the square and the tower

In The Square and The Tower, Niall Ferguson presents us a detailed series of examinations of the struggle between networks and hierarchies in managing society since the advent of writing. A central theme of the book is “that the tension between distributed networks and hierarchical orders is as old as humanity itself.” For example, he looks at how the wave of Chinese immigration to the USA was blocked in the late 1800’s by local racism, “Just as global networks of communication and transportation [telegraph & steamship] had made the mass migration of the late nineteenth century possible, so political networks of populism and nativism sprang into life to resist them”. Networks give and take away, as do hierarchies. Historically they appear to be in constant flux.

Another theme in the book is how the advent of the internet and the printing press have certain similarities.

“There are three major differences between our networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obviously, our networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press … Secondly, the distributional consequences of our revolution are quite different from those of the early-modern revolution … The printing press created no billionaires … Nevertheless, few people foresaw that the giant networks made possible by the Internet, despite their propaganda about the democratization of knowledge, would be so profoundly inegalitarian. A generation removed from the conflict — the baby boomers — had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation … Third, and finally, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in Western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the Internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics and it has really only disrupted one religion, namely Islam.”


coffee, communities, and condescension

Last month I started a coffee club so that subscribers to this blog could purchase the equivalent of a cup of coffee for me each month. This week we had our first online video conference with five participants. As a result we decided that this would be a good place to have deeper and more meaningful monthly conversations on topics that interest us. These include: self-organizing systems, platforms that enable self-organization, how to better share and filter knowledge and information. Overall it will be a place for learning and reflection. We also decided that future meetings will be recorded and that I will look into creating a secure online space for written conversations and sharing our knowledge.

I have observed over the past few years how critical it is to engage in knowledge networks to better understand my profession and the world. These networks are with people, not platforms and not companies. Relationships add the necessary context, such as what has this person written before, what is their general perspective, and what other factors may influence them. You cannot get this context from algorithms.

“The use of algorithms to give consumers ‘what they want’ leads to an unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s existing beliefs. On Facebook, it’s your news feed, while on Google it’s your individually customized search results.” —Washington Monthly Mag


a vision for learning

Harvard Business Review described The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The five disciplines necessary for a learning organisation are:

  1. Personal Mastery
  2. Mental Models
  3. Shared Vision
  4. Team Learning
  5. Systems Thinking (which integrates the other four)

In the January 2017 issue of Inside Learning Technologies, I discussed personal mastery and mental models. The key challenge for learning professionals today is to help their enterprises become learning organisations, as described in Senge’s book. It is also to master the new literacies of the network era and promote critical thinking, for ourselves and others. Questioning existing hierarchies is necessary to create the organisations of the future where power and authority are shared, based on mutual trust. Personal knowledge mastery (taking control of our professional development) and an attitude of working in perpetual beta (continuous experimentation) are two of the disciplines required to develop the third discipline: Shared Vision, or our worldview. (more…)

some thoughts on thinking

Every fortnight I curate some of the observations and insights that were shared on social media. I call these Friday’s Finds.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” —Ray Bradbury, via @holdengraber

@_Amanda_Killan: “Libraries literally aren’t just a place to obtain books for free. They’re one of the few public spaces left in our society where you’re allowed to exist without the expectation of spending money.”

@dougkleeman: “Before you criticize something, find three things you actually like about it first. It works when reviewing creative work, but it also makes you a more pleasant human being.” (more…)

collaborating with the enemy

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane gives a framework of how to work with people you don’t agree with, like, or trust. Kahane developed it through his years of conducting collaboration workshops such as the Mont Fleur sessions to prepare for a post-apartheid South Africa. I read his first book in 2005, Solving Tough Problems, and his latest is similar in that it is short, to the point, and provides practical advice. It is based on some of the failures in his work and professional relationships from which he developed a guiding principle to always “look for discomfiming evidence”.

His framework is relatively simple to understand.

When two or more parties get together to address a problematic situation, they ask themselves a series of questions to understand their options. First they determine if they can change the situation. If so, can they effect change unilaterally, in which case they can force their solution. This happens frequently when governments ‘consult’ people who have no power to effect change.

If they cannot change the situation, then they have two unilateral decisions possible: adapt to what has been forced on them, or exit the situation if possible.

