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Afghan "Shura" - Source: US Navy

A debater with thin skin is much like a soldier without composure: He isn’t much good to his craft, not to mention his cause.

I find myself debating a lot these days. Many of the topics revolve around business, brand management, crisis communications, Social Media, R.O.I. and marketing, while others touch on far more important ones like geostrategy, culture, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and Constitutional law. I believe debate to be a healthy pursuit – not simply an entertaining passtime – and engage in it with both delight and passion. I relish the opportunity to face off against another’s intellect and wit, especially when the act of debating an issue helps bring a discussion back from a place of hateful discord to one of mutual respect, if only for a few minutes.

It doesn’t mean both parties will agree or that one side will convert the other. I am not that naïve. All it means is that both parties will discuss the issue with respect towards each other. Debate is at its best an exercise in civility, at its worst an ugly, pointless brawl or shouting match.

The latter happens when emotions rather than reason get the best of someone involved.

Before you get to riled up, consider this that if debate is indeed a manner of combat (and it is,) it at least has the virtue of being bloodless. As such, it is a gentleman’s (and likewise a lady’s) sport. Losing an argument isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it may come with its share of benefits, not the least of which may be an education.

Now might be a good time to point out that debates are not about proving that one’s feelings about an issue should prevail. Debates are about arguing points, not feelings. “My feelings are more right than your feelings,” is an impossible argument. You might as well try to argue that your choice of a favorite color is better than someone else’s choice of their favorite color. It is completely pointless.

In every debate are two conjoined threads: One holds fast to reason while the other weaves itself into feelings and emotions. unless you want your exchange to degenerate into mindless hysterics, always focus on the former. While passion can – and should – drive a debate, it should never be the instrument of its discourse. Ever.

How this translates to this blog and exchanges I might have with you on Facebook, Twitter or even in the real world of face-to-face interactions is this: I will never tell you that your feelings about an issue are wrong. I may, however, tell you that your thinking around an issue is.

And then prove it to you.

When this happens, here’s how to best me: Prove me wrong. Not with feelings, not with arguments about feelings, and certainly not with anger, scorn, insults or threats. Best me with reason. If you make your argument, I will yield. (Gladly, in fact.) It happens regularly.

If you cannot make your argument, break off, give the topic of discussion more thought, do more research and try again when you’re better prepared.

Never will your feelings about an issue be enough to convince anyone of the validity of your position, especially if they revolve around anger. No emotion or personal belief, even if echoed by your peers, can ever justify the abdication of reason, especially in a debate. Show me your cool head. Show me the depth of your intellect. Show me the extent to which you have reflected upon an issue. Preparation here is key: Know what you are talking about. Know it from every possible angle. Consider all of the points of view, and recognize their every strength and weakness based on its own bias, not yours.

Only when you can see every angle can you consider yourself ready to enter into a debate – that is, a discussion about a topic with someone of the opposite viewpoint. Regarding this topic, here is something to consider: Spending most of your time both listening to a single viewpoint and discussing it with like-minded peers will not prepare you for a debate, the object of which is this: To prove the validity of your point in spite of your feelings, rather than by recruiting others to the emotion that secures your adherence to it.

A few tips on debating issues both online and offline:

1. Know the subject thoroughly. Not just your side of the issue, but all sides equally.

2. Trust both, but separate reason from emotion. The former is your ally. The latter is not.

3. Unless you live in a theocracy, morality and religion are subjective arguments, not objective arguments. Subjective arguments, while fascinating in certain social situations, have no place in reasonable debate.

(Update: Rick pointed out that I may be wrong about this in the comment section, and I see his point. Our discussion about context helps shed some light about this. I indeed failed to take into account the context of a debate when I suggested #3. He’s right.)

4. Respect your opponent even if s/he does not respect you. (Your professionalism, kindness and honor are yours. Their absence in an opponent has no bearing on your own.)

5. The moment either person involved loses their temper, the debate is over.

6. Thin skin and public debates do not mix.

7. Be aware that debating a point with an unreasonable person may be a complete waste of your time. Debating the virtues of civil rights legislation with a racist, for instance, may not be the most productive use of your time. Likewise, arguing ethics with a crook probably won’t get you anywhere. Just as worthy opponents make great sport, worthy opponents make great debates. Too one sided a contest typically yields disappointing results. Don’t waste your time on unworthy foes.

