Sunday, January 31, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace -- Episode One: Knowledge Factory Settings

Installment Summary

We focus on the friendly acquisition of my knowledge-centric consulting shop by an accounting giant in 2011. A first glance, the giant’s knowledge systems and practices casts doubt on the ability to integrate the know-how of my former firm into my new firm’s service offerings and value propositions.

Copyright The Ubyssey 2014
I was the lead knowledge manager for a small, enterprising consulting firm that we’ll call System Wisdom. System Wisdom owed its success to two factors:
  • A steadfast mastery of operations management – the nuts and bolts around improving production cycles and supply chains.
  • The glue holding that mastery together – the knowledge transfer needed to sustain these practices.
There was no original jerk at work in the swallowing of this intrepid, forward-leaning consulting firm. It wasn’t motivated by any personality really. I attribute the post-merger fallout to a blind-spot inside the acquirer – a Big 4 accounting colossus we’ll reference as Cover Your Assurances (“CYA”).  

This was not an aggressive overreach by CYA, but a presumption really that success factor #2 was somehow implicit in the first. In this transition all the operational smarts would flow into CYA’s bottom line as easily as the bookings of former System Wisdom clients.

CYA admired System Wisdom as a small, dependable outfit. Our allure was  based on: (a) the complementary nature of our tinkering engineers to their bankable legion of accountants; and (b) our outsized profits. When one dialed in System Wisdom:
  1. First you got cool, informed analysis of your current operational state
  2. Next we broke down your operational innards
  3. Finally we pieced them back together with the rationale for strengthening them over time.
The miscalculation was the presumption that System Wisdom’s success formula was as transferable as the financial assets used to seal the deal. Is knowledge (like the capital used to produce it) reducible to transactional units? In our case, the outputs were the documents generated in our case work. As client deliverables they were both solutions to prior problems and reusable frameworks for addressing the new work to come. 

CYA treated the exchange as largely a rebranding exercise:
  1. How many offshore editors does it take to redact all specific references to System Wisdom’s former case work?
  2. How many search and replace macros will reappoint the respective logos and color palettes?

This kind of knowledge refactoring scales well for reproducing sets of static artifacts, say for booksellers? Not necessarily so when it comes to social and iterative pursuits like building management practices inside massive bookkeeping juggernauts.

When these ingredients are purged from the original work and the context is removed, it compromises  the consulting teams’ ability to absorb the lessons, rethink the approach, and determine its applicability to the case at-hand. A stripped down relic of an ex-client of a former firm is disconnected from…
  • The insights of authorship,
  • The learnings from the unforeseen consequences, and
  • The breakthrough thinking of a pressure-tested innovation

    – In short, the particulars that evolve the practice.
These were not the flagrant aggressions of a subversive jerk. These are but sins of misunderstanding and omission from an institutional perspective. On a personal level the jerk war path was paved with malevolent intentions: The fully intended disruptions, the pulling of political ranks, and performance review sucker punches were yet to come.

Three Keywords and a Cloud of Dust

I had barely decamped in CYA’s Knowledge Services fold when I learned of this branch’s eminent demise.

At its peak Knowledge Services consisted of 300-odd former librarians, reporters, PhDs, and trainers that CYA had been advised to assemble as an expansive storehouse of thinker-bees. Regrettably this deluxe busload of bright, non-billable folks was thrown under an even bigger bus – a caravan of metrics that calculated knowledge by the dump-fill and justified the number of sanitation workers required. The answer was not many. The main task involved sorting the number of deliverables and the tags needed to locate, if not find them. This distinction is a scream-out to CYA’s suboptimal search. Each query approached every new information request as an isolated pursuit. 

Keepers of the knowledge fold consisted of three camps:
  1. The captains, 
  2. The doomed, and 
  3. The campers groomed for the lifeboats by their knowledge captains

    – None of whom were ticketed to go down with their knowledge crews.

System-wise the enterprise content supply lines were unresponsive to the knowledge demands of consulting staff. Rather than align them, CYA leadership aborted dysfunctional search for the leaner and trendier social media platform. The new system required none of the care, feeding, and expense of the system maintained by the brainy, unbillable folks of the knowledge fold.

The cost savings rationale joined forces with the demographics. The argument was that junior staffers were more apt to engage Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. than CYA’s intranet. Here was a knowledge bone we can throw them to retain them a cycle longer before shopping their wares to a rival firm.

