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Expand Your Mind: Innovation Beyond he Norm

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

What is innovation? Is it really embodied in a good deal playing Farmville on Facebook for hours? I found an excellent definition of innovation in a fascinating article about Bell Labs and Mervin Kelly, who, over the course of 34 years, worked his way up from researcher to chairman of the board (something few people today would consider doing—assuming they could even find a company in which to do it).

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.”

Sometimes that ‘large scale’ is within a small world; such is the case of the handball zealots of NYC.

“On a winter day the ball is cold, which makes the rubber harder, the air in the ball denser, so the ball doesn’t really expand and contract off the bounce,” said Ruben Acosta, 32, a hotel concierge who is known on the court as Superstar. “Boiling the balls gives them back their zing.”

While not all innovation makes money they do make waves. When large-scale corruption is uncovered it receives plenty media coverage, but how to address the endemic petty corruption that millions of people face around the world is a tougher question. In 2010 Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan and Sridar Iyengar started ipaidabribe.com, a site that collects anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid and requests that were expected but not forthcoming.

Now, similar sites are spreading like kudzu around the globe, vexing petty bureaucrats the world over. Ms. Ramanathan said nongovernmental organizations and government agencies from at least 17 countries had contacted Janaagraha, the nonprofit organization in Bangalore that operates I Paid a Bribe, to ask about obtaining the source code and setting up a site of their own.

On a totally different scale is Tony Hsieh, whose dream is to fix the world by fixing cities, starting with Las Vegas, not as dictator, but as facilitator. According to his friend Sarah Nisperos, “But he wanted all these things based on happiness and merit and how nice you are. I said you shouldn’t build a strip mall, you should be downtown.”

Hsieh’s working through Downtown Project, a company he created with $350 million to spend, to seed technology startups, invest in education and attempt to build a walkable, vibrant downtown.

“You can’t dictate what the neighborhood is going to look like. But you can definitely help support and accelerate people’s dreams and visions,” Hsieh says. “That is really our belief as to what drives our culture. It needs to be organic.”

IBM is also focused on fixing cities, albeit with an eye to creating a multibillion-dollar business, starting with Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro.

But never before has it built a citywide system integrating data from some 30 agencies, all under a single roof. It is the handiwork of an I.B.M. unit called Smarter Cities…

Innovation often borrows from the existent to create something new; that process is especially thrilling when something relatively frivolous is used to make something with the potential to truly change the world. Such is what is happening as MMOG expands to MMOC. This is one link to share with everyone you know.

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education.

Flickr image credit: pedroelcarvalho

Written Communications

Monday, July 11th, 2011

From the comment section of an article on best places to work:

“i used to work for [X] it was realy grate would work there if i could there not hiring”

I was appalled, to say the least.

Also curious, since I am familiar with the company and the quality of its employees.

So I followed the links and found the person’s Facebook page.

Yes, the person has a college degree. No, the person is not that young (early-mid thirties at a guess).

No, I did not make this up or “improve” the comment.

Yes, I saved the links, but have no interest in embarrassing the person. To what end?

If it wasn’t so tragic one might suspect a somewhat twisted sense of humor.

I have to assume the person made good use of spell and grammar checker at work, but those aren’t available when dashing off a comment.

To one degree or another this is who you will be hiring now and in the future.


And considering the extensive federal, state and local cuts to education don’t expect it to improve any time soon.

All I can say is good luck.

Be sure to stop by Wednesday for a look at just how important words can be.

Flickr image credit: dougbelshaw

Quotable Quotes: Lincoln Steffens

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

I read a review about a new Lincoln Steffens biography and it was interesting enough that I looked for quotes and added (as usual) my own interpretation.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the value of college, mostly as a result of the recession. Steffens thoughts are from long ago, but they certainly resonate today, “It is possible to get an education at a university. It has been done; not often”

I puzzled over this one and finally decided that there is one incorrect word. “Somebody must take a chance. The monkeys who became men, and the monkeys who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the monkeys who did.” To make sense it should read, “Somebody must take a chance. Some monkeys became men, and the monkeys who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the monkeys who did.” Or, if it was rewritten for today’s entrepreneurial media frenzy, it might read, “Somebody must take a chance. Some people became entrepreneurs, and the people who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the people who did.”

Did you know that Steffens is responsible for the truism, “Nothing fails like success?”

He also said, “Power is what men seek and any group that gets it will abuse it.” Totally accurate, but these days it should read ‘any group or individual‘.

But when all is said and done, remember, “Morality is only moral when it is voluntary.”

Wikimedia Commons image credit: Rockwood, New York, New York [Public domain]

Does Education = Thinking?

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Today I have a question for you, what is the real point of education?

Bill Gates emphasizes “work-related learning, arguing that education investment should be aimed at academic disciplines and departments that are “well-correlated to areas that actually produce jobs.””

Steve Jobs says, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing…”

So is the end goal of education to provide the knowledge, skills and tools to work or to teach critical thinking.

The choice is likely to be described as pragmatic and based on available funding.

Years ago a successful business executive I know commented that if people had full bellies, a job and a bit left over to see a movie now and then at the time of the election, then the party in power would be reelected, but if the reverse was happening they would “throw the bums out.”

