Monthly Archives: August 2012

Community Managers: Expectations, Experience and Culture Matter

Here’s an awesome link to grind home my point from my OSCON keynote on Community Management, particularly the part where I spoke about the importance of managing wait times – the period between when a volunteer/contributor takes and action and when they get feedback on that action.

In my talk I referenced code review wait times. For non-developers, in open source projects, a volunteer (contributor) will often write a patch which they must be reviewed by someone who oversees the project before it gets incorporated into the software’s code base. This is akin to a quality assurance process – say, like if you are baking brownies for the church charity event, the organizer probably wants to see the brownies first, just to make sure they aren’t a disaster. The period between which you write the patch (or make the brownies) and when the project manager reviews them and say they are ok/not ok, that’s the wait time.

The thing is, if you never tell people how long they are going to have to wait – expect them to get unhappy. More importantly, if, while their waiting, other contributors come and make negative comments about their contributions, don’t be surprised if they get even more unhappy and become less and less inclined to submit patches (or brownies, or whatever makes your community go round).

In other words while your code base may be important but expectations, experience and culture matter, probably more. I don’t think anyone believes Drupal is the best CMS ever invented, but its community has a pretty good expectations, a great experience and fantastic culture, so I suspect it kicks the ass of many “technically” better CMS’s run by lesser managed communities.

Because hey, if I’ve come to expect that I have to wait an infinite or undetermined amount of time, if the experience I have interacting with others suck and if the culture of the community I’m trying to volunteer with is not positive… Guess what. I’m probably going to stop contributing.

This is not rocket science.

And you can see evidence of people who experience this frustration in places around the net. Edd Dumbill sent me this link via hacker news of a frustrated contributor tired of enduring crappy expectations, experience and culture.

Heres what happens to pull requests in my experience:

  • you first find something that needs fixing
  • you write a test to reproduce the problem
  • you pass the test
  • you push the code to github and wait
  • then you keep waiting
  • then you wait a lot longer (it’s been months now)
  • then some ivory tower asshole (not part of the core team) sitting in a basement finds a reason to comment in a negative way.
  • you respond to the comment
  • more people jump on the negative train and burry your honestly helpful idea in sad faces and unrelated negativity
  • the pull dies because you just don’t give a fuck any more

If this is what your volunteer community – be it software driven, or for poverty, or a religious org, or whatever – is like, you will bleed volunteers.

This is why I keep saying things like code review dashboards matter. I bet if this user could at least see what the average wait time is for code review he’d have been much, much happier. Even if that wait time were a month… at least he’d have known what to expect. Of course improving the experience and community culture are harder problems to solve… but they clearly would have helped as well.

Most open source projects have the data to set up such a dashboard, it is just a question of if we will.

Okay, I’m late for an appointment, but really wanted to share that link and write something about it.

NB: Apologies if you’ve already seen this. I accidentally publishes this as a page, not a post on August 24th, so it escaped most people’s view.

Roger Fisher: 1922-2012

Virtually all of my blog readers, and for that matter, much of the world, will not know that on August 25 Roger Fisher passed away.

Roger Fisher was a Harvard academic and adviser to presidents and leaders, and perhaps most importantly – because his writings touched so many people – a co-author of Getting To Yes (along with numerous other books) which outlined and made accessible interest based negotiation theory to the world.

Sadly, his wikipedia page is shockingly short on the scope and range of his work and achievements (I’ve now edited it so it reflects his accomplishments much better). There is little about his important role advising President Carter and the other principals during the negotiations of the Camp David Accords and only passing reference to his role in resolving a long-standing border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. This is to say nothing of the millions of people in the corporate, non-profit and political spheres who have been influenced by his writings and thinking. In an odd way however, the entry is perhaps fitting for a man that was – in my limited experience – exceedingly humble.