The ruse all along was that corporate-styled Facebooks would make the home team more collaborative on the inside, and once externalized, and more competitive. In reality here’s what happened:
  • No governance structures led to dozens of redundancies and missed opportunities for community-building. Each new site was in a confused state of collaboration-readiness: some open access sites, some in lock-down, and some slightly ajar (invitation-only).
  • All engagement deliverables were treated as potential liabilities and were fire-walled away from the economies of learning and reuse.
  • “Likes” and shallow salutations were socialized like the upturned grin of a ginormous smiley face. Attachments leading to actual work product were frowned on. Substance was a non-starter.

Bottom-line: the competitive edge for leveraging knowledge was used for personal gain – not for organizational advantage.

Disabling the Knowledge Store

I played the expected role of the knowledge giver on social media. I did this by reproducing the archived threads of past problem resolutions – the iterations of practitioners collaborating within a community of experts. Each posting was credited to me even though the know-how being traded was exchanged by the consultants – not the copier/paster/curator.

Contributors to these community sites were rewarded by a scoring system designed to tally their peer influence.  My point totals were inflated by reposting the work of others. Then there was the approval seeking which demonstrated the conformist pressures of social media. Why hypothesize or test a rationale among your peers? It’s far easier to win followers by pandering to the pep talks from the C-suite?

Perhaps that’s why the social engine runs on the breathy validations of the leader-led. Point totals lead to accruing badges. Attaching iconic credentials to more substantive discussions was not part of the rewards package. But one could argue that the enterprise knowledge store was never open for business – before or after the brown-nosing and patronizing began.

In the fishbowl of corporate Facebook what’s always an open proposition is not the latest posting, comment, or like. It’s the variation on the question of what I’ve done for you lately to solicit favor.  The surface details on social media are sounded through the same immutable timetable. Annual performance reviews are an orchestration set to the grand pause of musical chairs. And no one knows better which notes to play or how to stop them cold better than the CYA reviewer elites. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Knowledge Management in the Jerkplace

Is Knowledge Capital Our Most Prized Asset and …

Do Knowledge Guys Finish Last?

An article last summer in The Atlantic brings refinement, nuance, and dynamics of this most familiar dichotomy:
  • It’s a constant in any workplace, registering on performance reviews in all shades of documentation.
  • It bubbles 24/7 just below the water cooler surface. It’s the leading age-old management question, the equivalent of what makes for a good marriage.

I’m talking of course from the safety of my hard hat inside the office park construction zone. The sign on the fence reads: Caution: Jerks at Work.

My interest in this sore, fascinating subject is both personal and professional. I don’t just mean in terms of who I work with and the residual impact on career. I mean what I chose as my career path. Knowledge Management or “KM” and its success or failure to my employers depends on its practitioners: (1) not being pulled into the jerk zone, and (2) enabling our colleagues to achieve the same.

The idea is that KM is supposed to organize experience in a shareable way so that it pays to be a generous colleague and that jerk behavior becomes more of a career limiting move for the majority of jerk practitioners.

After all, managing knowledge is an abstraction made employable by long-accepted information age assumptions. That means brains-over-brawn in the knowledge-is-power world of …

1.       Reciprocating social networks,
2.       No one knowing as much as everyone, and
3.       Two-way dialog that produces informed bottom-up decisions.

Knowledge is also the single most reducible currency of what the consulting industry converts into credit-claiming revenue. Whether that interaction is a launch cycle, a maintenance plan, or a fire sale, it takes a knowledge exchange to swing the forces of change in the client's favor.

For all my blind spots, skill deficits, and impatience with jerks, I have learned with time to trade on knowledge currency. That means shopping the benefits of collaborations enriched by expedient on-boarding, accelerated proposal-making, and the simple math of repurposing documents from pitch decks to code snippets. In management ranks reusable assets have come to mean the frameworks derived from a firm’s core IP – the secret sauce promoted in the books, symposia, and articles in places that consider the trade-offs of corporate jerks. Regardless of the channel, these artifacts are brandable as knowledge products stamped by the elder statesmen and their high-flying heir apparents.

With each new position and employer however a recurring wrinkle began running outside this formula. A pattern emerged that marginalized the traditional arguments for hiring knowledge-dedicated staff. This new twist even challenged whether the benefits for adopting KM were better delivered by full-time employees or through project-based contractors. Buoyed by the intrinsic ease of Google, limitless storage, and the self-organizing allure of social media, many organizations began to question the need even for contractors. Why not pass those benefits directly onto those knowledge-consuming elites? Hey, anyone with a browser is in constant pursuit of faster, better, cheaper content. 

