Thursday, April 30, 2009


In his article March 28, 2009 article in the New York Times,  "Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City, " Noam Cohen compares the experience of using the Wikipedia to that of exploring an ancient, well-built city, and the etiquette of  contributing to the Wikipedia to that of living in a city. 

Interesting food for thought.  

(Too bad it took me a month to get around to reading this.)  

View the entire article at 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Food for Thought

In his recent New York Times article, "No, You Can't Get an Upgrade," David Segal describes an upgrade-oriented approach to life, from the upgrades one receives as compensation for a bad customer service experience to the upgrades in friends that people inevitably go through.  

The concept reminded me of a book I read about (but, admittedly, have not yet read): Sunnyvale, The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, by Jeff Goodell, which describes the fallout of a planned upgrade.

View Segal's article at

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Carrots, Sticks, and Copyright Laws

In his recent New York Times article, "Sneaking Into the Movies," Michael Cieply describes how large media companies are using both carrots and sticks to ensure compliance with copyright laws.  

The sticks are well known-mostly lawsuits.  The article suggests that most media companies realize these efforts will have, at best, limited impact on pirating copyrighted music, movies, and television shows.  

The carrots are not well-known, but primarily involve creating "events" around the music and movies, such as using concerts-not records-as a primary revenue stream for performers and creating one-of-a-kind events around movies, which  viewing the video can't repeat (like the opening events associated with Disney's documentary, Earth.)

View the entire article at 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Checking Up on New Employers and Other Tips for Using LinkedIn

In "Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn," re-published at the LinkedIn blog, Guy Kawasaki offers a number of useful tips on getting value from this service.  Some of the more interesting ones:
  • Using LinkedIn to investigate a potential employer by checking up on the hiring manager and possible high turnover in the organization
  • Using your LinkedIn profile to improve Google search results about you 

View the entire article at

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Could SuperUsers Replace Super Technical Communicators and Instructional Designers?

In his recent New York Times article, "Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer," Steve Lohr describes a trend in which organizations seek out super-users to voluntarily contribute insights and advice in their online communities, speaking specifically about a trial project at Verizon.  

As a scholar, the discussion of research on the different classes of users was helpful: a class of super-users who provide expert advice to others and suggest improvements to product design (sometimes making the improvements themselves), who comprise about 1 percent of a user community; a second group of users that actively participants as raters of experts' advice (about 9 percent), and the majority (as much as 90 percent  of users), who simply read the contributions of the other 10 percent.

As a teacher of future creators of content, however, the Verizon trial (and other projects like it) seem like the embodiment of the "informal learning future" that so many in training and instructional design describe.  But this vision of the future doesn't really hold much room for company staff, except to reward the 1 percent who contribute.   

View the entire article at

Friday, April 24, 2009

A New Way of Viewing the World

In “Lit Critics Who Peer Under the Covers,” New York Times contributor Patricia Cohen discusses the impact of the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a co-founder of queer studies who, in the process of co-founding a field, challenged academics to look at the world in new ways.

Cohen writes:
For starters, the ideas that she and others developed helped to usher in the era of multiculturalism, which challenged traditional scholarship as well as the primacy of Western thought and peoples. The resulting battles over ideology and values that composed the culture wars made their way into the national conversation.
Cohen adds that Sedgwick felt that all “defined categories” fail to “capture reality.” More than focusing on GLBTQ issues, Sedgwick had an impact on all of the identity studies. Sedgwick noted a tension between the “universalizing view,” in which minorities should be treated like everyone else, and the “minoritizing view,” in which miniroties should be viewed as “oppressed.”

Cohen notes the impact of Sedgwick’s scholarship not only on academe, but in the broader community and suggests that it was one of the drivers of the conservative outrage at academic scholarship.

To be honest, I’ve noticed the tension between the universalizing and minoritizing not only in the queer world, in Quebec (which struggles with language issues), and in the Jewish community, which struggles with isolation and assimilation.

As much as I probably should not be admitting this (but to be honest, although I’m queer, but I’m not a queer scholar), I had not heard of Sedgwick but hope to learn more.

