Sunday, December 31, 2006

Last minute execution

The execution of Saddam Hussein in the hours before the start of the feast of EID demonstrates one of the key aspects of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East, riddled as it is with huge intercultural errors. However it may have been officially managed, it looks to the world as if it was engineered according to some recognizable principles that have been at work throughout the period of American occupation.

The official comments by various world leaders (always meant to reassure their own electorate) reveal the cultural logic behind the operation. The first thing to notice is the importance given to the "formally legal" within US (and to some extent Anglo) culture. It can become a tragic source of cultural blindness. One only has to be convinced that a particular act is consistent with the law (i.e. not in flagrant contradiction with it) and all other considerations -- including the potential impact of the act on other people -- may be waived. Because "no one is above the law" (would this were true! -- but that's another question), the law is above everyone.

An act that is vindicated by the "law of the land" may not be appreciated by all but it cannot be called into question or criticized on moral, psychological or cultural grounds. Even when objections are recognized as "subjectively" real or sociologically true, the "objectivity" of the law always trumps the "subjectivity" of personal feelings. Low context cultures find it difficult to see feelings -- even when shared by a significant swath of the population -- as being anything other than individual "opinions", whereas history teaches us that when shared by sigfinicant numbers they may become social forces capable of producing revolutions and radical change.

What is now being presented as a "clash of civilizations" in the Middle East (what Condoleezza Rice describes euphemistically as "birth pangs") derives from the deeply held cultural conviction of Western political leaders that the existence of a legal framework (the "rule of law") cancels out and invalidates considerations of moral relationship, seen to be messy and undefinable. The law constitutes the sole standard of public morality, binding on all. It's also worth remembering that, in spite of appearances, the current "clash" was precipitated not by the logic of war (rivalry, aggression, revenge, domination), but by well-prepared Western low-context government decision-making (i.e. legal) as a response to terrorist attacks (illegal)*. The battle was and is over legal frameworks (regime change), legal philosophy and legalist culture, not over territorial control as in traditional wars. Legality replaces morality. In spite of the official rhetoric or propaganda, it isn't at all the clash of good and evil, concepts that belong to the domain of morality, although it's also true that the prevailing culture assumes and insists that "rule of law" = good and anything else = evil..

Here is what Bush had to say: "Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice ... is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror." "Milestone" unsurprisingly reflects a managerial culture (business within the law, much of the law being concerned with how business is conducted). "Bringing... to justice" in a "democracy" sets the legal framework (it also implicitly recognizes the US as the police force and the Iraqis as the judiciary). Once the framework of judicial procedure is clearly established, there can be nothing to criticize or regret. Executing Saddam is a milestone on the road to progress and profitability. Bush characteristically takes it one step further by pushing his standard political agenda, identifying the good not only as "democracy" but also as being "an ally in the war on terror". This fittingly reminds us that, according to his logic, the law isn't designed to bring peace and reconciliation, but to justify war. Quite the opposite of the spirit of Eid. Which makes the act of pushing the execution to the pre-dawn of Eid doubly insulting to many in the Muslim community. The timing (last minute, before the official start of the feast) smacks of legalism, a US speciality.

The critical factor in all this appears to be the conviction within US culture that recourse to a legal and judicial framework (a democracy with a constitution and "a fair trial by one's peers") -- even in an extremely unstable and historically ambiguous political environment -- authorizes the neglect of all the standard elements of human relationships: identity, empathy and even self-preservation or survival. Interestingly, the British put the emphasis on personal justice:
In London, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saddam had “now been held to account for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people,” while at the same time condemning the death penalty.
Perfidious Albion (as the French would say)! They'll always try to have it both ways. Justice is served (at least partially) but the way barbarians carry it out is reprehensible (or merely distasteful). It's the "at least" that I find intriguing. Does she mean that if the Brits had had their way Saddam would have been condemned for more of his crimes... but still not executed, of course? I detect behind the rhetoric an appeal to the standard Blairist justification for invading Iraq: punishing an evil man. "Held to account", like Bush's "milestone", also reveals a nod to low context managerial business culture.

Curiously I find a parallel in the reactions of the Arabic community -- a part of which sees Saddam as a martyr to Western "management" of the Middle East -- and the the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in his murder trial in Los Angeles a decade ago. Those who felt a form of justice was served by acquitting OJ (essentially the black community) did so not because they thought the man was innocent (they didn't), but because they saw it as a symbolic victory of their community against a legal system heavily weighted against blacks. I remember seeing a black man interviewed on TV who described it succinctly: "The support of our community for O.J. was a mile wide... and an inch deep." That's a high context comment, if ever there was one! OJ, the murderer, was seen as a successful resistant to a system that oppressed blacks. Saddam, the mass murderer, is a resistant and martyr to a system that oppresses Arabs. For both communities, official justice (the laws and the courts) is what money and power can purchase, neither more nor less. It is clearly not the idealized "rule of law" that sets everything right and makes everyone equal.

What could interculturalists have done to limit the damage? (We shouldn't forget that some intercultural experts probably were in fact consulted in all this business, but what they may have said we don't know and whether they were listened to at all begs another question). They might nevertheless have reminded the US authorities that revenge is a dangerous horse to back and that Saddam's Shiite enemies were motivated by revenge. They could have highlighted the moral contradiction associated with the feast of Eid, especially as US citizenstend to see such things as "holidays" rather than "holy days", devoid of any meaning other than historically anecdotal and serving principally as a pretext for taking time off to pursue one's leisure activities. (The status and meaning of "feasts" is a factor of cultural differentiation at least as important as power-distance and the other traditional dimensions). They could also have pointed to the role of martyrdom in all cultures and in middle eastern Muslim cultures in particular (the West still has difficulty understanding the psychology of suicide bombers and therefore appreciating the "extent of the risk", to put it into management terminology).

What the interculturalists couldn't do was to influence an overall political situation that has been based from the start on culturally insensitive calculations -- from the price of a barrel of oil to the cost of regime change -- and is now concerned with manipulating whatever forces that remain (or appear to remain) manipulable to create a semblance of stability. Unfortunately, the very act of manipulating certain people, parties and communities renders them suspect, augmenting the instability and undermining the "progress" represented by the significant "milestones".

For a more realistic reading of the situation, I suggest this article:

Monday, December 04, 2006

The waves of the past and tsunamis of the present

Many years ago, when I was living in the UK as a student, the bitterest struggles in the headlines were in South Africa, Nigeria (the Ibo rebellion), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Palestine and Northern Ireland. It occurred to me that all of these issues were the part of the sour and sulfurous heritage of Empire and, perhaps worse, of post-imperial political and economic rationalism. In the intercultural community the issue has recently come up concerning, quite obviously, Iraq, Sri Lanka and even Fiji. The list is far from exhaustive. The long and the short of it is that the Brits spread more durable havoc across an empire on which the sun never set than anyone else. How did they do it? Where did the talent to do it come from? And how is it that the spirit and the beat goes on, more than half a century after decolonization?

Britannia ruled the waves and made new ones wherever it went, producing a few tsunamis along the way. Of course some of the ingredients were: pragmatism (capitalistic rationality or working for profit), organizational skills (political and entrepreneurial management), scientific research (the mastery of the physical universe along with the domineering attitude that mastery entails), industrial production (requiring the massive transfer of resources -- including human ones -- across vast distances, taking only minimal account of borders, populations or local conditions), a sense of destiny (manifest or not) and finally the subversion of the notion of "common wealth" by turning it into "the Commonwealth" with the implicit governing principle of the sacredness of private property, individual ownership as well as "initiative" and manipulative control (military, economic, cultural) under a sun that never sets.

The rise of Britannia's subsidiary, the US (flanked by the wholly owned local branch of Brittania, Canada) made it possible to consolidate and spread radical individualism and invasive capitalism under the banner of democracy, which was already the trend in the mother ship in spite of a lingering affection for an animated figurehead (especially as a female avatar). In this permutation, what started off as "commonwealth" became the "common individual quest for wealth", the ultimate "common denominator" of global culture.

