This book is a manifesto for change in organizational behaviour. It exhorts readers to make the leap from being compliant cogs to indispensable creative geniuses inside an organization. Godin argues that the process of making oneself indispensable is a learned skill, and his book is the manual. Needless to say, it’s a great read, full of wisdom and inspiration, but tough to apply in practice.

Godin is an inspirational writer, and it’s worth quoting a big chunk of text to illustrate that here:

“Our society is struggling because during times of change, the very last people you need on your team are well-paid bureaucrats, note takers, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees. The compliant employees don’t help so much when you don’t know what to do next.

“What we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care…Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it together and make a difference. Some organizations haven’t realized this yet, or haven’t articulated it, but we need artists.

“The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.

“The system we grew up with is based on a simple formula: Do your job. Show up. Work hard. Listen to the boss. Stick it out. Be part of the system. You’ll be rewarded.
…If you’ve been playing that game, it’s no wonder you’re frustrated. That game is over.
There are no longer any great jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do.

“Leaders don’t get a map or a set of rules. Living life without a map requires a different attitude. It requires you to be a linchpin.”

As I read the book, I tried to think of linchpins that I know. There aren’t that many. Or schools that are mentoring students to become linchpins. I can only think of one – Kaos Pilots in Aarhus, Denmark.

So how can we identify a linchpin? It’s someone who knows how to be human, to contribute and interact. It’s someone who isn’t afraid to do emotional heavy lifting at work to make art even in the face of opposition and negative feedback from superiors. It’s someone who isn’t afraid. “The linchpin feels the fear, acknowledges it, then proceeds.” Someone who knows how to say “No”. According to Godin, there is a certain type of person who says “no” all the time because that person has goals, is a practical visionary and understand priorities.  These linchpins will disappoint you know in order to delight you later; they are so focused on their art that they know that a “no” know is a worthy investment for the magic that will be delivered later.

Be warned, however. “It’s entirely possible that once you choose to become indispensable, you will no longer be loved.”

If you can accept that, then think about how we can reform our school systems to get there.

Godin suggests that we should only be teaching two things in school:
1.    how to solve interesting problems
2.    how to lead

“Schools can teach us to be socially smart, to be open to connection, to understand the elements that build a tribe. While schools provide outlets for natural-born leaders, they don’t teach it. And leadership is now worth far more than compliance is.”

How do you prove to others in your organization or community that you are a linchpin? You have to show, not tell. “Projects are the new resumés,” says Godin.

Another piece of good news from this book is this idea: “The easier it is to quantify, the less it is worth.”

Linchpins have to fight their own inner resistance and fear of failure every day. “Resistance is the voice in your head telling you to use bullets in your PowerPoint slides because that’s what the boss wants.”
“Cog workers have very little freedom in their jobs. Their outpus is measured, their tasks are described, and they either produce or are fired.”

His basic message is simple: Make a choice. “Choose to be a laser beam, with focused intention, or a scattered ray of light that doesn’t do any good.”

“What makes someone a linchpin is the understanding of which hard work is worth doing. The only thing that separates great artists from mediocre ones is their ability to push through the dip. “

Even the terminology is outdated: “employee“? “temp“? Which new words can we appropriate to more accurately express the evolving relationship of humans to their work? “Temp” sounds like someone you ought to feel sorry for. “Employee” sounds like a worthwhile life goal. But does this reflect reality?

The “jobless recovery” in the U.S. and the swelling ranks of freelancers give new critical mass to the consultant caste, and open the debate on their terms of engagement to a broader audience. Traditionally, the consultant had to be a hustler to survive; a sharp negotiator, someone with an ability to put a figure on anything with confidence and quickly. According to the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan thinktank, 26% of the U.S. workforce had jobs in 2005 that were in one way or another “nonstandard”. That’s more than one quarter of the American workforce. Co-working is on the rise.  More than ever before, people are going to have to negotiate their work life on a piecemeal, week-by-week basis and the gap between the mindset and skills set of the employee and the free agent  will narrow. This week’s BusinessWeek cover story shows a photo of a harassed looking woman meant to represent “The permanent temporary workforce” with a potted plant in one hand and the other hand sporting a bandage for RSI.

