Philosophy and the Search for Ideas: Foundations of Critical Thinking

As historians are quick to point out, the parallels between modern times and the classical world – including not only Greece, but also Rome – are plentiful. No new thinking here. In profound ways, our modern society, laws, forms of government and language are embedded in the classic traditions.

But there’s more to the story than that.

The history of philosophy, more broadly framed as the history ideas, tells a compelling story about a journey to new levels of understanding – a tale that traces evolution of ‘critical thinking’ itself.

At its core, philosophy is about learning how we ‘know’ what we know, and learning what we can do with the knowledge that can be gained.

Critical thinking and philosophy seem to share a common heritage, as shown in this table:

CT-foundation-x10_v2-200514

There is scant space here to do justice to such a rich history, but to advance the topic as part of my critical thinking series we need to at least expose the biggest pillars. In the paragraphs below, I focus on philosophers who have provided significant contributions to what has evolved as the modern notion of critical thinking.

  1. Pythagoras. A pioneer in math, Pythagoras advanced geometry with his famous theorem on triangles. In so doing, he brought the concept of ‘abstraction’ into the mainstream. He effectively demonstrated that what we observe is one thing, while what we comprehend mentally is quite another.
  2. Socrates. Famous for asking deeper and deeper questions to get to the core of an issue, Socrates was a relentless advocate of critical thinking. He is said to have used Pythagorean triangles drawn in the sand to challenge skeptics on their limited view of the ‘knowable’.
  3. Plato. While famous as both student and scribe of Socrates and an early political scientist, Plato was important in this discussion for driving concepts of perfected universals – truth, as one example – derived from accepted perfections in abstract mathematics. When we think about ideal solutions and archetypes, we owe a debt to Plato for asserting their importance, laying ground work for the modern framing of ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn) and ‘mental model’ (Senge).
  4. Aristotle. A critical inflection point in Western philosophic thought, Aristotle used his deep appreciation for observable science – biology in particular – to bring a rational, logical rigor to the abstract ideas of his time. He laid key foundational ideas of ‘causality’, and described abstract universals as characteristics that describe what we see in reality, reversing ideas of his predecessor, Plato. He was also the first rigorous ‘ontologist’ – developing categorization structures (including the classic genus-species taxonomy for plants and animals) that help us classify the world around us.
  5. Bacon. While not the first in a long empirical tradition, Francis Bacon is typically held up as the earliest catalyst of rigorous thought that established experimental science as a discipline. He provided the building blocks of what would later become known as the scientific method. With this structured approach, man gained the ability to discover and prove the causes of things.
  6. Decartes. One of the earliest to fully articulate human self-perception in philosophy, famous for cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am” with significant contributions not only in rational philosophy but also in math, where his thinking was foundational in analytical geometry.
  7. Hume. Among his many contributions, Hume helped advance the idea of ‘mediation’ in our perceptions, arguing that our logic and conclusions are often filtered, whether by our senses or by our prior patterns of behavior, describing how the mind makes assumptions around causation based on our experiences (note: watch for future discussion of ‘mental heuristics’).
  8. Kant. Perhaps the most influential critical thinker of the last 400 years and a rich source of insights, Immanuel Kant brought many of Aristotle’s early notions forward into the modern world. He advanced the categorization of knowledge, with ideas that hinted at ‘context’ based on the notion of “a priori” (pre-existing) factors such as the special external functions of space and time. He also introduced a rational approach to our behavior, bringing logical underpinning to the discussion of ethics.
  9. James. Known as the father of modern psychology, William James developed our appreciation for focus, and its importance on perception and discernment.
  10. Wittgenstein. Famous for bringing the nuances of language into the discussion of ideas, Wittgenstein argued that both culture and semantic bias carry a fundamental influence in any kind of meaningful exchange. He argued that semantic rigor is essential to philosophical endeavors, serving as a cornerstone of what we now call critical thinking.

At the risk of leaving holes in our story, I’ve left out some key names – deep thinkers like Hegel, Locke, Hobbes, Reid, Mill, and a raft of others – and I’ll take responsibility for the exclusions. This was in part due to space, but also due to the focus of my research on the dynamics and demands of modern collaboration.