What can any culture do in the face of such powerful forces of organization and ideology apart from build its own museum to preserve some tenuous visual vestiges of its ill-remembered past and lost values? There is, of course, one alternative: cultural and religious fundamentalism, which is another variation on how to pervert rather than how to preserve the past. Once the vital principles underlying the spontaneous (i.e. culturally conditioned) perception of the world, its inhabitants, its structure of meaning, etc. are replaced by an alternative configuration of perception and reasoning (i.e. pragmatism, profit, control, manipulation), a return to the original culture becomes as utterly illusory as a Jurassic Park-style dream (and nightmare) of discovering or reinstating a lost world of dinosaurs.

The challenge for interculturalists is, as my friend George Simons has pointed out, keeping track of history and realizing that today is part of history as well. The other challenge is to bear in mind that culture is like prose for Monsieur Jourdain: it's there whether we recognize it or not ... unless replaced by poetry! It doesn't die even when it's totally metamorphosed. Because it's there, and because its rules apply to everyone within its purview, we can have some very limited influence over how it evolves, depending of course (in today's world) on how good we are at... appropriating resources, controlling and manipulating!

Or simply communicating through the "social Web"????

Therapy for Michael Richards

I'm surprised that I haven't seen anyone in our intercultural community voicing an opinion about the Michael Richards affair in the US. (Richards was famous for playing the character "Kramer" in the TV series, Seinfeld) For those who haven't followed the story, several weeks ago, he was caught in the act of insulting black members of the audience in a night club where he was performing as a stand up comic. He shockingly used what in the US is now called "the n-word", a fact which has led to a complex debate about its use and non-use... but not, of course, about the absurd appellation, "n-word". I managed to see the scene on the Web, as captured in video on someone's mobile phone during the performance, and was shocked myself, but by the speaker's attitude, not by the word. Used to express hatred and contempt against people of a certain ethnic origin and, worse, cultural condescension, it is quite rightly considered to be utterly reprehensible, which is why blacks alone can and do call each other "nigger" (sorry, I wrote it!!!!). No one could suspect them of using it to express racial hatred.

Richards used the word repeatedly in the most odious way, directed at specific individuals, and that is disturbing. But far more troubling was his statement, "Fifty years ago you would be hanging upside down with a fork up your ass". (The press in the US squeamishly refuses to print the final word in full!!!!). Never having participated in a lynching, I remain blissfully unaware of the the ritual use of eating utensils (though I suspect that if you cover your entire figure with a tablecloth you might be thinking of what to do with the cutlery).

Whatever Richards manages to work out with his psychotherapist, he has revealed something that, in my naiveté, I find difficult to understand: the persistence of a semi-conscious nostalgia among modern "liberals" (Richards claims to be one) for a time when racial violence was "permitted" (of course it wasn't permitted even 50 years ago; it was merely practiced!). Is there any way anyone other than a died-in-the-cotton Ku Klux Klansman could regret no longer having the right to torture and murder blacks? And am I wrong to think there isn't a cannabilistic impulse that has come to the fore? (What, indeed, are the "literary" origins of the image of the fork?).

Rather than spend hours on the couch with an analyst, perhaps he could just be sentenced to spending a day listening to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (Nina Simone's version could also be used, for variety). For anyone who doesn't know the lyrics to that song -- composed by a New York Jew, Abel Meeropol, in the 1930s -- here they are:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

For more about this very special song: Strange Fruit

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Informal culture in a formal setting

Nothing is more revelatory of culture than the trivial, especially when the circumstances are untrivial. Bush's lunchtime banter made the headlines yesterday because it contained what is considered to be an "unprintable" word, "shit". (The New York Times calls it "a vulgarity"). Interestingly, CNN played the video + audio over and over again with full subtitles, including the forbidden word, but the website spelled it "sh_t" (actually, they cleverly turned it into a pun "the sh_t heard round the world"*). Apparently, we're allowed to hear it and read it as a subtitle that appears and disappears, but cannot print it on a page, where it might be duplicated, circulated or simply meditated. What set of implicit (or for that matter explicit) cultural rules does this practice suggest?

More to the point are other clues about culture (and the lack thereof) in the substance of what Bush said. For example, he said he “felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad, make something happen” and in the "vulgar" passage said, “See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” What better illustration of the logic of sequential instrumentality than this "get x to get y to do...". This also reveals the curious use of "irony" in U.S. culture (it tends to designate any statement that appears to be mildly unexpected). I sincerely believe that one of the "dimensions" -- or differentiators -- of culture forgotten by Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaars is the status and meaning of irony. Perhaps someon would like to run a statistical study of it and then develop a marketable theory based on the spectrum of strongly ironic to weakly ironic cultures.

Bush's instrumental view of problem-solving -- which helps to explain the "reasoning" behind the Iraq war -- appears almost as a parody of the language of a top manager in a Hollywood film about Wall Street (or maybe the Sopranos). Bush's culture -- and much of U.S. culture -- is one of getting things done by giving orders and establishing deadlines. It's also one where results are definitive; throw a stone in the water and there will be a splash but no one need pay attention to the ripples. "Stop doing this shit and it's over" he tells Blair. This should remind us of Bush's remarks in the buildup to the Iraq war ("game over!") and its immediate aftermath: "Mission accomplished". If he still doesn't understand that social and political problems cannot be resolved definitively by simple authoritarian decision-making and subsequent action (what a famous fictional Dane once called "taking arms against a sea of troubles"), it may reflect not only his own incapacity to learn from experience but also some of the reflexes inherited from his culture. As I myself am a product of U.S. culture, I prefer to think there's more of the former than the latter. But I have to recognize that this corresponds to a certain well-established mythology in U.S. culture: if the whale is tormenting you, take a boatload of people and a healthy supply of harpoons and go out and kill it (achieving quietus with a bare bodkin, to quote the Dane again). Melville had already made observations similar to mine about the values of his countrymen.

The NY Times has this description of the event:

"The microphone caught him discussing global trade talks, his impatience with long speeches, even his preference for Diet Coke. For four minutes, the world was given an unscripted look at how he does business with his international counterparts, especially Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who, apparently alert to the peril, brought the episode to a conclusion by turning the microphone off."
All reports noticed his impatience with anything but the nitty-gritty and his insistence on respecting timing, which shouldn't surprise anyone. “I’m not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.” Complaining about the behaviour of "the rest of them" is always a clear indicator of cultural isolation. (By the way, "damn" used to be "vulgar" but has clearly changed status over the past 30 or 40 years and has become eminently printable, possibly because it doesn't refer to a bodily function).It's interesting to note that Blair was much more discreet and showed some good English pragmatism by turning the microphone off.

The episode on geography could have been scripted by a Middle School student:

But Mr. Bush sighs, and explains, “Gotta go home, got something to do.”

Then, more likely to Mr. Hu, he asks: “Where you going? Home? This is your neighborhood; it won’t take you long to get home.”

The response cannot be heard, but Mr. Bush exclaims, “You get home in 8 hours? Me too! Russia is a big country, and you’re a big country.

China and Russia are apparently in the same "neighborhood" because they are both far from Texas! Since Bush had never travelled outside the U.S. before becoming president, this is perhaps understandable.

But the most delightful is certainly the moment when the most powerful politician on the planet explains why he must leave the seven next most powerful politicians, “Gotta go home, got something to do.”

There are many other observations that could be made about this episode, but they range from the cultural to the political to the psychoanalytical. In the end -- just like the current problems in the Middle East -- it's just a little too much for any one person (or eight leaders, for that matter) to handle.

* For those who are not familiar with "the shot heard round the world", it refers to the opening salvo of the American War of Independence (in a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Accenture opens our eyes

Last week Accenture released a study of intercultural issues for U.S. companies that have outsourced business processes. It demonstrates what should be obvious to most of us but has been insufficiently documented: a growing awareness of the economic interest of improved intercultural communication. This is the kind of study the profession has been waiting for: something to convince decision-makers of the strategic importance of intercultural skills. The fact that it concerns critical business processes should be counted a major breakthrough since management has traditionally considered intercultural issues to be an HR problem and little more. A report on the report can be found here.