Dee Hock, founder of VISA, was way ahead on this debate and predicted: ”In organisations of the future, the concept of superior/subordinate will crumble as we come to understand that everyone must constantly, simultaneously lead and follow and our governmental, educational, commercial and social organizations must be reconceived to enable them to do so.”

The superior/subordinate issue is just one. Another is the increasing complexity of our social networks. This will force us to adopt more complex concepts of our personal identities and the way we interact with others. Look at how you express yourself differently across different social media platforms. On Twitter I tend to share information which is twinned to my environment blog, La Vie Verte. On Friend Feed I tend to focus more on people who are immersed in education, organizational change and community management. On Linked In I tend to my network, a mix of friends and work contacts. And so on. There is no “job description” that governs the way I present myself across these platforms. And the future is going to be more and more like this. Tom Haskins summed this up nicely in a comment on one of Harold Jarche’s blog posts: “For instance, I could think of myself as both a talented, unique somebody and nobody special – just one of us. Then I would relate as someone with special needs, requests, motivations and value to contribute while also being free to respond and reciprocate as if I’m no different from anybody else. If every node in an interpersonal network adopts paradoxes like these, the network would function very responsively, resiliently and adaptively in its context.”

What else? The art of “managing” those who are above and below you will transmute into something else. Right now the bets are on community management as the way of the future. I’m reading Jono Bacon’s “The Art of Community” right now and learning about the nuts and bolts of “herding cats” (the metaphor applies to open source programmers).
The book lays out his experience of 10 years of community management at Ubuntu, and tries to codify that experience with a series of guidelines for managing any kind of community. The underlying assumption of the community management paradigm is simple: big organisations cannot deliver what we need in the 21st century.

Seth Godin talks about the ability to find and organize 1,000 people as being the killer app skill today.  It could be 1,000 people each spending $1,000 on a special interest cruise = one million dollars. Here’s the rub: “What’s difficult is changing your attitude. Instead of speed dating your way to interruption, instead of yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living, coordinating a tribe of 1,000 requires patience, consistency and a focus on long-term relationships and life time value. You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.”

The old model was: give us your time and your loyalty, and we’ll pay you a check every month, and put away some money for your old age. Today, young people out of college and spending years trying to get the most abject internship with pitiful remuneration and no job prospects. Middle-aged people who are in positions of responsibility in organisations are so stressed and overworked they complain about not having time to think. So mistakes are made serially because of this collective attention deficit disorder, and the margin for feedback loops to improve process is wiped out.

So whether you’re an employee or a temp, get ready for some serious disruption in 2010!

Google Wave and Wolfram Alpha have a lot in common, and I’m convinced that both have tremendous potential as change-drivers in education and collaboration. Both were released to great fanfare in 2009, followed by a subsequent hiss of media letdown as the digerati elite quickly discovered how difficult both were to master. But educational communities have persisted and made impressive progress adopting these tools. I believe Wolfram will change the way we teach and learn, and Wave is going to change the way we collaborate and communicate.

Google Wave was released as a pre-beta preview on an invitation-only basis earlier this year, and it’s basically a tool for collaborative communication which allows groups of people to share anything in real time – documents, video, music, photos etc. It’s very chaotic and confusing at the outset, and challenges all the built-in reflexes developed by email use. But I’ve always hated the way emails to multiple recipients build up during a project’s duration, and how you have to open them up each time somebody adds a line, a comment, an updated document; how you have to label all the bits and pieces to be able to aggregate them for search and retrieval, and I’m hopeful that Wave will create a new modus operandi for collaborative communication. I also love watching the crowd-sourcing develop in real-time and the impressive commitment of the early adopters, mostly volunteers, to inform, support and accompany the thousands of dazed and confused users like myself who are motivated to learn but don’t know where to begin. Be warned, as Louis Gray put it, “…if you’re diving into this new technology, expect do be exerting a lot of energy to stay on top of it, because messaging just got accelerated.”

