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    Wednesday
    Feb232011

    It is a nice painting though

    This post is not about technology, (are any of them anymore?), not about workplace issues, not about some kind of pointless diatribe on social networking or any of that.Have say about $150M laying around?

    This post is about art, or rather it is about a specific painting, Jackson Pollock's 1951 work titled 'Mural'.

    The current owner of 'Mural' is the University of Iowa, and not unlike many colleges and universities around the country, these days the University is faced with a difficult set of economic circumstances. Shrinking financial support from Federal and State government sources, rising costs for infrastructure and facilities, and increased expenses for labor and employee benefits all combine to put Iowa, and many if not most other state Universities in a challenging position.

    But Iowa has something, an asset of sorts, that no other University can claim. They own 'Mural'. And by some accounts, 'Mural' may be worth as much as $150,000,000 on the open market.

    You read that correctly, that was a one-five with a whole bunch of zeroes following along.

    Understanding the current financial challenges that will likely linger for the foreseeable future, Iowa state Representative Scott Raecker floated the idea of selling 'Mural', making the argument that the funds from the sale could fund, in perpetuity, as many as 1,000 annual University scholarships for Iowa students.

    The idea of selling the Pollock piece was understandably met with resistance -  the piece is iconic, irreplaceable, and could impact the University's ability to solicit future non-monetary donations and contributions.  Ultimately the controversy and concern over selling 'Mural' has led to the proposal to sell the piece to be abandoned. 

    For now, 'Mural' remains hanging on the wall in Iowa, the (potential) $150 million remains a dream, and no high school students in Iowa are working on the first drafts of their 'Toss Paint at the Wall Scholarship' essays.

    The Huffington Post ran a long, thoughtful, and persuasive piece on why selling the painting would be a bad decision by the state. The arguments about the 'priceless' nature of classic art, an understated but palpable concern about foreign interests buying our uniquely American culture, and the kind of ivory tower, 'we are better than that' positions taken by some of the involved parties add up to a compelling argument.

    But to me it is an argument that eventually goes wanting. Selling the piece doesn't destroy it, or devalue the contribution made over 50 years ago.  Most university benefactors would (I think) be ecstatic at the ability to endow hundreds of full academic scholarships in perpetuity. And who knows, maybe one of the thousands of students that could benefit from such an endowment would produce a work or art that surpasses 'Mural'.

    Heck, most of the people that look at Pollock think to themselves, 'He just threw paint on the canvas, my 5 year old could do that'.

    In fact, when waking up to the idea that 'Mural' might be worth 150 large, I may hang up the blog for a while to toss some paint at the wall myself.

    What do you think? Are some works of art really 'priceless', no matter what?

    Tuesday
    Feb222011

    The Unfamiliar and Scary

    Submitted for your consideration, three pieces of news from the last week or so:

    Maryland Department of Corrections subjects job applicant to a social media strip search by making him turn over his Facebook login and password.Flickr - soonerpa

    New Jersey Police Chief offers tips and advice to parents on how to hack into their kids' social media accounts, to snoop and spy, sort of the 21st century equivalent of reading their diaries, (man, that is an old fashioned reference, does any kid keep a diary anymore?).

    Spanish nun who had served for over 35 years expelled from her order due to 'Too much Facebook.'

    While the three stories all have social networking in common, specifically Facebook (aside, are we getting close to Facebook becoming the generic term for 'social networking', like 'Kleenex' now essentially means any facial tissue?), this post really isn't about Facebook at all.

    To focus too much on how organizations, be they public or private, approach and adapt to Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next is, I think, to take too narrow a view of what is important and common about the above three situations. 

    It is sadly for leaders and institutions of limited courage and vision a short and straight path from the unfamiliar to the scary.  What they don't understand, what they can't reference in a policy or by past experience, what in their narrow world view seems at all out of the ordinary can quickly evoke feelings of discomfort, angst, anger, and in the cases we see above, result in seemingly irrational reactions. 

    Yesterday I posted about trust, or at least a form of trust.  I more or less said that external measures of influence can only be guides at best, and that ultimately the value and influence one exerts upon you is a highly variable, highly personal evaluation. And I think we all can kind of agree on that, at least in theory.  'Trusting' an algorithm to give you sound advice that is to be used as a meaningful measure inside organizations does seem like too much of a stretch.  We love our machines, but we are not quite ready to trust them. Even you Watson.