Here are some examples of the findings:

  • Executives believe adopting cross-cultural communication training programs can increase productivity by 26 percent, on average. This is consistent with the productivity increases of 30 percent.
  • reported by executives whose companies already provide training in this area.
  • Two thirds (66 percent) of all respondents said they had experienced miscommunication issues within their global sourcing operations.
  • "The soft issues, particularly cross-cultural communication, will continue to present the main challenges to realizing global sourcing's full potential for the foreseeable future."
It's interesting that the productivity gap between companies that provide intercultural training and those that don't is only 12%, with 60% (as opposed to 72%) of those companies still experiencing communication problems. This can be interpreted in two ways:
  1. Training helps because it reduces problems by 12%.
  2. Training doesn't help very much! (because it fails to provide solutions to 60% of the cases).
The statistics are probably fairly meaningless as they are based on subjective appreciation, but gaps always tells us something. I would suggest that -- based only on the first impressions gleaned from the Yahoo article -- we could draw two tentative conclusions:
  1. The training currently proposed is probably inadequate or badly targeted (e.g. focusing on intercultural theory rather than psychology and personality) and therefore we are faced with the challenge of re-inventing intercultural training.
  2. We should be thinking in terms other than simple training (pre-defined courses) and looking at how an intercultural culture can be developed and maintained.
These are just random thoughts about the findings of a report I haven't seen. If anyone consulting this blog has information about the report, access to it or feedback from other professionals, it might develop into a productive thread.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Multiple choice or Multiple strategies

In the delightful Business Creativity discussion group (an international but essentially IndianYahoo group), the moderator challenged the list with a multiple choice question in the form of a human resource case study problem (essentially, whether or not to grant paid leave to Don, an employee seeking to further his education on company time). This provoked some interesting feedback, but most of the contributors stayed strictly within the implicit reasoning of the initial choices.

I saw this discussion as an opportunity to review some of our classic pedagogic strategies and made the following reply:

I see this exercise as a first phase of creative thinking, and this for three reasons.

  1. As in most multiple choice questions (and many case studies) there is no developed context, which means the intangible, invisible aspects of social reality are absent and we are condemned to work at the level of abstract principles, which never apply “cleanly” to reality, but do provide some “reasoned guidelines” (unfortunately in our pedagogical tradition nobody ever makes this capital point about the relativity of the principles we are meant to learn).
  2. In people management, there are plenty of wrong answers but never a totally right one (precisely because of context), yet multiple choice in the teaching-learning tradition leads learners to believe, first, that there is one right answer; second, that the trainer knows that answer; and third, that we will "know" that answer for eternity at the end of the exercise.
  3. Multiple choice questions limit the horizon if we use them as a strict frame for reflection, but their value can be to open the horizon by showing that there are indeed multiple possible answers. They can start the brainstorming process going by challenging people to imagine the variables of context that will influence the best selection of strategy. Doing it in multiple phases, as is the case here, is one way of opening the horizon.

In other words, questions like this can be a springboard for creativity so long as we accept to think outside of the box and even aim precisely for that by pushing the cases further and, if need be, to their breaking point. Two of the techniques we use in training where an activity starts with a multiple choice are:

1. to use it to brainstorm on ANY and ALL kinds of similar cases within the experience of the group of learners, who then must account for as many elements of context as possible (including, for example, personality issues, social networks, etc.), all of which allows us to discover the importance of these “social reality” issues. In other words, the learners fill in the missing context from the initial case by relating it to real, known contexts. This actually helps, on another level, to build group and individual confidence and to create the reflex of relating what would otherwise be considered as "canned wisdom" to their own very real human context.

2. to go back through a deconstruction phase and find out why each of the initial choices was proposed (i.e. what kind of reasoning lies behind them -- including the good reasons that lie behind faulty choices -- but also, what was the didactic strategy of the author of the question! – a process which often makes people think on a different and highly stimulating level).

These are processes that work well within a group of learners in a seminar but aren’t easy to apply in an online discussion group, where the level of mutual knowledge and personal trust is impossible to assess. They also work well in CoPs (Communities of Practice), which is one of the themes my multinational team is specialized in, in conjunction with informal learning. As a case in point of the deep compatibility between formal and informal learning, multiple choice questions -- the simplest of teaching tools -- are highly formal but can provide occasions for animated informal learning. We maintain that in all configurations people learn mostly from informal exchange, but that formal learning can be structured in such a way as to encourage it. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

At the end of the day, my answer to Don (in my own context, not the abstract one proposed in the question) would be to throw two questions back to him: what do you need to learn and what are you expecting to learn from the course you want to enrol in? I wouldn’t try to dissuade him from taking the course (and discussing how that fits in to his work schedule), but I would try to better understand what his goals are and how they correlate with mine (i.e. the organization's). I would use the knowledge gained from this exchange to understand in what form what he needs to know professionally exists (or fails to exist) in our real work context. I would then look at ways in which three separate things can happen:

  1. How to make more explicit within the workplace the “knowledge” or skills he's hoping to acquire.
  2. How to foresee support within the workflow for what should have been learned in the formal phase (to avoid the highly predictable loss of formally acquired knowledge).
  3. How existing social networks (determined through ONA, Organizational Network Analysis) can be used to support, develop and share this kind of kind of knowledge in informal settings.

This would probably lead to the definition of one or more CoPs, as well as the integration of Don into one of them.

Of course, everything I’ve said above focuses only on the learning side of the problem, which certainly wasn’t the initial intent of the question. But I hope this serves as a demonstration of how something as formal as a Multiple Choice Question built around a specific learning point (in this case, how to manage work time in relation to personal and organizational goals) can stimulate creative contributions. That works, of course, only if the trainer’s attitude is also creative. Unfortunately, many trainers are thinking in terms of pre-established “teaching points” and fail to recognize what I would call “lateral wisdom”. But there's increasing reason to believe the old school is losing ground and new approaches to learning -- first as a complex personal, social and professional goal, then as a process -- are truly emerging. The process has always been put first, but the priority of goals is finally being recognized, at least in some quarters. And that should lead to some unexpected new conclusions.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The act of interacting: is it interactivity and/or interaction?

Historians of technology assisted learning -- if such people exist -- should by now have noticed that there have always been two alternating and possibly opposed trends. (I say possibly because I believe they can be reconciled, but I can see that the tendency to align with one side or the other in the aim of promoting a simple, saleable solution is as strong in the "learning industry" as it is in politics).

I call these two contrasting (and potentially converging) trends interactivity and interaction. Apparently the general idea of interacting has convinced everyone that that's what technology is all about. That's where we expect our payback for supporting and investing in technology. But what does interacting mean? To answer that question we have to ask another question: "who is interacting with whom or with what"?. Beyond that (i.e. at the heart of everything) are the whys and wherefores, long before the how. The fact that no one seems willing or able to formulate clearly why we learn or why we should learn may explain some of the confusion.

Depending on how you answer the question "interacting with whom or with what?", you are likely to align yourself either with the humanists (salvation will come from dialogue, social learning, facilitated by flexible user-friendly networks) or the technologists (salvation can be found in computing power: expert systems, realistic graphics, animation and simulations). It's possible to embrace both, of course, but the trend is to opt for one or the other. Personally I give priority to the humanist side, considering everything else to be a flipchart, an immensely valuable instrument that can provide specific services in the interest of improving and refining interaction. Giving priority is not choosing one against the other: it is simply taking a first step towards recognizing the importance of why rather than deciding in favor of one with whom or another. And priority should be determined by finality not by personal preference.

Technological innovation in interactivity has driven the marketplace over the past 30 years, laregely on the basis of
1) fascination with technology in the press and general public
2) the visibility and marketability of finished products as compared to the unmarketable nature of processes to be learned, acquired, spread and applied by groups of people.