Read the full article at

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Integrating IT

In “Tech Skills Crucial to Any Career, Students Say,” Denise Dubie reports on an IBM Academic Initiative survey that:
“found that 80 percent of 1,600 college students polled agreed that high-technology skills will help them succeed, and a majority expect to have to master new technologies while in the workforce. More than 50 percent of the students said they plan to improve their technology skills before they graduate, with technology being the top skill that students want to pursue, followed by writing and marketing skills.”

True. But that’s not exactly a new finding. The late Helen Loeb presented a similar finding from her survey of engineering students over 20 years ago at the Society for Technical Communication Annual Conference (can’t remember the exact one; I think it was Denver 1987).

She also compared those results with a survey of students 10 years after they received their degrees. By then, they realized that communication skills were the most important in moving their careers forward.

What’s different by the IBM survey is that it was not conducted with technically-focused students. It encompassed students in other fields, like healthcare, and found that IT is basic to even these fields. Mark Hanny, an IBMer involved with the study, concluded that:
"Studying IT and technology in a broader sense is the right approach; it helps students understand how technology is applied to various businesses to help streamline operations," Hanny says. "IT is being embraced by students as a core competency across many professions and no longer considered a narrow, specialized skill set."
That’s an especially important finding for a field like educational technology

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reason versus Emotion

In his April 7 column in the New York Times, David Brooks comments on the roles of reasons and emotions in making moral judgments:
. . . They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.
I now know why being logical rarely gets through to people.

For the full column, visit

Data-Based Decisions, Again

In Failing to Push Paper in the Digital Age, Gordon Pitts explains how AbitibiBowater, (it’s one of those huge companies that most people never hear of—it’s the largest manufacturer of newsprint) ended up in bankruptcy.

Many of the issues that this 95-year-old company are financial: the company assumed bigger is better and over-leveraged itself becoming big.

But a part of the problem is a failure to carefully read industry trends. Pitts describes how the company tried to continue growing despite a 20-year downward trend in the demand for newspapers, and never fully responded to that trend. Furthermore, one of the companies this one bought had as one of its best assets a top-notch CEO. But the purchasers did not that CEO in their top job. So when the bottom fell out of the news industry this past year, the bottom fell out of this company.

Read the full article at

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Elements of Style Turns 50

One of the pithiest books on writing style, Strunk & White's Elements of Style, turns 50 this year. Read about the book and its impact at

Skin Deep Toxicity

In his article, Managing Toxic Employees: How to Turn Such Individuals into Positive Performers, in BusinessWest (a business newspaper in Western Massachusetts), Edward R. Mitnick provides signs of toxic employees, explains how once-productive and positive workers might become toxic, and offers a step-by-step process for addressing these problems.

The problem with brief articles like this one that attempt to cover complex topics is that they oversimplify them and, in this case, barely acknowledge it. In this case, Mitnick focuses on the most obvious toxic performers—the kind of people everyone meets on the job.

The problem is, not all toxic workers are so obviously toxic at face value. But there are other means of identifying them—such as higher turnover (because people choose not to work with these toxic individuals).

Furthermore, the strategies that Mitnick suggests for addressing toxic workers are pretty standard, and look like they come straight out of a manual for managing marginal performers with a performance plan. The plan is the easy part; initiating the conversations regarding poor performance are the hard part and the article offers no advice on that.

In fact, one of the reasons that these problems arise is that managers avoided the problems when they first appeared because avoiding that unpleasant conversation was easier and quicker than having it.

(In fact, in Coaching in Challenging Times, published at the Training Zone UK, John Blakely notes that even executive coaches have been able to avoid these difficult conversations in their coaching until now but, because the clients paying coaches to addres the “‘coachee’s prejudices and shortcomings,” even executive coaches are going to have to have these “difficult conversations” and “confront” their coachees.)

To his credit, Mitnick suggests that toxic performers are often the result of bad management, rather than merely the worker’s own actions and that fixing the problem requires shared ownership.

