Generational theory cannot explain how people behave

Quite often there’s an article that bundles us all up into handy age-based cohorts (a.k.a. ‘generations’). Behavioural phenomena are neatly explained by the characteristics of the particular age cohort or generation. Based on the theories of Strauss and Howe generations have been adopted as a popular explanatory model for people’s behaviour, and demographers like Bernard Salt and Mark McCrindle have done very well in explaining this model to business and marketing folk.

While large scale external factors can impact on a particular generation and influence them in a particular ways, individuals of that generation shape their lives by other means too. A generation that suffers a war, like the First or Second World War, or a Great Depression like during the 1930s, is shaped in important ways by that shared experience.

Yet I am not convinced that the individuals within each generation are like a mob of sheep who respond as a mob to stimuli.

DiffusionOfInnovation-300x1851 Instead, based on my experiences in implementing technology and process change in the workplace, I am more influenced by the technology adoption lifecycle (as popularised by Rogers).

I think that this model can be generalised to explain other parts of human behaviour in addition to technology adoption.

Clearly significant life experiences influence an individual’s responses to events throughout their life. And shared experience, such as wars and major disasters, can influence how cohorts behave in future. But we respond to stimuli as individuals who live within societal, kinship and friendship structures that influence our behaviour. And that behaviour is also enacted within our internal physical, psychological and spiritual context. Thus our age cohort compatriots may be part of the mix, but they are not the entire story.

Which leads to one of my pet peeves about generational theory. Articles like this, (from 2007) A-Z of Generation Y:

“THEY’RE hip, smart-talking, brash and sometimes seem to suffer from an overdose of self esteem.”

It is this kind of glib summary that irritates. It fails completely to reflect the diversity, magnificence and sheer idiocy encompassed by humanity.

We see the best and the worst of humanity every day. And just when you feel like giving up hope for us as a race someone somewhere does something amazing, moving and awe-inspiring.

For example, I do a lot of work with those Gen-Y kids who are so often the target of this shallow analysis in the media, and every day their enthusiasm and passion to make the world a better place inspires me.

I also work with a number of Baby Boomers (the so-called “Baby boomers: powerful and selfish“) who work every day to improve their corner of the world and the global community.

Perhaps it’s time we stop making assumptions about what people are like and judging them by stereotypes? I suspect people are more complex than the simple stereotypes so beloved of tabloid journals.

Here’s a few inspiring examples mentioned on Twitter today in response to one of my questions about inspirational things people had heard about recently:

@casandjonesy trek 2 southpole 2400km on foot” via @ljLoch

Well, @Nyx2701 did some pro bono legal work to (ultimately) help let the family of a missing person know they’re still alive.” via @mjberryman

My good friend having a bone-marrow transplant.” via @zbender

I read in the Enquirer that a blind couple adopted two blind children previously thought unadoptable. It’s an amazing story.” via @AskMonte

what planet are you on? How about @CadelOfficial Cadel Evans 1st aussie to win TourdeFrance?? #tdf #yellforcadel” via @lisafeg

Science communication and social media #media140au

Attending the Media 140 Conference in Brisbane today. The tag line for this conference is “exploring the impact of social technologies on science communication” and it explores some of the issues and challenges facing science communication today.

There’s been a great line-up of speakers so far, with:

  • Bernie Hobbs, ABC Science (who’s doing an excellent job as Conference host)
  • Dr Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and the Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
  • Natasha Mitchell , ABC presenter of All In The Mind.
  • Wilson da Silva , Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS
  • Elena McMaster , Nanotechnology Project for Friends of the Earth Australia
  • Craig Thomler , Gov 2.0 advocate
  • Dr Craig Cormick , Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Dr Kristen Lyons, Senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Queensland

Dr Andrew Maynard’s keynote on Social media and science communication – a load of Jackson Pollocks? was interesting and he noted his top three issues to consider for science communication:

  • Hubris – disregarding the medium because you don’t understand it. Assumed authority – old model does not work, and Control – “rather misguided theory that we can control conversations”.
  • Creating value – behaving like rockstars does not give us credibility as science communicators – remember cause & effect. Trying to mimic viral videos and blogs is not the answer need to have the good content that creates value.
  • Uncivil behaviour – feeling that we can “tell people forcefully what is right until the get the message” – ends up alienating people we need to connect with.

And a fascinating panel session on Web 2.0 or Web too far? chaired by Natash Mitchell. The panel discussed topics as varied as:

  • Online democratisation and/or demonization.
  • How to manage when the web is used to distort, misinform and distribute propaganda.
  • How anti-science ideologies and commercial agendas use the web, and how we should use social media to democratise scientific knowledge.

Protecting babies: whooping cough vaccination boosters for adults

Many people who were vaccinated as children do not realise that by the time we’re all grown up some of our protection no longer works.