Can the two worlds converge? The promise of the Web 2.0 seems to indicate yes, as we move away from a product and broadcast based model to one of dynamic networks that includes all forms of innovation. It's similar to moving from a Ptolomaic (mechanically organized) to a Newtonian universe (organized around gravitional cores, to borrow Tim O'Reilly's notion), while waiting for some future Einsteinian revolution (where gravity is still the fundamental force but where we all become relatives in the same family!). Ptolomy's planets and stars are still there to be observed as units, but they are no longer confined to their set spheres. Morevover, in a gravitational universe, we finally recognize their own principle of power and influence (gravitational force) rather than seeing them as simple objects placed in a set position in a stable and totally repetitive machine.

The real hope of interacting -- at least for those who see the finality as dynamic and evolutionary -- is to escape the logic of pure repetition that is so pleasing to both the representatives of the establishment, where the function of instructing is more important than the reality of learning, and to the marketing people who want you to believe that using their product will solve all your problems.

I believe the next couple of years will bring about some serious changes. Some things are now coming to light that will change our vision of the relationship between interaction and interactivity.

More news on this in July!

Friday, March 17, 2006

The future of blogs in organizations

On the Learning Circuits blog Jay Cross raised the question of the use of blogs for organizational puposes, in particular bottom-up knowledge management. This has sparked a debate about how useful blogs are within organizations and what is required to turn them into tools of productivity. It occurred to me that there are two issues that need to be clarified before this straegy can become successful. One is technical (the evolving range of functionality of blogs) and the other -- far more important -- is cultural. The following expands on a comment I left in the Learning Circuits blog.

One of what I would call the "cultural" problems with blogs is that, although manifestly public, the implicit model of a blog is the personal diary. This apparent contradiction may help to explain some of the frustration we feel with certain blogs. It conditions how we write in a blog as well as how we read it. It also conditions our expectations as to what we might get out of a blog in terms of information, enlightenment or even a "sense of community".

When considering how the blog can usefully and naturally fulfil an organizational role, I expect that we will have to let the concept (and the blogging tools) evolve towards something that is more team-oriented and less linear in structure. The reliability of information offered by individuals qua individuals will always be suspect and the principle of growth by simple accretion (creating amorphous “heaps” of information mixed with opinion) may not be the best way of clarifying or even exploring important issues. If blogs were truly redesigned for team rather than individual expression, the teams could find, define and redefine objectives and then measure their performance against those objectives. They might thereby achieve the kind of focus that would make it easier for those consulting the blog to understand and use.

Blogs are currently purely vertical structures. Perhaps they need to become horizontal as well and to move away from the model of private individual expression “shared” with the public. This would be a cultural shift that would have an impact on how we contribute to blogs. The question then arises, "which comes first, the new architecture of the blog or the cultural shift?". The only possible answer, as with chickens and eggs and all other evolutionary questions, is "both". But this will only happen if our dominantly individualistic IT culture and global capitalist economy can themselves integrate concepts that are more specifically collectivist. I tend to believe there are powerful economic and political (and therefore cultural) forces that will seek to prevent this from happening in any significant way. The consumer society depends on the atomization of society, ensuring that people cannot easily and spontaneously organize into effective teams that may generate their own values at odds with the dominant ones. Effective teams born of bottom-up initiatives may be suspected of challenging existing power structures as well as disrupting planning based entirely on predictable (and/or controlable) trends.

Which, of course, shouldn't prevent us bottom-uppers from trying!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Race and the imperial elite

To help situate the debate on power, powerlessness and race, it’s worth having a look at an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine published just a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election in the U.S.
The journalist explains:

“In the summer of 2002…I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush” who was unhappy about something Suskind had published. Here is the journalist’s account of that interview:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''


We thus discover that the problem I recently described as one of racism is not uniquely founded on race. It appears that there’s a specific ideology of superiority even within the dominant race: the idea that there is, on the one hand, a breed of leaders (hovering above reality and controlling politics and the economy) and a breed of followers (rooted helplessly in reality). Bush’s senior adviser understood that this was a consequence of empire as well as an inevitable historical evolution (perhaps in the Hegelian sense). In short, he’s describing a three-tiered system: dominant leaders who dominate the dominant nation and region (identified with a racially determined culture: white northern Europe/U.S.) which in turn dominates the struggling masses spread out over the rest of the globe. One is left wondering what the Bush administration means when it claims to encourage “democracy” (is it a special kind of democracy, fuelled by economic influence, that can be counted on to consistently plebiscite an neo-aristocratic elite?).

It’s rare that elite poker players or politicians show their hand before raking in the chips. So such an instance of frank testimony on the part of a “senior adviser” is precious. And what he describes appears to be true, especially to those who find themselves at the end of the line, i.e., the dominated masses in the rest of the world. Might this feeling of belonging to the third tier on the periphery of an empire be part, not only of the reaction to the Danish cartoons, but to the malaise in India and Pakistan at Bush’s lightning visit to define single-handedly the world’s nuclear policy and to a growing anti-U.S. sentiment detectable all across the globe?

This painting by Thomas Cole in 1836 represents the imaginary creation of an empire in the U.S. Click here to see the painting in detail (with an option full screen) and to learn about it.


The question of race comes up again in the article in the context of a luncheon for supporters of his campaign:

In response to a question, he talked about diversity, saying that ''hands down,'' he has the most diverse senior staff in terms of both gender and race. He recalled a meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany. ''You know, I'm sitting there with Schröder one day with Colin and Condi. And I'm thinking: What's Schröder thinking?! He's sitting here with two blacks and one's a woman.''

Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice provide the answer to diversity. Their presence is designed to make it impossible to suspect the system of being racist because it visibly and ostentatiously accepts people from any race, provided, of course, that they fully identify with the system. The important thing isn’t diversity in society, but diversity within the imperial ruling class. The status of being a member of the ruling class (which isn’t the same thing as ruling) requires two things: personal choice, effort and ambition (i.e. a form of devotion on the part of the racially heterogeneous) and selection by the leaders of the elite. It is not achieved through democratic representation nor does it reflect the idea of representation of the their community. The effect is primarily one of image, which is what so delighted Bush in the presence of Schroeder. It turns out that politics is the third and potentially most glorious avenue of success for any young black, after the entertainment industry and professional sports. It’s also the most difficult because it requires being selected, or rather co-opted by the powerful to join their club. It cannot be achieved through talent and perseverance alone (the virtue of assertive self-reliance).

Will these trends continue or are they ephemeral accidents of history? Was the senior adviser describing the ethos of Bush’s private governing club, in power for twice four years, or that of an imperial elite that is broader in scope and longer in duration, and includes Democratic administrations as well? Did Clinton see the world, and act in it, in pretty much the same way? How much are the Blairs, Berlusconis, Schroeders, Merkels and Chiracs also part of it, as regional prefects?

If we had the answers to these questions perhaps we could develop a plan for training the racially diverse in the intercultural skills they need to migrate from their peripheral communities to the heart of the empire. But somehow I think the imperial elite has already created its training curriculum and don’t really need outsiders from the “reality-based community” such as ourselves.

Perhaps it’s time for those of us who hail from the reality-based community to create the RBC party to oppose the principles and pretensions of the RC (Reality Creation) Party. Then when we take over the reins of imperial government we can create our own reality and justify the trust the RB community has placed in us. We will finally have overcome our pernicious enslavement to the judicious study of discernible reality”.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Levels of racism

Some people have attempted to argue that racism can be seen as a kind of zero-sum game. If the Danish cartoons reflect a certain form of racism, the disproportionate reaction to them in so many different places can be seen as a competing form of racism. The implication is that one cancels out the other and, after all, human nature isn't perfect. But neither, I would submit, is the symmetry we're expected to recognize in this putative face-off of complementary racisms.