Happily a more robust description of Fisher’s accomplishments see this wonderful summary over at the Harvard Law School’s website, here’s a tiny taste:

According to Patton, Fisher’s efforts contributed directly and materially to multiple steps toward peace in the Middle East, including Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, and the Camp David summit that led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; peace in Central America and especially in El Salvador; the resolution of the longest-running war in the western hemisphere between Ecuador and Peru; the breakthrough that enabled resolution of the Iranian hostage conflict in 1980; a fundamental reshaping of the U.S.-Soviet relationship; and the negotiations and constitutional process that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.  (Read the full text of Patton’s tribute here.) Fisher is also recognized as the intellectual father of the “West Point Negotiation Project,” which has trained Army officers and cadets to recognize conflicts and apply the tools of principled negotiation in both peace and war.

For myself, it would not be overstating issues to say that Roger Fisher (along with Ury and Patton) changed my life. Indeed, the ideas found in Getting to Yes have been central to almost everything I’ve done for almost 15 years. Be it my work in open government, public policy, open source and open innovation, community management, or flat out negotiation consulting on things like the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the ideas that make up interest based negotiation have strongly informed my thinking and made me more effective than I otherwise would ever have been. Frankly, they have made me a better person.

It is, and remains, one of my life’s great privileges that I briefly got to work with Roger. And while he remains someone who helped change the way people work, negotiate and collaborate together, the thing that I always remember about him was the incredible generosity with which he engaged everyone – including a 24 year kid fresh out of graduate school, long on dreams, and short on experience.

In late 2000 I got my first job with a Cambridge based Vantage Partners, a negotiation consulting company spun out of the Harvard Negotiation Project that Roger had helped found in 1983. Word came down from the partners that Roger (who did not work at Vantage) wanted an associate to help him plan and role out an upcoming workshop for a group of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Through enormous good luck (I won a draw) I was the one chosen to help him. I remember being so overwhelmed by the opportunity (could a more striking fanboy moment be imagined?). And so it was that evening when, without warning, Roger called my apartment in Cambridge to talk about the work. Getting a call from Roger Fisher was a little like having my teenage self getting a call from Bono.

But while as high as that conversation made me feel, what really struck me was how much he wanted my opinions and my thoughts about what should happen over the few days that the Israeli’s and Palestinians would be in town. I was dumbstruck that he even wanted to know what I thought, but having him honestly engage my ideas reset all my notions about how those with power can engage those who feel like they have less. Even writing this, I’m struck with how insufficiently I’ve modeled Roger’s capacity to honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully engage almost anyone who feels intimated or having less authority than you.

But the one story that I feel really sums up his character comes from his 80th birthday party at Harvard in 2002. After the dinner and speeches people were mingling and starting to drift home. But Roger and I ended up deep in conversation, discussing possible paths to peace for Israel, the Palestinians and the middle east in general. In fact we become so engrossed we did not notice that virtually everyone had left and it was really just us, and his wife, standing by the door with their jackets, looking slightly displeased.

In that moment, the pieces of Roger Fisher that I knew (again, briefly) were all in play.

Here was a man who I recall feeling personally responsible for helping secure peace in the middle east 20 years earlier. He carried an indescribable personal burden for what he felt was a missed earlier opportunity to help the region as well as a responsibility to make it right.

Here also was man that enjoyed engaging with young people and getting new opinions. Much like the story above I was struck by ho much he wanted to know what I thought. He wanted opinion, and wanted to know how I saw the facts on the ground. It was startling, rewarding, humbling, and frankly, scary, to be taken so seriously.

But finally, and maybe most importantly he was a man so dedicated to his mission of tackling great problems and fulfilling his sense of duty that he even wanted to do it on his 80th birthday. While some may see that as tragic, for me it spoke volumes about the sense of responsibility and duty with which he lived his life.

While a shocking percentage of the world has read, or learned the ideas embedded within, Getting To Yes, few of those people will have known who Roger Fisher was or how he has influenced them. For him, my sense is that was just okay. He was never interested in fame, but rather in solving the worlds most dangerous and intractable problems. While the problems I tackle are more smaller and more humble than the ones he dealt with, I hope I can bring the same dedication, insight and skill that he brought to the table.

