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    Giving it all away. Sort of.

    The sudden surge in popularity of the Q&A site Quora, and perhaps to a lesser extent the online community of experts being developed at Focus have once again led many to evaluate and assess the value and future of open, public, and community powered knowledge repositories.

    Where other attempts have been made with varying degrees of success, (Yahoo! Answers, LinkedIn Answers), these new entrants, in particular Quora seem to have captured, at least for the moment, the interest and support of an influential subset of participants (most apparent in the technology space).

    From many accounts, the quality of contributors and information found on Quora is unusually high, and in comparison to prior attempts at more broad Q & A sites like Yahoo!, the recent adoption and activity on Quora seem to have captured the attention of a well-connected and active user community.

    Participation in open and public forums like Quora and LinkedIn Answers is often a recommendation made to job seekers, as their subject matter knowledge, reasoning ability, and the opportunity to be noticed and to forge connections with other industry or domain experts can all be seen as beneficial to a job search, or to the establishment of a professional identity or brand.

    No doubt for many, the built in audience and reach of sites like Quora or LinkedIn offer individuals the chance to be seen and heard by large numbers of relevant people, much more so than can be reached by the launch of a new personal blog, or even by simply posting an online resume or professional profile. 

    But for others, in particular for established professionals in a given field, the motivation to participate and contribute to public knowledge portals seems quite a bit different. Some may feel obliged and happy to simply share their insights openly, and willingly; driven simply by the satisfaction derived from adding value to the larger community in which they operate.  Some others might see these platforms in a kind of competitive manner; seeking to leverage them to establish their place in a virtual pecking order of sorts, a process made more acute and apparent when their specific contributions can be compared and contrasted against other well and lesser-known experts.

    Most online professional community and networking effort is either directly ('please hire me', 'buy my company's stuff', or 'book me for a speaking gig'); or indirectly ('check out my new post on leadership', 'here's a great piece on productivity apps'), aimed at convincing or at least influencing the intended audience to do or feel something positive towards the contributor. And that makes perfect sense.  We all need to get paid, whether or not that payment is in hard dollars, or in the more amorphous currency of reputation and influence. Either way, the check always comes.

    And I suppose that is the problem I get with sites like Quora or even on LinkedIn. I find it hard to read the individual contributions without thinking about the 'sell side' motivations, (or potential motivations) of the contributors.  Maybe that is just a weakness in my ability to distinguish the 'sell' from the content, but either way, these sites can easily degrade into the geek version of the high school homecoming queen contest.  A few popular, good looking, and well connected people trying to convince the rest of us how fantastic they are.  

    I suppose at the end of the day, if you really want to contribute to the body of knowledge, you'd write or contribute to a Wikipedia page.  Everyone reads those, and no one knows who writes them.



    Unlikely Sources

    You are sick.

    You are hospitalized with some kind of mysterious ailment.  The initial examination reveals a respiratory problem, but the exact diagnosis, and therefore the recommended course of action remains elusive.

    As you lay in your hospital bed, feeling entirely unwell, concerned and nervous about your well-being, at least you can be comforted in the knowledge that by good fortune you are under the care of knowledgeable and experienced doctors, nurses, social workers, and law students.

    Hold on a minute - social workers and law students?

    What the heck?

    I recently read an article about the University of Maryland Medical Center Pediatric Clinic's practice of involving cross functional teams of professionals and students in its assessment and treatment of its pediatric patients. A given patient's condition and potential treatment is discussed in a collaborative manner by medical professors,  seasoned doctors, first-year residents, medical students, and even professionals and students from the schools of pharmacy and law.

    What possibly could a law student or social worker have to offer in the diagnosis of a patient's respiratory condition? Would a law student be able to discern pneumonia from an X-Ray?  Would a social worker be qualified to accurately assess asthma from a stress test?

    No and no.  But expertise from these non-medical disciplines might have important insights to offer the attending physicians about the patient's environment; about the external forces of community, family, or living conditions that might factor in to a more well-informed evaluation of the circumstances surrounding the patient.  These 'non-experts' might indeed be able to provide valuable insight that ultimately could impact and improve the treatment of the patient.

    And even if the law student can't offer any relevant or precise contribution to a specific patient's care, the benefits that accrue to the law student, and the doctors, and the pharmacists, etc. from this kind of up close, in depth, and important exposure and collaboration can't be discounted.