The drift of this reasoning often goes one step further by suggesting that complaints about racism on "our side" (white western civilization) are attempts to excuse or mask the racism on the other side, thereby denying the reality of the zero-sum game. One interpretation of my previous posting suggests this idea. In that message, however, I specifically mentioned and condemned the extremist Muslim minority responsible for the more violent and well organized reactions. There is no question of excusing excessive behaviour, though I feel as interculturalists part of our job is to try to understand where it comes from and how it is structured. I should add that, however reprehensible this sometimes programmed and manipulated violence may be, I don't think it should be called racism. Rather it's a form of direct resistance and refusal of the dominant and dominating influence of another culture, an act of open and aggressive public defiance, a phenomenon not unknown even in our own enlightened history (the standard stuff of insurrections leading to wars of independence, Boston Tea Party style). Such organised or impovised resistance may be fully or partially justified, or not justified at all; but it isn't quite the same thing as racism.

I have to admit that I am increasingly appalled by our complacency with a state of general insensitivity to the fate of people who are 1) living in "less advanced" countries and 2) have darker skin than the Europeans who created modern democracy and its sidekick, global capitalism. The best we can do is hope they will become more like us and possibly help them to do so! I recently tried an online "psychological test" designed to determine whether the person taking it is racist and the result for myself said that I was positive. I discovered that I am unconsciously racist. The only comforting factor for me - because I pride myself in not being racist -- is that 50% of American blacks apparently also test out as white racists! This may be an indication of the deep success of a culture that is built on some invisible but fundamentally powerful racist values (in total contradiction, of course, with other visible and explicit values, such as democracy and equality).

My point is that I am neither attempting to blame one party nor excuse another. I'm not even trying to define parties. Rather than looking for a culprit (or group of culprits), I'm trying to recognize a problem and discover where the roots are and how deep they penetrate into our cultural soil. The cartoons, by the way, are only one factor in my outburst. And that fact highlights what is perhaps the most important point in my previous posting. We're wrong to think of it as a problem of the "clash of civilizations" between the post-Christian west and the Muslim world. It's something more fundamental residing in our deep-seated belief that western whites have reached a higher stage of cultural (if not biological) evolution than the rest of humanity. The result is pity and/or contempt of the rest of the world (or mere indifference).

Another contributing factor to my current rage, and this is strictly a matter of chance, is a television documentary I happened to see last week on the history channel (Histoire) here in France. It was a BBC documentary about the end of WWII and the two spectacular A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificed for no other reason than geo-political strategy (to wit, showing Stalin how "advanced" we were and preventing the Russians from invading Japan). Japan had already offered to surrender but insisted on maintaining the Emperor, considered to be a god. It was all they required to save face, but Truman insisted on "unconditional surrender". After the horrendous, wanton destruction of two cities, Truman got his unconditional surrender, thought this was primarily because in the meantime Russia declared war on Japan. And of course once they had surrendered, Truman generously "offered" the Japanese the very condition they insisted on: maintaining Hirohito as emperor. Although I was already aware of most of the facts, I felt literally sick watching it. Can politics be so inhuman? ... apart from intercultural questions such as the importance of face in Eastern Asia and respect of the symbols of other people's religious, whether one finds them absurd or not.

The documentary consisted almost entirely of interviews. There was very little pure narration. Some of the people interviewed pointed out how the war propaganda developed the idea that the Japanese weren't human beings (a racist sentiment echoed publicly by French prime minister, Edith Cresson, just over ten years ago!). If we had considered them to be our equals, could we have envisaged and accepted massacring entire civilian populations? Not only were the Japanese guilty of Pearl Harbor, but they weren't really human beings anyway.

Because Truman considered it irrational to think of a hereditary monarch as a god, he allowed himself to murder hundreds of thousands of people. That's a cultural problem similar in some ways - but with far worse consequences -- to the insensitivity of the Danish magazine. But provoking death or engaging in torture is only possible, however inexcusable, 1) if you are directly threatened 2) you are not threatened but you consider the other as less than human. Pinochet's torturers and murderers were professionals: they were paid for a specific task; they didn't need to think about why they were killing and torturing. The "enthusiasm" of Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, which we claim was not a matter of policy, can only be explained by ambient if not actively encouraged racism.

Another telling symptom: Samuel Huntington wants to re-establish and protect the WASP tradition in the U.S. from multiculturalism. He has a point, but the point - when you work out the details - is fundamentally racist, though the racism is implicit rather than explicit or possibly unconscious rather than conscious. It certainly isn't a paean to the Ku Klux Klan.

My point is that we tend to do a lot of things "innocently" and "normally" with good intentions, but with an effect that is clearly racist. One of the contributing factors is the belief that everything that's "most advanced" comes from the West (which seems so obvious when you compare measurable "standards of living"), though such a belief is not necessarily founded on the idea that it's advanced because it is Western (which would be simple cultural bigotry). The concept is rather that we - as a people (sometimes a nation, sometimes a race) must be more advanced to have created so many advanced things. Therefore we are implicitly endowed with a "civilizing mission", which we nevertheless seek generously to share with the not yet civilized others (for a small price, of course, since getting people to pay the price is what made us so advanced in the first place).

Those who profit from the advance of our civilization tend to agree; the others simply seethe with frustration until some incident comes along that makes them explode. The reaction of of the Indian population to Bush's visit to India is a demonstration of this divide. There is a class that can negotiate, partner and profit from the adoption of Western economic institutions and styles of consumption. There is another class -- much larger -- that is condemned to follow and occasionally protest. This method of divide and conquer can also be seen in the strategy for integration, particularly of blacks inside the U.S. in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 60s. The strategy consists of building a class of privileged "leaders" who profit from the extension of white civilization into their communities. You can then count on them to "govern" or at least guide their populations, less through political control than through the diversion of glamour. Sports heroes, movie stars and media figures constitute the "proof" of successful integration that rarely extends to the majority of a population still subjected to economic apartheid. A significant and sufficient number of the victims allow their identification with celebrities of their own race to shape their personal ambition, confirming their acceptance of the values of the dominant culture, one of which is individualism over collectivism (the ever threatening solidarity of the oppressed). The classic example of this is the ambition of black youngsters to play basketball in the NBA, where they can wear real diamonds in their ears (i.e. demonstrate and represent glamourous black culture). This phenonomen concerns hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of youngsters and has a powerful effect on the community's acceptance of persistent inequality, partly because it creates a feeling of racial pride (blacks are better basketball players or at least have a cultural style that is better adapted to the principles of the sport), but more significantly because it encourages individualism, self-reliance and capitalistic ambition in a community where none of these correspond to the structure and successful workings of the real economy and society confined as they are to the perimeter of white post-industrial civilization.

To some extent this malady of racism infects our own community of intercultural professionals. After all, much of what we do follows in the wake of globalisation and our job is as often as not one of supporting the trend, helping civilization advance. Can this be done ethically? Can we avoid racism? Should we counter it? Or is it better - or at least easier - simply to remain blithely unaware? These are questions we might want to ask ourselves (after taking an online psychological test), independently of what our employers or clients expect of us.

We could of course complicate the debate by citing the many examples of ethnic rivalry where race isn't the critical factor but the forms of behaviour are similar. But if race isn't the critical factor let's not call it racism. And especially let's not use the sins of others to excuse ourselves from thinking about our own contradictions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Curious assumptions

One of the things I find extraordinary in the continuing saga of the Danish cartoons is how easy it has become to polarize and demonise other groups, races and religions in the name of cultural (rather than racial or religious) superiority. To some extent it's a concession to PC. We're no longer allowed to frame issues publicly in terms of race or religion, so let's do it with culture (in particular political culture, culture's most superficial veneer).