In the case of whooping cough, or pertussis, the protection can wane in as little as six to ten years. This means that many of us are wandering around at risk of catching whooping cough ourselves or asympomatically transmitting it to others. This is not so much of a problem for adults we might run into, but for little babies this can mean exposure to a life threatening illness.

Whooping cough is a disease that does not evoke fear in our generation as it did in past generations. It used to be a terrible killer for children before the advent of the pertussis vaccine.

“Whooping cough is a relatively mild disease in adults but has a significant mortality rate in infants. Until immunization was introduced in the 1930s, whooping cough was one of the most frequent and severe diseases of infants in the United States.”
Source: Kenneth Todar, Ph.D. Textbook of Bacteriology

Now many parents are refusing to vaccinate their children against whooping cough and this makes things more dangerous for very young babies. This is a real networked world problem. One person’s decision not to get vaccinated can have implications for the health of those around them.

In Australia the adult booster vaccine typically includes diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. I had one of these booster shots recently because I knew that I would be spending time with some newborn babies and wanted to ensure they were protected.

Check out this video … and consider consulting your doctor and getting an adult booster shot.

Truth, transparency and consequences

Truth is said to be a double edged sword. Yet truth is only a problem if one is trying to hide something. The Wikileaks saga shows how difficult is has become to keep secrets in our hyperconnected world.

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell

Amusingly I noted a newspaper article announcing that governments around Australia are planning to ban access to web based email services like Hotmail and Gmail:

Bureaucrats could also use unmonitored emails to leak sensitive documents. “The recent WikiLeaks release of government electronic information has demonstrated the importance of maintaining appropriate protective security frameworks and the risks of failing to adequately protect electronic information,” the report said
Source: Public servants face web bans to minimise risk of password cracking

I was amused because only yesterday I noticed that you can buy a “compact 32GB USB flash drive with 2 year warranty” for $65 at JB Hi Fi.

Blocking all the potential sources of leaks is getting rather difficult in this hyperconnected and wireless world.

These attempts to block all potential leakages of data are ultimately doomed to failure. If someone wants to leak then it will happen. Even now that we have the example of what bad things might happen – in the person of the unfortunate Bradley Manning, who is apparently being treated inhumanely in custody of the US military – there are some people who will put themselves on the line to get the truth out. For some people negative personal consequences are a price they’re willing to pay to share their truth.

Also we need to acknowledge that most of our important business information walks out the door every night in the heads of our people.

But an important question for all organisations to ask is how many of the things we keep secret really need to be secret? What would happen if we were transparent about some business information?

Salaries is one area that is subject to secrecy in many organisations. What would happen if you simply published the list? It already happens if you work for the government – it gets published in the Government Gazette – and the sky does not fall. What other things can we be more transparent about?

Obviously not everything a company does can be public. But making more rather than less of what we do secret might just make it easier to keep our more important secrets. Perhaps that is the contradiction of openness versus secrecy? Less is more.

In any case the digital genie is out of the bottle and the technology to liberate information is in everyone’s pocket. We need different solutions to locking things down and making people’s jobs more difficult. New solutions for a new age. I wonder what they will be?

A lucky country indeed …

Even though it was once said ironically, it has always seemed to me that Australia really is the lucky country. Our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, sums it up:

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil…
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts…
We’ve boundless plains to share…

In recent times the troubles of far off places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and others have made me think about Australia.

We have been very lucky. Australia has a good economy, stable government, social cohesion, rule of law and a very congenial way of life. We have adjusted to the rigours of our climate, which has been so well described by Dorothea Mackellar in her poem My Country.

Australia alternates between flood and fire in ways that would make most people blanch. But in between we enjoy weather, beaches, mountains and scenery that are breathtaking in their beauty. And our healthy economy means that we enjoy amenities that inhabitants of other countries might envy.

But given the challenges that we face as part of the world community – climate change, food security, refugees, religious and political extremism – Australians need to start thinking about how we can best meet these challenges.

It is somewhat disconcerting to realise, given the enormous challenges facing us, that neither of the major political parties in Australia has any proposal or policy to deal with them.

Instead the political parties are consumed with petty internal divisions and ignore those for whom they supposedly stand. Our political parties and the current crop of hacks certainly live up to the second part of Donald Horne’s saying:

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

When did the Liberal Party become the party of naysaying cold-hearted xenophobes? When did the Labor Party become a cold-hearted machine driven by internal polling and factions?

I think the past elders of each party would be horrified to see the nasty polemical poll driven machines that each has become.

How do they sleep at night when they fight against each other, not for principle nor for policy, but for petty gain that sets the needs of the nation and its people as naught?

We need leaders of of vision. We need leaders who can look twenty or more years into the future, then build and plan for it. We need the kind of vision that built us a nation. We need the kind of principles that gave us a fair and equitable system for determining the treatment of working people. We need an engaged citizen populace who are educated enough to participate in democracy as educated citizens.