If you can help me fill any gaps in the progression, share your thoughts and I’ll provide updates. There’s also a quick survey in the toolbar that would help build a broader consensus on those most influential.

With a foundation in place, where can we go from here?

Unlike any time in history, people and their ideas are getting connected at an accelerated rate. That changes the rules of what’s possible. Critical thinkers who collaborate are likely to drive a potent set of outcomes.

The ability to realize the new dynamics of knowledge sharing may be the next significant challenge our society faces, but also, I believe, it is our greatest promise. Building a sustainable future requires that we relearn what it means to learn, and to advance our ability to learn from each other – globally, deeply, and ever more quickly.

There’s still much work ahead, as this series continues to rediscover what scholars have known all along: the importance of critical thinking.

Let me know your thoughts.

Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

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Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

CHARLOTTE, NC. January 2011, by

On the road to unlocking collaboration, our culture series has taken us through a review of Schein’s many layers, Handy’s four structural models, and Kotter’s eight steps for change – lots of ways to slice and dice the cultural barriers.

To me, it was important progress and worth the deep dive, tapping dozens upon dozens of insightful comments, for which I remain grateful.

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced:

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

We need some breakthrough thinking. How can we foster collaboration and cultures that encourage it?

Where do we turn now?

Peter Senge, in his 1990 watershed work The Fifth Discipline (latest ed. 2006), laid an important foundation for Learning Organizations that still resonates today. As we look to frame the core dynamics of effective collaboration and the many challenges of the necessary culture change, I think we need to go back to the source.

While Senge advocated 5 critical disciplines for the modern organization, I struck gold on several foundational takeaways, each resonating with my views on collaborative innovation. Not all of them qualify as ‘disciplines’ as he defined them, but they all seem to have strong relevance to the challenges at hand.

Let’s look at them:

  1. the power of dialog to weave new insights on broader, divergent ways, in his words “open to the flow of a larger intelligence” and “taking us in directions we could never have imagined.” (is it just me, or does that sound a lot like Twitter?)
  2. exposing the vital role of context as the critical lens through which our ideas relate to the world, to each other, and to potential innovations
  3. understanding our social ecosystems, with a nod to “systems thinking”, exposing relationships across parts of the whole; this was an important stake in the ground for interdisciplinary thinking, concepts at the core of the collaborative model and Senge’s view of organizational learning
  4. recognizing that cultures can and must promote learning through deeper inquiry, encouraging us to challenge the rigor of our thinking; ‘critical thinking’ has lost focus in the commercial space and across western society, creating a fundamental problem in education priorities (but that’s another stream!).
  5. harnessing heuristics and paradigms to capture the mental power of abstraction, which he called “mental models;” these help us frame ideas, solutions, and (eco)system relationships in visual, more intuitive terms
  6. importance of the study of nature’s patterns, many holding secrets to how our world and our problems relate, with key messages for ecosystem sustainability and a means to understand complexity around us.

Senge looked to future organizations to master these challenges, becoming increasingly skilled at complex problem solving, and increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, adapting to handle more complex environments and challenges. Successful organizations, he hoped, would demonstrate resilience, and an expanding, repeatable capacity for learning.

Like many visionaries, Senge challenged future leaders to pick up the cause and drive these conceptual ideas into practice. Where are those leaders when we need them?

Some of them may be staring back at us in the mirror.

As we depart from Senge (with much to mull over!) let me direct your attention to the work of Marcia Conner, who has produced a series of books that lay out much of the work ahead in crafting a viable, sustainable learning organization.

Perhaps you’ve connected with her at #lrnchat, on Twitter?

Read up, and listen in.

Ultimately, we must promote cultures that value both learning and collaboration. That’s where innovation and great ideas come from.

We’re at a crossroads, of sorts, and here’s why:

Talking around notions of collaborative cultures is easy, in the same way people banter about collaborative innovation. Small wonder there’s such a buzz about it. But fostering cultures that spawn collaborative behaviors is hard work. I wonder: do we have the resolve to take it on?

Ahead: I’ll provide more specifics on the mechanics of effective collaboration. The journey continues, and we’re picking up the pace.

Here’s some additional dialog just posted on Quora, based on this thread.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

From my experience, parents want their kids to have a great education, and most are willing to pitch in.