In the controversy about the Danish cartoons, a bewildering myriad of variations on hate have emerged. The extremist Muslims have had their part in it, of course, but the violence of this tiny minority, who illegitimately echo the authentically wounded pride of the peaceful majority, is also being transformed by numerous intellectuals into an implicit "proof" of what should be recognized as fundamentally racist theses. The atmosphere appears to be one of backlash, i.e. growing intolerance and persistent misunderstanding. The breakdown isn't the west vs. Islam, but white civilization vs. the ambient disorder, Prospero vs. Caliban. I'm sorry to say this after the orgy of "awareness" spawned by the civil rights movement, but I have the impression that everywhere in the western world it has produced a small stream of selective integration and a flowing river of politically correct discourse.

The trend can be pernicious. I notice Francis Fukayama's at it again: . Having predicted the end of history 15 years ago - an "end" attributable to the globalizing triumph of the value system of the U.S. - he's now offering us (both Europeans and US Americans) the "truth" about Europe's identity crisis, which of course, in his comprehensive view, turns around the inability of European countries to integrate the Muslim minorities (it may just be his way of conceding victory to Samuel Huntington in the rivalry between two simplistic versions of the post-Cold War world, a rivalry in which Huntington scored the winning run on September 11, 2001).

What struck me while reading Fukayama's article is,

1) that he assumes last November's riots in France were an expression of Muslim identity and fails to realize that there's a long colonial and post-colonial history to what is essentially a racist status quo.

2) that he sees the model of U.S. immigration as the key to the salvation of Europe and practically gives straight A's to the U.S., whose colonial history is far different and no less inglorious, especially if one builds into one's account - as Fukayama fails to do - the fate of blacks, Native Americans and most Latinos (Fukayama seems to be thinking about voluntary "civilized" immigrants who arrive as individuals, not the groups sucked into the economy or pushed towards its periphery for the convenience of the masters and the "integrity" of the dominant culture*).

In other words, it seems to me glaringly obvious that the debates about clashes of values and civilizations have become a hypocritical means of denying the heritage and persistence of racism. Whether conscious or unconscious, it's clearly visible everywhere unless we refuse to see it (which seems to be the cosmetic role of PC). We continue to view the world in missionary-conquistador terms ("the good, advanced culture" of economic liberalism and its attendant values will inevitably triumph). Thus whenever friction arises between two cultures - as in the case of the cartoons -- we see it as an opportunity to analyse, as "objectively" as possible, which of the cultures is more advanced and draw conclusions from that rather than try
to understand how cultures (and not individuals) react to assaults on their values and the principles of their identity. This is the kind of reasoning that enables us to export "democracy" in the form of war and to condemn whole populations for reacting inappropriately (according to our values) to manifest insults. We don't despise the people whose affairs we have volunteered to manage; on the contrary, we are acting in their best interest by bringing them universal values (ours). The fact that they happen to have darker skin than ours is immaterial. The fact that they both have darker skin and maintain retrograde collectivist instincts (tribalism!) instead of embracing enlightened individualism makes them both suspect and easy to identify and eventually quarantine. This, I would submit, is racism.

Am I being paranoid (odd, because I'm definitely white)? Am I just imaging all this? Can anyone speak up and show me that racism is definitely not a part of what's going on? I'd be relieved to know it since that would make it much easier to begin to grapple with the monumental problems that are facing us (e.g. the fate of the planet, the stupidities of nation-states, large and
small, the corruption that appears to be built into our economies, liberal or constrained, etc.).

* Raising the question of the dominant culture has long been taboo in the U.S., thanks to the melting-pot theory, though left-wing intellectuals have, at least since the 50s, pointed to the historical domination of WASPS and the emergence of WASPism as a feature of the new extreme right wing (McCarthyism, John Birch Society, etc.). Huntington's latest contribution "Who are we?" very directly expresses his worry that white Protestant culture may be submerged by multiculturalism in general and Latino culture in particular. This isn't racism of course; it's "academic sociology" with a bit of cultural patriotism thrown in!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Mark Twain, misquotes and leadership culture

Leadership training is a growing business. It's as if our complex economy, which has consistently moved away from managing the human in favour of managing money alone, felt guilty about this fundamental tendency and wanted to prove that the pursuit of gain is about the respect of human beings. I can't help feeling that there's a strong measure of hypocrisy in it, but perhaps that's a natural consequence of assuming a role of detached social observer.

Looking at the "field of leadership" (an interesting metaphor!) can be both amusing and frustrating. Those who teach it have, of course, to exemplify it in some way. The easiest way is to appear to be more knowledgeable than others and to be closer to a mythical community of the wise. Offering "inspriing quotes" is part of the process. The following is an example of where this can lead, something that is particularly painful to serious lovers of the arts, who will always prefer the artist's effort to highlight the complexity of reality to the moralist's campaign to simplify it.

Leadership gurus like to use the following misattributed quote:

"The miracle power that elevates the few is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance, under the promptings of a brave determined spirit." - Mark Twain

In all fairness to Mark Twain, who was known for his sense of irony and his contempt for pretension, the text is not his. It is part of a quote from an unknown source which the young Samuel Clemens (Twain) copied into a notebook. He gave it the title “How to take life”. Twain probably used these words for his own inspiration as a young writer trying to make his mark (not as a team leader!). They reflected the dominant individualist values of the ambitious classes in the U.S. in the 19th century.

It’s interesting to read what immediately precedes the oft-quoted sentence:

“Now and then a man stands aside from the crowd, labors earnestly, steadfastly, confidently, and straightway becomes famous for wisdom, intellect, skill, greatness of some sort. The world wonders, admires, idolizes, and it only illustrates what others may do if they take hold of life with a purpose.”

If this is about leadership, it is about a particularly romantic and probably now outdated U.S. brand of it in which the enterprising individual seeks to become an icon or, as the quote indicate, an idol (it is no coincidence that the TV show is called “American Idol” or that individuals such business-media figures as Donald Trump can still successfully transform themselves into idol-icons even after showy public demonstrations of their fundamental moral and even practical flaws: e.g. personal scandals and bankruptcy). The aim of the individual targeted in the quote is to stand above the others. Admiration and idolization are more important than substance and far more important than shared effort and the good of the community. The elevation “of the few” mentioned by the author whose words Twain copied describes the process of creating an elite – a caste of captains of culture and industry – who will acquire the “right” to dictate to others. As the author says, the individual “stands aside from the crowd” and proves himself without reference to it. Ultimately, by becoming an idol, he may control the destiny of the many.

I would submit (as many leadership experts actually do) that leadership is about interaction, not about isolated glory. The mature Mark Twain – and probably the young one as well, if he had had any reason to think about it -- would have agreed with me! In the field of intercultural communication, when we analyse U.S. culture we identify among its core values two that are highlighted in this quote: control and self-reliance (these are two of the seven core U.S. values developed in Cultural Detective, a method for training people to deal with other cultures). These values may be very positive of course – particularly when they are balanced with social goals – but they may also be sources of perverse action, as can be seen in some aspects of the relations the U.S. has with the rest of the world. This is particularly true, and very visible today, in foreign policy. And these are the values that helped define “the ugly American” back in the 1950s.

Control is a positive value when it leads to creation and innovation by seeking to make things easier and more rational (innovation, invention), particularly when its goal is productivity not just for oneself, but for the many. This is what’s behind the much admired “American ingenuity”. But control quickly becomes negative when it denies significant features of the reality it seeks to control, and is utterly deleterious when it leads to wanting to control everything, to the point of feeling anguish and stress when confronted with elements of reality that are – and should always remain -- beyond its control. It may be symptomatic that our culture is having a harder and harder time recognizing that there actually might be things that should be left beyond our desire to control. Some call this area of denied reality the sacred; others call it simply “the environment”.

Real leaders, of course, do not seek to control; their mission is to build that network with others that will make it possible to control their own well-defined challenges and point out the complex way towards harmonizing the particular efforts of control that each person is making in pursuing his or her own set of tasks. The key to this is not pulling the elaborate set of strings that force people to obey, but rather vision (seeing the whole, comprehensively and holistically) accompanied by communication (helping others to see their role in the whole).