There are more sinister reasons to find a positive way to avoid graduating legions of critical thinkers.

  • Non-thinkers don’t make waves.
  • Non-thinkers follow the pack.
  • Non-thinkers are easier to control.
  • Thinkers are more creative and innovative.
  • Thinkers are more likely to reject ideology.
  • Thinkers are more willing to take risks.

You have only to look at what is going on in the world to see the effects of an empty belly and education, formal or not, grounded in questions, not answers.

What do you think?

Flickr image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeanlouis_zimmermann/3042615083/

Quotable Quotes: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

362318943_eab605f60b_mMartin Luther King, Jr. was born yesterday and has a holiday in his honor tomorrow, so today seems like a good time so share some of his thoughts. In the abundance of available quotes I looked for those that had broader applicability than the worlds of politics and religion.

Corporate training, mentoring programs and management coaching should have the same goals as King recommends for education.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically… Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

There is a reason that IBM’s slogan is “Think;” that’s right, just that one word encapsulates its culture and everything it asks of its employees. IBM knows that critical thinking at all levels of the company is its true edge on the competition, as do many others. Sadly, more and more people seem to prefer pursuing silver bullets.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

In a world where the various flavors of ideology encourage blind acceptance as opposed critical thinking, Kings words ring especially true.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

If you do choose to focus on building critical thinking within your organization it is to remember King’s belief regarding progress.

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.

Finally, if you are responsible for another person’s growth, whether at work, at home or in the general world, print out this bit of wisdom and tape it where you will see it every day.

Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.

Flickr image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_mckeague/362318943/

Expand Your Mind: Education This and That

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

expand-your-mindI don’t have kids, but I have a great interest in education, because I will live out my life in a world run by Millennials and younger. To some extent that is a scary thought, but there are plenty of aMillennials out there, too.

Let’s take a look at the worst idea in higher education—for-profit colleges or perhaps I should say for-profit rip-offs. I first wrote about them April 1, without even noticing the irony of the date, and thought I would share a couple of up-dates today.

There is a perception that operators of for-profit education are devoid of real credibility, but unfortunately, that isn’t true. Kaplan isn’t the largest of the for-profit operators, but its high-profile owner gives it enormous credibility—it is owned by the Washington Post. And the Post is going all out to prevent any kind of regulation or accreditation. Kaplan and the Post and spent $350,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of this year and Chairman Donald Graham is personally lobbying lawmakers.

But over the last few months, Kaplan and other for-profit education companies have come under intense scrutiny from Congress, amid growing concerns that the industry leaves too many students mired in debt, and with credentials that provide little help in finding jobs.

College tuition is going up, student debt is going up and college presidents’ salaries are going up. What do you think? Are they worth their money? (The public survey is coming soon.)

Thirty presidents of private colleges each earned more than $1 million in total compensation in 2008, up from 23 the previous year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual salary report.

Last month I told you about a trend for teachers to run schools and the difference it is making.

Here is the story of another school turned around by its teachers.

Test scores are up 18 percent and enrollment has spiked more than 30 percent. The model works, teachers say, because everyone from the principal to the janitor is vested in the outcome. “Everybody has a stake,” said teacher Bruce Newborn. “We all suffer and we all win.”

If you are looking for a different TV show check out School Pride on NBC. Think Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, but for US schools. The schools will make you angry, ill or cry and then lift you up and amaze you. It’s on Friday night at 8 pm Pacific time.

Finally, Bullying is on the upswing and, as everyone knows, empathy is sadly lacking in kids. Enter Roots of Empathy, an educational organization that uses babies to teach empathy to kids.

Since then, Roots has worked with more than 12,600 classes across Canada, and in recent years, the program has expanded to the Isle of Man, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the United States, where it currently operates in Seattle. Researchers have found that the program increases kindness and acceptance of others and decreases negative aggression.

Be sure to join me Monday to learn how entrepreneurs are taking bullying in the adult world and turning it into a business, much like they did with leadership.

Flickr image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedroelcarvalho/2812091311/

Leadership’s Future: Innovation

Thursday, October 7th, 2010


Education innovation is on everybody’s mind, because anyone who looks at the sorry state of American education knows that something needs to be done.

Business innovation is on everyone’s mind who holds or wants a job. Without considerable across-the-board innovation, not just products, but process as well, American business and, therefore the country, is in deep doodoo.

Parenting could use some innovation, especially in terms of curtailing the hovering and we’ll-fix-it mentality of too many of today’s parents. We need to find better ways of giving kids the chance to learn about initiative, responsibility, accountability and consequences, so their intangible side can grow to adulthood in conjunction with their physical side.

I’ve been writing about all of the above for years, sharing links to research and stories of what’s being tried, following innovation that does succeed and it got me to thinking.

What’s stopping us? We have the ideas and in many cases they have been tried and have worked.

Why aren’t more of them being implemented on a wider scale?

The same reasons that have always retarded or curtailed innovation.