Why hire intermediaries who don’t …
  1. Produce it,
  2. Administer the hardware, or
  3. Bill their time back to clients?

In this new calculation either a knowledge system is rolling out or a bright, unbillable knowledge manager is shipping out ahead of it. That “IT horse” before the “knowledge cart” aptly describes the three organizations I’ve joined and left in a recent three year cycle of knowledge roulette. In each case those ingrained virtues of collaboration and community bonds of knowledge sharing took a backseat to the rollout of the knowledge system. 

Teasing out leverage-worthy project cases, how they’re socialized, and building buy-in for the ways to organize them was reduced to background noise. In the foreground lie the three dominant IT project markers known as: (a) DEV, (b) QA, and (c) PROD – as in production where the knowledge cart goes on full display. 

Knowledge Systems: Art or Artifice?

The fact that the experiential nature of knowledge-sharing has been sandbagged by deployment priorities suggests that the system is no longer a means to an ends. It is the destination for the funding organization and the termination point for the deployment team. Either it’s launched and can care and feed itself or never gets off the ground in the first place. If four knowledge jobs in four years is any indication, the knowledge currency I traded on in the past is buying a lot fewer believers. Facilitating the transfer of knowledge between learning-inclined colleagues has gone from the foundational goal of KM to an afterthought of system implementation.

Now I’m not saying the lights have dimmed on the long view that calls for the intentional transfer of knowledge as a practicing discipline and competitive advantage. What I am saying is that knowledge is an enabler of a process. It is not “the promised land” – even for the most community-minded or altruistic of those knowledge-seeking intentions. No greater proof of this exists with the notion that dogged me through those four years in the KM weeds: that I was hired to carve a well-tended knowledge garden out of a sprawling and unruly thicket of information. In each of these cases knowledge represented “a system” and the knowledge system was a destination – a container of the great organizational learnings that could be tapped regardless of …

·         The lesson being drawn
·         The question being asked,
·         The lesson being modeled, or
·         The conclusions being drawn.

I was a party to these flawed understandings. It is too easy to blame them on the coercions of jerks. What makes the takeaways from these fallacies most instructive is that I too was culpable. I contributed to the confusion that formed when the system failed to hold the expectations of those counting on it.

Knowledge Stock and Trade

Metadata, search, and taxonomy form the holy trinity of knowledge system deployments. These are the tools of the knowledge trade. Most KM professionals I know have a penchant organizing virtual assets. But it’s more than classifying documents. Often it’s reshuffling a jumble of pages, images, links, site roots, and file folders that offer little more than a time stamp and a cryptic file name to determine its value, connection to the past, or merit for preserving it. In most cases the knowledge has outlived its creators or the explanatory power of sense-making artifacts. The KM manager becomes a forensics analyst – an archivist who doesn’t just collect the pieces but threads them into a narrative which justifies all the learnings and rationales that were reduced to rubble and nonsense:

·         In the aftermath of a hasty merger,
·         A rash and wholesale restructuring of a former division, or
·         The marginalizing of assets that were never properly curated in the first place.

Now try finding these pattern-matching challenges in the outcomes of the rollout. The truth is that there’s nothing cultural, organic, or people-based about it. The further off schedule or offline the production system slides, the more on-the-line the KM manager becomes for the collateral damage of bringing that much touted knowledge system into creation. 

* * *

For the remainder of the Jerkplace series I will put this higher level summation into a series of nine installments: 
  1. Each post will cover my last four positions. 
  2. Each a failed attempt to build and facilitate three distinct cultures of knowledge. 
  3. Each its own climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and a nominal reserve of cooperation, compromised by the actions of knowledge jerks. 

In each installment I will demonstrate the conditions that jeopardized the adoption of the knowledge programs I managed and the hard reckoning that comes from…

·         Working with difficult colleagues, and
·         Using knowledge as a counterweight to difficulties they imposed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

World Series Post Met-em

“Hey guess what? Cy Young winner. Not on our team. Beat ’em.
“Rookie of the Year? Not on our team. We beat ’em.”
 “MVP of the whole league? Sorry, guys. Not on our team. But we beat that guy, too!”