Self-reliance is a positive virtue when it is seen and practised as autonomy, the ability to act without systematic dependence on others and particularly on the appointed elite. But it can become dangerous when it develops into pure competitiveness, the pursuit of isolated personal goals and the refusal of collaboration, communication and communion with others. U.S. culture often fails to distinguish between the two because it has turned the value itself into an icon.

What all cultures need to remember is that there is no positive value that cannot, under social pressure or through the effect of human ambition, transform into a frighteningly negative one. Real leaders remain acutely aware of these dangers.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Productivity and U.S. values

Today's news contains an interesting article about feelings in the U.S. concerning personal productivity. Reading the comments reveals, in a general way, a lot about U.S. values. At the same time the implicit link with other events -- in particular the image of the U.S. in the world (see a Newsweek article published today) -- casts a melancholic light on history itself as the feeling that things are degenerating on many fronts is starting to make this début de siècle feel more and more like a fin de siècle.

Here's one of the interesting quotes from the article on productivity:

“We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you’re on to the next thing,” Challenger said on Wednesday. “It’s harder to feel like you’re accomplishing something.”

Information technology -- which has driven the U.S. economy over the past 30 years -- has put a new and unexpected kind of cultural pressure on the U.S. Americans. Ironically, multi-tasking comes naturally and is easily dealt with in polychronic cultures, but has a disturbing effect on the monochronic culture that invented and promoted the technology.

A second quote reminds us of some of the basics in the U.S. value system:

“We think we’re faster, smarter, better with all this technology at our side and in the end, we still feel rushed and our feeling of productivity is down,” said Maria Woytek, marketing communications manager for Day-Timers, a unit of ACCO Brands Corp.

"Faster" reminds us of the importance of speed, which is pretty straightforward. When we analyze "smarter" in this context it has little to do with increased intellectual ability. It refers to the fact that, thanks to technology, we have accumulated more information, linking with notions of ownership and capitalism. It reflects the naive belief that more in quantity necessarily converts to more in quality. "Better" of course reminds us of the deep-seated need to feel at the forefront of history, as the pionneers and leaders who are showing others the way, the "city on the hill".

Ronald Downey, the psychologist interviewed for this article aptly states that technology
“... just increases the expectations that people have for your production” and the consultant Don Grimme adds,

“The irony is the very expectation of getting more done is getting in the way of getting more done,” he said. “People are stressed out.”

Speed used to be seen as manageable in U.S. culture. But the acceleration has been so great and the returns so consistently diminishing that the "speed culture" of the U.S. is entering into a real crisis. Much of it is probably economic and linked to globalisation: to maintain the traditional lifestyle of conspicuous consumption more output is required and therefore more work is required. The convergent effects of feminism and overseas competition for jobs has begun to take its toll. One of the effects of feminism was to put the majority of child-bearing age women to work, presumably by their choice as a gauge of equality, but it also created the conditions in which normal household revenue had to include two salaries, which wasn't the case before the 1970s. So what was first a choice became a necessity, a condition which inevitably produces stress as the awareness of a margin of maneuver disappears.

There is one positive finding, reasonably consistent with the bases of U.S. culture:

Companies that are flexible with workers’ time and give workers the most control over their tasks tend to fare better against the sea of rising expectations, experts said.

I say "reasonably consistent" because freedom of action is a fundamental U.S. value and therefore flexibility fits in nicely and naturally with work practices. On the other hand the importance of control -- especially in capitalistic economic settings -- has made it difficult to transfer power to lower levels even if responsibility is easily transferred (the mismatch between power and responsibility is a phenomenon that deserved to be studied). Shareholders increasingly control management and management, though judged on overall performance (particular in terms of pure financial results) is tempted on the one hand to micro-manage, thereby restricting flexibility (though theoretically respecting it) and to transfer concern to the purely financial side of operations, to the detriment of production and productivity. These contradicatory tendencies may turn out to be destructive in the end, especially as finance has become the principle obsession of management to the point of "cheating" both honestly (boosting value through acquisitions) and dishonestly (hiding economic reality, Enron-style) in order to shore of share prices.

The end of the article is somewhat depressing:

Finally, there’s a trend among companies to measure job performance like never before... There’s a sense that no matter how much I do, it’s never enough.”

It's a fitting conclusion that the concern with measurement and quantification -- considered to be the keys to rational organisation -- should have the effect of augmenting stress. This leaves a definite feeling that we have entered a crisis of civilization where the actions associated with basic values have begun to lose their stable meaning and deep doubt is starting to take root.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Contextual richness, mystery and informality in learning

Earlier this week I posted a note on the Learning Circuits Blog about a powerful new communication environment and operating system (called Croquet) that may finally constitute the breakthrough we've all been waiting for to make e-learning collaborative, multimedia and contextually rich. For intercultural questions (coaching, learning, building awareness, developing perception, honing communication skills) contextual richness is the key to everything. I'm the first to admit that everything we've tried up to now has been pretty flat and lacking in mystery. This is partly because we've been dragging the culture of academe along with us in most of what we do, especially when technology is involved.

As a proponent of informal learning, I not only believe that we need to create occasions and reflexes for informal learning, but also that we need to build informality into our more formal learning experiences. One of the motivating dimensions of informality is precisely mystery. When we learn formally we slot ourselves into a pre-designed pattern where someone has taken the responsibility for deciding what we will learn. In informal learning, nothing is predictable and much of what happens can be called social "Eureka" events. Unlike the classic Eureka event, where an individual finally discovers a solution (and knows that he can take credit for it), the social Eureka event is midwived by a colleague or friend, but without any elaborate planning or preparation (apart from acquiring and deploying complex competencies over time).

Anything that is unpredictable and contains a real payoff also contains mystery and excitement. Without this affective dimension planned or programmed learning never produces significant long-term results. Now the advantage I see in an environment such as Croquet, in particular for all things intercultural, is that the environment is flexible and complex enough to represent, rather than simply to "account for" the culture being "studied". Study begins to resemble exploration rather than retention of canned knowledge. What we learn takes place within a context and the context can be used in dynamic ways to reinforce the learning, while at the same time creating the kinds of webs of association are brains are structured to crave for. Nobody ever seems to have noticed that because our brains can be aptly described as both infinitely complex networks and dynamic energy fields functioning according to holistic principles, the one thing they are NOT structured to crave for is the storing of isolated bits of knowledge. And yet traditional learning and teaching has always worked on the model of the presentation of systematised knowledge, delivered in the form of a series of utterances based on facts that are linked either by logic or rhetoric (and it's never clear which of the two is at work!).

The quick conclusion is that if we have a dynamic environment with a rich context that allows for free interaction and improvisation, we may be moving towards new ways of thinking about learning. Richness provokes an attitude of exploration and an activity of discovery. Mystery incites learners to investigate and interpret, integrating complex clues and associations along the way. And informality increases the possibilities of exchange, often of unformulated knowledge, which is often richer and more complex than the formulated knowledge presented as "curriculum".

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The question of identity in learning and the link with culture

On the Learning Circuits Blog, Clark Aldrich posted an article on the importance of honesty in training design. He then suggested some practical methods for homing in on the truth. Let's call his approach "objective". It is valuable but I think limited by a cultural bias in favor of facts and procedures accompanied by a certain "benign neglect" of affective reality. To build a more accurate and complete picture of training needs, I believe Clark's suggestions should be completed by an approach that takes subjectivity into account.

The basis of such an approach should not be limited to questions of appreciation and reactions to training methods and content, nor should it focus on the now traditional distinctions of "learning styles". I propose using a more fundamental cultural concept: identity. This means how individuals engaged in learning something feel about who they are and the image they project in social and professional contexts. These feelings are elaborated largely at the unconscious level. For that reason, polling people about the effects of learning will produce only a very partial picture of what has occurred. As in all cultural questions, it's less what you know than how you spontaneously interact with others in real situations that define competency.

Going beyond Clark's suggestion, let me relate the initial experience that led me to define an approach that focuses on the subjective and this question of identity. This was my very first complete project building a multimedia learning module.

