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Archive for January, 2009

Cognitive surplus and government policy

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 29, 2009

In my review of Here Comes Everybody I pointed out that I was surprised that Clay Shirky didn’t have more to say about the connection between cognitive organisation and the business of government.  The premise of the book is that the social media enable us to ‘organise without having organisations’.   Government is, of course, all about organisation: agreeing rules, deciding how to implement and fund them, allocating responsibilities, raising funding and so on.

Yesterday I posted a comment on the article here, at Emma Mulqueeny’s blog, on this topic. She’s one of a number of people working in/with government organisations in the UK to help them make better use of social media: blogs, wikis, discussion forums, Twitter and so on.  To cut a not very long story shorter, I think that the main reason the exploitation of these technologies – and of the internet/web in general – hasn’t been quite as exciting as it might has little to do with the technology itself and everything to do with our system of government here in the UK.  Although we like to think of ourselves as having one of the world’s oldest democracies the influence and involvement of the general public, as opposed to pressure groups, business and other vested interests – has always been rather low.

It needn’t be like that.  The nature of the engagement isn’t about technology, though.  Here’s a good example of engagement.   Here’s a bad example which includes the nice phrase ‘fake listening’ which neatly sums up the very worst kind of engagement. To use one of my least favourite words, this is all about ’empowerment’ and on the whole politicians aren’t in the business of  empowering.  All that carefully collected political capital buys them – and the interest groups closest to them – power.  They aren’t about to hand it back to us any time soon.  They need to remember that fake listening is by far the worst kind of listening: most people would rather not be listened to at all.


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Finger in the wind

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 29, 2009

After hearing yesterday’s IMF forecast for the UK’s economy I wondered what they were saying this time last year.

According to this, they were suggesting that the economy would grow 2.4% in 2009.  By April they had revised this to 1.6% in both 08 and 09.  As late as July of 08 they’d revised the forecast for 09 to 1.7% and for 08 to 1.8%.

Their latest guess is that the UK economy will actually shrink by 2.8% this year.  What’s that line about past performance being no guide to future performance

I haven’t read the actual report so I don’t know whether the IMF’s economists are hedging their bets (‘the UK economy might shrink by 2.8% this year but, quite frankly, we haven’t got the faintest idea’).  Such is the level of gloom at present I guess that anything is possible.  One thing’s for sure, though: behaviour will determine what actually happens – the behaviour of politicians, investors and everyone else and how we will actually behave is impossible to predict with any certainty.

Talking of fingers in the wind, here’s how things looked in 2006 when US house prices had started falling but either probably would/or probably wouldn’t lead to a recession.   You can see how easily cognitive dissonance would ensure that readers only saw the ‘probably wouldn’t’.

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Obama inauguration – the big picture

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 28, 2009

This is well worth a look.  Use the on screen controls, double click or your scroll wheel to zoom.  This explains how he made the picture: it’s based on 220 high resolution photos stitched together.  You can’t see the expressions on all 2,000,000 faces, but it’s the next best thing.

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What Goals and How Goals

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 18, 2009


Someone who has just achieved an objective goal

Last summer the UK experienced a rare fortnight of success in sport.  Having only won nine gold medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and a total of 30 altogether, we had no great expectations of success in 2008.  Instead ‘Team GB’ (a moniker which can only have  been picked to annnoy the Northern Irish) won a total of 19 golds and 47 in total.  Rather astonishingly, we finished fourth in the medal tables.  Most of the residents of these islands experienced a growing sense of disbelief as the medal tally grew.

There are a number of possible explanations for this dramatic improvement.  Our team focussed its resources onsports it was good at, in particular the ‘sitting down’ sports: rowing, cycling, sailing and so on.  

It was also interesting to listen to the competitors talking about their success.   Some of them talked about the sports psychology that had been applied by their coaches.  In particular they mentioned the distinction between process goals and objective goals.  An objective goal would be to win a heat or to win a medal.  Focussing on an objective like this can be stressful and unproductive, particularly given that its reasonably certain that every other competitor in a given event will have the same goal.

