I’d like to maintain solely through that.

The drawback, at least in the most extreme forms of this point of view, is that somebody’s got to value your ability to learn what you want, when you want, enough to provide you with a means of making a living. I’m sure people manage that, even a few people I know, but I have no clue how to pull that off myself.

And that’s okay. Especially since I have a new home (Victoria, British Columbia) and a new job–working for a crown corporation in BC. (It’s roughly the equivalent of a not-for-profit corporation, established by the province to administer public-sector pension plans.)

I’m a curriculum designer, which means I work with stakeholders and subject-matter experts to figure out how our people can master new or changing conditions in order to better serve members of pension plans, as well as satisfying the requirements of the plans themselves.

The job search that led to this move is one reason I haven’t posted here for so long: I’d hit a slow period in terms of consulting, and I was ready to make a change. Moving 3,000 miles to another country seemed to have accomplished that.

Years ago, my first professional experience with social media was as part of the original TRDEV-L listserv begun by David Passmore of Penn State. (If you have no idea what a listserv is, then you have some idea how long ago that was.) Many participants wanted to make clear that they spoke for themselves and that their opinions were not necessarily those of their employer’s. My own email signature for TRDEV-L included “My opinions, not GE’s.”

Tthat approach still holds. I’ve missed my blog and want to resume thinking out loud about the interests, ideas, and notions that I see as relating to learning and performance in the workplace. None of this should be taken as necessarily reflecting any policy or program of BC Pension Corporation, or the province of British Columbia, or the government of Canada, or anything other than something that held my interest long enough for me to write about it.

It’s good to be back.

Feb 272013
 

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says,
“What is this, some kind of joke?”

No matter how you reacted to that, it’s a lot like how I react to infographics.

Most of them are more about the graphic than the info, I think. In fact, I’d been planning to write a post contrasting infographics with job aids, because I think many people confuse the former with the latter.

Instead, thanks to Mark Oehlert, I came across Desmond Wong’s post, Infographics to Teach You How to Create Infographics. Wong talks about them as a marketing tool, then goes into the details of constructing them using PointPoint, and of harnessing layout and graphics to achieve your goal.

What’s that got to do with those folks walking into a bar?

Infographics are like jokes.
(This is a different statement from “infographics are a joke.”)

Infographics are situational.

People enjoy jokes, but enjoyment (usually) hinges on context. What’s funny at work isn’t always what’s funny at the game; what sparks conversation at the coffee shop can put off someone reading online.

If you’re uninterested in the context, reading an infographic can sometimes like work–the kind of work you’re glad you don’t have to do.

If the graphic elements are well-done, though–when they engage us, the way a good joke-teller does–we’ll at least take time to find out what happens next. We might not stay long, but we didn’t pass by

Infographics rely on patterns.

I haven’t read enough Jung to be sure, but I’d bet he thought about “walking into a bar” as one of his archetypes. It’s really the framework for a pattern: “I’m going to arrange some ideas here and play with them.”

Not every pattern shows up in every good joke, any more than the same cards show up in a good poker hand. Like music, though, jokes and infographics are subject to their version of Duke Ellington’s test: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

X-walks-into-a-bar is a stage for a virtual performance. For infographics, that stage is set, as Wong points out, with strong visual elements: blocks of color, distinctive shapes, headlines, callouts, hand- (or cherry-) picked data.

Even the overall shape is a pattern. While I’ve seen exceptions like Randall Munroe’s graphics on money and radiation, most infographics embrace a long-but-not-wide format. My hunch is they’re following the online convention: people scroll down, but not sideways.

Infographics are an invitation. 

People tell jokes for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t tell them to themselves. Telling is only the start of the process. A joke is an invitation to share.

Maybe you’re sharing silliness or mockery. Maybe you’re sharing stereotypes to ridicule them–or to signal that you’re on the same side. Two-way sharing can be a kind of camaraderie: “Okay, how many accordionists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

Through wordplay and juxtaposition, jokes invite you to take up a different viewpoint. The unexpectedly funny jokes engage us with their contrast and make us feel good because we got them.

A good infographic invites you to look at its content in new ways. Whether polemical or political or even poetic, the infographic is saying, “Did you ever think…?” 

I do have some misgivings. Some people seem to think that any collection of text, shapes, and colors doing time together is an infographic. I suspect they’re the same sort of people who think “outtake” is a synonym for “hilariously funny.”

Still, if somebody wants to follow Desmond Wong’s tutorials and come up with his own infographic, I think that’s great. He’s got some design fundamentals and a set of templates as a fast start. The real learning begins where the infographic leaves off.