In 1986, I was put in charge of developing an interactive video program for helicopter maintenance. As project manager my first task was to begin working with the training team to understand the nature of the problem to be addressed. The subject was the most complex and delicate chapter of a five week course for certification in helicopter maintenance: "flight control rigging". The trainer I was working with started off by explaining to me what the team usually taught, step by step. As the whole thing was a foreign language to me (with terms like "clinometer", "collective pitch", "geometrical precession"), after a very short time I stopped him in his tracks and looked for another angle of approach. I simply asked "who are the learners?" After the usual superficial description (work experience, educational background, social class, etc.) I asked, "and who will they be after the training, on the Monday following the final Friday of the final week of the course course?" The trainer had to think long and hard, straining his imagination to encompass events he had never really thought about. I refined the questioning. "Why did they enrol in the course? What did they feel about themselves and who they were when they made the decision?" He began reviewing the hundreds cases he and the other trainers knew but had never tried to analyse. He was quickly able to propose a typology of learner profiles that turned out to be extremely varied and that helped to define the challenge that lay ahead of us: addressing their common and particular needs.

I then continued by asking "how will they feel about themselves when apply for a job with their new qualification and confront a prospective employer?" As the trainer's imagination was already activited, possible answers began to appear, with a vision of the likely behaviour of the newly certified mechanics. But it didn't stop there: "how will they talk and think about themselves at a cocktail party or a dinner with friends? What will have changed in their idea of themselves?" By asking these questions, we could begin focusing on the unconscious side of professional identity, including, "in what voice do I authorize myself to speak to others?" The answers given by the trainer were far from complete case studies, but they gave me enough to go on to make some fundamental design decisions.

The trainer had never considered any of these questions because his job started on the morning of the first Monday of the five week course and ended on the afternoon of the last Friday. That's all he's was paid for (in addition, he had his Wednesday afternoon off for golf!). Asking these questions and listening to the trainer's replies enabled me to work with him productively on building the contents that addressed the issue of how the learner's identity could be constructed. One of the key decisions I made was to include a character played by a mime, representing both a learner (he was discovering a new world) and a mechanic (he quickly transformed knowledge into physical gesture). Moulding a learner's identity requires providing models of both learning and practice to work from. Another technique that proved useful was to oblige the trainer to draw what he saw as visually useful for each new learning point in the course, rather than to explain it in purely linear verbal terms. After that we could talk about questions of learner perception and relationships between ideas, principles, objects. This was fundamental for a project built around video, but I submit that it is equally useful for any document that aims at teaching or training.

The initial tests of the product with actual learners proved to be very positive. As shortly after the completion of the project I left the company (which, though part of the powerful Thomson group, itself had serious problems at the time) I'm not sure about the long term effects of this project on the learners, but I can say it was perhaps the greatest learning experience I've ever had!

What this crisis should teach us

Before things get even worse (which seems to be the case as I'm writing this), we need to remind ourselves that this isn't a clash of civilizations, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, but a problem within what has become the common or globalized culture of western civilization.

Newsweek ran an interesting article yesterday about how Japan is ceasing to be Japanese. This actually throws some indirect light on the cartoon conflict because it highlights the strength and degree of the undermining effects of global culture. If Japan can't resist, who can?

Though the trend dates back at least to the end of World War II, our globalizing world has radically changed. I have little doubt that ten years ago the cartoon crisis would either not have existed at all - thanks to an attitude of passive submission on the part of the Muslim minority -- or would have produced merely local incidents in Denmark. Why has it taken on the dimension it has today? I would suggest a number of contributing causes:

  1. The emergence of a US driven "global" culture that has moved beyond the phase of co-existence with other cultures and has begun to show signs of seeking to replace them (see the Japan article: I call this the Halloween phenomenon, driven by "innocent" commercial interests but carrying a powerful cultural payload).
  2. The need for the U.S. economy - totally organized around the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about upon leaving office in 1960 - to have an identifiable global enemy in order to justify its budgets and increase its margin of manoeuvre. (see the remarks of Bush, the presidential candidate in 2000, wistfully regretting the clear-cut dichotomy of the Cold War),
  3. The disastrous (and culturally insensitive) invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the consequent political and military bridling of Pakistan, three Muslim countries.
  4. The failure of most European countries to integrate their growing Muslim populations, half a century after decolonisation and at a time when birth rates for the "indigenous" (white) population are constantly falling.
  5. Europe's culturally motivated dilatory tactics to keep Turkey from joining the union.
  6. A gradually increasing crassness of U.S. culture, provoked and justified by commercial interests and highly visible in all exported media.
  7. Talk of having God on our side when going to war against Muslim nations (this wasn't a problem during the Cold War, because the enemy was godless communists, so there could be no theological rivalry in the contest).
  8. The double standard on nuclear policy concerning Iran, a line promoted by both the U.S. and Europe: in particular because India, Israel and Pakistan have never been singled out in the same way.
  9. The new ethos and rhetoric of the "war on terror" (the Pentagon now calls it "the long war"), which insists that everyone's duty is to attack sources of terror (e.g. suspect Musims, even when they happen to be Brazilians on their way to work in the London tube).
  10. A psychological threshold shared variously by Arab and Muslim cultures that determines when collective action should be taken.
  11. The more universal laws of mob psychology (e.g. the French or Bolshevik revolutions).
  12. The confused, directionless and mostly bungled "attempts" to settle the Palestinian situation (I sensed we were in trouble when we moved from "peace process" to the "roadmap" metaphor: what better way of saying "we're lost!").

This ethos of the "long war on terror" plays a very important role, because:
  • It confirms the feeling of Muslims in western society that they will always be considered a potential enemy,
  • It motivates the occasional newspaper editor and cartoonist to "feel good" about lashing out at everyone's favorite enemy. Isn't that the way cultural as well as moral values work: they enable us to feel good about doing what society or our moral teachers recommend? "Do the right thing".
The result of all this is that Muslim are under pressure to 1) accept a permanent status of outsider, without even the promise of evolution felt by the first post-colonial generation, 2) accept to be associated with the enemy in the "long war" that produces such good feelings in the "long warriors" (a category that includes publishers and cartoonists*).

Justifying this by invoking freedom of the press or freedom of expression can only be seen (and felt) as hypocritical, since the press is not a simple platform of personal expression but a powerful organ of cultural and political orientation.

As interculturalists it seems to me we should be dealing not merely with abstract ideas about cultures and societies but with people's real feelings. As westerners we take comfort in "pure knowledge", which as suppliers of a brain-based service we see as a commodity. If we can't take the time to explore what external factors influence people's feelings, but only content ourselves with reciting the litany of "dimensions" and behavioural trends, God help us (and inch'Allah)! On the other hand, our clients rarely ask us to solve the world's problems, so why not just continue on our merry old way and at least feel comfortable in our own culture among all the other "long warriors"?


What does it mean to publish cartoons? Is it simply a form of expression or a power play to model contemporary culture? Some people claim that the sole issue is honouring everyone's right to say what they think (an axiom in cultures that value explicitness, directness and outspokenness). They argue that a cartoon isn't an action, but an idea. Let's see what action is in fact involved. I count the following:

* Commissioning the cartoons
* Drawing by the author-artists
* Paying for the cartoons
* Publishing
* Distributing to a wide population.

I'm surprised that such a complex and public process can be characterized as "personal expression" and defended on the basis of the "freedom of expression". Once again (I've already made this point), we seem to have a cultural and historical problem that stems from having lost the distinction between public and private. A similar phenomenon can be found in the debate around the 2nd amendment in the U.S.: "the right to bear arms". It was framed as a means of defining collective responsibility not as an individual right (in a society that had no standing army and a fear of colonial invasion, citizens were encouraged to be ready to organize into a local militia). And yet this historical reality is utterly forgotten, not because the information isn't available, but because we have lost all awareness of the vital (but difficult to define) distinction between public and private.