    Dr. Jay Perman, the President of the University believes that if students from different schools watch one another in action, they will gain greater understanding of each discipline's value to a given case. In turn, he believes patients will receive more comprehensive care.

    Collaboration and inclusion of cross-disciplinary teams to serve dual purposes - to better solve the immediate problem, i.e. treating and curing the patient; and the longer term and broader goal of developing more well-rounded and capable professionals that have a better understanding and appreciation of the point of view and challenges of their colleagues from complementary disciplines.

    It is an interesting approach to what has to be considered a typical process in the medical field.  Does the inclusion of professionals and students so as to form a cross-functional team really improve patient outcomes and enhance professional development?

    Hard to say for sure, since the practice is still in early days.  

    But I suppose we could ask the question this way - How much can you truly learn if you are only surrounded by people that have undergone the exact same training and education programs as you?

    Could you ever see a problem differently, and perhaps offer up a different answer if you have been trained and socialized in the same way as all your peers?

    Would it make sense to ask Marketing, or Purchasing, or Sales their opinion once in a while? Or are you pretty sure you know it all?

    What do you think?


    Book of Secrets

    In my son's Christmas stocking Santa left a few interesting items - some card games, some Legos, some candy.  But the most intriguing item was a small black book - a Book of Secrets.

    The Book of Secrets reveals a collection of, well, secrets.  The location of Winston Churchill's secret World War II bunker, how to concoct various secret potions, and how to survive a shark attack (actually that one really shouldn't be a 'secret', if you do have the knowledge on how to survive a shark attack I think you are pretty much obliged to share it).

    It is a cool little book, perhaps a little outside the natural curiosity of the average 9 year old, the articles on how to flirt and how to attract women are (thankfully) not yet resonating with my son.  But after I took a look through the book I couldn't help but think how all of our organizations and workplaces could probably create our own version of the Book of Secrets.  A book that really explained the inside information, and delved into some of the inner, and unseen people, places, and practices that often make understanding and acclimation difficult for new employees.

    When new employees join the organization, we typically give them a different kind of book, an employee handbook.  A book, while important, mostly and typically only tells the new employee what they can't or shouldn't do, and serves more as a resource for HR and Legal departments rather than a vital and important reference for employees.  When an employee screws up, the trusty handbook can be thrown at them, and all is good in 'keep our butts out of court land.'

    An employee handbook may tell you the names of the company officers and where to find the organization chart, a company Book of Secrets would tell you who really is important, what departments get things done, and who the true experts are, whatever their title or their position on the 'official' chart.

    The employee handbook lists, at times ad nauseum, a long string of company policies and procedures.  A Book of Secrets however, would tell the new employee which policies are truly important, and which ones are customarily ignored.

    The company intranet, and the 'About Us' sections of the corporate website state, usually in the driest manner possible, the organization's documented vision, mission, and purpose.  The Book of Secrets would illuminate what values are actually important, as evidenced by what leaders are really saying behind closed doors, and the kinds of behaviors that are exhibited and rewarded (or punished).

    The thing is, when employees have been around for a while, and moved past the initial, tentative, and occasionally confusing and contradictory reality they experience navigating the tension between what is 'official' and what is 'secret', they normally adjust, understand, and eventually start contributing themselves to the Book of Secrets. But, as always, no one documents any of this - this knowledge is, after all, secret. Let the next new hire start all over from the beginning.  

    "Welcome to the company Maryjane, so great to have you on board. Here is the employee handbook and an organization chart, let me know when you've figured out what you really need to know."


    The Long View

    Endless rivers of information race past us each day.  People, conversations, messages, calls, sports and news TV channels no longer content to simply 'present' the game or the top stories, but also have toImage - Hiroshi Sugimoto stream a unrelenting flow of information on other games being played and other stories that you may have missed.  As I write this I am watching a professional football game on TV, and in addition to the actual game coverage, the following supplementary information is super-imposed on the screen:

    1. The score of the current game
    2. The time remaining in the game
    3. The down number and number of yards to make to achieve a first down
    4. The name of the network broadcasting the game
    5. Computer generated lines showing the where each play begins and the yard to make to achieve a first down
    6. A constantly updating scroll of scores from all the other NFL games being played, also displaying the time remaining in each game
    7. A steady stream of graphics with statistical information such as the number of yards a given player has gained, or various individual and team accolades.
    8. Occasional graphics previewing upcoming shows on the broadcast network

    All that additional clutter information more or less adds to the overall presentation, increases (mostly) the viewers enjoyment of the game, and can benefit the broadcaster by keeping the viewer's attention for a longer period and decreasing the likelihood they will switch to another game or show. 

