Letter to the Somewhat Disengaged

By Bill Danskin

Dear Corporate Survivor,

I believe that all of us ask ourselves many metaphysical questions throughout our lives.  Why are we here? How did we get to this circumstantial point? What is the purpose of all this frenetic activity that we experience every day? I know that I ask myself these questions and I’m guessing that you do too. These are big things.

And for those of you who have ended up working in the American Corporation , we ask a more pointed question. Namely, how did you end up spending so much of our time and mental energy in this inscrutable labyrinth? And as time goes on it seems that the most pressing questions have to do with how to deal with it. Should you engage ? Should we escape or should we just escape from within?

Each of you got here by your own means of transportation. You all had a path that looked good at the time.   Some of you started right out of school, some started when you had kids. Younger people ( especially Millennials) seem to start and leave while on your lighted path to self -actualization.   Some of you have the purpose of advancement (whatever that means) in mind. Some are there for the salary (and the benefits – a quickly unraveling proposition), and some of you are just here……not caring that much any more, just marching along like ants working the proverbial ant farm.

Now don’t get me wrong – we know the corporate life has its outward benefits. It allows you to live in nice towns, buy houses (even McMansions sometimes), send your kids to college, and create a life of, at least, external comfort.   But does question remains: does your work provide for the type of positive engagement that can add some enrichment to your lives? Is there an internal reward that goes with a corporate career?

Of course the answer lies within. For many of you, in order to ultimately be successful in this environment I believe a purpose needs to be found that transcends a PowerPoint deck.   Part of the mystery lies in the inclination and opportunity to innovate. The ability to show the world a little bit of yourselves in a results-driven universe.

We know that innovation requires inspiration. Do you derive the innovative spirit from your co-workers or your leadership? For those of you who don’t work for places like Google or Apple or that might be a challenge. So, therefore, in most cases you must search for your own sources of inspiration – and that requires work in and of itself. While you self-express in how you live your lives outside of work, don’t you also need to have the opportunity to do so within the realm of staff meetings, results analyses, project plans and monthly reviews? Since your daily lives are driven by these externally imposed activities, I believe we do.

So the question becomes larger, doesn’t it? How do you maintain the soul of your human machine in a world that is inherently incapable of supporting it.

I think at least part of the answer lies in the willingness to let a sense of beauty inform your ideas. Elegant logical extensions – and what is innovation but an extension of logic – can be realized from re-configurations of existing structures or can organically present themselves fully formed. I think that which is beautiful in business can ultimately be scaled and implemented for economic good.

The other part lies in the ability to settle for small victories. Most likely, you are not going to change the general direction of the mother ship. You work within smaller units and organizations that have a more specific raison d’etre with more esoteric goals and objectives. So expression comes in tweaks and improvements to plans and the ongoing action items that come from daily churn.   The ability to put your signature on a small but significant aspect of a marketing plan, a data mining exercise or financial view can go a long way toward making ourselves just a smidgeon happier as pour through email or sift through chart junk.

So friends, while I am no longer a part of the environment you live in, I know that you should be commended for your daily grind, your ability to survive and find a semblance of color in an otherwise colorless working world.   Never stop believing in yourselves and take heart in the fact that you are not alone out there.   The American Corporation will continue to plod along and there is no shame in being the 21st Century version of the Organization Person. Your employer needs you.

With respect and hope,

Bill

Crawling Back From Oblivion

By Bill Danskin

The Holiday season is a time of year that produces a wide-ranging set of emotions and behavior from people. It is a time of happiness and giving…but it is also a time where people experience isolation and reflect bitterly on their lives and their current reality.   For many it can be a compression of emotions felt throughout the year, both good and bad.   For me, it is a time of intensity and a test of strength. It is a time when I search for answers and take inventory of my life and reflect hard on my sense of self and wellbeing.

In my life it is a crucible of critical importance.   It boils down to one thing for me that is crystalized during the holiday season.   I am an alcoholic.

There are 17 million alcoholics in the United States, 11 million men and 6 million women.   88,000 people die from alcohol related deaths each year, making it the 3rd most common preventable cause of death in the US.   10% of children in this country have at least 1 alcoholic parent. There are 60, 000 chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous with 1.3 million members. Suffice it to say it is a problem of massive proportion and one that has a devastating effect on families and individual users.

However, while these statistics are meaningful and enlightening, the issue of alcoholism comes down to the struggles of one person at a time and the roads that they choose to take. For what its worth, here are the salient points in my own story:

I drank form the time I was 13 and quit drinking at age 37 (solely because I wanted to be a better father to my kids). I stopped for 16 years until I was 53.   I did not have a drop in my 40s.