 

 

Transparency Case Study: There are Good and Bad Ways Your Organization can be made "Open"

If you have not had the chance, I strongly encourage you to check out a fantastic piece of journalism in this week’s Economist on the state of the Catholic Church in America. It’s a wonderful example of investigative and data driven journalism made possible (sadly) by the recent spat of sexual-abuse and bankruptcy cases. As a result some of the normally secret financial records of the Church have been made public enabling the Economist to reconstruct the secret and opaque general finances of the Catholic church in America. It is a fascinating, and at times disturbing read.

The articles also suggests – I believe – a broader lessons for non-profits, governments and companies. Disclosure and transparency are essential to the effective running of an organization. As you read the piece it is clear that more disclosure would probably have compelled the Church to manage its finances in a more fiscally sound manner. It probably would have also made acts that are, at best negligent, at worst corrupt, difficult to impossible. This is, indeed, why many charities, organizations and public companies must conduct audits and publish the results.

But conforming to legal requirements will not shield you from an angry public. My sense is that many member contribution based organizations – from public companies to clubs to governments, are going to feel enormous pressure from their “contributors” to disclose more about how funds are collected, managed, disbursed and used. In a post financial collapse and post Enron era it’s unclear to me that people trust auditors the way they once did. In addition, as technology makes it easier to track money in real time, contributors are going to want more than just an annual audit. Even if they look at it rarely, they are going to want to know there is a dashboard or system they can look at and understand that shows them where the money goes.

I’m open to being wrong about this – and I’m not suggesting this is a panacea that solves all problems, but I nonetheless suspect that many organizations are going to feel pressure to become more transparent. There will be good ways in which that takes place… and bad ways. The Catholic Church story in the Economist is probably an example of the worst possible way: transparency forced upon an organization through the release of documents in a court case.

For anyone running an non-profit, community group, public agency or government department – this makes the article doubly worth reading. It is a case study in the worst possible scenario for your organization. The kind of disaster you never want to have to deal with.

The problem is, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, is that, at some point in the next 10-20 years, there is a non-trivial risk any organization (including your’s, reader) will face a publicity or legitimacy crisis because of a real or imagined problem. Trust me when I tell you: that moment will not be the moment when it is easiest or desirable from a cost, political and cultural perspective, to make your organization more transaparent. So better for you to think about how you’d like to shift policies, culture and norms to make it more transparent and accountable today, when things are okay, than in the crisis.

Consider again the Catholic Church. There are some fascinating and disturbing facts shared in the story that provide some interesting context. On the fascinating side, I had no idea of the scope and size of the Catholic Church. Consider that, according to the article:

“Almost 100m Americans, a third of the nation, have been baptised into the faith and 74m identify themselves as Catholic.”

and

“there are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities.”

We are talking about a major non-profit that is providing significant services into numerous communities. It also means that the Catholic church does a lot of things that many other non-profits do. Whatever you are doing, they are probably doing it too.

Now consider some of the terrible financial practices the Church tried/tries to get away with because it thinks no one will be able to see them:

Lying about assets: “In a particularly striking example, the diocese of San Diego listed the value of a whole city block in downtown San Diego at $40,000, the price at which it had been acquired in the 1940s, rather than trying to estimate the current market value, as required. Worse, it altered the forms in which assets had to be listed. The judge in the case, Louise Adler, was so vexed by this and other shenanigans on the part of the diocese that she ordered a special investigation into church finances which was led by Todd Neilson, a former FBI agent and renowned forensic accountant. The diocese ended up settling its sexual-abuse cases for almost $200m.”

Playing fast and loose with finances: “Some dioceses have, in effect, raided priests’ pension funds to cover settlements and other losses. The church regularly collects money in the name of priests’ retirement. But in the dioceses that have gone bust lawyers and judges confirm that those funds are commingled with other investments, which makes them easily diverted to other uses.”

Misleading contributors about the destination of funds: “Under Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese of Boston contributed nothing to its clergy retirement fund between 1986 and 2002, despite receiving an estimated $70m-90m in Easter and Christmas offerings that many parishioners believed would benefit retired priests.”