    But in the cases above, trust between people is lacking, and in the kinds of relationships we would normally expect trust to be assumed, a given, and only to be withdrawn in the case of some kind of egregious action.  A long time employee attempting to obtain a better role in the organization, a public safety official (who we ought to be able to trust), advising parents to spy on their kids (who the parents ought to be able to trust), to finally, of all things, a nun who somehow ran afoul of her order by discovering a new way to spread the good word.

    I don't want to be too hard on institutions and their leaders, often challenged by a flood of new tools, technologies, and issues that they simply can't process quickly enough to adequately address in their customary manner.  It has to be difficult for the Mother Superior of the 'Facebook nun' to know just what exactly she should do.  

    But in these cases the leaders, the decision makers might be absolved from nuanced understanding of this new world, they are not absolved from retreating immediately to a position of fear and mistrust.

    The unfamiliar might indeed be scary, but people are still people, and by placing your trust in those that you know you have earned that trust, the unfamiliar becomes less scary, and more exciting. 

    Monday
    Feb212011

    Trust, but Verify

    Recently an organization called Klout, the creator of the well-known measure of online influence, the eponymous 'Klout Score', released an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that lets you see the Klout score of all the people you follow on Twitter when you go to the Twitter.com website, (example of the Klout score, the number that follows the small orange 'K' icon, on a Twitter timeline below)

    Now it certainly can and should be argued that the Klout Score may not truly be an accurate measure of online 'influence', and in fact it could also be argued the attempting to measure online influence is not even practical or even possible. How the Klout Score is calculated is not really well-understood by most, and in the grand tradition of other newer or arcane statistical measurements like football quarterback rating and barometric pressure it helps to attach well known performers to the scale in order to help contextualize the numbers.

    Last year Tom Brady had the highest NFL quarterback ranking at 111, and Justin Bieber (among others) has a perfect Klout Score of 100. While we may not understand the raw scores of Brady's 111 and Bieber's 100, most football fans noted and can appreciate the great season Brady just completed, and in the online and offline world's, Bieber's ubiquity needs little explanation. The numbers themselves don't really matter, only how they allow us to slot and evaluate others in comparison.  If you are interested in this sort of thing, the full NFL QB ratings for the 2010 season can be found here.

    Once I installed the Klout Score extension for Chrome, and went over to Twitter.com, it almost immediately changed the experience and also the perceptions I have of Twitter users I am following.  As the Tweets flew by I found myself constantly thinking, 'He is only a 50?' and 'Wow, how did she get to be a 72?'. I know Bieber is an 100, but I confess I really don't grasp the Klout Score all that well, but I can (for the most part), compare a pair of two-digit numbers and tell which one is higher, and therefore theoretically more 'influential'.

    But 'influence', or lack thereof, is a highly personal thing.  A relatively higher Klout Score for one person I am following compared to another might say something about statistical measurements like replies and retweets, but it says nothing about a person's importance, value, and influence to me. As I looked at more of the Klout scores of the people I follow, I actually started to get a little ticked off when I saw a relatively lower score against someone I follow closely and whose updates I find highly valuable, and higher scores attributed to some users that quite honestly aren't all that interesting or influential to me.

    These kinds of online influence scores while potentially an important initial step for people and organizations to better understand reach, connections, and possible value are still marred by the inability to apply the kinds of personizable filters and tags that could make them even more powerful. 

    And sometime in the near future, as more organizations adopt internal social networking tools, be they microblogs or fully deployed social platforms, the ability to measure, assess, and compare influence and reputation of employees will likely become more and more important.  But before that can happen, at least in a fair and equitable manner, the methods to calculate these influence scores will have to evolve beyond the current mathematical and universal, and move more towards the situational and personal.

    I think I am going to de-install the Klout extension for Chrome, I am pretty confident in my own ability to assess the influence of the people I follow. It's not that I don't trust the Klout score, but since I need to evaluate and verify them anyway, why have them (at least at this point), cloud up my judgement. 

    And no, it is not (completely) because Bieber has almost double my Klout Score.

    Friday
    Feb182011

    What are we searching for?

    Or perhaps more accurately, what are we asking the all-knowing Grand Wizard of Google to help us find?