If they can change the situation but cannot effect change unilaterally, then it is possible that conventional collaboration can work, but only if the change can be controlled. This is the basis of a lot of collaboration interventions based on an assumption of control, which is often wrong. This is what Kahane learned through his failures. Even if the engaging parties agree to collaborate, other factors and external parties may subvert their actions. (more…)

the coffee club

Last October I suggested that subscribers to this blog could buy me a monthly cup of coffee to support my writing. Several of you have done so: thank you! We now have a private online space to continue our conversations.

To kick off 2018 I have decided to make the beta conversations available exclusively to coffee club subscribers. I will host about 10 online video conference sessions per year. The subjects that we will cover will include technology, media, knowledge, and society, but I am sure we will always find something to talk about. The conversations are recorded for members who cannot make it. I will ensure there is a topic or two at hand before we begin.

So if you find my writing useful, especially for your own paid work, please consider subscribing to the club and buying a monthly cup of coffee. At our local café, a cappuccino is $4 (which fuels my daily bike ride where I get my best ideas) and I tip the server another $1. Total: $(CA)5.00, about €3.30.

This will make you a member of the coffee club, caffeine-fuelled for deeper conversations, for only $5 per month.

You may also subscribe for a full year for $60 (and get 13 months)

embracing automation


Automation, the replacement of human work with human-made technology, has been happening ever since we invented tools. Just as farmhands were replaced by machines 100 years ago, so too will knowledge workers be replaced by networked computers in the next few decades. Last century, those farmhands had the option of moving to the city and working in factories, but what are the alternatives for today’s knowledge workers? It is not likely to be a new job, as the job itself is being made obsolete, underlined by 57 million freelancers in the USA today, accounting for about 1/4 of working-age adults. This is expected to grow to 86 million by 2027 so that freelancers will be the majority of the American workforce.

Automation seems to be accelerating and has been a frequently discussed topic here. But does automation really result in job loss? It appears that where there is elastic demand, so that automation meets increased demand, employment usually increases in an industry. For example, employment at banks increased with the introduction of automatic tellers. But it is not all good news. Some work keeps going away: standardized & routine jobs.

“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.” —James Bessen


friday’s finds 2017

Every second Friday I review what I’ve noted on social media and post a wrap-up of what caught my eye. I do this as a reflective thinking process and to put what I’ve learned on a platform I control: this blog. Here are what I consider the best of Friday’s Finds for 2017.


“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” —John Dewey (1916)

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” —Assata Shakur, via @IamMzilikazi

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” —@kasparov63

History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.” —A. J. P. Taylor via @RayBoomhower

@DonaldHTaylor: ‘In Turkish you never ask “Did you understand me?” It’s rather rude. Instead, you say “Anlatabildim mi?” – Was I able to explain?’

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology”@eskokilpi

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.” –Ursula K. Le Guin via @HaymarketBooks

@Richard_Florida: “Cities need to be places of chance encounter and eccentricity, rather than exclusivity and segregation.” (more…)

constantly learning nodes

Here are some thoughts about learning that I developed on this blog the past year.

We lack good models for organizing in a networked society. Many people are turning back to older, and outdated organizational models like nationalism and tribalism in an attempt to gain some stability. But most of our institutions and markets will fail to deliver in a network era society because they were never designed for one.

Perhaps the only unit of organization that is up to the task of working and living in networks is the individual human (the node). Change starts from within, yet almost all organizational transformation initiatives look at systems. Too much focus is on digital transformation and not human transformation. How do people transform? By doing things differently.

The biggest challenge we face is in educating citizens for the network era. Marina Gorbis in The Nature of the Future suggests four core skills:

  1. Sensemaking
  2. Social and emotional intelligence
  3. Novel and adaptive thinking
  4. Moral and ethical reasoning


talent, not labour

The latest edition of the European Public Mosaic: Open Journal on Public Service is focused on talent management. My article in the journal is entitled ‘Talent, not Labour, is the Future of Work’. Here is the abstract.

As routine and procedural work gets automated, human work will be increasingly complex, requiring permanent skills for continuous learning and adaptation. Creativity and empathy will be more important than compliance and intelligence. This requires a rethinking of jobs, employment, and organizational management.

Read the article online (page 27):

Download the PDF: Talent, not Labour