Visualization and educational reform

You’ve probably heard of Sir Ken Robinson and his spectacular TED talks. There is a new video on YouTube that has animated his most recent talk.

This video is amazing for a couple of reasons. First, it speaks to the heart of educational reform. I was involved in Inspiring Education (at whose website I first spotted this video), and these ideas of reform are being explored in Alberta in very important ways.

Second, this talk speaks to the heart of being a parent of children who view the world in fundamentally different ways. What might be the best educational approach for our children is something we wrestle with every day.

From a completely different tangent, the third way this video is amazing is the way that it visualizes and strengthens an already powerful talk. As we deal with increasingly larger amounts of data (trivial, essential and everything in-between), visualization will be how we make sense of it.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do:


Dialogic Research

For quite a while I have been concerned that traditional research tools are insufficient for the types of interesting problems we are being asked to solve. The challenge has been captured by William Isaacs:

Neither the enormous challenges human beings face today, nor the wonderful promise of the future on whose threshold we seem to be poised, can be reached unless human beings learn to think together in a new way.

This has lead to us developing a new form of research that is a synthesis of three disciplines: qualitative research, public consultation and facilitation. It is a process of genuine interaction through which we listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what we learn.

Traditional research has been a closed system. The research “expert” usually is contracted to gather information and develop insights.  Random participants are carefully selected and lead through a very structured process of discussing rational and emotional thoughts, triggers and stories. And, to be honest, some very excellent research has been conducted this way.

But the world is changing and research needs to become an open system:

  • The ownership of a brand is moving from the marketer to the customer. It’s not what you say about your brand anymore – it’s what consumers are saying about your brand.
  • Peer-to-peer marketing is essential. And much of this is open and user-generated. Structured word-of-mouth strategies where we recruit, motivate and satisfy networks of advocates for organization.
  • Brand engagement is critical to build brand uniqueness. This requires creating communities of customers who are deeply engaged with brand.
  • Brands needs to engage the internal and the external community for longer-term success.
  • As audiences evolve to include more and more Aboriginal and immigrant populations, traditional closed research processes are not the best methods to gather insights. Open, dialogic processes are more effective, and more respectful.

We are calling this type of research Dialogic Research. Our approach has been heavily influenced by some of the leading-edge work in Deliberative Democracy being done by America Speaks and Janette Hartz-Karp.

Not every project is suited to Dialogic Research, but it is ideally suited for projects that

  • Are complex or multi-faceted
  • Have a number of key stakeholders with very distinct points-of-view
  • Are deeply exploring new areas of knowledge
  • Focused on new products or services
  • Are launching a new brand

While Dialogic Research has more logistics to resolve in the early stages, it is proving to be tremendously powerful.

The most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting. (Rick Smyre)

Is the recession over?

“Has the recession ended?” is a question I have been wondering about as news reports focus on climbing energy prices, and the upwards movement of the TSX index. As a news junkie, I have found a few blogs and individuals who have some great insights.

Most recently, I’ve added Atlantic Monthly to my Google Reader. There has been a tremendous discussion from a number of interesting perspectives. Here is what I have been distilling:

  • Lane Wallace directs us to an Op-ed in the May 21 eidtion of the New York Times by Daniel Gilbert (who is, by the way, my favourite social psychologist):

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

People got tired of reading about economic gloom and doom, so the media were happy to play up indications that the worst was over.

I make no predictions. The burden of my argument is that the instability of the economy makes predictions about the recovery from a depression perilous.

  • Mark Thoma argues that there will be a long, drawn out recovery to the recession because consumer spending cannot go back to pre-recession levels. Debt leverage was unsustainable.
  • The Seattle Times Jon Talton asks “What if Starbucks is an artifact of an economy that’s not coming back?”
  • Richard Florida (who also deserves credit blogging about the above two issues) says

One of the most powerful, though least understood, effects of economic crises is their ability to alter global talent flows. Economic history shows that major economic crises like the current, can and frequently do produce considerable alterations in global flows of talent – particularly high-skill, highly inventive, and highly entrepreneurial immigrants.

