Friday, January 9, 2015

New Books for Creative Leaders to Read to Start 2015

Please find my latest list of recommended creative leadership readings for early 2015 on my new website at http://jdavidslocum.com.  Thanks for checking it out.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Ten Creative Leadership Books of 2014

I've selected my top ten books on Creative Leadership from the past year.  The list, along with other notable titles, is now posted on my new website at http://jdavidslocum.com.  Though quite a bit more is also already on the site, overall it's still very much in beta.  I hope you like the new look and promise of better content to come in the new year.  Thanks for visiting and letting me know what you think.  DS 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Don Tapscott, 'The Digital Economy, Anniversary Edition'

Don Tapscott, The Digital Economy, Anniversary Edition: Rethinking Promise andPeril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, New Foreword by Eric Schmidt, New York: McGraw Hill, 2015 [Pub Date: October 27, 2014]


I first read The Digital Economy in 1997, two years following its initial publication and after I had completed Don Tapscott’s next book, Growing Up Digital.  At the time, I was teaching in and directing a postgraduate Media Studies programme that ambitiously sought to combine the study and practice of more traditional media, particularly narrative film, documentary, and television, with new media theory, digital production and even design principles.  It was a heady pre-Millennial moment of experimenting with increasingly widespread digital technologies and of musing on the potentially world-changing possibilities they seemed to represent.  

Fittingly, The Digital Economy ranged widely from practical issues of managing and implementing technologies to more far-reaching questions about where they might enable individuals, businesses and society to go.  In an early chapter, Tapscott distinguishes between business process reengineering and business transformation – and how taking that latter, more ambitious step required an openness to change.  While an important distinction in terms of business, of course, the clear implication concerned a more general willingness to accept and participate in larger-scale transformation, of individual, economy, and society.  The book then went on to offer probing yet accessible discussions of the import of analog versus digital, the arrival of smart products, the need for overhauling talent management and learning, the ascendant roles of IT and CIOs in organizations, and many more topics in order to portray an emerging future. 

One of Tapscott’s gifts has been the consistent ability to examine such topics in detail while also conveying but not overstating their greater significance.  As a prolific and consistently insightful analyst and commentator on the digital transformation, his work falls, for me, into four overlapping areas of interest: (1) the “net generation” to which he’s devoted several books starting with Growing Up Digital; (2) mass collaboration, openness and sharing, probably most familiar from his 2006 bestseller, Wikinomics (co-written with Anthony D. Williams), and its recent sequel; (3) the more explicitly business-focused books, beginning his earliest publications on office automation and clearly elaborated in the 2003 The Naked Corporation; and his integrative writings on the digital society and economy, of which The Digital Economy is still the most penetrating.  Whatever the specific object of discussion or analysis, though, the wider contexts and deeper humanity of technological, business and social change remain an unmistakable priority for him.   

Re-read today, that balance and breadth still set apart The Digital Economy.  Contemporary analyses of all things digital, particularly in business and management writing, tend to lack his sensitivity to broader human or social contexts – at least contexts expressed with balance and without hyperbole.  In the original chapter on leadership, Tapscott opens with a quote from Internet pioneer Vint Cerf about the Internet being “like the wilderness of the Wild West,” both inevitably awaiting the imposition of systems and civilization but always retaining “some interesting wilderness areas to visit.”  That metaphor was ubiquitous in the late 1990s.  Yet the opening section of the chapter, in which he discusses how difficult are paradigm shifts and journeys into the ”wilderness” of the unknown for “leaders of the old,” remains as valid as ever a commentary on human nature and the challenges of profound change.

To Tapscott’s credit, little of the new material is self-congratulatory.  The Preface to the Anniversary Edition offers a valuable summation of the book’s major ideas and the extent to which they have come to pass – or not.  Throughout, the new commentaries preceding each chapter provide valuable extensions and illustrations from the last twenty years of the nascent ideas proposed in the original text.  The updates on the “The Internetworked Business” chapter, for example, draw on insights (specifically, the seven business models) from Wikipedia in order to frame the importance of developing and implementing a coherent strategy for advancing the social economy, workplace, and marketing.

Tapscott also rebuts critics who claim he has been a digital Polyanna by downplaying or ignoring the “dark side” of the transformed economy.  Especially compared with some of his mid-1990s contemporaries, the tone and treatment of possible digital futures in these pages is balanced.  Recalling many of the visions of the time, both utopian and dystopian and often charged with Millennial hope or uncertainty, The Digital Economy was less a futurist tract than an exploration of social and economic possibilities grounded in actual (or emerging) technologies and human practices.  That the author foresaw accurately so much of what has developed in the years since the book first appeared is testament to his sensitivity to the ways businesses, societies and especially people engage new technologies and change more broadly.

