Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



June 30, 2008

Velcro Bridges

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 19:27
velcro
When I finish mowing the lawn down by the pond I invariably come back inside covered with burrs. These are nature’s clever seed carriers, and the way many plants hitch a ride with passing animals (like me) to new fertile soil.

Janene Benyus tells us that many human innovations arise from learning from and copying (Biomimicry) nature (and we would be wise to pay more attention, since nature has many more secrets to tell us). Burrs were the inspiration for Velcro, the commercial product now used instead of buttons, zippers and laces to allow fabrics to adhere to each other, and in place of glue when you want to detach and reattach something.

In Lisbon recently, Nancy White has been talking about how the idea of Velcro might be applied to learning — making ideas and learning ‘sticky’ so that when something comes along that the learning applies to, it adheres. She and I and Jeremy Heigh (and several of my other correspondents) have also been talking about bridges — and the need for us to create better bridges between groups of people who are currently disconnected:

  • liberals and conservatives
  • rich and poor
  • old and young (especially boomers and Gen Millennium)
  • people of different cultures who distrust each other (or worse)
  • those in need and those with something to offer (ideas and resources)

The industrial economy developed intermediated markets to address the last of these chasms. Sales methods, marketing tools and programs, ‘channels’, agency agreements and, of course, advertising. These one-to-n, one-way self-serving methods of connecting suppliers to customers worked when communication was expensive, but they have had huge costs. They have created an economy based on and dependent on consumption, not on well-being, on ‘creating’ needs instead of responding to them, on serving the wealthy not the needy, and on dumbing information down for mass lowest-common-denominator dissemination.

BWE3The new economy now emerging enables almost-free, two-way communication, and it allows it peer-to-peer, not just by those with the money and infrastructure to transmit it. It is blurring the line between producer and customer (which is what Net Neutrality and Peer Production are all about). In an earlier post I gave this example of what may soon be possible:

Suppose I want a chair that has the attributes of an Aeron without the $1800 price tag, or one with some additional attribute (e.g. a laptop holder) the brand name doesn’t offer? I could go online to a Peer Production site and create an instant market, contributing the specifications, a bunch of technical links available online about just what makes this chair so special, and, perhaps a maximum price I would be willing to pay. People with some of the expertise needed to produce it could indicate their capabilities and self-organize into a consortium that would keep talking and refining until they could meet this price — and, if not, they might counter-offer something close. Other potential buyers could chime in, offering more or less than my suggested price. Based on the number of ‘orders’ at each price, the Peer Production group could then accept orders and start manufacturing. The possibilities are endless — somebody might want customization or some other attribute, to which the same or some other Peer Production group might respond. Another Peer Production group might self-form and come in with a lower price, perhaps creating a new or larger market. People might ‘subscribe’ to this market to watch bids and offers progress, or put in ‘silent’ bids if the offer fell to a certain point. Perhaps Herman Miller (maker of the Aeron) might enter the bidding itself, meeting my bid and offering the intangible value of their brand as well. Perhaps eBay would chime in with used Aeron chairs that meet my specifications at an even lower price (in fact eBay would be a natural host for these virtual instant markets), bringing their reputation systems into play.

Ideally such free flows of information could also apply in areas other than the provision of goods and services. In breaking down the chasms between ideologies, generations, social and economic strata, we might finally have a level playing field of knowledge and learning worldwide, and, through greater understanding of the situation and history of others, less fear, jealousy, ignorance, anger and violence. And by providing potential producers everywhere with the knowledge of what is needed and the knowledge of how to meet that need, we might also start to reduce the inequality in this world, and enable local enterprise and self-sufficiency to flourish.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that information is always trying to be free (in both senses of the word). But at present, it is still a long way from free. Most of the world is still not online. Whole generations don’t understand what’s happening, or where, so they can’t and don’t participate in these new flows of information and understanding. Much of the world is illiterate, and locked out of written-language learning entirely. Most of the rest of us live deliberately only among those of our own strata, isolated through private property, fences, private transportation, separated schools, restricted offices, private clubs, fear and a desperate shortage of time, so that we rarely encounter those ‘different’ from ourselves in any respect. Even online our networks are dominated by ‘friends’ (and through them, similar friends of friends) we have chosen because of some common time-saving ‘brand’ so that we end up in echo chambers, hearing our own ideas and beliefs and knowledge reflected back at us, and not hearing any others.

To overcome this, we need to build bridges, to let new ideas and understanding and knowledge and learning in, and we need them to be ‘Velcro’ bridges, so that these flows (part of the firehose that overwhelms us everyday) stick around long enough that we listen and pay attention, and so that they adhere where they apply to what we need and appreciate.

This is all about helping people to make connections more easily. Everyone has a stake in making this happen.

Why do we need this? Why doesn’t ‘the market’ sort out this supply and demand automatically? Let me give an example. A few months ago I went to two conferences back-to-back. The first was a conference for senior executives on social networking, where there was much concern about cost, security, and diversion of people’s attention from their ‘jobs’. They asked me, as one of the panelists, whether they really needed to embrace this ‘social networking’ stuff to attract top new recruits. They could not imagine any other use for it.