On a good day, it might mean helping them study for a killer algebra test. On a bad day, it’s a more thankless task: helping them reevaluate priorities, prying fingers from the high tech keypads, smartphones and controllers stashed under every pillow.

Education is a complex topic, which deserves and is getting much discussion. But as a parent, I think understanding our stake in the process is an increasingly critical conversation, one that doesn’t always get air time.

I’d like to frame the question like this:

With school districts grappling with troublesome finances and even more troublesome test scores, what roles can and should parents play in the education process?

K12 Education today functions like an ‘ecosystem’. Most of the many interdependent stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, legislators, policy makers, text book companies) work diligently, but not always in tandem. No one entity has full control of the process. Across the diverse stakeholder groups are multiple, often conflicting objectives. Each depends on the others in the food chain for the system to function, but there is little optimization taking place.

Across the education ecosystem, too often it’s become a challenge of survival.

You may have seen “Waiting for Superman” and learned that across the nation, drop out rates are accelerating. Or maybe you saw “Race to Nowhere” about the pressure schools and parents are together putting on children, and how we must reevaluate how to define success. A more extreme example is the “Parent Trigger” where states allow parent-led coalitions to takeover problem schools.

While education leaders have much to do in sorting this out, parents have an important voice. We often forget that kids acquire language, behavior, and foundational learning skills before they set foot in a public school. Approaches will vary, but parents have the first crack at making learning a priority, and must work ever harder to sustain that. Schools, in turn, must understand what the family is experiencing, to effectively participate in an open collaboration.

Let’s tee up a few discussion topics to help us get at the core challenges of Parent Engagement.

Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process?

Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

  1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
  2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
  3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
  4. focus on resilience
  5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
  6. focus on critical thinking
  7. making innovation in education a priority

Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?

Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?

Education is undergoing some much needed transformation. From multiple sources, we can see innovative schools working diligently on new approaches. But time is short. And that’s an issue on many levels.

I sense that kids today start kindergarten well behind the power curve, leaving parents with few choices and many frustrations, and often no sense of what they could be doing to help.

No silver bullets here. But that’s all the more reason for the conversation.

We’ll tee this up at our weekly #ECOSYS chat on WEDS 1/5 at 9pET. This opens our 2011 Education Topic Agenda, on our wiki, under “T1 Parent Engagement”.

As always, please share your thoughts as comments, I’d love to discuss your perspective.

Barriers to Twitter Adoption: Unlocking a new Communication Paradigm

Some people believe, as I do, that Twitter has the power to fundamentally enhance our ability to communicate, accelerating access to both people and information. By most definitions that would make it a paradigm shift. Others, perhaps the majority, remain skeptical.

Let’s dive a bit deeper, to see what we might learn.

Twitter simplifies communication, removing barriers of time and place. Without the overhead of email, conversations can spark around the globe. Every contact can be a source of inspiration, a new collaborator, a potential customer.

Where else can you message the world and get answers?

Many have seen the potential of Twitter and are running with it. From custom news feeds to social activism, from blog promotion to chats and book clubs, from corporate promotion to a new era of participative journalism. Access to people and information appears to be accelerating.

So what’s the problem?

No issue, for the brave. On the surface, it seems easy, and it can be. If you’re able to multitask across dozens of threads. If you have unlimited free time. If you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish during all your waking hours. Ambitious? More like impossible. Not enough caffeine in my latte for all of that. Control of the world’s information feeds is NOT the goal. Our families like to see us from time to time, and there’s this useful notion called ‘sleep’.

Still, my instincts tell me we’re leaving significant value on the table. The fundamental question for me remains:

What are the true barriers for adoption of the evolving Twitter and social media paradigms, and what can we do to unlock new levels of collaboration?