8. At least 1 out of 4 people who disagree with you may be utterly incapable of arguing a point objectively. See item 7 for further instructions.

9. If you represent a company or organization, heated debates may be ill-advised – especially when they touch on religion, sex and politics. If you are answerable to no one but yourself, no such limitations exist beyond those you impose on yourself. In either case, always remember item 4: The golden rule of public debates.

10. If you are bested, acknowledge it gracefully. If you win, thank your opponent for his/her gracious effort. All other outcomes are to be avoided whenever possible. Nothing is gained from the murder of civility, especially in matters of public debate.

One final note: Debate with heart, let outrage fuel your argument when it must, but keep your sense of humor close at hand. When all else fails, it may yet carry you through. The ability to laugh at yourself, at your own stumbles, at the witty barbs of your opponent when they deserve a nod, can be all the armor you need to compensate for any unwanted thinness of skin.

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Before I begin, here are links to the three events mentioned in the video:

July 17: Americas Mart International Gift Show – Atlanta, GA

July 20 (not July 21, as I wrongly stated in the above video): Gaspedal’s Supergenius conference – New York, New York

July 27-28: ADMA Forum 2010 – Sydney, Australia

Okay. Now we can begin.

From solo operator to corporate front: The evolution of manufactured Social Media expertise in 2010

I guess it was just a matter of time before we had to revisit the issue of bogus Social Media “experts,” so today is as good as any to do just that. This time though, rather than drop the hammer on the latest Social Media certification scheme or outrageous Social Media R.O.I. equation/calculator, let me just speak in more general terms. Not that I particularly feel obliged to protect the guilty, but we can do this without pointing any fingers. Actually, for this topic, it works better if we don’t.

What I want to shed a light on today isn’t the lone “Social Media Expert” who tried his hand at being a day-trader, then got into SEO, then found himself out of a job for a few months and finally figured he’d try his luck as a Social Media consultant… because hey, how hard can it be, right? *sigh* We’ve already been down that road and I can’t think of anything to add at this juncture. No, today, I want to bring up another type of “Social Media expert” altogether: The kind that earns his or her validation from the company they work for, mostly as a marketing ploy engineered by said company.

Consider a scenario for a moment (and I am not making this up, so pay attention): Consulting Firm XYZ realizes that there is big money in Social Media consulting and services, say in the enterprise space. Every single one of their big clients is asking them for help on the Social Media front, first in terms of research and fact-finding, then in terms of strategy, then integration and training. They need to act fast or they might not get that business. What to do?

There are two ways of going about this: The first – Putting together a team of people with actual experience in these matters. Identify them internally or hire them as needed. The second – Grabbing the handful of consultants who did your initial research and fact-finding when it comes to Social Media, and change their respective titles to reflect their needed “expertise” in light of their new client-facing roles. One is the right, ethical, smart and professional way of getting into the Social Media consulting business. The other is the complete opposite of that.

Intelligent and ethical choices designate the winners in the long run

Let me be clear about this: Many firms and agencies choose the first of these choices. Companies like Edelman, Ogilvy, Radian 6, Deloitte and New Marketing Labs have already snatched up some pretty solid names in the space – an indication that they are taking their task and their clients’ well-being seriously. These companies would tend to fall into the good category. Sadly though, not all consulting firms and agencies have chosen the same path. More and more, I keep running into firms that knowingly appoint people with no experience or savvy to “Social Media Director,” “VP Social Business” and other such roles, then aggressively market them to their unsuspecting clients in order to secure lucrative consulting contracts.

Not that some consulting firms haven’t been doing this with other disciplines for decades, but this one hits a little closer to home. Besides, until now, internally manufactured experts at least had some semblance of experience. At worst, they received a decent degree of training before being thrust into their clients’ unfortunate laps to learn their craft as they went. Now though, when it comes to Social Media integration and program development, not so much. It’s like the bar has been lowered a few more notches, and that isn’t something we should turn a blind eye to.

How to manufacture a bogus Social Media expert for your company in 10 easy steps

So here’s how the process of manufacturing internal Social Media expertise works:

Step 1 – Identify the pigeon: the individual who isn’t really good at what s/he was hired to do, but is someone’s protegé within the organization and could fit into this role well enough. “Let’s see… Who fits that description… Ah yes. Jackson. Someone call Jackson in here. What?… Yes, tell him to bring his pencil.”