The next day I was at a bloggers’ conference where (aside from Nancy and me) the attendees were almost entirely young and tech-savvy. They spent the conference sharing some truly brilliant ideas for social networking, and lamenting how hard it was to get anyone to pay for their skills and ideas. It became abundantly clear to me that most of them didn’t have the faintest idea how business executives make decisions, or even how businesses operate in today’s economy.

So here we have two groups of people who need something from each other and who have something to offer each other, but they don’t talk, and probably can’t talk each other’s language to communicate those offerings in ways that the other can understand. They need a bridge, a way to connect with each other.

Second example: Recently I’ve been to two conferences of Information Professionals. These are people with university degrees who are expert at research, indexing, cataloguing, and finding information. They are probably (along with some IT people) the most underappreciated people on the planet. Because business executives (and I’ve spoken to a lot of them) see absolutely no value in what they do. They think everyone should be able to do these things (they don’t see it as the specialty it is). They see it as a cost, something to squeeze cost out of, to outsource. They see value in connection, not in collection.

The IPs for their part have, with few exceptions, staggeringly little knowledge of what their employers do, and how and why they use and need information. They have these amazing skills but no appreciation for how their employers could really put them to use. They have focused their energies on collection rather than connection because that’s what they were taught. They need a bridge, a way to connect with each other.

Nancy, who helps create bridges between rich and poor, and between the educated and uneducated, could probably provide a host of other examples.

So how do we create such bridges? I have a few ideas, but we need a lot more. Here is what I’ve found works:

  1. Have conversations with people to discover what they need and care about, and document them. People respond to needs and cares, and if you can get conversations (which provide enough context for people to appreciate why they need and care about these things) going about these things, they will have energy and will attract attention from those who can meet those needs, and who also care about these things. I really believe we should all have movie cameras at hand to capture these conversations, and the stories that people tell, with the energy and passion of the participants. They are far more persuasive than the best analysis or sales pitch.
  2. Observe, pay attention, do real primary research. Primary research is not online search, it’s face-to-face interviews and walking around and studying what’s not working, and why. It’s cultural anthropology. It’s talking to a lot of people to really understand what’s happening, and what needs to be improved, and why it’s not working now. It’s observing needs that the people that have them may not even be aware of themselves, because they’re ignorant of answers out there that are being used in other places or contexts. Or because they’re just so used to the problems they no longer even notice them — it’s the only life they know.
  3. Imagine possibilities. In many cases and places there is a sense of resignation or hopelessness about situations that are miserable and about problems that seem intractable. Once you’ve identified a need or problem, and really understand why it’s a need or problem, you have enough context to begin to imagine some avenues to explore towards resolving it. Like the Frenchman who invented Velcro. That doesn’t mean you have to come up with solutions — they’re best addressed by step 4 below. But it helps to have some ideas to prime the pump, to get people thinking about solutions instead of problems.
  4. Bring people with passion and responsibility together and facilitate them. Use your recorded conversations and observations and research findings to intrigue the people who might be able, together, to come up with solutions, to the point where you can invite them to get together with the people who have the need, who really know the problem. If you can craft an invitation that gets people who normally don’t talk with each other talking, about issues and opportunities they all care about, you’re half way there. You also need to ensure they have enough sense of personal responsibility to act on what they learn from talking with each other. Most of us have that, but sometimes it needs to be brought out, provoked, facilitated. You know I’m a fan of Open Space, but there are other techniques as well. But the invitation is critical, and so is how you facilitate (=from the Latin ‘make easier’) the dynamic of the group, engaging their passion and sense of responsibility, and steering them to voluntary action.
  5. Discharge fear. In each of the 4 steps above, you will face people’s fear: People afraid to admit they don’t know what to do, or that they can’t solve their own problems, or that they’re not doing well. People afraid that you’re a spy for some group they don’t trust, and that by talking with you or letting you observe them you’ll get them into trouble. People afraid of the people on ‘the other side’ that they will have to talk to. People afraid to imagine a way out of the current hopeless or mind-numbing situation. People afraid to be passionate, and afraid of responsibility. You need to surface these fears, get them out on the table, name them, and then work to discharge them by talking about the astonishing outcomes that are possible if they can get past these fears, and showing that these outcomes are a ‘win’ for everyone involved.

Not easy, is it? But worth it!

So if that’s how we build bridges, how do we make them Velcro bridges? How do we make them ‘sticky’ — enough to snag people before they hesitate and go back, or when they don’t even realize it’s a bridge worth crossing? How do we attach little ‘hooks’ to the bridges that will fit with and latch onto the ‘loops’ in their own makeup? And how do we build them in such a way that, after we’ve gone and are no longer a part of the process, people continue to cross the bridge of their own volition, when they come across it, when they’re ready?

I have a few ideas on this too, but I need some more thoughts from you, dear readers. Tell me what you think, and I’ll assemble the resultsinto a Part Two of this article.

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