For reasons that I won’t go into here (and that I’m still not sure I understand) I started drinking again in 2006.   I drank in rapidly increasing quantities for 5 years.

During that period, I experienced an escalating intensity of my addiction that resulted literally in a life or death choice.   I reached a point that needed a drink every 20 minutes for maintenance and at night I was afraid to go to sleep in the fear that I would not wake up.

I considered suicide and was taken by police to a mental health hospital ward for support and treatment.

In 2011, I went to 3 rehab facilities – 2 for detox and 1 a month long stay.   I was in and out of hospitals that year for a variety of alcohol related illnesses.

It was the most difficult year of my life and one where I faced the most basic question that one can have.   Do I want to live or do I want to die? I chose to live.

On December 23, 2014 I will have been clean for 3 years.   While I am not a devotee of AA, many people are and I can attribute my own ongoing recovery to an acceptance of the 1st of the 12 step program.   I admitted to myself and internalized the belief that I am powerless over alcohol.   I simply can’t drink again.   I know that I can’t control it. It came very close to killing me and I won’t let that happen. No way.

It is a familiar story, I know, but I feel compelled to tell it and share with anyone who might have a similar problem. There is a happy ending. I want to let the reader know that there is a way back from certain oblivion.   Back to a world where friends and family exist, where isolation and solitude are not the obligatory norm, and where the human spirit can rejuvenate and heal itself like a self -diagnosing and wonderful machine. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens each day as I crawl through the problems of life and endure, even triumph, occasionally.

In my own life, I still hear the ice hit the glasses. I still can feel the warmth and security that comes with the 1st and 2nd drink.   I can taste the cigarette that comes between them. But I can also feel the sickness, the vomiting, the uncontrollable shaking that comes from an insatiable appetite for alcohol.

So as the holiday season unfolds, I reflect as always. I scrutinize my place and attitude toward life.   But my life is not what it used to be. I am living, thriving and feeling a happiness I have not felt in many, many years.   Like all of us, I have traveled a long road but I have escaped the abrupt dead end and have now entered a new, and better highway.

It’s not just that I stopped drinking. I am over that. Its is that I have found a new way to live; a way forward where I see myself as part of the world rather than doing everything I can to shut it out.

For that I will be eternally grateful.   Happy Holidays everyone!

3 Information Technology Trends- 2014 and Beyond

Trending Upward in 2014 and Beyond

By Bill Danskin

It seems like every blog this time of year will be dedicated to predictions, resolutions or trends in the coming year. And while I’m writing along those same lines, my hope is that the trends and areas that I focus on here will carry beyond 2014 and into the changing paradigm of information technology and social computing.

There are three areas that I think are important this year:

1. Agile Software Development – A development framework based on collaboration between self-organizing and cross-functional teams using iterative and incremental development methods. Agile methodology sits in direct contrast to “waterfall” development where projects are worked in a serial manner based on a complete set of requirements with testing on a completed application. As the cross functional teams associated with agile development include the business stakeholders, the deployment of agile methods could not only exponentially speed up the development process but also better integrate the interests of IT and their business partners.

2. Philanthropic Engineering – the current focus on Big Data has brought with it a series of questions in the commercial space centered on its productive use. The answers and business growth insights that massive databases were to provide have proved elusive. Alternatively, however, Big Data can be used in a human engineering context. The mission statement of Palantir Technologies, a software development firm based in Palo Alto, CA, nicely describes this concept. They state, “We build software that allows organizations to make sense of massive amounts of disparate data. We solve the technical problems so they can solve the human ones….” The use of advanced technology to address human and environmental needs is a critically important trend where data plays a fundamental role

3. Social Media 2.0 – the major social media platforms have achieved an almost unbelievable amount of scale in terms of users and utilization. With that comes a great opportunity to enhance the democratization of information and connection. For example, Twitter, on the surface, is the epitome of the sound bite. But it is, in fact, an effective way through links and attachments, to blend the short and long conversation forms to provide the basis for extended dialogue regarding substantive issues among random and disparate groups of people. In addition, I believe that new platforms will emerge that will enhance that model further, through closed conversation salons and streamlined publishing platforms – allowing the exploration of issues to go even deeper. I am very bullish on this trend.

While this is just a quick survey of a few trends, there is much more to be excited about in the areas associated with IT and computing. I will be exploring these with you in future posts and look forward to 2015 and beyond.