    Well with the aid of a little tool called 'Google Insights for Search',  in the general 'Human Resources' space, for the last 90 days or so we seem to be very interested in the mundane, (2011 Mileage Rate), and the provocative ('the ladders').

    The table below shows, for the preceding 90 days,  what Google calls 'rising searches', that is searches that have experienced significant growth in a given time period, with respect to the previous time period.

    From these results, I think we can make a few observations and conclusions:

    1. Wow, the IRS mileage rate is a WAY bigger deal that I would have imagined.  Had I known this earlier, Monday's post would have been titled 'The 2011 IRS Mileage Rate', I bet it would have tripled my site traffic.

    2. Besides the IRS mileage rate excitement, the search that generated the most buzz in the last 90 days was for The Ladders, certainly due in large part to their well-publicized and much critiqued recent set of TV commercials.  At least by this one measure, the spots seem to be working for them.

    3. I don't really know anything about Wiz or Whiz Khalifa.  I do in fact, enjoy Cheez Whiz from time to time. 

    4. Once I found the Google Insights for search page, I spent a solid hour trying all manner of different search terms, categories, time period to see what was popular, what was growing.  Oddly enough, both Wiz and Whiz seem to appear in a number of other categories as well.  I probably should know who he is by now.

    5. There really isn't a '5', but the big book of blogging says having 5 items in a list is better than 4.

    Check out Google Insights for Search sometime, it is a fun way to waste, spend a few minutes.

    Have a great weekend!

     

    Thursday
    Feb172011

    Modern Alchemy

    Tonight night on the HR Happy Hour show we will be joined by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, author of the recent book 'Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other'.

     'Alone Together' is almost two separate, but linked works. Yesterday I looked at the first section of the book, 'The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies', which explores the world of 'social robots'; today the focus turns to the second half of the work; Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes'which focuses on the always on, always connected world of social networks and virtual worlds.

    Whether it is Facebook, text messaging, or instant messaging - these days it seems for many of us, the notion of being 'alone' has changed.  Particularly with the advent of the smartphone, devices with computing power and capability that rival the desktops and laptops of just a few years ago, as many of us move around the world we carry our networks with us.

    Tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of friends, fans, followers, always within reach, just a few taps away. It is sort of comforting I suppose to think that with the rise of social networks and smartphones that for many of us we no longer have to truly be alone, or as Professor Turkle suggests, we are now 'alone together'.

    But this connectivity comes with a cost.  For adolescents and teens, the smartphone serves not only as a constant tie to parents and friends, but a kind of tether as well.  In 'Alone Together' we hear tales from numerous teenagers that have grown weary with the constant demands that the connected life imposes - text messages that have to be answered immediately, calls from parents that have to be taken, and Facebook profiles that have to be carefully developed, maintained, and nurtured.

    Charlie Brown from Peanuts was able to assess his relative popularity and standing in the school based on the number of Valentines that he received in the mail box. Today teens are judged by the interaction on their Facebook walls. If a few days go by without anyone leaving a message on their walls, many teens begin a conscious strategy of posting on other's walls, relying on the norms of reciprocity to generate posts back to their profiles. If there was one main point in Professor Turkle's studies of teens that resounded with me, it was this almost obsessive concern with Facebook.  

    But while the book spends significant time discussing the impact of the connected life on children, there are certainly lessons for adults as well.  Young and mid-career professionals are depicted as having to be 'always on', the BlackBerry constantly within reach, a never-ending series of beeps and blinking red lights to be attended to, to be in a way nurtured.  Parents are seen as dividing their time and attention between family events like ball games and dinners and their smartphones.  The book describes this being in two places, the real and the network, as a kind of 'Modern Alchemy', as if through technology we have discovered a way to create time.

    Ironically some of the same teens that lament the power and stress that comes from the connected life tell Professor Turkle that their parents are too often not 'fully there' for them, with the BlackBerry and iPhone too enticing to fully leave behind, if only for a short while.

    As always, there is more to the story than the simplistic - 'Just put away the darn BlackBerry for five minutes' argument.  These networks, the enabling technologies that make the networks constantly available, and the demands that we feel that they impose (either real or imagined), continue to change the way children grow up, the way we relate to each other, and the expectations of the modern workplace.

    What does it mean? What can or should be done?

    Tune in to the HR Happy Hour show tonight!