So what does this all add up to?

We don’t know if the recession is over, or if it is not. This uncertainty is making things worse. And we will never go back to where we were before.

All of this reinforces our belief that we need better tools to be able to plan for a world that is changing in unexpected ways.

As wealth vanishes, consumers retrench

This headline above is lifted from today’s Report on Business section in the Globe & Mail. It is one of two interesting articles about how consumers are responding in these uncertain times.

This first article discusses how consumer attitudes to spending (less) and saving (more) are changing in response to a 4.4% decline in household net worth. But we all know that how consumers spend less and save more differs from product to product and category to category.

The second article, just two pages later, leads with the headline “More parents opt to skimp on baby’s ride: Luxury buggy makers feel the pinch as cost-conscious buyers turn to less expensive brands.” It appears that “once booming sales of status-symbol strollers are taking a hit.”

While it is rather easy to assume that an expensive stroller is part status-symbol. And that consumers can quite easily rationialize that baby won’t notice a different stroller, this may not be the whole story.

In our society we see our children as innocent. The fact that the economy is weak is not their fault. So if parents are trading-down a stroller, are they compensating in other ways to trade up? Are there other baby brands, perhaps less conspicuous ones, that will see a boost in sales, while expensive buggies decline?

Alternatively, our whole approach to wealth could be changing. Perhaps wealth is not taken for granted as easily, and we want our children to be satisfied with good enough, and not seek identity and validation through having “the best.”

Either approach is intersting, and has different implications understanding how consumers react to the rapidly changing market conditions. We do know one thing: consumer reaction is rarely predictable – and something we should be doing a lot of thinking about.

Game Theory

I was at Chapter’s a few weeks ago, and saw on the back wall a sign promoting the “Indigo MBA”. What a hokey marketing promo I thought, but ended up buying two great books.

One is called The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and in Life by Dixit and Nalebuff. It is an update of a 1991 book, called Thinking Strategically.

One of the exercises in this very readable book is based on the principle of backwards reasoning. Figure out the winning end position, and work backwards to what you should do now. Obvious in principle, but not always in practice. The example they use is from season 4 of Survivor. Two teams face each other, with 21 flags between them. At each turn, you must take one, two or three flags. No more and no less. The winner is the teAm that takes the last flag.

If you get to go first, how many flags should you take on your first turn to guarantee a win, and what is your strategy for every subsequent turn?

It is a fun problem, and really illustrates the usefulness of this book. (Of course, a proper game theorist would not promote this book, but I also like to believe in what Joseph Thornley has called the “gift economy.”)

Improving the obsolete

At a presentation earlier today, Dr. Sharon Friesen (co-founder of the Gallileo Education Network) challenged us under the topic of “Learnings for Today’s World.” It was invigorating. Just the simple reminder that eyeglasses were once viewed with the same technological mysticism as we view Web 2.0 today. Or that people once traveled hundreds of miles to watch people engage in “silent reading.”

There was a great quote in the pre-reading:

Efforts to improve the obsolete are actually likely to make things worse (Gilbert, 2005; Fullan, Hill & Crevola, 2006).

While this statement was made in the context of transformation of the education system, it has far deeper relevance to many initiatives. And it requires confronting truths we may want to avoid to honestly assess if we are simply trying to improve the obsolete.

Nothing beats a good question

I was observing  a workshop  in Edmonton last week. We were asked to reflect on the question: what is your work? Not what is your job? It was a question that inspired very good reflection and conversation.

Very quickly people were able to think about how they did their job, and what part of their job they were most passionate about. It allowed us to get to  know the individual far beyond their title and role – which is how most of us tend to introduce ourselves.

It was a very powerful introduction to each other.

My answer?

I am a sense-maker. I deal with complex situations and problems that somewhere have people involved in them. I look at the problems from many angles and through the lens of many different disciplines and then explore the seams of knowledge between the disciplines to make sense of the problem.

But this is far to esoteric. I like the question, but I don’t yet like my answer.