Read Mitnick’s full article at

Read the article on executive coaches having difficult conversations with coachees at

It’s All in the Data

In his April 17, 2009 column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman analyzes the evidence that an economic recovery might be starting, offering “four reasons to be cautious about the economic outlook.”

For students of data-based decision making, this analysis provides an insight into the role of interpretation of data provided. For example, Krugman shows how optimists might be missing some important data in their analyses or choosing to ignore it, stating that “Things are getting worse” based on the most recent reports from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s many districts.

He raises similar concerns about bank profits, noting how a change in the reporting period has removed one of the most difficult months from one bank’s quarterly report and, as a result, made the performance appear significantly data.

In other words, yes—data is important in making decisions, but the data needs to be sound.

Read the full column at

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Ails Higher Education?

In her April 18, 2009 column in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente suggests that one of the problems with university education today is that a large number of students admitted don’t really belong there and would be better served by a vocational education at a community college (Cegep).

As evidence, she cites a variety of evidence, including reports of grade inflation in Ontario schools (resulting in students who think they’re prepared for university, but are not), and polls of, and interviews with, university professors about the capabilities of their incoming students. She also notes that, once admitted, most students cannot flunk out.

Read the full column at

Friday, April 10, 2009

And Now, for the Positive News

In contrast to the pessimism of my earlier posting about the demise of mass media and the decline of traditional media, a commentary by A. O. Scott suggests that today’s media users seek pith and character and, in response, electronic reading devices like Kindle might lead to a the resurgence of the short story, just as the iPod changed the focus from the album to the song.

In other words, despite the sadness of the loss of what we know, something good might be on the horizon.

Read Scott’s piece at

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Differences between Unions in America and Canada and Europe

Unions in the US have always seemed different than the ones in Europe and Canada (especially Quebec).

I always sensed that the US public was less supportive of unions than the European union, as demonstrated by overall levels of union representation in the workforce (much lower in the US) and general attitudes in conversation (admittedly anecdotal information).

US unions also tend to be more on top of things in negotiations. They tend to stop working as soon as a contract expires, rather than working towards a settlement for what seems like an eternity like they do in Canada (some unions will go 4 or 5 years without a contract, get a lump sum payment for the difference--but the new contract is only good for a short time before the never-ending process begins again).

And when European workers aren't happy (as they aren't feeling right now with all of the job cuts there), they take to the streets.

A Week in Review piece from the April 5 New York Times sheds some light on these differences. Read the entire article at

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Corporate Trainers and Communicators Not Immune to Trends in Traditional Media

Any of us who work in the media, even if we work in a training or internal or technical communications group, must certainly feel troubled by the problems faced by the commercial media. The old media—newspapers, magazines, and television—is bleeding viewers, advertisers, and revenue. In response, most are cutting expenses, which translates into lost jobs and less coverage. Many new media sites—like webzines and web-based news—are either marginally or not yet profitable, so they’re not necessarily absorbing the losses.

More fundamentally, changes in the media will have profound social and intellectual impacts. Mass media has a near universal reach so it creates a common experience among all users. More significantly, because it serves a wide audience, it tends to emphasize some level of balance in its reporting and provides people with access to opinions that challenge the ones they hold. (Whether that balance is perceived is another issue.)

In contrast, the newer media—and the more profitable versions of traditional media—appeal to niches, like Fox News appeals to conservative and MSNBC appeals to progressives. According to a column by Nicholas Kristoff, these niche media rely more on reinforcing and supporting the beliefs and values of their users rather than broadening them. Similarly, partly because of their appeal to niches and partly because of economics, these niche sources rely more on commentators than reporters. Commentators may or may not rely on empirical evidence to support their opinions. These sources also solicit stories from "citizen journalists" who might have more immediate access to news, but have neither the training nor the professional ethic to get all sides of a story or to avoid speculation. And they’re less expensive than salaried reporters or news services. Staff at these media organizations become low-level production specialists rather than senior correspondents, lending less and less editorial expertise.