The original text does contain some obviously glaring misses.  A few are small and forgettable, as with the insistent use of the “Internetwork” and, especially, “I-Way” (for “Information Highway”) as the digital basis and engine of future progress.  Others, notably the significant treatment accorded to privacy issues late in the book, require fuller annotation in the new edition.  Citing “Big Brother” and (corporate) “little brothers” as threats, the conclusion in 1995 was to take greater care with the information we give away.  Two decades later, as Tapscott acknowledges in his new comments, individuals are thoroughly connected by social media, Big Data, surveillance and geospatial systems, and many other institutional networks and technologies, shifting the onus much more to institutions and owners of data to manage data and their privacy appropriately. 

The next and final chapter of The Digital Economy addresses the “new responsibilities” of business.  Here, the author writes most directly about “societal transformation” and how the many technologies and transformations he has catalogued can help re-cast the role of corporations in society and even the future of democracy.  Then, closing his retrospective comments, Tapscott writes that “this Anniversary edition is not intended to be a history text.”  Strictly speaking, he is right.  Yet when framed by the new material, the original text can still serve a very similar and valuable purpose, namely, to give an illuminating longer view of two decades of changes, small and large, wrought by the digital economy and experienced by each of us – and still to envision a future marked by immense promise and some peril. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vulgar Creativity

“Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top-shelf products. Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless….To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.”
                                                --Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace) in Creativity, Inc.


Catmull and Wallace’s recent account of Pixar’s decades-long journey is an impassioned call for individuals and organizations not just to speak their core beliefs and values but to act on them consistently and imaginatively.  Many of these beliefs, from quality and excellence to “trust the process” and “story is king” are familiar invocations of business intent and purpose.  Yet running through Creativity, Inc. is the crucial insight that repeating such words and phrases can actually provide false confidence and be counter-productive if they ring hollow and are not put into practice.   

Probably the word with the most potential to mislead is “creativity” itself and Catmull and Wallace’s book can be read as a 368-page illustration of how an ongoing, collective, and enacted focus can make the commitment to that value real and dynamic.  At a time when “creativity” and “innovation” appear everywhere in corporate pronouncements, doing more than parroting the words is a consistent challenge for leaders and organizations.  I have written about this elsewhere, as have others, like Shane Snow, who goes so far as assert, “If you have tocall yourself innovative, you’re probably not.” 

Beyond taking care with one’s own usage of these basic terms, a question arises about the recognition by others of a given individual’s or firm’s creativity or innovation.  These are enormously slippery concepts, varying across cultures and industries and markets.  The novelty, freshness or utility celebrated in one situation or context can be viewed as familiar or even clich├ęd in another.  As a result, we might reasonably ask, How can creativity become an “earned word, attributed by others to us”?

One answer is to consider what I call “vulgar creativity” in assessing and practicing imaginative activities and production.  The qualifying word, “vulgar,” has several meanings and historical resonances that are vital to approaching that process.  While not one-dimensional, the term can nevertheless help to orient our thinking and actions around creativity in businesses and elsewhere. 

“Vulgar” derives from the Latin word for “common people” and originally was used to describe their ordinary, everyday uses of things or ideas.  A “vulgar tongue” in the Middle Ages thus meant the actual or vernacular language of a people as opposed to an official or elite one.  Over the last century, sophisticated social and cultural theorists from Walter Benjamin to Terry Eagleton have criticized “vulgar Marxism” for reductionist readings of Marx and Engels that claim ideology (including art and creative work) is simply determined by economic structures.  There’s irony, for some, in such bemoaning of a common people’s understanding of Marx, who, after all, sought to empower them.  More importantly, though, the example casts in relief two distinct (if often overlapping) meanings conveyed by the term, vulgar – namely, of being of the people and ordinary and of oversimplification, edginess, and even crudeness.   

That everyone is, or has the potential to be, (more) creative has become an article of faith for many in the twenty-first century.  Sir Ken Robinson is a persuasive and much-admired exponent of this view.  He concentrates on how schools “kill creativity” in order to illuminate alternative ways that they, and other organizations including businesses, can cultivate and liberate individual imagination.  By helping unlearn the standardized “command and control” approaches to learning that predominate in education, he calls instead for a diverse, individualized and organic approach to encouraging students to thrive.  Rather than a select, chosen creative few, Robinson’s presumption is that these changes will foster the curiosity and unleash the ability to experiment existing in us all.