A good place to start is this post at Bit Rebels featuring Fernando Fonseca who has created a newbie wave as well as a GW helpdesk.
There’s also a complete guide to Google Wave here.

Wolfram Alpha, a computational search engine, was released earlier this year, and the media – not having enough time to really test and understand it – jumped to the conclusion that it was a potential “Google killer”, which of course it isn’t. Wave is already being used in colleges and universities as a collaborative note-taking tool, and there is concern that this would make it easy for lazy students to piggy back off the work of others.

Wolfram Alpha has generated similar concern that it can encourage laziness and cheating in math students. It can solve complex math problems and spell out the steps leading to those solutions. But Stephen Wolfram insists that computer-algebra systems like Wolfram Alpha actually improve education because they allow students to explore complex problems on their own and intuitively determine how functions work, rather than just learn rote processes. He claims that “it’s better to let them stand on that platform and go further.”

One of my favourite uses for Wolfram is as a conversions app – for currencies, for metric to imperial – the beauty of it is that you get the comparative graph, for instance the dollar/euro rate over the past 12-months – giving you a much deeper grasp of the relationship between the two variables than if you punch it into a converter. It’s also a homework helper – take a look at some of the videos here from Wolfram Alpha Homework Day in October.

An outstanding, important post from Stephen Downes, called “An Operating System for the Mind”, in which he argues for 21st learning skills on the basis of the need to “acquire facts in a format appropriate to your knowledge system. 21st century skills are, in short, an operating system for the mind.”

What I found really striking and powerful about his argument was the idea that the reactionaries, or status quo defenders – whom he dubs “common core people” – are actually embedding handicaps to growth and real learning into our educational systems. ie Those who argue that skills can’t be taught without first acquiring a lumpen mass of obsolete and irrelevant facts in a wide array of subjects, those are the people who “want the means and the ability to implant unquestioned truths into the minds of children, and this in an environment where the possession of unquestioned truths becomes to be more and more of a handicap, an impediment, a barrier to personal growth and prosperity.”

“…while it is necessary (and possible) to teach facts to people, it comes with a price. And the price is this: facts learned in this way, and especially by rote, and especially at a younger age, take a direct route into the mind, and bypass a person’s critical and reflective capacities, and indeed, become a part of those capacities in the future.”

“People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.”

It’s a chilling wake-up call, and in conclusion he issues this warning: “Today…if you simply follow the rules, do what you’re told, do your job and stay out of trouble, you will be led to ruin.

“… it works for a while, and seems like the safest place to me, but all the while, you’re approaching a waterfall. Whether it be a financial crash, the degradation of the environment, war and terrorism, or even something as simple as a car accident or family crisis, you will need more and more the ability to keep yourself afloat in troubled and rapidly changing circumstances, and an abundance of facts will not help you, it will instead sweep you over the waterfall.”

Interesting podcast discussion on unschooling at Jerry Michalski’s Yi-tan series. Yitan is a weekly live podcast call that Jerry has run for four years, covering change and technology at all levels. Dave Pollard offers his “ah-ha” moment of unschooling and self-directed learning, and one caller points out that all the unschoolers she knows in California have one parent who is either an engineer, a scientist or involved in technology or the internet. Jerry defines unschooling as “facilitating learning for the learners”, where children do their own learning and pursue their passions and where parents act as coaches and advisors.

Here’s a cool new school that just opened its doors in New York: Quest to Learn, the brainchild of Katie Salen, a games designer and professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Grounded in the latest research on learning, video games and digital media, the school opened its doors to 6th graders this week for the first time.

The school day is divided into four 90-minute blocks organized into domains:

1. Codeworlds – a combination of Math and English

2 . Being, Space and Place – English and social studies

3. The Way Things Work -math and science

4. Sports for the Mind – game design and digital literature

According to Q2L’s website: “Quest supports a dynamic curriculum that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences for students. Games and other forms of digital media also model the complexity and promise of “systems.” Understanding and accounting for this complexity is a fundamental literacy of the 21st century.”