And there’s evidence that similar trends are afoot in corporate communications and training. See David Merrill and Brent Wilson’s 2006 chapter on the rise of the instructional-designer-by-assignment in Bob Reiser and John Dempsey’s 2006 book on issues in instructional design and technology. And I have an upcoming chapter in Rachel Spilka’s book on the effects of digital technology on technical communication.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Apparently, Americans Don't Know their Civics

Apparently, Americans don’t know their civics. The average university-educated individual flunked a 33-question exam of questions ranging from the three branches of government to the nature of the market system. Although a bachelor’s degree was the single
Among other causes for the problem, the authors noted that watching television, including TV news, as one of the leading factors associated with poor test scores (watching cable news networks results in an average of .8 percent drop in score).

Take the test yourself at:

(For what it’s worth, I scored a 90.3. )

Monday, April 06, 2009

Age Discrimination? Is it Real? Can You Do Anything about It?

Despite laws forbidding it, age discrimination is a factor in job searches.
On the one hand, evidence suggests that older workers are having an easier time finding work in this difficult economy than younger ones. Steven Greenhouse describes the competition among younger and older workers for less- and moderately- skilled workers is in his March 20, 2009 article in the New York Times. (

But even with those odds, an older worker looking for a professional job, especially in fields undergoing extensive technical changes or that are characterized by younger employment, age discrimination is a reality. It will not be overt, but according to Eilene Zimmerman’s February 28 column in the New York Times, but will be a subtle factor (perhaps unconscious). Interviewers will wonder whether you’re up to date on technology or a luddite? Whether you have the energy to do the job or are going to take naps every afternoon in the office? Whether you are looking for something to bridge you until you’re eligible for Social Security or will make a longer-term career?

Read her advice for fending off these perception issues at

Friday, April 03, 2009

Netbook nation?

For years, I was always concerned that PCs had more power than the average person needed. Consider application software. MS Works not only has enough power for the average user--like my mom and step-sister--but is far less expensive than MS Office. But so many people think they need the more expensive versions.

Similarly, everyone always bought PCs and laptops with the most power they could afford, even though they rarely used even half of that capability. For example, many people don't play games or perform professional music and video editing. So why do they need all of that graphics and memory capability?

Building on the $100 computer that was developed for use in developing nations, manufacturers have realized that maybe some people in the developed world might be ready to trade down to a level of computing that's appropriate to them and started to offer similar low-power devices that run on the open source Linux operating system.

Called netbooks, these attractive looking and even more attractively-priced PCs have been a huge hit. At $300-$800 for a typical device (though higher priced ones exist), they're selling well. (OK--that's even if they're a bit hard to use. My fingers constantly type the wrong key on my ASUS eeePC.)

But a new partnership between mobile phone companies and manufacturers of netbooks could result in even lower costs. According to a New York Times article this week, as low as $50 in a trial program by AT&T Wireless in Atlanta, and maybe even free (with a commitment to a long-term mobile phone plan, of course).

And it sounds like the manufacturers of higher end computing products are concerned, as recent sales data suggests that netbooks will affect their bottom lines.

Read the entire article at

Whither Voice Mail

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm one of the world's worst responders to voice mail messages.

I always understood the psychology of it: with 4 e-mail accounts and 3 voice mail accounts, and office and home delivery of the mail, something has to give.

So my outgoing voice mail message suggests that people send an e-mail message.

What I did not understand that my behavior is part of a growing trend, as reported by Jill Colvin in "You've Got Voice Mail, but do You Care?" published in Friday's New York Times.

And, the article reports that, rather than being rude, the message that people send an e-mail message is considered to be appropriate behavior.

Read the whole article at

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Addressing Poor Performance in Schools

In a recent column New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the challenges facing the superintendent of schools in Washington, DC in addressing that school system’s weak performance.

Some of the most significant include providing all students with access to the best teachers, whose presence plays one of the most significant positive effects on student performance. Students in wealthy neighborhoods are far more likely to have access to such teachers than those in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In the process, she also needs to step up to poor performance in schools, a situation that reaches faces stiff opposition.

View the entire article at