Process goals are to do with the ways in which success if achieved.  Sticking to a particular training regime, improving technique, achieving a target weight and so on.  I remember one athlete talking about the fact that process goals were about things she could influence directly: she could determine whether or not she achieved her process goals.   She found this much more helpful than focussing on winning per se.

A lot has been written about the topic of process and objective goals.  This simple idea rang lots of bells with me because I have for many years thought in terms of ‘whats’ (aka, amongst other things, objectives’) and ‘hows’ (aka, amongst other things, processes).  Also, I’m a big fan of simple ideas.  

(Incidentally, one of the items that my Googling into this topic threw up was this astonishingly accurate forecast.) 



Part of

Posted in Change, management, planning, psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

How frightened are you?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 13, 2009


The BBC's 'the end is nigh' logo

The BBC's 'The End is Nigh' logo

Since early this morning the lead story at the BBC News website has been this report on a survey of business confidence in the UK.  Clearly the ‘business leaders’ (the British Chamber of Commerce) who conducted the survey reported in the item are running out of adjectives to describe the awfulness of the current economic situation.  So ‘frightening’ is what they went for.  Dramatic stuff.  

Having lived through three recessions (1973-5, 1979-82 and 1989-92) I can’t remember any of them being described as ‘frightening’.   

The BBC, meanwhile, continues to pile on the agony with it’s ‘hell and damnation’ logo featuring on all TV news broadcasts and web pages related to what it is still calling a ‘downturn’.  Downturn is much too mild a word, don’t you think?  If they really want to scare the bejaysus out of us I would have thought ‘Meltdown’ at the very least or perhaps ‘The (economic) End Is Nigh’.    I wonder if they’ll replace the logo with an upwards pointing arrow if and when the downturn ever becomes an upturn.

Language is so important when discussing these things, isn’t it?  I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of our current situation – inasmuch as anyone actually understands it –  but I can’t help feeling that the use of such hyperbolic language by the media, politicians and ‘business  leaders’ is helping to ensure that a vicious cycle is deepening by the minute.

It’s at times like that this that real leadership is needed.  People who really can change the way that people think and act.  On this side of the Atlantic at least, real leaders seem to be in very short supply just now.

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Summer time

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 9, 2009

At this time of year in the UK – particularly during a very cold winter like the one we are currently experiencing – it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it can get rather warm here.  As it’s Friday and minus 1.5C as I write here’s a photo I took in deepest Dorset when we were on holiday there way back in the Summer of 2008.  


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Economic depression – largely a state of mind

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 5, 2009

Here’s someone else arguing that psychology – how people are thinking – is a significant factor in the current economic downturn.

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What will change everything?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 2, 2009

For the past four years http://www.edge.org have asked assorted thinkers – scientists, philosophers and so on – to answer a question.  Previous questions have included ‘What do you believe which you can’t prove?’ and ‘What have you changed your mind about?.

The short version of year’s question is ‘What will change everything?’.   For some reason they didn’ t ask me, but that doesn’t matter because Douglas Rushkoff gave the first answer that crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine anything more interesting – or more thought provoking – occuring.

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Catch 22 revisited

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 2, 2009

I’ve just, thanks to a very bad cold that’s keeping me awake, posted this to Whitehall Webby Jeremy Gould’s blog.  A couple of references for those who follow the link from the comment.

I suggested that working for government is a Catch 22.  Many of those who (like me) join the civil service eventually end up feeling, like Yossarianm that, in the interests of their sanity, they have to leave.  Thankfully, unlike the US Army Airforce in time of war, people like Jeremy and me have the option of leaving – Yossarian had to stay due to the legally enforcible strange loop that is Catch 22.

I also suggested in my comment that politicans – and their closest civil servants – live in a never land in which things are never as bad as people say they are and there’s never a problem/issue/challenge for which they don’t already have a ready solution.  As our friend Kotter points out, both of these viewpoints are a recipe f0r disaster.

I may well be wrong, of course: if so, all comments welcome!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »