Monday, December 04, 2017

The Square and the Tower – networks and hierarchies

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson takes the public square in Sienna and the tall tower that looms above, as a metaphor for flat, open networks and their accompanying hierarchical structures.
My friend Julian Stodd starts his talks with a similar distinction between open, flat networks and formal, hierarchical structures (although both are networks, as a hierarchy is just one form of network). Networks tend to be more creative and innovative, hierarchies more restricted. In most contexts you need both. Ferguson’s point is that history shows that both have been around for a very long time. Indeed, he tries to rewrite history in terms of these two opposing forces. He sees history through the lens of networks, the main distinction being between disruptive networks, often fuelled by technology, such as tool making (stone axes etc.), language, writing, alphabets, paper, printing, transport, radio, telegraph television and the internet; then institutional hierarchies such as families, political parties, companies and so on. Networks come in all shapes and sizes. In terms of communities we have criminal networks, terrorist networks, jihadi networks, intelligence networks, and so on. In terms of technology, social networks, telephone networks, radio networks, electricity networks. History, he thinks, understates the role of networks. We now even have cyberwars between networks. This is age of networks.
Technologies and networks
We can trace this back to the fact that we are a species that has evolved to ‘network’. Our brains are adapted towards social interaction and groups. We, the co-operative ape, have distributed cognition and this has increased massively as technology has allowed us to network more widely. Technologies have been the primary catalysts. Nevertheless, much human behaviour has been tempered with Chiefs, Kings, Lords, Emperors and so on… hierarchical structures that lead and control, even the web is now spun by hierarchical and rapacious spiders – the giant tech companies. His analysis of Europe’s failure is interesting here, as we have Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent in China. Europe merely regulates. These Oligopolies, dominate the networks.
The study of networks goes back to Euler’s seven bridges problem with a more fulsome look at nodes, edges, hubs and clusters. What is clear is that networks are rarely open and low density. They collapse into clusters and tribes. This in itself still produces, not so much six degrees of separation (actually closer to five), as 3.57 if you are on Facebook. There is an attempt to identify common features of networks; No man is an island, Birds of a feather flock together, Weak tis are strong, Structure determines virology, Networks never sleep, Networks network, The rich get richer.
Then, by example, he takes some deeper dives into the Medicis, as he regards the Renaissance as the first of the truly networked ages. Then the age of discovery, the catalysts being navigational technology and trade networks. But the big disruptive network was the Reformation, partially caused by printing. The fact Luther did (or did not) nail his 95 theses to the door is beside the point. What matters is the printing press that allowed the spread of these ideas and freedom of expression to challenge the hierarchy of the church. The control of language through Latin and of knowledge through scripture was blown wide open.

From the Reformation came Revolutions, again fuelled by print and networks. In addition financial networks, sometimes ruled by family hierarchies, such as the Rothschilds. Scientific and industrial networks flourished giving us industrial revolutions. Intellectual networks such as The Apostles in England and the Bloomsbury Group. Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism were infectious networked ideas.
Networks and hierarchies in organisations
Whatever the structure of your networks, communications, emails, social media posts, slack posts, blogs, stories and many other instances of social conversations will happen, over time. How does an organisation deal with all this, optimise these networks and drive performance?
First we have to recognise that social  both helps and inhibits performance. Open networks often collapse into powerful tribes of belief and power. Social activity is messy, soaked in biases and can be negative in output. Some of these tribes may be good and useful, where they generate innovation and get things done. But there’s also the crippling effects of the mob and its tribes that generate and consolidate groupthink and false beliefs. Gangs form but gangs are not often good.

A solution to this dilemma is to interrogate networks, harvest the data, objectify the process and analyse it to exclude mess and bias. One can look for insights, innovations and valid ideas, to separate the social wheat from the chaff. AI can come to the rescue here.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Christmas Party shenanigans – let’s fight for the right to paaarty….. and call it a HR-free zone

The Christmas Party is a small, intense pool of chaos in the corporate year, a licence to misbehave, drink too much, say things you otherwise wouldn’t. Only on the surface is it is a celebration of the company and its achievements for the year. In fact, it is the opposite, a Dionysian release from the Kafkaesque restrictions of HR and hierarchy. It is an opportunity to let rip – be in the company but not subject to its rules. The worst possible venue for the Christmas Party is on company premises. What happens at the party stays at the party
The Christmas party has little to do with Christmas. Giving out presents would be bizarre, unless they were weirdly satirical. Carols are replaced by party hits. . This is no time to reflect on moral issues but a one a year chance to be amoral, even immoral, if at midnight you’re still capable of discerning the difference. A sure sign of this is the yearly debate about whether partners should be included – usually a charade that ends in their exclusion. Everyone knows that they are the one’s that would dampen the whole affair and encourage people to leave early just as the real fun begins.
When I was the CEO of a company I had to rescue a lad who had been caught with cocaine by the staff of the venue. I hadn’t even finished my soup! He was spread-eagled against a wall by the bouncers. Solution? I did a deal with the venue manager to use the same venue for the next year’s party if they let him off. We didn’t sack him – this was a party in Brighton, the town, as Keith Waterhouse once famously said, “that looks as though it has been up all night helping the police with their enquiries”. At another there was a discussion the next day on the sauna trip (famously seedy in Brighton) after the Christmas party where nipple rings, piercings and tattoos had been compared. There were always shenanigans and so it should be.
My friend Julian Stodd tells the story of two people being sacked because they posted images of them getting drunk and throwing up at their Christmas Party. The American CEO has got wind of this (why he’d be interested is beyond me) and had taken action, bringing the full force of HR bureaucracy down upon them. This is pathetic. It’s as pathetic as searching through Facebook to find what a potential employee did when they were a teenager. HR has no business being judge and jury, unless something has caused harm to others. The Christmas Party, in particular, is a no-go zone for that sort of bullshit.
Tales of Christmas Parties Past become part of an organisation’s folklore. The planning needs clear execution but everyone knows that the aim is to organise an event that gradually descends into chaos. We have as a species always celebrated through feasts and drinking. Long may it continue in work.