Most of all we need leaders who do not fall back into polemical and party driven positions that do not reflect the many shades of grey in the real world. We need leaders with compassion for people and who are true to the spirit of a fair go for all in this nation.

More thoughts on revolutions #Egypt #Tunisia #Bahrain #Iran #Libya

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
Source: The Crisis, 23 December 1776, Thomas Paine

As the wave of people’s uprisings sweep across North Africa and the Middle East it is fascinating to watch from afar in Australia.

We are safely ensconced in our comfortable homes distant from the terrible decisions that people are making in those far off places. And what terrible decisions they are. Taking to the streets to reject tyranny – perhaps risking death, torture, or even the lives of your family – is a terrible decision for anyone to make.

The gallant reporting of Al-Jazeera and others, together with the incredible real time feeds from citizen journalists and media journalists via Twitter, bring the action close to those far away. And this kind of transparency makes these revolutions quite different to those of the past.

Never before have the eyewitnesses to a revolution been able to report in real time to such a broad an audience across the world about the events taking place. And now on Twitter we have people who are acting as relays of that information – people like @acarvin @AJEnglish @AJELive @shervin. The network amplification effects of Twitter are playing a significant role in uncovering and shining a light on the various regime’s responses to the uprisings.

We can see how the regimes view the internet now, as a tool of revolution, by the way that they move to block the people’s access almost immediately. They do this in an attempt to cover up their next step, which is typically their attempt to crush the uprising of the people.

In the past the reaction of a regime to an uprising usually happened in an atmosphere of secrecy and confusion. But now, while the confusion remains, the reaction is happening in a more transparent way. It is hard to hide a vicious crackdown when everyone in the crowd has a mobile phone with a video or still camera.

Modern democracy has always posited that governments should govern at the will of the people. And there are many regimes around the world that do not govern at the will of the people. Many of these regimes do not govern for the people at all. Instead they govern for a corrupt few – the worst kinds of oligarchies or dictatorships. The despotic rulers of those governments must now be fearful that they too are vulnerable to the will of the people in ways that were unthought of only a few months ago.

It is worth reading Thomas Paine on the matter of government if you’ve never done so: Dissertations on First Principles of Government, The Crisis, or Common Sense. Thomas Paine’s works were highly influential in the development of the American democracy, which many have come to assume is the natural form of democracy in the world today. By the way, I can only assume some of the conservatives who quote Paine so admiringly have never actually read any of his works.

Floods, community spirit and Australia #qldfloods

Along with most other Australians I have been moved and disturbed by the unfolding flood disaster in northern Australia. The floods are said to cover an area of Australia the size of France and Germany combined. Typical of Australia we also have bushfires in the western part of the country.

Over the past few days as the scale of the tragedy has become apparent I have observed people reaching out to help. Social media has again stepped into the breach in an emergency situation, providing fast breaking news (with occasional misinformation, usually corrected speedily), coordination of assistance, uncovering of scams or shaming bad behaviour, and sharing of needs.

Jason Langenauer’s tweet this morning summed it up for me and made me glad to be a part of this country that pulls together in a crisis and helps out those who are in need:

“The values exposed by this flood – mateship, care for people, altruism – are the complete opposite of the usual values of capitalism.”
Source: Twitter, Jason Langenauer Tweet 12 Jan 2011

There has been an outpouring of support for the flood victims with donations at $32million as of this morning. More information on the QLD government site.

Again Twitter has proved itself to be a great resource in a disaster situation. It has enabled people to easily pool resources and to share information where the traditional media is just to slow or not capable. Some great examples of this include:

Many people tweeted about the Queensland Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal ensuring scam sites were not used – official Qld government site #thebigwet #qldfloods Donate to the official flood relief appeal here.

Retailers perceived as seeking to cash in on the #qldfloods were speedily smacked down on Twitter – like this one.

Individuals made offers of help via Twitter like:

” If there are pets in need of housing let us know! We have 5acres #qldfloods #thebigwet #bnefloods #RT”

“Now that we’re safe, this is a 6 bedroom house. There’s beds for 3 and floor space for twenty. Peeps in need – ping me. #qldfloods”

“have space for pets from evacuations if needed. On a hill in brisbane. Please rt. #qldfloods”

“Anyone in New Farm area needing some storage space – our place isn’t in the flood zone. Have LUG and a spare room #qldfloods #bnefloods”

It has been heartening to see that only one politician so far has tried to use this disaster as a political sledge hammer. While, in my opinion, the performance of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and the Mayors of the affected areas has been excellent under extremely difficult circumstances. One of my favourite comments came from the Ipswich Mayor: “If I find anybody looting in our city they will be used as flood markers” (via @1233newcastle).