 

The New Face of Customer Support

The New Face Of Customer Support

Technology, Network, And People Combine To Create A Winning Customer Experience

By Bill Danskin

Today’s technological environment is at a tipping point. The promise of technology has been to make our lives simpler and more convenient, yet the proliferation of devices, networks, websites, and non-unified applications has created just the opposite effect.  Complexity still dominates, yet I believe we are on the cusp of a new era of design simplicity, integration, and user engagement that will open new avenues of functional clarity.  Technology and application providers will be afforded the opportunity to engage with their customers differently, both in substance and style (dialogue and media) and provide support that has relevance to the user’s context and viewpoint.

As user experience (UX) engineering and design takes front and center stage, technology providers, and network providers in particular, will be making great strides in the coming years to simplify their customer touch points and functional processes. Doing so will create a more effortless customer experience.

Predictions For The Customer Experience Of The Future

As we move forward, technology and network providers will hone their services and offerings in the following ways:

  • Carriers will necessarily build better, simpler, highly-integrated Web portals to enable users to manage their suite of network services and apps in a comprehensive and intuitive way.
  • Online support content will be organized in a cognitively logical manner, along a continuum of “Learn-Buy-Get-Use-Pay-Support” attributes.
  • Content will remain king, but straight forward online navigation and user journeys will continue to gain critical importance as customers expect more and more of their vendor interaction to be self-managed and controlled.
  • Customer adoption of online tools will increase in proportion to the usability and experience they provide to the user rather than the depth and density of the applications. Functionality will continue to evolve but be streamlined as the supported product mix simplifies.

As important as the technology and network are to the customer support function, human capital is the conduit that carries unity and satisfaction to the customer support experience.  In the world of enhanced online UX design, the role of the support representative can add tremendous value as their role evolves from basic processing of corrective measures to a value-added, useful resource that can help solve more complex customer challenges.  Taken in combination with a more effective, intuitive online experience, the deployment of human resources to solve problems provides customers with an environment that allows them to focus on their core challenges and support the needs of their business.

The next generation of customer support models holds great promise for the future of the customer experience.  As we move to the next level, the utilization of technology will begin to fulfill its original promise – to simplify the lives of the people who comprise the heart and soul of any business enterprise.

Corporate Sphinx – The Mystery of Innovation

By Bill Danskin

As we know, work inside a corporation takes on a life and a personality of its own. Our corporate cultures, our co-workers, our leadership all combine to create a context – a gestalt – to which we are inherently linked.

Today, two watchwords that permeate the new paradigm of commerce and corporate life are innovation and scalability. Are those terms compatible? Does innovation have any concrete meaning to you, given the personality of your company? Are you encouraged to think freely? (Sounds Orwellian I know – but a real phenomenon) Or does the requirement of scalability- and the risk imposed by the expectation of size- limit the innovative activity of workers? Can we add creativity and ideas to our normal and daily routines?

Part of the mystery lies in the source. We know that innovation requires inspiration. Do we derive the innovative spirit from our co-workers or our leadership? For those of us who don’t work for Google, Apple or even Zynga, that might be a challenge. So, therefore, in most cases we must search for our own sources of inspiration – and that requires work in and of itself.

And do they always have to be big ideas? Unequivocally no! Big ideas almost always evolve from small ones -ones that we as individuals can conceive and execute. Prototypical ideas are crucially important as they can provide the basis for continued, constructive modification as others catch hold and embark on the road to scalability.

So, does the primary responsibility for innovation lie with the corporate environment, or is it ultimately the responsibility of all of us as individuals?   I believe it is the latter and here I’d like to make three points:

  1. The basis for innovation is awareness. Continual awareness of our surroundings and the events and combinations around us can often provide inspiration for a work-related idea. Do not be afraid to make a large leap of logic when thinking metaphorically.
  2. Re-create those circumstances that have triggered your creativity in the past. Re-read books and papers, revisit certain music or paintings or play games and puzzles. As we do so, we should contemplate their structure and artistry – be inspired by the author, the composer, the artist, the designer. We should use whatever icons we possess to put us in a state of mind that is relaxed, but with heightened awareness.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let a sense of beauty inform our ideas. Elegant logical extensions – and what is innovation but an extension of logic – can be realized from re-configurations of existing structures or can organically present themselves fully formed. Most importantly, I think that which is beautiful in business can ultimately be scaled and implemented for economic good.

Innovation, I believe, is a trait inherent in all of us. All it takes is a quiet mind and a growing awareness that small can be beautiful – and that which is beautiful can be made to be big.