On WEDS 12/15 at 1pET, #SMCHAT will be joined by Laura Fitton, aka @Pistachio, CEO of oneforty.com and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. It’s part of her sweep of Twitter Chat’s for the TFD #BookTour. A true ‘early adopter’ herself w/ +70,000 followers, Laura has been at it longer than the rest of us. Let’s ask her to join us in brainstorming our hardest open questions:

  • Q1. Engagement. New rules include need for authenticity, clarity of intent, agreed semantics, less broadcasting & more listening. What else?
  • Q2. Influence. CW says numbers don’t matter, but marketers know eyeballs equal hits. What are dynamics of smart social network building?
  • Q3. Saturation. With so much info streaming in, Tweetdeck can barely keep up. Hashtags are imperfect. How do we manage the deluge of ideas & when is enough, enough?
  • Q4. Convergence. Apps & options keep proliferating, adding to the confusion. Should there be convergence to fewer tools, or is integration a better path?
  • Q5. Upside. Time for your crystal ball. Will twitter growth plateau, or will there be mass market adoption? What role does culture play?

The New Year is approaching. What better time reflect on the “State of the Social Network?” Let’s use the 90 minutes with Laura to good advantage. They’ll go fast.

Bring your questions and ideas, and join the conversation. It promises to be a good one. (click here at the appointed time)

Help me plan our time. Which of the topics above resonate the most for you? In which dimension(s) do the most significant barriers lie? Leave a comment, let’s discuss it.

Election 2010 and Social Media: What are impacts to campaigns, results, and the future of politics?

As election 2010 winds down at the polls, analysts on all the networks are scurrying to forecast results, identify trends, and discuss what it all means.

It’s difficult not to speculate: is social media playing a role in 2010?

SM gained considerable attention in Obama’s successful 2008 Presidential bid, in much the same way that television made a big splash in politics in 1960. Any communication channel that reaches the masses in new ways almost certainly has some impact, potentially even changing the rules. And the general consensus is that the impact extends beyond the U.S. to other corners of the globe.

With that said, what is the nature of the impact? Is it lasting, or a flash in pan?

On WEDS 11/3 at 1pET, #SMCHAT will explore these questions with some rigor, to get at the underlying dynamics. We will discuss the nature of SM impact to date and ask ourselves what may happen in the future.

By way of framing, here are the questions for our next live chat:

  1. To what degree can campaigns expect to reach additional and/or undecided voters?
  2. Can the younger demographics of Facebook drive material differences in election results?
  3. Realistically, can voters be swayed by sites, blog posts or tweets?
  4. Do non-profits share a politician’s goals of fund-raising, community building and focused messaging? (looking for synergies, lessons learned)
  5. As Government 2.0 and the Open Government initiatives move to reshape government collaboration and accountability, will there be a ‘pull through’ effect that drives more online, interactive campaign strategies?
  6. Will voter engagement via SM be a long-term game changer for politics?

If you have opinions, insight or additional questions, please post that here, or on Twitter. You can join the live conversation using Tweetchat at the appointed hour.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts and have the chance to discuss them.

Hope to see you at #SMCHAT.

Catalysts for Social Change: Tapping Christensen’s Insights on Public Education

Thought Leaders, by definition, play a valuable role in helping to shape our perspectives. It’s not that they have all the answers. But they can serve as a catalyst for new thinking. The very best ones will challenge our world view, reframing our old paradigms and giving us new tools to attack long-standing problems.

As Ecosys continues to explore the many challenges of our Education ecosystem, we see value in “checking-in” to those insights.

Our discussions can’t help but be enriched and further informed.

Tonight, WEDS 10/6 at 9pET, we will look to the work of Clay Christensen in “Disrupting Class” (2008) to discuss his deep and thought provoking insights on social innovation, in the specific context of public education.

Click here to join the conversation.

It’s worth noting that Christensen’s heavily circulated work on ‘disruptive innovation’ (which we’ll discuss) is not limited to education, but also areas like healthcare. This is significant, because our foundational ecosys framing shares a similar broad base. The thought process? Large, complex, interdependent ecosystems of people and organizations have trouble working resolving conflict. The larger and more mature the ecosystem, the more deeply the traditional beliefs and paradigms are held. Environments and social realities change, but often, the ‘system’ struggles to keep pace.

We can’t do justice to “Disrupting Class” or disruptive innovation in one 2 hour chat. But let’s try to get our arms around the following main points.

Q1 Learning Intelligences & Custom Learning (ch. 1)

  • Is there consensus on different learning styles & intelligences per Howard Gardner (80’s)?
  • To what degree are the benefits/advantages of custom learning embraced?