One of the underlying principles is game-based learning, whereby students are able to take on the identities and behaviours of explorers, mathematicians, historians, writers and evolutionary biologists as they work through the curriculum. For example, one unit of The Way Things Work challenges students to get into the minds of scientists devising a pathway for a beam of light to reach a target. This lesson touches on math, optics, creative thinking and teamwork.  Sounds like the perfect antidote to our mass education model which asks students to simply copy and paste into their brains.

The news which disturbed me the most from the education/work front this summer was this item from the New York Times: “Unpaid work, but they pay for the privilege”.

“..Growing numbers of new graduates — or, more often, their parents — are paying thousands of dollars to services that help them land internships.” One of the market leaders, the University of Dreams, offers “a guaranteed internship placement, eight weeks of summer housing, five meals a week, seminars and tours around New York City for $7,999.”

I can’t help concluding that this basically signals the death knell of the educational system as it exists today. If companies are so little in need of interns and so unmotivated to cultivate promising new talent that they will agree to accept payment allowing graduates to grace their water coolers for eight weeks, then the system is unravelling sooner than I had expected.

Back in Paris at the top of September, shopping for back to school supplies, I can’t escape the feeling that it is all wrong, that the filtering, the elitism, physical funnelling of our children into this trap which is leading nowhere ($8000 for an unpaid internship in 2009? What next? If working for free is now commoditized as a market good, then surely corporate serfdom can’t be far off…) is an enormous bad joke which will backfire in a decade or so when society begins to reorganize itself along post-peak-everything lines and our best and brightest have none of the skills appropropriate to the new set-up.

Blogger Jeff Vail has an interesting take on this – he dubs the coming organizational system “The Diagonal Economy”. “…More and more people will gradually realize that there the “plausible promise” once offered by the American nation-state is no longer plausible. A decent education and the willingness to work 40 hours a week will no longer provide the “Leave it to Beaver” quid pro quo of a comfortable suburban existence and a secure future for one’s children.

” People will, to varying degrees, recognize that they cannot rely on the cradle-to-cradle promise of lifetime employment by their nation state. Instead, they will realize that they are all entrepreneurs in at least three—and possibly many more—separate enterprises: one’s personal brand in interaction with the Legacy System (e.g. your conventional job), one’s localized self-sufficiency business (ranging from a back yard tomato plant to suburban homesteads and garage workshops), and one’s community entrepreneurship and network development. ”

Then I read about the ultra-rich building doomsday fortresses for themselves worldwide, and the idea that the second-tier of rich people will be needing consultants to help them do this: ie a rich business opportunity. This is worse than decadent, it’s end-of-civilization. And further strengthens the case for unschooling.

Summertime brings a slower blogging pace as well as the joys of catching up with friends, eating outdoors and not wearing a watch or making a to-do list.

Dmitry Orlov writes at Club Orlov a thought-provoking piece entitled “You don’t have to go to school”.
“A small but already by no means negligible number of Americans is starting to realize what their future looks like: no retirement, no job, no savings, plus they are getting old. Their only possible means of support in old age is their children.

“And so, in the meantime, let’s continue to mindlessly send our children off to “learning” institutions, where they will be properly supervised at all times, bored half to death, medicated into submission should they rebel, even by simply refusing to pay attention, not taught anything worth knowing by demoralized, underpaid public servants, and then spat out into the world with their spirits crushed.”

He goes on to provide a translated account of a Russian woman’s experience taking her three children out of school. I highly recommend it.

The Guardian earlier this month ran a story based on a survey of 226 top employers in the U.K. showing a 25% fall in vacancies, a slump in recruiting levels not seen since 1991. The study, carried out by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), showed that competition for jobs is much fiercer, with an average of 48 applications for every graduate vacancy. Vacancies in engineering have dropped 40%; only energy, water and utilities have registered an increase of 7.1%.

So what to do? Umair Haque has come up with a good template for discussion called the Generation M Manifesto. The M’s refer to “movement” and “meaningful stuff that matters the most”. “Every generation has a challenge, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity”.

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