Kudos to the organisations who have already made donations of greater than $10,000.

Some resources and ways to help:

Donate to the Queensland Government flood relief appeal

Donations can also be made in person at any branch of the Bank of Queensland, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, ANZ, NAB or Suncorp.

Donate to RSPCA Queensland to help animals

Can you offer emergency animal foster care in Brisbane area?

Lifeline phone: 13 11 14

Alerts and updates

Live flood updates
Queensland Police Service
@QPSmedia (Queensland Police)
@consultqld (Queensland Government)

Innovation – does it make sense for business?

Every business book I pick up nowadays seems to accept as a fundamental premise that innovation is a good thing and that it should be pursued relentlessly. But I’ve been wondering about that particular premise and under what circumstances it might (or might not) be true.

Innovation provides us with a dilemma in business. Don’t do it at all and the business will probably die over time. Or others will innovate and leapfrog the business – this is what has happened to Australian retailers (like Gerry Harvey) who have ignored their online channel. Do it too early, too late or too often and it could also damage the business.

A business is setup to measure, monitor and reward people on the basis of performing well in the existing business model, and few businesses are setup to simultaneously manage a disruptive new business model.

Then there is the challenge of innovating while continuing to run a successful business. After all, if the current business is not broken, why would people bother to change? This is a big problem that I have seen many times. Once the need to change is obvious it is often too late and market disruptors are already in play. In many organisations the pressure on getting the most out of the current business model leaves little spare capacity for innovation.

This dilemma of managing both the existing business and innovation at the same time is the great challenge for business leaders of our day. We can see ample evidence of this with the Australian retail industry. Many of the big retailers rested secure in their ‘knowledge’ that online had failed in the dot-com bust of 2000. They ignored the online channel and competitors from overseas have gradually grabbed market share to the point where Australia’s retailers are now crying out for government assistance.

It is interesting to see that, in contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach of many Australian retailers, shopping mall giant Westfield has pursued a diversification into online shopping as well as focusing on their core bricks-and-mortar business. [Disclosure: I used to work for Westfield as part of the digital team.] Thus they have balanced their successful existing business model with innovation.

In the places where I have worked successfully on new products there has been a happy confluence of things that made it possible. Among them were:

  • substantial top-down support from C-level team, coupled with time to educate executives about the idea/product and it’s benefits and risks to the business
  • an active and responsive project owner at executive level who can protect the team and manage upwards effectively
  • adequate resources to get the job done
  • appropriate oversight and governance (but not too much)
  • freedom to get it wrong in the short run, together with focus on getting it right in the long run
  • clear goals, objectives and milestones
  • adoption of agile development methods for software
  • good project management together with adequate reporting to enable stakeholders to gauge progress
  • a small tight-knit team who have a clear sense of mission and purpose

Whenever these things have come together for an innovation project it has been successful. Where these are missing the success has been much more hit and miss. That is not to say that an innovation cannot be brought to market without these things, but it is much more fraught with angst and is much harder for all concerned.

Business leaders really need to think about what internal barriers to innovation exist in their organisations and how to create safe nests for innovation to incubate.

Christmas in Paris

I like Paris in winter – there are not too many tourists and the queues to get into museums and galleries are much shorter. Of course, in 2010 western Europe experienced snowpocalypse and many people suffered from cancelled transport and were forced to spend days trapped in airport terminals. Luckily I was spared that experience.

The typical Australian Christmas experience for me is to join relatives for a long lunch in the heat (trying to stay out of the sun) and then drive home in the evening to collapse for a nap.

Instead, this year, I drove back from Ieper (aka Ypres) in Belgium to join some friends for Christmas in Paris before flying to London. These friends are not geeks, so there was little discussion of technology. Instead we dined very well and went to the opera. Our conversation was wide-ranging and that camerarderie that arises when far from home on a traditional holiday kicked in.

Au Chien Qui Fume Xmas 2010On Christmas Eve we dined at a traditional restaurant called Au Chien Qui Fume near Pont Neuf. The staff were friendly and welcoming – making jokes and recommending wines to accompany our meal.

For Christmas Day we had a late lunch at a tiny but lovely Breton inspired place called Le Relais de l’Isle. It is on l’Ile Saint-Louis just across the bridge from Notre Dame Cathedral. Again we experienced a warm welcome from the proprietor of this establishment and enjoyed a fine meal with good wine.

Opera Bastille Paris Xmas 2010Then on Christmas Night we were off to the Opera Bastille to see a performance of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It was rather amusing to see the opera performed in German with surtitles in French. It was a very enjoyable production and I enjoyed the strong female performers.

It was a very different experience of Christmas – of note was the fact that so many venues were open in Paris on Christmas Day. The weather on Christmas Day was lovely, Paris at its winter best with cold crisp air and clear blue skies.