    But it is a ton of extra data to process, and while it does seem likely in this hyper-connected digital age that we are getting better as multi-tasking and complex processing, I wonder if we can at time miss the very nature of what we are trying to see and understand by keeping one eye always on what else is happening. 

    The image included in this post is taken from a collection by the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. The collection is called 'Theaters', and the photos were created by taking long-exposure photographs of cinema screens for the entire duration of a movie, resulting in a blank white screen, that varies in brightness and intensity according to the overall mood of the film.  If the movie was light, and happy; a brighter screen emerged, dark or horror movies resulted in a much more subdued and drab screen.

    Certainly the images created by Sugimoto don't tell us much about the original film from which they were based. The screen in the photograph is essentially blank, the only piece of information we can deduce is the relative mood of the piece (maybe), by comparing the brightness across a set of images from many films.

    But in a way perhaps these images, while not being a good substitute for the original film presentation do offer an important and possibly compelling complement.  While we watch a film, especially a modern one full of fancy computer generated effects, it can be very easy to become enthralled by these effects, by the fast flowing stream of characters, settings, action scenes, music etc.  We can often leave a movie thinking more about individual or isolated elements of the presentation, sometimes missing the larger message (if there is one), or redeeming or lasting lesson.

    I think there may be a case, whether it is watching a sports broadcast on TV, catching a movie in a theater, assessing and interpreting the news of the day, and certainly making sense of the incredible volumes of data, links, updates and other by-products of this connected world that more than ever the need to step back, open the camera shutter, and observe long enough to get a better sense of the big picture will be an important and vital skill.

    What do you think? Are we losing focus in the barrage of information?


    Hockey Fan (it's not me it's you)

    'It's not you, it's me.'

    The classic break up line used mainly by guys who want to weasel out of a romantic relationship with the least amount of prolonged discussion or lengthy drama. The 'it's not you, it's me' position attempts to effectively stifle dialogue by making it impossible for the 'you' in the debate to effectively counter-argue.NHL Winter Classic 2011

    'But I can change'

    'It's not you, it's me'

    'I can be more understanding'

    'It's not you, it's me'

    'I can get rid of the cat', (ok, that one never happens)

    'It's not you, it's me'.  You get the idea.

    But often in the real world when we are trying to convince people of the value or excitement of a sport or hobby, the merits of an artist, or even a point of view on weightier matters like political, social, or economic policy'; we erroneously apply the 'It's not me, it's you' argument.

    A simple (and certainly unimportant) example can be seen in how fans and aficionados of professional ice hockey tend to discuss their affinity for the sport, particularly with people that do not share their interest and enthusiasm. Often you will see hockey fan say things to non-fans like - 'You need to invest some time and get to know the game', 'You just don't appreciate the skills of the players and nuances of the game', or 'You really need to attend a game live and in-person to truly appreciate the sport', and so on.

    And sometimes those kind of arguments come of as a little condescending, similar to the way connoisseurs of wine or abstract art can sound when expounding on the value and virtues of their interests.  It's fantastic to be engaged, proud, and excited about your passion, it sucks to back-handedly denigrate the rest of us that may not share those passions.

    And since most of the convincing we need to do in our work is arguably more important than wrangling up a few more folks to watch the Winter Classic, I think we (myself included) would be well served to remember some simple truisms.

    The better way to get people to buy in to your idea, adopt your proposal, read your blog, or subscribe to your worldview is not to try to convince them that they have a problem or are somehow lacking in intelligence or insight. But rather to realize that perhaps your point of view is the unusual one, the one that does not have obvious or inherent value to your audience, and is possibly too radical a departure from the norm to be easily adopted.

    I am not a huge ice hockey fan.  And no number of 'You just don't get it' arguments will make me more likely to tune in.

    In conclusion, you may have found this post to be dull, uninformative, and wholly not worth your attention. For that I apologize.  

    Trust me, it's not you, it's me.