-          Jonny Gomes at post World Series Rally Kansas City Rally

From an analytical perspective this series was teeming with contrasting view of how to play the game. None of that seemed to attract much in the way of booth chatter where the acknowledgement of Kansas City as a media market was nearly as scandalous as second-guessing the placement of infielders in less-than-two-out situations.

The most insightful thing heard from the Fox Booth all series came in Game 5 after the Royals had stormed back to telepath the necessary bundle of runs to force another extra round of innings. "For the Mets to win they'll need to hit one out," said Harold Reynolds. "All the Royals need is to get someone on base."

Why the laws of probabilities favor fringe strategists like Dayton Moore over more conventional methods is both a fascination and the unexplored question raised by the ruthless efficiency of the Royals. The Mets were a good team in a splendid groove. As a team the Royals are as much a factoring of calculations as a collection of players. Yes, you need the talent to execute. But you're not asking them to grow their fantasy league stats in the interest of a fatter pay out. Playing the game to win the big game is not the same as playing the market to sign the largest contract. Purveyors of money ball understood this by necessity and made a science out of molding discarded misfits into an ensemble of favorable match-ups.

But the Mets remain a big market team with a modest-sized payroll. The anomaly here is that the bold pre-deadline moves were underwritten by two payroll hiccups: (1) Wright's prolonged DL membership, and (2) Mejia's suspension. The former was indemnified and the latter bonehead move meant a loss of salary as well as service. So basically the Mets played like ... well ... like Yankees with the trappings of "the shift" -- residue of the unexplored pat-on-rump to the savage slugger who would sooner swing away than counter a lopsided alignment.

It's interesting that Ned Yost referred to his players in the third person. Compare that to Collins as the consummate player's manager who would sooner let his compromised partisans pull themselves out than decide whether the show goes on without Cespedes and his knee contusion or Harvey's swollen possession of an undecided win. It's not that the Royals lacked passion. The jawboning from the dugout was relentless. But the animation was constant. As Bal pointed out, even when trailing they were charging up the hill in the same cavalry -- no one pensive or guarded about the outcome to be.

This bench cheer was an informed optimism based on the belief that the rooting agent here is bigger than the team or their agents. Simply put, it's the system of put-the-ball-in-play and your opponent will drop first, boot next, or arrive after you do. It's not the composite sum of the parts. It's the quality of the cohesion. The better the chemistry, the more interchangeable the pieces. The MVP defaulted to Perez when a case could have been made for Escobar, Gordon, Hosmer, Zobriski, or Davis. None of these guys are back-fill or rented for the last pennant run. They're all tied into the same investment. Long-haul-wise, this is the betting money -- not on how many young arms can be rotated away for Tommy John during any one pitch count limiting season.

How else to explain the mechanical orchestration of the Red Army-like logistics displayed every time the Royals got a guy from 1st to 3rd? In the case of running on d'Arnaud's flaccid rifle, bunting for a base hit counts for a double. That's how the New York Mice fell prey to the Kansas City Cats. Could these same cohesive felines have skinned the Red Birds? That's my number one postseason what-if. Maybe it’s not too late to become a baseball fan. If so, it's a higher percentage move than telling the Blue (and Formerly Orange) to steer clear of the fantasy league stat piles and on the road to Kansas City ball. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Meted Out

We all go home again through the Met vessel and my lifelong Bolishuk clan is the channel for reviving that journey. There's nothing unique about back-to-back pairings of the seven lean years between World Series appearances. There's nothing especially rare about a favorite sports team catching fire at the moment of an unexpected and glorious outburst. 

But in an era of personal brand portfolios toting custom genders, religious non-traditions, and unpolished presidential hopefuls, we are celebrating a birthmark, if not a birthright. 

We did not acquire a taste for Mets. Did we inherit one? Does anyone in this world go out shopping for a favorite team and land on this one? In my circle the Mets were appointed to us like a surname, like the homes we grew up in. We had no say in this matter -- no matter how vivid the smell, colorful the language, or camera-popping the word play painted to the bed sheet.

Odds-on Anything

When the world around us struggles to self-identify through a carousel of designer fetishes we can surrender to the original love -- the source of our colloquial, erudite, suffering 11747 selves. Even when the Mets are said to be the odds-on anything – even the favorite: "There is a relentless, opportunistic quality to this Mets team now,” writes the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner, “Like a shark trolling warm waters with a half-open mouth." 