Step 2 – Send Jackson on a two-week fact-finding mission to find and browse through every study, article, report and policy ever written about Social Media. (We’ll come back to this in step 4.) “Yes, Jackson. Google. With a G.”

Step 3 – Build Jackson a personal website and a blog. Tell him to get a Twitter account started. Better get on Facebook too. Oh, and LinkedIn, just for good measure.

Step 4 – Remember all of that research Jackson did for Step 2? Yeah… Get the web guy to create a page that agglomerates all of those “resources” on his new website. A) It’ll look like he really knows his stuff. B) It’s great for SEO. C) With a resource like that, we’re sure to attract a few bloggers and e-journalists.

Step 5 – “Get the PR team rolling. We need to get our man some speaking gigs and a few key quotes in industry pubs.”

Step 6 – “Call our print people. We need to make sure Jackson gets published asap. Pull some strings. We need this.”

Step 7 – “Mortimer, make sure jackson blogs once per week. Yes, make him if he doesn’t want to. Same with Twitter. I want a daily tweet from him, with a link to something we own. Wait… on second thought, never mind. We’ll let Legal handle all that.”

Step 8 – “Make sure that Jackson’s personal website looks nothing like ours, but throw in an easy-to-spot disclaimer that clearly identifies him/her as our employee. No sense throwing bait without the hook. Yes, our company name needs to be italicized.”

Step 9 – “Call the PR team again. Let’s make sure everyone knows we’ve named Jackson VP of Social Business. Yeah, contact all the big bloggers too. Some of them might share the info with their networks. Oh, and email our clients. Yes, all of them.”

Step 10 – “Book a few rooms for SxSW and Blogworld. Jackson needs to be seen. Let’s see if we can sponsor a party while we’re there too. We have some leftover marketing money from that thing last month anyway.”

Voila. Before you know it, someone with zero background in the space as of three months ago is suddenly an expert working with Fortune 100 clients for a prominent consulting firm. Just. Like. That.

Smoke, mirrors, and the proverbial wool in the age of Google: Wrapping it all up with a simple job title

Now imagine you’re a company looking to build a Social Media program, and you don’t know where to start. The consulting firm you work with comes to you with a Social Media consulting package. They introduce you to their “expert,” Their VP of Social Business, with his own team of social media consultants. You google the guy. You find his website. You find the extensive list of resources he linked to on his website, along with a handful of quickly drafted $150 reports done internally by research interns last summer. He has a twitter account, a Facebook profile and even a blog with a good dozen posts on it you can’t really understand, but they’re filled with links. Looks good, right? Why should you doubt any of this? Seems legit enough.

After all, why should you doubt marketing from a company looking to generate millions of dollars in Social Media consulting fees after an investment of less than $10K in web design and PR? Hell, they didn’t even need to staff up. All they did was shuffle a few consultants around then printed them new business cards to reflect their new… expertise. Bam. Instant new service offering.

This isn’t theory. It isn’t a what if scenario. This is all too real. This actually happens, and it happens within very large, reputable firms as well as small fly-by-night ones.

All of this to say: Be cautious. Do your homework – not just on the firm itself, as it might otherwise have a stellar reputation and an impressive list of clients, but more specifically on the “experts” your consulting partners bring to your table. Just because a company you hire to help you tells you their experts are indeed experts doesn’t make them so. Do your homework. Research the “experts.” Don’t let well-designed websites and fancy titles fool you.

7 simple ways to separate legitimate  professionals from manufactured experts

Here are some things to look for before you throw your money away on a complete disaster:

1. EVERY person worthy of occupying a Director or VP level position in the Social Media, Social Business or Social Communications space has been involved in some sort of social/digital publishing for 3-5+ years. Typically, this manifests itself as a blog. Case in point: NML’s Chris Brogan and Keith Burtis, Francois Gossieaux, Geoff Livingston, Valeria Maltoni, Orange’s Yann Gourvennec, Neville Hobson, R6’s Amber Naslund, Ford’s Scott Monty, Seth Godin, Brian Solis, Jeremiah Owyang, Edelman’s David Armano, Ogilvy’s John Bell, … All have been actively involved in the Social Web for years. They didn’t get into it six months ago or just last year. They have been in it from the start, and as a result, they know what they’re talking about. These folks are respected in the space because they helped build it. They are the caliber of people consulting firms should look for in a hire. Period.