Q2 The “Factory Model” of Public Education (ch. 1)

  • Want to discuss foundations of the standards movement in historical context, fueled by rapidly expanding populations. Over the ensuing decades, what has scaled? And what hasn’t?

Q3 Textbooks & the Establishment (ch. 5, 7)

  • It seems important that uncovering prevailing paradigms & understand resistance to change, per Kuhn (60’s)
  • Is there an appetite for evolving how teachers teach (“coaches”, “content architects”), and how students learn?

Q4 Disruptive Innovation (ch. 3, 4)

  • Christensen suggests local innovation focus where there is no prevailing competition. Do his target examples resonate? (Pre-K, home school, tutoring, AP, credit recovery, special needs)
  • Is “student-centered” learning viable and what is the potential of technology to enable this?

Q5 Framing Success (p. 185-190)

  • Engagement is critical, because “where people are plotting change, they are often talking past each other”. Agree? How do we get there?
  • Need common solution language, so we must “negotiate” and use diverse change tools – to coerce, guide & inspire (as appropriate)

Do Christensen’s perspectives resonate with your experience?

We’ll spend 20 minutes framing and discussing each of the above 5 topics tonight, and will capture what can be captured in our wiki. There will certainly be more to come after that.

RESULTS OF THIS CHAT ARE POSTED ON THE ECOSYS WIKI, HERE.

While this is just the inception of our Thought Leader series, you can probably tell from our framing how much work lies ahead.

As always, we’re up to the challenge.

We hope you’ll join our conversation.

It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government

In prior posts, we’ve looked at the many aspects of culture that affect large organizations, including the cultural dynamics in government that play out in large state & federal agencies.

A few days ago, a reader wrote and asked: “What about local government?”

That really started me thinking. So let’s have a look.

Similarities

Government agencies share a common service mandate, regardless of scale. That means local government exists to support its citizens, and that many aspects of the overall mission would logically be the same. Examples of this: revenue collection, protection services, health & welfare, even natural resources.

There’s also a similar political dynamic. Elected officials are voted into office to provide leadership and direction to full-time administrative branches. That can lead to a philosophical divide between the elected and the civil servants, an interesting cultural rift that is unique to governmental organizations, as I covered previously.

The net result is that local governments, like their larger state & federal counterparts, will encounter challenges of silo thinking and culture clashes, often resulting in small-scale bureaucracies.

Differences

It’s the differences that really bring home some interesting new factors. The most important of these is a sense of community. I wrote on virtual community a few months back, but the ‘brick and mortar’ community – including neighborhoods, businesses, recreation areas, and the like – makes up what is typically the strong, vibrant foundation or our day-to-day experience.

In a real way, our local communities serve as the backbone of our society.

These are critical factors for any town or region to remain healthy. Where these elements are absent, as is the case in regions with long-term economic decline, the systemic problems can be overwhelming. That means local communities and their governments are vitally important to create safe, healthy places for people to live and work.

Several things come with community that can benefit the cause of local government, with opportunities to drive a more open, participative culture

  • Citizen engagement – most want to live a good, healthy lifestyle, and want their neighborhoods safe, their schools effective, their tax dollars put to good use. This bodes well for engagement, because local citizens have an immediate stake in the affairs of local government
  • Proximity – by being nearby, it is far easier to participate in local government events and elections, including hearings, council meetings, and the like. Not so with state or federal.
  • Visible results – the effect of government can be seen locally, reinforcing value in real terms

I’ll argue that an “intellectual distance” has caused state and federal government to grow more removed from their constituents. It’s a chasm that hurts relevance to the average citizen. Small wonder the feds have long embraced a “town meeting” approach, in hopes of capturing the level of engagment that normally accrues locally.

The other major delta that impacts culture in local government derives from smaller scale, with 3 immediate impacts:

  • Less-hardened silos – the walls of over-specialization become stronger (quite literally, hardened) with time and scale. Yes, local governments will exhibit turf wars and silos among departments. But because they are typically smaller scale, it should, in theory at least, be easier to begin working across them.
  • Greater impact of individuals – with smaller jurisdictions in particular (towns, small cities) it is possible for strong leaders to drive signifcant changes; this is more difficult with large-scale entrenched bureaucracy.
  • Low critical mass (smaller talent pool). Being ‘smaller’ means there is generally less expertise available locally; smaller jurisdictions may need to lean more on outside help.