Are we cashing in? We were expecting greatness as much as we were anticipating Murphy's newest set of laws:
  • Six consecutive home runs in a game
  • Delayed steal of 3rd against an overcompensated Dodger infield
  • 1.026 slugging percentage
… each achievement seemingly more oblivious to statistical gravity than the next. I admit it took a re-adjustment yesterday. No game was scheduled as there was no foe left standing for the Mets to waste into an early post-season elimination. But I'd be just as present and perhaps a little more believing if the Mets were on the receiving end of an 0-4 evisceration.

Consoling the Strategist

This weekend's post-mortem Cub rationales are all about being one year ahead of schedule. That sounds more workable as a consolation than a strategy. Can the accelerators revving the Mets destiny appointments be factored into the waiting room of next year speculation? Not with these new Murphy Laws on the books. The Mets might beat the Royals and finish last for the next three years. That's predicated on anything as substantial as the Mets becoming careerist sharks before their gifted starters opt-in to free agency rotation. 

Either way, we are choiceless. We are destiny's stooges. We are born, bred, and wired to constantly question our unquestioning loyalty. That curiosity is roused but not predicated on the winningest of streaks. More than a franchise, brand, or betting pool, this is the only first love we are faithful to for life. Perhaps that's what our forebears intended when they conceived at the expansion birth that ... to err is human. To forgive is a Mets fan. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Lamentations of Mario Cuomo

What do you call a politician who was transfixed by questions, tormented by doubt, and scattered, if not bored by the hand he was dealt in the austere and myopic times he governed? You would call him that rarest of political animals. The likes of which faces not obscurity but pure extinction when fate’s calls go unreturned. One insider profiling Mario M. Cuomo on the precipice of a Presidential run, concluded that "the only institution in American politics more raucous and divided than the Democratic Party is Mario Cuomo's mind."

What other public figure, let alone one whose influence and notoriety rested in an electorate, would be prompted to justify that course of action at a luncheon at the Player’s Club:

"Am I certain that I'm the very best there is? I can never come to that conclusion." 

Typically when a politician wears their heart on their sleeve it’s a big valentine to themselves. For Cuomo it wasn’t self-love but self-reflection that steered him clear of seeking higher office. Even now his improbable reticence plays out less like coming to terms with the ally of honest doubt than bearing the stain of unwelcome disruption…

• An unscripted ending.
• The director’s cut that his most ardent followers fast-forward over.

Front Row Left Center 

In January 1983 I left the tie-dyed ivory towers, co-ed saunas, and communal mood colony of Frisbee University, a.k.a. Hampshire College for the formality of three piece polyester lobbyist luncheons in the Empire State Plaza. An internship in the New York State Assembly was about as exotic as it was the follow-up to my impractical liberal arts track -- accent on the liberal and not the track. In that first month I moved to Albany, Cuomo outlined the core thesis in his first inauguration that he was to reprise on the national stage:

“Of course, we should have only the government we need, but we must have, and we will insist on, all the government we need.” 

A generation later that patently center left blueprint was waiting for a ride on someone’s lofty campaign footing. The rationale always sounded more defensive in its declaration than a rally cry to the working classes. Yet it could easily serve as the roadmap for the newfound strut in Obama’s lame duck waddle.

 In Albany I was placed with a former schoolteacher freshman named Fran Pordum who was as far to the right as a New York Democrat could be. The fact that Fran represented the slice that delivered Cuomo a hard fought primary victory over Manhattan-centric Ed Koch also informed my leftist-centrist views on the pragmatic necessity of meeting in the middle -- assuming the level of trust required for acknowledging the sharing of credit along with the sacrifices.

Family Feud 

Koch would describe his loss to Cuomo couched in terms of his own falling out with city voters where he remained the head of the NYC house. The marriage was jeopardized when Koch began courting his upstate cousins. Running for governor wasn't just an over-reach. He was actually straying from his marriage to the city that was to elect him another two times after he flirted with statewide office. But the boonies and the burbs never felt like acquired tastes when Cuomo summoned his family of New York -- a reference to the same community-seeking unity that survives such expansive interventions as big ticket social programs, affirmative action, and economic opportunity for the disadvantaged.