Find out how long your consulting firm’s “expert” has been blogging. Less than 2 years? Proceed with caution. Less than 8 months? Look for expertise elsewhere.

2. Read their blog. What do you find? Crap content just to fill a page 3x per week and provide search engines with carefully chosen keywords, or is the content actually helpful, well researched, shrewdly analyzed and intelligently presented? Does this person care about what they do, or are they just doing what they need to in order to “be in the game?” Does their content give you ideas or just regurgitate someone else’s articles and content? Speaking of original content, how much of what they blog about is THEIR content? (Hacks like to borrow and appropriate content. Get a sense for whether or not this individual really knows their stuff or is merely a parrot with a fancy title.)

3. Blogging isn’t everything. Lots of people have been blogging for 5+ years but couldn’t manage a Social Media practice if their lives depended on it. Who have they worked with? What have they done? What is their background? What relevant mix of experience do they bring into the role? Were they an SEO expert a year ago? And a day trader before that? If so, be careful.

Note: Though there is no clear path to Social Media management savvy, the individual’s story has to make sense. Maybe they were a corporate marketing guy who fell in love with the Social web and started incorporating it into their company’s activities. Maybe they were an artisan who used Social Media to tap into communities and figured out how to apply those lessons to business.  Maybe they were a tech or a baker or a PR manager or a Customer Service manager who realized how Social Media might change the game for their discipline and have been tweaking the model ever since. Everyone capable of functioning at the Director or VP level in the Social Business space has a story to tell about how they came into the space that involves passion, an idea, and a very specific path. Look for it. Ask to hear it. Conversely, the manufactured “experts” don’t have a story. They just showed up a few months ago because the time was right to jump in. It’s a simple litmus test, and one that usually works quite well.

4. How do they handle themselves on Social Channels? Do they ever respond to comments? If so, how? Are they using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as mere broadcast vehicles, or do they actually care enough about the space and their role in it to engage, respond and participate in discussions? How fluent are they with dos and don’ts of various Social communications platforms? Have they demonstrated on these channels the ease and fluency that you would expect from someone with real experience under their belt, or are they merely “there,” kind of floundering?

5. Who outside of the organization and its clients can vouch for them? Don’t ask their boss. Don’t ask their HR person. Don’t ask their other clients either. You might as well ask their mom while you’re at it. Find validation outside of their immediate circle of interest.

6. In their initial meetings with you, do they speak more than they listen? Do they lead with a 5-step “program” or a “P.L.A.N.” rather than trying to see how to organically grow a program within your organization? Do they make you wait for even the most basic feedback rather than discussing possibilities and ideas right there and then? Red flags all. Once the sale is made, then what?

7. Do they care? This is a simple gut check. If they’re into it, if they are passionate about the space and what you might do together, you’re probably on the right track. If they aren’t passionate about any of this, then be very careful where things go. Social Business management without genuine passion is like a folk singer without stories to tell: It won’t go very far. Look for passion. Genuine, burning, infectious passion. Yes, even in a consultant.

Caution for now, but expect clear skies eventually

So again, be cautious. This line of work hasn’t been around long enough for professionals to be able to establish themselves as clearly to outside onlookers and prospective clients as, say, plumbers, designers, attorneys, restaurateurs or journalists. Nobody was a Director of Social Communications ten years ago. Five years ago, even. This line of work is still fairly new, even to those of us who have been involved with it for the better part of a decade, and in some cases longer than that.

Five years from now, the waters won’t be as murky. Hacks will have fallen by the wayside and those with a real aptitude for this type of activity will have emerged as clear professionals in their field. But until then, proceed with caution. Do your research. Don’t confuse a job title, a neat website and some fractal Social Networking activity for anything more than just good marketing.

Cheers.