A Landscape of Learning

A Landscape of Learning

By Bill Danskin

There are many clichés that are attached to the concept of continual education. “You’re never too old to learn”, “we must continually re-invent ourselves”, etc. Yes, clichés tend to be true and so these are; but a deeper examination can help us understand the underlying value of continuing education and its effect on our work and our psyche.

Assuming that you buy into the fact that we must continue to learn to stay relevant, the question that arises has to do with the content of our continuing education. Should it be training oriented or should it be designed to give us a solid grounding in the world around us and the accompanying world of ideas? While skills training have direct value as people exercise professional flexibility in today’s depressed job market, I do not believe that more generalized, liberal studies should be dismissed as a superfluous luxury – with no impact on our ability to maintain relevance. Enhancing our general educational foundation improves the basis for a more informed and more textured world view. And that world view allows to bring a richer sense of context to more the specific subject matter that we embark upon. Many continuing, non-matriculating liberal arts courses are available, but one of the most convenient sets is offered by Yale University at http://oyc.yale.edu/. This interesting set of courses can be viewed online free of charge.

There is also of subset of non-degree learning opportunities that lie between basic studies and specific skills training. These are programs that deal with a particular discipline but approach it with courses that surround the topic and deal with different aspects of the subject – a college major in miniature. These types of programs ( e.g. in Management, Finance, Communications, Digital Media, etc) can be extremely valuable as they deal with a particular environment that is important as one builds a portfolio of skills based competence. Again, these types of Continuing Education programs are readily available but a particularly good set of offerings (and where I am participating) comes from Georgetown University. Information can be found at this site: http://scs.georgetown.edu/ .

As we all know, the world has changed significantly in recent years. The importance of staying personally competitive is critical in today’s economic downturn and the looming future of European implosion and declining investment yields. The cliché of “it’s never too late to learn” has been changed to “it is imperative to learn at any age”. Let us embrace the opportunity as we individually apply ourselves to the new world and collectively reinforce our competitiveness in the global economy and workforce.

JMW Turner and the Flight to Abstraction

The Flight To Abstraction

By Bill Danskin

JMW Turner (1775-1851) is still considered one of the most important painters in the last 200 years. He was a master of both oil and watercolor and his continual European travels and strong sense of history informed much of the subject matter of his body of work.

To me, the key to Turner is the evolution of his work as he progressed through his life and seemingly removed the superfluous dynamic from it, focusing on those parts most pure and that stand alone. As he aged, Turner’s work and presumably his worldview turned inexorably to the elemental forces of nature, light and color. The paintings conceived and executed during the later stages of his life show a radical departure from the artistic modality of the early 19th century and foreshadowed the emergence of Impressionism 30 or so years hence.

Consider this work from Turner’s middle period, “The Fighting Temeraire:”

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This painting depicts a proud warship being tugged to her last berth as she is retired from active duty. The ship and tug are clearly shown and the stunning sunset provides a poignant backdrop to what is, in fact, a melancholy event. The key here is that the subject matter, while lyrically shown, is clearly recognizable and enjoyed on its own terms.

Moving forward we see in Turner’s later period a darker and more hellish vision from one of the more frightening passages of the Book of Revelation, “Death on a Pale Horse”

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In this work, the move to abstraction is evident while the central focus – the rider- is depicted in a fantastic manner emanating from the imagination of the artist. The demonic nature of the horse and the fiery and horrific background light combine with Death to provide the viewer with a Biblical reference that represents the final judgmental nature of the text.

As Turner’s focus turned to nature and its fury, a representative sample can be found in “Snow Storm”

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The inherent violence of the sea and the force of the storm are shown by the emphatic brush stokes and use of contrasting light. Here Turner is less concerned about the specific – he has moved to a more abstract and elemental view of the physical power of nature. The ship is in serious jeopardy but the vision is of the storm itself.

Finally we turn to Turner late in life where his vision had turned to an almost purely abstract, view and explored not a specific subject but, rather, a study of light itself in “Sun Setting Over a Lake”

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The depiction of light is all that matters here – physical objects are rendered unrecognizable and superfluous – but the sublime beauty of the scene is captured in a blending of color and brushwork skilled beyond measure.

In reflecting upon these paintings, I am stuck by the notion that Turner evidenced a clear movement and re-invention of his work as he progressed through his life, and that the distillation of his subject matter to purity could be emblematic of the thinking of a man knowingly entering the final stages of his life. On that one can only speculate, but it is clear that Turner’s work showed a marked evolution and, in doing so, sparked a revolution in painting that has taken us through Impressionism and into the energy of today.