 But Cuomo governed in lean times compared to an era since ended. The liberalism he practiced was more about the process of how we engage as citizens through tolerance and compromise. It was rarely about outcomes although his vehemence against the death penalty inspired the construction of more prison space during his leadership than any New York Governor before or since. Not quite the generous outcome one might have expected from a big-hearted liberal:

“History will not record that he was a great governor. His budgets were almost always late. His reflectiveness and reclusiveness did not dazzle legislative leaders. And his flight from San Francisco [after his 1984 convention speech], like his choice not to run for President in 1992, may have indicated a reticence that would not have served him well as President. Or maybe it camouflaged insecurity that was both disabling and wonderfully human. Unlike most politicians, who have no interior lives, he was worthy of a novel.” 

Philosophical Extremes 

One bone of contention Cuomo used to ridicule the opposition was the unquestioning allegiance to ideology that led in the early eighties to the political inroads of the GOP in the Roman Catholic Church. When Cuomo offered a persuasive defense of pro-choice in 1984, he was just as much railing against the authoritarian streak of unwavering conservatism as he was providing a moral compass for conflicted parishioners. And he did so not by advocating for abortion but by accusing the right of using government to inflict church law on a nation spawned by religious tolerance:

 “He spoke out against an ‘unyielding adherence to an absolute prohibition’, and explained that his faith did not mean he had to comply with church teachings in his role as politician. ‘To assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.’ He asked his listeners at Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution, ‘Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin’? The church was not pleased. For a time there was talk of excommunication.” 

The principle of point-making and score-settling extended beyond public institutions to the less abstract nature of bare knuckles campaigning – retail politics:

“People would come up to him after the meetings and say, “I’m still not sure I agree with you on the death penalty, but I certainly respect your position.” In the end, they decided to vote for him. They voted for him because Mario Cuomo was a man to respect, a man who respected them well enough to tell them what they didn’t want to hear.” 

It was the courage shown by Cuomo in finding, acceptance, and delivering of these nuanced arguments that fueled as much passion as speculation that he would turn his oratory gifts into the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.

The Unacceptance 

It was the yearly tiff with the Senate-run GOP that provided the backdrop of Cuomo’s refusal to enter the New Hampshire Presidential primary in December, 1991. Again, it wasn’t the calculation of higher office aspirations. It was the family on the line with Cuomo regretting that he “couldn’t abandon the state at such a time.” The New Republic wrote that…

“Cuomo's restraint always struck some as strange—perhaps even nefarious. Few today can understand the limits of ambition in a powerful man.” 

I remember not thinking of an unselfish and elevated command of one’s station. I thought it was chicken shit. His refusal to run never entered any calculations of mine. Years later I understand his reticence and it’s not written in the language of opposition research, vanity, or thinness of skin. It’s a sense of propriety that has no place at the fundraisers or in the broken field scramble where the candidate reveals their “primary colors.”

He Tried 

Aside from all the armchair history-shapers there was a remarkable gift that stood in the way of all judgments, both in haste and in favor. That’s Mario’s connection to a lectern. Wrote James Fallows:

“Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skill in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.” 

His biographic arc plots his coming of age in the fifties and ascension to power in the eighties. But that ignores the simple distinction that Cuomo was first generation American. He was no more a bi-product of the postwar suburbs as he was a hobnobbing insider – more committed to holding court than assembling a coalition. Cuomo was the consummate outsider whose commitment to power circles wavered to the extreme of Marx (as in Chairman Groucho).

 Cuomo would never indulge in the public identity of the self-made man. It worked against liberal pride and the cultural grain of a community-based leadership. Yet on a private level Cuomo moved inside his own circle. He stamped his own signature. He put himself through law school. Hell, he showed up for grammar school without knowing a lick of English – an experience better known to social progressives of the Depression than during the Reagan Era.

David Frum summed up the fierce and combative bootstrapping of Cuomo’s formative America:

“Cuomo never forgot his origins in the immigrant working class that idolized Franklin Roosevelt and elected John F. Kennedy. Cuomo memorably compared Walter Mondale to polenta, the bland, mushy cornmeal staple of the Italian poor. Cuomo’s most famous speech ended with this haunting evocation of his deceased father: “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.” 

I used to think that the ultimate irony was that this heavyweight Socratic musclebound mentalist would owe his historic marking to style over substance. Now I realize Mario doesn't owe anyone anything -- least of all the history we share.

Wrote Murray Kempton:

“Although we may take his mission to be successful, its effect on Cuomo was to make him wonder why the political process seems so much at cross-purposes with reasonableness and common sense. ‘It hardly seems worth the effort to attempt to change it.’ But he told himself that it’s the trying that counts… Perhaps we have seen too many redeemers come and go, leaving us pretty much where we were, and that may be why it is so refreshing to come upon a candidate for office who has already learned that tragedies do not often end happily.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Year in Bolishuk Emails

Why-you-need-to-build-your-own-distribution-channelChannel Me This

Distribution systems are containers of agreements between senders and receivers. And those agreements can be suspended or upended at every slippery turn of where a bill of goods, services, or passing signals gain entry. Once on-board, they're liable to the changes in motion that speed their delivery, hasten their departure, cut their place in line, or circumvent their very existence. Distribution systems can be hyper-engineered and rationalized to the Yuan, Dollar, and Euro like a supply chain. They can be digitized into packet switches and resurface as unencrypted evidence of our intelligible emotions -- much of it following a script other than the reach and scheduling of the distribution.

We All Screen for Oscar Contenders

One such seasonal distribution system is assigned to Homo sapiens' tendencies to dwell in caves and tell stories at the tail-end of Christian calendars. In modern times the cave is a multiplex and the story is an Oscar contender. But the network is jammed and the calendar needs recalibrating. That's because the star tour talk show cycle completes much faster than the current art houses can accommodate the movies you and me want to see.

Why is this?

Is it because the potential box office of character-based cave stories relegate a formerly mainstream event (Academy Awards) to a remote fringe of the distribution channels? Is it because the people currently the age we used to be are just fine with the availability of stories that are panned, then banned 'til they land on demand on American Bandstand, (a.k.a. YouTube?) Talk about a redirected set of wires and rails. Are you receiving this: all flat screen smart phones at sea?

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in the Void

An equally absurd network scarcity contraction hiccupped through Europe earlier this fall when Google decided not to honor a new Spanish law requiring distribution networks to pay the country's news publishers for their news content. The question is now whether the world hears of the proverbial tree falling in Spain but whether the tree was dead to begin with. 

Containments That Got Away

But you don't need to be a titan of networks or a global currency magnet to travel these circuits. A group email among us is an inner circle of winks and associations that fire neurons and trigger a sequence of knowing glances and even some exasperated retreats. But when conversation flows it's because of those fill-in-the-blank assumptions selected, tested, and recounted from a history shared and channeled within the loop.

In days past Bolishuk leveraged this form to contain great outbursts of rhetorical merit not just on the issues of the day but on the momentous thunderclaps between our ears. I learned of Bal and Svetlana's parting through a group email. I was privy to the recounting of gatherings I missed through their retelling of our distributed group text fest. I can recall few memorials as lucid and tender as Canuck's eulogizing of Dria. I enjoyed the banter and armchair jousting for the well-played references to our formative influences.

None of that was over and out in 2014 -- be it the passing of nearby divorces, individual visits, job losses, absent friends, distant memories shimmering in the foreground, or mere birthday toasts. NONE OF THESE MILESTONES (except for birthday greetings) were captured or expressed for distribution purposes. I can think of no vestige of this better than 2014 as the year education reformer gadfly Dish joined the date in history of celebrated birthday factoids on the very year he neglected to hit the Bolishuk reply button. Maybe Dish took the year off.

This benign opt-out reminds me of a more impersonal development in my own waning spheres. Over the past year my blog postings have elicited at the rate of about 20:1 in favor of spam to actual human responses. I have neither Dish's gift for provocation, clarity of argument, editorial discipline, and networking proclivities. I've spent more effort in deleting spam than I have in containing capture-worthy experience through a subscription I will not renew in 2015. Maybe I'm pining for a cable that no longer runs to my curb.  Maybe I need to sever the connection between checking my email and counting my blessings. Either way those blessings persist beyond the boundaries of distribution systems.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Sky Has Its Limits

[caption id="attachment_2108" align="alignleft" width="300"]Cymfony A sample of Cymfony's Brand Dashboard.[/caption]

I commemorated 9-11-2014 in a strange, improbable way. I met with the same guy I was scheduled to meet with 13 years earlier in the hopes of accepting my 9/11/01 consulting proposal. Like a lot of pre 9/11 plans this too was destined for the recycle bin. The best laid, evidence-based calculations lost their logic that day and remained speechless in deference to the victims of the alternately bright blue, pervasively dark morning.

I was holding some promising cards prior to that meeting. Earlier that summer I had joined up with a venture-funded search engine start-up called Cymfony. The company derived a lovely black box of algorithms that were based on what machines call "natural language" or how humans record their affairs. Computer scientists from the University of Buffalo had compiled code that consume large chunks of text and break them down into parts of speech that the software's creators called "grammars." The result was the ability to surface relationships and correlations lost to the more basic keyword matches and link associations that passed for relevancy in the Alta Vista search universe of the earliest 2000s.