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“While one hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
– Henry C. Link
Via the yeti, this fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal:
High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries.
American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.
Finland’s students placed first in science and near the top in math and reading, according to results released late last year. An unofficial tally of Finland’s combined scores puts it in first place overall, says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The U.S. placed in the middle of the pack in math and science; its reading scores were tossed because of a glitch.
The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
(…)
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children.
(…)
Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
And all we could come up with was “no child left behind.”
The difference is this: Finns take education seriously. Not just teachers and educators, but citizens. People. Parents. Children. Voters. Education is culturally relevant. Ignorance, in Finland, is not a virtue as it can be here in the US.
I recall my own high school courses being infinitely tougher and more enriching than almost every college course I took in the US. I am a product of both the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and the International School of Brussels’ (ISB) incredible roster of professors, so my experience may not be typical of most Europeans, but let me say this: Only four courses I took in college were above the level of any class I took in High School in Europe. The rest of my college courses were on the level of ninth grade courses at ISB, if that.
I watch my kids go through school and wonder what they learn all day. They’re on par with European schools in math, but not particularly in science… and not at all when it comes to history or literature. Not even close, in fact.
I’ve actually been asked by an American close to me if we had toasters in France. Seriously. (I politely responded that yes, once American GI’s brought electricity with them, toasters and televisions made their way to France fairly quickly – although the government allowed only one of each per village.)
*sigh*
No matter how you look at it, when your own Commander in Chief is hardly capable of putting Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan or Turkey on a map of the world, when he has a tough time pronouncing simple words like “nuclear” and seems to have a very tough time understanding (and funding) scientific research – and the majority of the country feels an affinity to him because of that “hey, he sounds like one of us” kind of affinity, you can’t help but wonder if we’re committed to being a nation of educated citizens or a nation of proud-to-be-ignorant consumers.
It is one thing to talk about being a world leader, and another completely to be a world leader. Unless we are talking about debt, illiteracy, carbon emissions and military spending.
As a superpower, we really ought to at least try to do better. Out of national pride, if anything. Maybe it;s just me, but we’re starting to look and act a lot like the dumb rich kid who likes to make fun of the nerdy kids in the classroom and shove the ethnic foreign kids into lockers when the teacher isn’t looking.
We really need to start raising the bar in this country. It was cool to be the Chuck Norris loving tobacco-chewin’ country neighbor with the really tacky McMansion and a huge fifteen-car garage and the manicured lawns back in the 80’s, but not anymore. We’ve become a cliche – both overseas and inside our own borders – and that’s never good.
What makes this situation even sadder is this: The only difference between Americans and Finns is mindset. We’ve just become lazy and self-indulgent. We take everything – starting with education – for granted, and have absolutely no clue how far behind we are getting. Honestly, education in the US may be one of those endeavors that Americans may have to outsource. Let an International Baccalaureate team come in with the heads of the world’s top ten national education programs, assess our K-12 system for a year or two, and rebuild it from the ground up.
Maybe this is the only way we get ourselves out of this shameful pit of educational mediocrity.
But before this can happen, our leaders need to have the will to make it happen – which starts with their electorate having the will to make it happen.
Sadly, in a multiple-choice culture in which no child is left behind, in which even the losing team gets a trophy, in which chief business leaders get paid tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for running Fortune 500 companies into the ground, and in which intelligence seems to demand little more than guessing the right answer just over 50% of the time, there is little need to waste time on world history, geography, world languages, literature or critical thinking. In other words, edukashion don’t need to be much gooder than this. If you spell something wrong, Spell Check will correct it for you. If you say something wrong, no one will catch it anyway.
When everyone is dumb, no one is dumb.
Except… when Americans start to travel to places other than Mexico, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys.
Perhaps “good enough” is just that: Good enough. America: Home of the okay, land of the good enough. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound hot to me. Yet here we are. Whether you believe it or not, whether your US-made statistics agree or not, the sad reality is that America’s K-12 system is in shambles, and yes, we are getting our asses handed to us by Finland.
(Case in point: I challenge any one of you – American readers – to actually put Finland on a map. Not scandinavia as a whole, but Finland. Before you do, I also want you to write down what major country Finland shares a border with. I also challenge you to describe its flag.)
Make fun of the French and the Finns and all of those faggy tree-hugging pinko Europeans all you want, but when they’re traveling overseas, at least they can find their own asses on a map without having to google-Earth it.
For shame.
As always, leave comments on the main page, NOT on the permalink.

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