Using Public Subsidies to Indirectly Fund Unpopular Activities: “Muni bonds are generally tax-free for investors, so the cost of borrowing is lower than it would be for a taxable investment. In other words, the church enjoys a subsidy more commonly associated with local governments and public-sector projects. If the church has issued more debt in part to meet the financial strains caused by the scandals, then the American taxpayer has indirectly helped mitigate the church’s losses from its settlements. Taxpayers may end up on the hook for other costs, too. For example, settlement of the hundreds of possible abuse cases in New York might cause the closure of Catholic schools across the city.”

Of course all of this pales in comparison to the most disturbing part of the article: in several jurisdictions, the church is spending money to lobby governments to no extend the statute of limitations around sexual-abuse cases. This is so that it, and its priests, cannot be charged by authorities diminishing the likelihood that they get sued. The prospect that an organization that is supposed to both model the highest ideals of behaviour as well as protect the most marginalized is trying to limit the statues on such a heinous crime is so profoundly disgusting it is hard to put words to it. The Economist gives it a shot:

Various sources say that Cardinal Dolan and other New York bishops are spending a substantial amount—estimates range from $100,000 a year to well over $1m—on lobbying the state assembly to keep the current statute of limitations in place. His office will not comment on these estimates. This is in addition to the soft lobbying of lawmakers by those with pulpits at their disposal. The USCCB, the highest Catholic body in America, also lobbies the federal government on the issue. In April the California Catholic Conference, an organisation that brings the state’s bishops together, sent a letter to California’s Assembly opposing a bill that would extend the statute and require more rigorous background checks on church workers.

This disgusting discover aside, most organizations are probably not going to have the same profound problems found in the Catholic Church. But in almost every organization, no matter the controls, some form of mismanagement is probably taking place. The question is, will you already have in place policies and a culture that support transparency and disclosure before the problem is discovered – or will the crises become the moment where you have to try to implement them, probably under less than ideal circumstances?

As they said after Watergate “It’s not the Crime that kills you, but the cover up,” good transparency and disclosure can’t stop the crime, but it might help prevent them. Moreover, it can also make the cover up harder and, potentially, make it easier to ease the concerns of contributors and rebuilt trust. One could imagine that if the Church had been more transparent about its finances it might have better protected itself against bankruptcy from some of these cases. More importantly, it’s transparency might have make it easier to rebuilt trust, whereas any chance now will just seem like a reaction to the crises, not a genuine desire to operate differently.

Again, I think the pressure on many orgs to be more transparent is going to grow. And managers should recognize there are good and bad conditions under which such transparency can take place. Read this Economist story. In addition to be fascinating, it is a great case study in the worst case scenario for opaque institutions.

Suddenly, what happens online matters

Yesterday, the Globe and Mail had a very good editorial about online death threats. In short, the piece argues that death threats made online matter and shouldn’t be treated as somehow “inferior” to those that happen in “real life.”

Death threats made on the Internet can be as serious as death threats made in person or by other forms of communication; some other threats less so. Police, prosecutors and judges need to assess the gravity of the threats and apply their common sense, from the decision to prosecute through to sentencing. There is no need to amend the Criminal Code in order to treat Internet threats as if they were less serious, as some lawyers have suggested.

Of course, my hope is that this treatment of online behaviour isn’t selective. I mean, if online threats should be considered seriously, shouldn’t other forms of online behaviour – like political behaviour – also be treated seriously?

I remember just two years ago, during the initially online prorogation protests many journalists and pundits deemed them as silly and unimportant. Back then the online editor of the Globe was kind enough to publish two pieces of mine (here and here) that attempted to counter this narrative. But this ran against the grain. Even at the Globe there were pundits who thought that treating online protests and petitions seriously was, well, silly. It was fascinating to see how stories about a 200,000+ plus facebook group focused less on how disgruntled many Canadians were than on how online politics didn’t matter.

Of course that was before the Arab spring when all of a sudden it became vogue to write about how online politicsdidmatter. It would be fascinating to see how the prorogation protests might have played out in the media if they’d occurred after Egypt.

For many of us, we’ve known for a long time that what happens online matters. Its why we care so much about the virtual space and demand it be taken seriously.

It is great to see the Globe’s editorial board feel the same way. Frankly we’d love to see more of it since the online world is very much part of our world, and the threats to it as a space where citizens and consumers can be in free are very real as well.

Threats online matter, and so does commerce, politics, free speech, and the infinite other activities that humans engage in, and will engage in online. Let’s treat it that way.

China, Twitter and the 0.1%

Earlier this month I had the good fortune of visiting China – a place I’m deeply curious about and – aside from some second year university courses, the reporting from the Economist, and the occasional trip over to Tea Leaf Nation – remains too foreign to me for comfort given its enormous importance.

As always China – or to be specific – Beijing is overwhelming. The pollution, the people, the energy, the scale. It can be hard to grasp or describe. But I want to talk about my conversations which were overwhelming in other, equally fantastic ways.

As an indirect result of the trip I just posted a piece up on the WeGov section of TechPresident asking “Is Sina Weibo a Means of Free Speech or a Means of Social Control.” The post comes out of a dinner conversation I had in Beijing with Michael Anti, an exceedingly smart and engaging Chinese journalist, political blogger and former Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard who has a very interesting analysis about Weibo (Chinese twitter) as a means to enhance the power of the central government. The piece is worth reading largely because of the thoughts he has that are embedded in it.

There was another interesting thread that came out of our dinner conversation – one that was equally sobering. Michael described himself as part of the “Generation 70,” those who, if it isn’t obvious, were born in the 70s. For him, the defining trait or esprit, of that generation was a sense of possibility. As he noted “I’m from a humble family and fairly unimportant city in China, and I got to end up at Harvard.” For him and his peers as China grew, so did many of their opportunities. He argues that they were able to dream big in ways the almost no previous generation of Chinese could.

He contrasts that with the “Generation 90,” those now in mid teens to mid twenties and he sees a generation with small dreams and growing frustration. Forget about access to the top international universities in the world. Indeed, forget about access to top Chinese universities. Such opportunities are now reserved for the super rich and the super connected. What many have felt was a system that was relatively meritocratic is now flagrantly not. According to Anti, the result is that Generation 90 does not have big dreams. Forget about become a world class scientist, founding a leading company, leading an interesting organization. Many do not even dream of owning an apartment. This evolution (devolution?) in moods was summed up succinctly in a poster Anti saw at a demonstration a few months earlier which nihilistic read “We are Generation 90: Sacrifice Us.”

A few days later I had the good fortune of being in Soho (a very upscale neighborhood in Beijing) with a group of Generation 90ers. Eating at a very nice Chinese restaurant above a Nike and Apple store I discretely asked a few them if they agreed with Anti’s assessment about Generation 90.

Were they optimistic about their future? What were their dreams? Did they feel like opportunities for them were shrinking?

I was stunned.

They agreed with Anti. Here I was, in the nation’s capital, sitting in an upper middle class restaurant, with a vibrant, intelligent, bilingual group of young Chinese. This is a group that would easily fit in the top 5% in terms of education, opportunity and income, and most probably in the 1%. And they felt that opportunity for their generation were limited. Their dreams, were more limited than the generation before them.

Maybe this is a sort of Gen X syndrome Chinese style, but if I were the Chinese government, such sentiment would have me worried. There is an acceptance – from what I observed – in China that the system is rigged – but there was clearly a sense that before the benefits were more widely distributed, or at least available on a limited meritocratic basis.

I’ve never been as bullish on China as some of my peers. Between the demographic time bomb that is about to explode, the fact the state spends more on internal security than the military and the weak sense of the rule of law (essential for any effective market) I’ve felt that China’s problems are deeper and ultimately harder to address than say those in India or Brazil. But this conversation has given me new pause. If the 5% or worse, the 1% don’t feel like China can make room for them, where does that leave everyone else not in the .1%? These are, of course, problems many societies must face. But public discourse in China on a subject like this is almost certainly much harder to engage in than in say, Brazil, India or America.

China is a wonderfully complex and nuanced place. So maybe this all means nothing. Maybe it is a sort of Gen X funk. But it has given me a whole lot more to think about.

Lying with Maps: How Enbridge is Misleading the Public in its Ads

The Ottawa Citizen has a great story today about an advert by Enbridge (the company proposing to build a oil pipeline across British Columbia) that includes a “broadly representational” map that shows prospective supertankers steaming up an unobstructed Douglas Channel channel on their way to and from Kitimat – the proposed terminus of the pipeline.

Of course there is a small problem with this map. The route to Kitimat by sea looks nothing like this.

Take a look at the Google Map view of the same area (I’ve pasted a screen shot below – and rotated the map so you are looking at it from the same “standing” location). Notice something missing from Enbridge’s maps?

Kitimate-Google2

According to the Ottawa Citizens story an Enbridge spokesperson said their illustration was only meant to be “broadly representational.” Of course, all maps are “representational,” that is what a map is, a representation of reality that purposefully simplifies that reality so as to aid the reader draw conclusions (like how to get from A to B). Of course such a representation can also be used to mislead the reader into drawing the wrong conclusion. In this case, removing 1000 square kilometers that create a complicated body of water to instead show that oil tankers can steam relatively unimpeded up Douglas Channel from the ocean.

The folks over at Leadnow.ca have remade the Enbridge map as it should be:

EnbridgeV2

Rubbing out some – quite large – islands that make this passage much more complicated of course fits Enbridge’s narrative. The problem is, at this point, given how much the company is suffering from the perception that it is not being fully upfront about its past record and the level of risk to the public, presenting a rosy eyed view of the world is likely to diminish the public’s confidence in Enbridge, not increase their confidence in the project.

There is another lesson. This is great example of how facts, data and visualization matter. They do. A lot. And we are, almost every day, being lied to through visual representations from sources we are told to trust. While I know that no one thinks of maps as open or public data in many ways they are. And this is a powerful example of how, when data is open and available, it can enable people to challenge the narratives being presented to them, even when those offering them up are powerful companies backed by a national government.

If you are going to create a representation of something you’d better think through what you are trying to present, and how others are going to see it. In Enbridge’s case this was either an effort at guile gone horribly wrong or a communications strategy hopelessly unaware of the context in which it is operating. Whoever you are, and whatever you are visualization – don’t be like Enbridge – think through your data visualization before you unleash it into the wild.

How Government should interact with Developers, Data Geeks and Analysts

Below is a screen shot from the Opendatabc google group from about two months ago. I meant to blog about this earlier but life has been in the way. For me, this is a prefect example of how many people in the data/developer/policy world probably would like to interact with their local, regional or national government.

A few notes on this interaction:

  • I occasionally hear people try to claim the governments are not responsive to requests for data sets. Some aren’t. Some are. To be fair, this was not a request for the most controversial data set in the province. But it is was a request. And it was responded to. So clearly there are some governments that are responsive. The questions is figuring out which one’s are, why they are, and see if we can export that capacity to other jurisdictions.
  • This interaction took place in a google group – so the whole context is social and norm driven. I love that public officials in British Columbia as well as with the City of Vancouver are checking in every once in a while on google groups about open data, contributing to conversations and answering questions that citizens have about government, policies and open data. It’s a pretty responsive approach. Moreover, when people are not constructive it is the group that tends to moderate the behaviour, rather than some leviathan.
  • Yes, I’ve blacked out the email/name of the public servant. This is not because I think they’d mind being known or because they shouldn’t be know, but because I just didn’t have a chance to ask for permission. What’s interesting is that this whole interaction is public and the official was both doing what that government wanted and compliant with all social media rules. And yet, I’m blacking it out, which is a sign of how messed up current rules and norms make citizens relationships with public officials they interact with online -I’m worried of doing something wrong by telling others about a completely public action. (And to be clear, the province of BC has really good and progressive rules around these types of things)
  • Yes, this is not the be all end all of the world. But it’s a great example of a small thing being doing right. It’s nice to be able to show that to other government officials.