It’s the perfect opportunity to put the middle finger up to company values, not that anyone pays attention to them anyway, especially those idiotic acronyms, where the words have clearly been invented to fit the letters of the word or lists of abstract nouns all starting with the same letter. For example, “ innovation, integrity and i*****… what was that third one again?” People have their own values and HR has no business telling them what their values should be. They’re personal. Most employees will have values and they’ll be leaving your organisation for another at some time, where another set of anodyne words will be put forward as ‘values’. Keep it simple you need only one rule ‘Don’t be a Dick!’.
Back to the party - organisations need this Dionysian, release valve, as it vents frustrations, allows simmering relationships to form, people to show their true selves, not playing the usual office game, conforming to the sham that is corporate behaviour. Wear a stupid hat, dress up, pull a cracker, drink too much – be a little transgressive, be a dick. HR – leave your rules in the office and do the same.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Janesville - a town that explains Trump and also why you shouldn't judge or blame people for being poor

You’re put in a town that implodes when the car plant closes down and 9000 people lose their jobs. GM was a mess – incompetent management, old models, a company that failed to innovate. As if that wasn’t enough Janesville is hit with Biblical levels of rain (climate change?). Journalism at its best, by a Poulitzer-winning writer, written from the perspective of the people affected. Want to know why working America is pissed? Read this book. Told with compassion but realism, through the lives of real people in a real town.
For over 100 years they had produced tractors, pick-ups, trucks, artillery shells and cars. Obama came and went, the financial crisis hammered them deeper into the dirt but while the banks were bailed by the state, the state bailed on the people. On top of this a second large, local employer, Parker Pens, outsourced to Mexico but the market for upmarket pens was also dying. The ignominy of being asked to extend your wages by a few weeks by going down to Mexico to train their cheaper labour was downright evil.
Then the adjunct businesses started to fail, the suppliers, trades, shops, restaurants, nurseries for two income families – then the mortgage and rent arrears, foreclosures, house prices fall, negative equity. As middle-class jobs go they push down on working lass jobs and the poor get poorer.
“Family is more important than GM” this is the line that resonated most with me in the book. In this age of identity politics, most people still see a stable family and their community as their backstops. The left and right have lost focus on this. The community didn’t lie down – they fought for grants, did lots themselves to raise money, help each other – but it was not enough.
Grants for retraining were badly targeted, training people for reinvention is difficult for monolithic, manufacturing workforces. Some of it was clearly hopeless, like discredited Learning Style diagnosis, overlong courses of limited relevance to the workplace or practice. Problems included the fact that many couldn’t use computers, so there was huge drop out, more debts and little in the way of workplace learning. Those that did full degrees found that what few jobs there were had been snapped up while they were in college – their wages dropped the most, by nearly half. One thing did surprise me, the curious offshoot that was anti-teacher hostility. People felt let down by a system that doesn’t really seem to work and saw teachers as having great holidays, pensions and healthcare, while they were thrown out of work. The whole separation of educational institutions from workplaces seems odd.
Jobs didn’t materialise. What jobs there are, exist in the public sector – in welfare charities and jails. A start-up provided few jobs, many commuted like gypsies to distant factories. Even for those in work, there was a massive squeeze on wages, in some cases a 50% cut, sometimes more. In the end jobs came back but real wages fell. Healthcare starts to become a stretch. But it’s the shame of poverty, using food banks, homeless teenagers and a real-life tragedy 200 pages into the book that really shakes you over.
The book ends with the divide between the winners and losers. This is the divide that has shattered America. Janesville is the bit of America tourists, along with East and West coast liberals don’t see. The precariat are good people who are having bad things done to them by a system that shoves money upwards into the pockets of the rich. Looked down upon by Liberals, they are losing faith in politics, employers, the media, even education.
Wisconsin turned Republican and Trump was elected. The economist Mark Blyth attributes the Trump win to their wages squeeze and fall in expectations, even hope. People got a whole lot poorer and don’t see a great future for their kids.

A more relevant piece of work than Hillbilly Elegy, with which it is being compared. Final thought –why are journalists in the UK not doing this? Answer – they’re bubble-wrapped in their cozy London lairs, part of the problem and too lazy to get out and do their jobs… writing the same stories about why they don’t like social media, failing to see that they are the purveyors, not so much of fake new but inauthentic news, irrelevant news, news reduced to reporting on shadows within their own epistemological cave… one exception - John Harris.

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