It is here, however, that the second meaning of vulgar can re-emerge and complicate our celebration of universal creativity.  Conventionally, creative activity involves plunging into the unknown, engaging unorthodox thinking, experimenting continuously, and incorporating a bit of irreverence (to use advertising legend Sir John Hegarty’s term).  Yet those drives, particularly in business, are often reduced to simplistic taglines or formulaic processes.  Even worse, the admirable goal of nurturing greater creativity too often turns merely on unfettering individual free thinking or expression.  Supporting creativity, in other words, becomes about removing as many filters, structures or other constraints as possible rather than building a diverse, stimulating, and organic environment that cultivates individual and group learning and imagination.     

Simply unfiltering individual expression or behavior may have individual value in terms of personal fulfillment or happiness (or other indirect benefits to organizations or groups), but it does not necessarily provide the makings of a wider and more sustainable creative culture.  The British scholar of creativity, Margaret Boden, once distinguished personal from historical creativity by observing that what is novel to one individual at any given moment is often not to the wider society or across history.  While that personal creative expressiveness should be nurtured, it also needs to be differentiated from what is new, surprising or useful for larger communities, markets or societies. 

To be mindful of vulgar creativity is to recognize both the ordinary, democratic potential of creativity and, in business, particularly, its social or organizational reality and dynamics.  The point is not to judge worthy those efforts at fostering creativity affirmed by crowds or markets and dismiss others.  However, it is to acknowledge that, too often in business, attention to creativity and innovation is reduced to celebrating novelty without value or facilitating individual expression without wider purpose.

In 1982, film and cultural commentator J. Hoberman published “Vulgar Modernism,” an article in which he argued that many popular, even apparently tasteless productions like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, Tex Avery cartoons and Mad magazine, engaged some of the same mid-twentieth century aesthetic, institutional and social questions as the Modernist art of Picasso, Manet, and bebop.  Hoberman was seeking to make sense of the post-World War II years in which a fraught relationship between popular and “high” cultures was being renegotiated.  Invoking the “vulgar” became a way to approach the rich and productive tensions marking the practices of mainstream media and audiences.

Only a few years later, pioneering adman Bill Bernbach observed, “Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a businessman can employ.”  For Bernbach then, and continuing in business today, the successful approach to creativity should be similarly broad and shaped by productive tensions – between espoused beliefs and substantive actions, customer needs and firm purpose, and organizational processes and individual imagination.  In its embrace of such crucial tensions, “vulgar creativity” can provide another reminder to leaders of the value of empowering more universal creativity while always grounding that effort in the world they see and aspire to change.     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Is Leaders' Talk Cheap?

Earlier this year, two sociologists provoked a probing debate about the integrity and value of interviewing as a research method.  Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan, respectively of New York University and Columbia University & Berlin School of Creative Leadership (Steinbeis University), launched their broadside in the May 2014 issue of Sociological Methods & Research.  While this methodological deep dive and accompanying critical discussion were made in the context of a specific discipline, the challenges mounted have relevance for research in all fields where interviews are widely used.  For management and business studies, in particular, in which interviews of leaders are often central to substantiating and defending accounts and insights of organizational and industry practice, such questioning has potentially far-reaching implications.

Though Jerolmack and Khan’s argument is dense and sophisticated, one of their major concerns is captured in what they call the ‘Attitudinal Fallacy,’ which claims that correlations of reported attitudes with situated behavior are never high enough to presume equivalence. ‘Attitudes are poor predictors of action’, they contend, and since interviews are shaped by and convey subjects’ attitudes, they constitute an inherently unreliable approach to researching the reality of these individuals’ actions. 

Respondents to the original piece closely engaged this issue of ‘ABC’, or Attitude-Behavior Consistency.  For instance, Karen Cerulo, a researcher of cognition and culture at Rutgers, acknowledged the longstanding discrepancy or word and action while nevertheless urging that critics don’t overstate the problem.  Sometimes what people think or say does inform what they do, she notes, and so we should still value, if with more circumspection, the content of interviews.  Moreover, even if words and actions are sometimes specifically inconsistent, individual level data can sometimes illustrate more general patterns of action worth highlighting.

To their credit, Jerolmack and Khan don’t reject interviews entirely but instead call for greater methodological pluralism in research.  Rather than relying entirely or disproportionately on interviews, in other words, they urge increased deployment of ethnographies, deep or participant observation, qualitative data gathering, little or big data, and holistic analysis.  In research on business and leadership, especially, questioning the integrity of interviews and calling for multiple research methods compounds the challenge of gathering data and insights about individuals and organizations. 