What does this mean? For starters: state and federal governments should ‘think small’.

But it also means this:

Local government should be aggressive on capitalizing on the advantages that community and smaller scale afford. They enjoy unique levels of access to their constituents. Moreover, they are closer to organizational models that favor collaboration .. provided they can abandon the silos that are inherited via the notion of government as ‘bureaucracy’.

A strong message from our culture research still applies here: there are no silver bullets. Achieving change of any scale is hard, and culture is as strong a factor in local government as with the larger jurisdictions. Government must be willing to interact directly with their citizens, not hide behind the silo’d walls of bureaucracy. Being both small and local can encourage engagement, a fundamental enabler of social change.

Is it time for the resurgence of the local community? Maybe it takes a village, after all.

The 2.0 Business Relationship: Are you investing in your network?

Social media is getting plenty of traction, but I’m still intrigued by its untapped potential, both inside the enterprise and out in open spaces.

Stubbornly, several barriers to adoption remain.

We’ve been chipping away at these hurdles here, first exploring culture in the organization, and then engagement. Those conversations have helped to surface yet another challenge: how to build valuable relationships (call them “virtual” if you must) using social media.

Let’s tee it up this way:

What are the dynamics and limits of “relationship” in a virtual world, where connections are free, global, and easily made? Can true value be achieved? And can we navigate network overload?

We’ll start with traditional business relationships, to set the stage.

Whether inside or outside of organizations, people are constantly meeting, connecting, and communicating. Results will vary. Some will pass each other by completely. Others will move closer together in their thinking and spark a collaboration, or they might hit a snag, and move further apart. It’s all in motion.

A successful organization brings a master plan to the madness. Via work groups, partnerships and/or employment relationships, an enterprise uses structure to bind together groups of people with a shared focus. There’s still that constant flux of relationships: people connecting, communicating, and learning. But if and when coordinated, good things happen, and the organization has a chance to thrive.

The impact of social media.

Our hyper-connected world accelerates and multiply’s our ability to connect with people anywhere. Boundaries of time and place are removed. Whether tweeting or blogging, the potential to meet, share and learn from others – literally around the globe – is unbounded. But there’s a catch. As you start to engage and connections start flooding in, you are soon forced to ask: Should this person be in my network? Should I reach out to them? Or will I be wasting my time?

Up front, there’s really no way to know.

I think most people that exit social media, often in frustration, do so in face of those daunting, never ending decisions. And that’s unfortunate. The possibility of each new social media connection creates a fascinating opportunity. Each connection you make brings the chance to challenge your thinking, expand your horizons, and even to change your path.

Navigating the challenges of network building

What factors will influence the chances of an online business relationship in the 2.0 space? I think it boils down to a couple of key things:

  1. Clarity of your intent. Why are you here? Are you tapping social media and building your network for a reason? Get in touch with that. Share your intentions right up front.
  2. Common ground (context). With intent on the table, establishing common ground is a matching exercise. Search engines and hashtags and communities are all ways to get connected. Believe it or not, this part is becoming easier by the day.
  3. Investing in your network (learning to “time box”). Relationships tend to benefit from ‘going deeper’ but time is increasingly precious. This is where many connections with potential fall short. Set aside an evening, a cup of coffee, a few minutes a day for network building. Put a box around the time commitment. That “time box” can be small, medium or large. Change the time allocation as needed, but make a commitment, to yourself and your network, so they’ll know what to expect.
  4. Dare to adapt. Ultimately, you may find many connections don’t align with your objectives, but don’t be too quick to filter on that. You may find new opportunities or interests by being open minded and flexible.

Sure, building a network via social media can seem overwhelming. But as the virtual world unfolds around us, it’s time to look deeper at its potential to spark new levels of collaboration. We need to think hard about what it will take to build value into our networks.

It’s easier than ever to connect with people online in the 2.0 space.

But the ultimate value – for you and for your connections – is driven by a shared willingness to focus, to set aside a little quality time on a regular basis. Even if it’s in small chunks. A tweet here. A blog comment there. One or two twitter chats. Okay, maybe three.

Are you willing to make an investment?

Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)