  1. The frequency of the ubiquitous “prove it” typically spoken by the “we’ve always done it this way” crowd. To those looking for new approaches, answers and products, “prove it” are not only the most dreaded two words, but also the most stupid. Just think what would have happened if the Apple board had insisted that Steve Jobs prove that the world wanted an iPod.
  1. The not-invented-here syndrome has extended itself to schools, as can be seen in this comment with regards to teaching Singapore Math (although it’s been proven to work).
    “…there has also been skepticism from school board members and parents about importing a foreign math program.”

So the next time you find yourself chafing at the lack of innovation or the slowness of implementing it, first look in the mirror and if you don’t find the culprit there look for the person or group that is crying for proof or bemoaning the source.

Stock.xchng image credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/640941

Leadership’s Future: The Good and the Par

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

What impact does a student’s graduation speech really have? 18 year old Justin Hudson’s had a giant impact on NYC Hunter College High School, Elena Kagan’s alma mater and the most prestigious high school in the country.

“More than anything else, I feel guilty,” Mr. Hudson, who is black and Hispanic, told his 183 fellow graduates. “I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.”

They had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.”

As a result, the third principal in five years resigned and shortly after a committee of Hunter High teachers publicly announced a no confidence notice to the president of Hunter College, who is the ultimate boss of the high school.

At issue is the entrance exam for the high school.

Mr. Collins [director of the Hunter College Campus Schools] acknowledged that the notoriously difficult test, which has math, English and essay sections and is given in the sixth grade, “isn’t a good indicator of giftedness, it is a good indicator of whether you will be successful at Hunter.”

Those who pass the test are typically from upper class families heavily focused on education and can afford extra tutoring as needed.

Luck and circumstance, as Justin Hudson pointed out.

But a lot of good things are happening across the educational board.

  • Schools across the country are abolishing ‘D’ grades, leaving kids with the choice of earning a ‘C’ or flunking.
  • New research from economists has proved the value of “great teachers and early childhood programs” on adult earning power.
  • A new website lets kids bet on their future grades and pays off when they perform.
  • Non-profit Teach Plus helps schools field teams of teachers willing to spend extra time mentoring and acting as leaders in school turn-arounds.

sharkOf course, anytime Federal dollars are up for grabs the sharks circle and the money earmarked for education is no different— companies with no experience are touting their ability to change the course of education.

It would make a nice change if Washington wasn’t snookered by great presentations and white papers, but I’m not holding my breath.

Historically, Washington is  the place where rhetoric wins the game and smoke and mirrors gets you further than substance.

If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s par for the course.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-lees/134610871/

Leadership’s Future: Ignorance is NOT Bliss

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

closed-schoolBudget woes are disrupting state and local governments and everything they fund. Cuts are being made and what better place to cut than those things that don’t show up immediately? Things that are either out of site, like infrastructure, or that can be pushed off to when times are flush(er), such as learning.

As most CEOs will tell you how better to reduce costs than to reduce headcount? And that means firing teachers—more than 100,000 come June and that’s not all.

As a result, the 2010-11 school term is shaping up as one of the most austere in the last half century. In addition to teacher layoffs, districts are planning to close schools, cut programs, enlarge classes and shorten the school day, week or year to save money.

Politicians, especially local pols, tend to focus on supplying instant gratification to their constituency in order be reelected, so even as the economy improves you can’t count on the money being replaced and teachers rehired—assuming they are still available.

It’s far easier to use smoke and mirrors to show that kids are doing just fine in the brave new reduced budget world—smoke being standardized tests as viewed through the mirror of lowered standards.

Education offers little in the way of instant gratification to voters, rather it offers whining kids complaining about homework, tests and tough teachers who have the nerve to expect them to stop texting, pay attention and learn. (What nerve.)

Not all kids are whining, some in New Jersey are protesting the cuts approved by voters .

The mass walkouts were inspired by Michelle Ryan Lauto, an 18-year-old aspiring actress and a college freshman, and came a week after voters rejected 58 percent of school district budgets put to a vote across the state (not all districts have a direct budget vote).

The full damage of cuts now won’t be felt for years to come, but the voting public has both long and short-term memory loss and the pols who did it will be long gone—or moved to a higher level.

And America will be left wringing its hands and moaning about its loss of world leadership and the incredible difficulty of finding good talent to hire.

Image credit: 19melissa68 on flickr

Quotable Quotes: Learning

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

learn_2As someone once said, “Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.”

Daniel J. Boorstin’s comment enlarges on that with his definition of education, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know,” and C.S. Lewis believes in learning the hard way,

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

Douglas Adams tempers that idea, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” Sadly true, otherwise history wouldn’t keep repeating itself.

There are as many way to learn as things to learn. Most people think of learning as finding answers, but Lloyd Alexander says, “We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”

Book learning can never take the place of actually doing; an old Chinese proverb says it best, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Mortimer Adler reminds us, “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.”

Very true, and Sarah Caldwell tells us how, “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can – there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.”

I hope you’ll take today’s quotes to heart and remember that learning is impossible if you start with preconceived notions or a closed mind.

Finally, listen to Mahatma Gandhi; hold his advice close, share it with those you care about and with those you don’t and follow it for the rest of your days. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Image credit: srbichara on sxc.hu

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