This is not only an issue for researchers of business and management research and analysis but for readers and practitioners.  Ask yourself: How many recent books or articles on leadership or effective business practice have you read that rely on interviews, typically of successful leaders about their beliefs and experiences, to advance a distinctive insight or approach?  Content drawn from interviews or other first-person sourcing of business leaders’ viewpoints is especially common, indeed is a major selling point, in popular business writing and journalism.  

Connecting Individual Attitudes with Organizational Behaviors
The words of leaders are typically taken by readers and listeners as reliable expressions of their behaviors – past, present, or future.  The credibility of those words, and those speaking or writing them, is crucial, of course, and turns back to the fundamental challenge of ABC.  While we may debate whether Marissa Mayer’s online strategy for Yahoo! is the right one, for example, we accept that her words capture what she and the company are actually doing.

Yet the matters of credibility and consistency are further tested by the break between individual claims or characterizations and the often widely disparate actions of organizations.  Even as leaders speak, the connection to collective behavior – as summary, explanation, cause, plan – remains opaque amidst so many possible causes.  As much as we want to ground our understanding of corporate and collective reality in personal attitudes, explaining corporate or organizational behavior demands wider attention to persons, situations and the actual interactions between them.

Research and Access in Business and Organizations
Jerolmack and Khan identify another shortcoming, the ‘Accounting Fallacy’, to emphasize the fallibility of individual accounts and self-reporting and how they cannot accurately stand in for analyses of actual behavior.  To generate wider explanations of the situations and interactions in organizational life requires multiple research approaches.  Yet in most corporate settings, these are impossible for outside researchers and analysts to pursue.  Confidentiality, distraction, and the priorities of time and other resource allocation typically limit or preclude more robust access to people and situations.   

The usual response to this lack of access is to judge leaders’ words by specific indicators of their organizations’ performance.  Rather than methodological pluralism in research about corporate actions, particular outcomes – like products, services, and financial, innovation or creative results – become the basis for assessing those words.  This makes certain sense.  After all, we invest in some firms, say Alibaba, because of the value they can deliver or promise to customers and in the marketplace.  Yet even in a world of inevitably incomplete information, attributing the successful or failed results of complex organizational behavior to individual words is a poor substitute for ascertaining more robust and varied understanding of the actual collective situations producing the results. 

Interviews as Public and Professional Performances
Another source of uncertainty in trying to connect the words of leaders to their organizations’ actions is the recognition that many interviews, whether public or ostensibly not, are performances.  Both the carefully crafted pronouncements of leaders and their closely managed professional personae affect whatever claims researchers and others may be able to make about them.  Even when the words may not correspond to actual behaviors of the organization, present or past, they may nevertheless be presented in the interests of the company, its brand management, and public relations.

Ultimately, an ethical aspect emerges here: do we trust what leaders say?  And even if we recognize that some words may be exaggerated (recall Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’), do we justify that hyperbole in terms of other ends, like increasing shareholder or market value or hyping and delivering new products?  While the trust issue exists in all interviews, where we can question the correlation of self-reports of behavior, the test of consistency between words and actions becomes all the more complicated when leaders may be trying to achieve multiple ends and speak to multiple audiences in the same interview.

Authorities, Elites, and Celebrities
If the interview responses of leaders are shaped by a range of organizational interests, the interactions with researchers and others that prompt these responses can be strongly impacted by the status or reputation of the leader himself or herself.  We choose to interview or otherwise solicit the perspectives of leaders in the first place because of their experience or position, expertise or accomplishment.  Yet that very appeal to authority can limit the thoroughness of the interview and consequently the integrity of the verbal data emerging from it.

At a practical and human level, interacting with very senior or elite leaders involves unequal power relations that can be difficult to navigate.  Consider the prospect of interviewing Richard Branson or Sheryl Sandberg or Martin Sorrell.  Establishing the kind of access, trust and rapport so important for substantive exchanges and then producing meaningful data is particularly challenging with the involvement of subjects like these who possess great seniority, reputation, and even celebrity.

Caveat Lector
Taken together, these considerations suggest that interviews with leaders, since they typically concern collective or corporate behaviors as well as those leaders’ reports of their own individual actions, would benefit from more multidimensional analysis and layered understanding of their accounts.  While this call resonates with Jerolmack and Khan’s general imperative to expand the range and integration of methods employed in researching social or corporate action, it takes on special significance in a field of research where leaders’ words are accorded such value and prominence.  For external researchers of organizations, gaining meaningful access and developing robust contextual understanding of the special situations (and constraints) of organizational life are ongoing challenges.  For readers of business and management research as well as more popular analyses reliant upon the words of leaders, the methodological debate should prompt us to question, constructively but more diligently, the accuracy of the claims leaders make about their own actions as well as those of their organizations.