The challenge for Cymfony was that there was no business model behind the search science. The leadership team called it "business intelligence" or BI. But to anyone outside of espionage circles that was a maturing market to tease the secrets out of spreadsheets for consolidating balance sheets and forecasting pipelines -- in effect BI was about the math of numbers -- not words.

Curiously I was working as a middle competitive intelligence manager for one of those BI firms when I got a call from Cymfony's CEO. Andrew Bernstein was recruiting potential test sites for building a proof of concept -- some evidence-based case studies they could use to springboard their go-to-market efforts. It was the fate of shifting economic fortunes that my interest in natural language search engines was peaking at the same time that my non-revenue-producing employment prospects were plummeting in the landing wreckage of the post dotcom nosedive.

Instead of trying to find the same work somewhere else I decided to pitch these Cymfony guys on a vision for sense-making that existed in the spreadsheets of analysts but nowhere on the results pages of Internet news searches -- let alone on the dashboards of influence-peddling news suppliers whose fortunes ride on those results. The opportunity as I explained to Andrew was that these guys are living from one traction-seeking distraction to the next. They put their fingers to the wind without any sense of how those winds are shifting or even taking shape within an overall news climate. Andrew found this compelling as a vision.

But the vision became the tangible game plan when he floated the idea of a media intelligence tool to an ally and image consultant who decried the need to quantify the squishy, personality-driven craft of branding management: not only who was flying higher or trending lower but where were the actual analytics to benchmark media coverage? Better still; quantify its impact on the segments carved out by the most visible agencies and advertisers.

Thus the Brand Dashboard was born and I was in the heady and somewhat awkward position of trying to carve out a role that was neither founder, developer, sales / marketing, or advisor / relationship-based. Besides helping to shape the new direction in the form of what the UX designer referred to as a "whiteboard doodle," I was the taxonomist -- the guy who could aggregate those grammars manifested in the black box so that the dashboard would contain the correct metrics for the right customer.

What I refused to see was that there were no ownership stakes for grammarians and taxonomists. I spent $2,000 on attorney fees to draft a contract that negotiated on those terms which never saw the light of its post 9/11 signature line. In retrospect I understand the basic flaws in my positioning as well as the resentments I carried well past the rejected proposal about having helped change the business model with no recognition by the business. I believe I turned down a pre IPO offer of preferred stock by Andrew. I was pissed and this was the most direct way I could maintain the dignity I could substitute in lieu of any parachute payments.

Thirteen years later I've earned my keep with as a taxonomist metadata mind. I don't run with my bedraggled tongue (where my sniffer should) be towards Silicon VC dollars. I support consulting organizations by making the knowledge donuts. That's meant a continuous cycle of SharePoint deployments and search configurations within the margins of firewalls and fixed budgets. There's no doubt it's for the best. Then again I've never met a change with no hand in changing that I didn't tailor into some kind of hidden blessing. There is no "all for the worst" in expression or in feeling when you outlive those blessed changes.

I've used the latest of these transitions to steer away from my functional headcount role as a knowledge manager to applying those tools of the trade into a more plausible business model -- doing KM work in a market-facing capacity as a content strategist. So who came to mind for testing my new content strategy idea? A series of incremental engagements I could sell to the same industry for which knowledge management is either a humbling confession of a knowledge problem, or at best, a necessary evil? An industry that gets no favors from Google in its quest for the right keyword campaigns and tends to view most marketing and design agencies with suspicion?

That's right. I dialed Andrew Bernstein up on LinkedIn. Andrew's still local to Boston and heading up Kearsarge Energy -- a project management firm that packages large solar farms for towns, municipalities, and large landowners. I asked him how it felt selling something more tangible these days than natural language-based branding barometers. He said the real liberation was the skeletal crew -- down from the hundred or so he managed at Cymfony before the first of two buy-outs.

The irony is that I goofed at the bargaining table of our last ill-fated meeting. I shoulda been making the donuts all along. It was a relief to admit that and positively cathartic to hear the 13 year response: “We could have used you.” That’s one winsome exchange that carries the lessons of the past over the boundaries of regret and a not-so-hidden blessing to commemorate this 9-11 Day.
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About attentionSpin

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.