Not a Startup Guy, In a Startup World

A couple of years ago I got into startups. Not as a participant but as an observer. It was interesting to look at the systems at play in that space, to learn the dynamics and the culture and to try and interrogate how and why certain ideas seemed to dominate that world. It was definitely a curiosity for me, to try and work out why people were so into startups, why the solution to everything seemed to be start-ups and that there were vast sums of money available thanks to venture capital.

Then I decided to peek inside.

I led a design workshop at what was supposed to be a hackathon, it’s what you do when 60 non-technical people give up a Saturday for what is a good cause. It wasn’t what I expected, but I pulled together my experiences and knowledge to create a workshop aimed at getting people to invent, refine and design a solution. I took what I knew of startup world as well as a decade in education to fashion something that resembled what I’d seen and heard. It wasn’t your traditional hackathon – something I had to come up with on the fly to help out a group of well meaning people.

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Leading a design workshop at Hack4Good

My first involvement with the established space of startups was the AgriHack event in 2017. A “proper” hackathon run by real startup people, they had a process and a method for how this all works and they delivered. It was a local event that aimed to connect farmers and those interested in tech and innovation. It was an interesting two days, and personally I got a lot out of it. Despite living in a regional town, I’d never had much experience with farming or the agriculture sector. The day opened up a new opportunity – AgTech – something Id never really considered. I’d been immersed in EdTech for close to decade at that point and figured I had it worked out pretty well. In comparison – AgTech is a green field, and something I’ve picked up over the last 2 years is that while agriculture is incredibly industrialised it isn’t digitised.

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Our team for AgriHack 2017 

During the event I was approached by Australian Wool Innovation who were offering local people the chance to take a course in entrepreneurship at Adelaide University as part of their eChallenge program. I encouraged a friend to come and do it with me after a few sessions discussing apps and developing our own. So we did a course. We learnt some of the processes and procedures that startups tend to utilise. I started to see the value in some of it, how you can use the process to generate, refine and develop your ideas quickly. We learnt to pitch, and that pitch helped us make it through the final component of the course – a pitch competition, with real prize money at the end. We didn’t win, but we came second. We were invited back to do the business development side of the course and we said yes. We also enrolled in an incubator course locally. Both of these helped us refine our idea more, to get our message clearer, and again, to get our pitch tight and to the point. We had a fantastic mentor through this process who really helped us refine what the hell we were. doing. And at the end of the year we walked away with another set of prize money and a novelty check.

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Ben & I with our novelty check for real money 

Last year I took the decision to drop down to a four day working week. Mainly because my wife resumed full time work, but also I wanted to see where startup world might take us. I said yes to everything, every offer to compete, to pitch, to present, to chat and some of that paid off. I learnt a lot, but never quite got the wins like we had before. We always seemed to fall just short. Sometimes it was us not being as prepared, often it seemed there were politics at play, other agendas. But I kept going. Kept applying with fingers crossed that something would work out. We had plenty of success getting ourselves out there, discussing our ideas, and building prototypes and concepts. But we never succeeded in securing the funds to give us the time to go to the next level. There’s plenty of funding available out there, but often it’s got a lot of strings attached, a lot of specificity around who can access it.

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On the giant stage with the giant screen at Hybrid World Adelaide

I had a really eye opening conversation around the middle of the year with a guy in the “scene”. There were no filters, just plain speaking – which in startup world is very rare. We talked about the money – where it comes from and where it goes. We discussed the “eco-system” that’s been set up and who benefits from that. We discussed a lot of the intricacies of startup world, which as a new comer I had no idea. It was eye opening.

Nothing really panned out in 2018. Our idea, while solid and which solves a very real problem, doesn’t fit the funding criteria, especially for VC. Our application for a research grant didn’t come through either. We just didn’t seem to get the pay off from our efforts like in 2017, and while disheartening it’s not the end of the road. At the same time we explored and discovered a lot in the land of startups. We learnt about the systems and structures and cultures that exist. We learnt about ourselves too, what we’re capable of, our strengths and importantly, weaknesses.

So 2019? Well I’m dropping down to 3 days a week at work this year. A lot of that decision is about pursuing these other interests, and trying to make myself more available. We’ve set up our company 26fifty, and are starting to plan out what we can do moving into the future. We’re still plugging away at Kelpie and Chickon, but we’re working on them in a way that suits us and what we can realistically do. Some of that is by developing complimentary apps and tech, something that can be shared and reused later. There isn’t the drive for speed, instead we need to make something more sustainable. We’re looking for people looking to innovate and want to bring in some expertise to help them out. I’m thinking of developing a few courses and workshops to offer, especially around digital literacy. I’m also keen to get exercise my design skills and help pass on some of the knowledge I’ve picked up so far. Startup Starter is a package to help those starting on this journey and equip them with the fundamentals to get started and sell themselves. We’re also keen to offer services to farmers to help navigate the AgTech space and will be exploring the idea of the Techgronomy this year.

There’s one more thing happening very soon that I’d like to share… but there’s a media embargo, so I can’t say anything. I’ll do that in the next post – and a few coming up.

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2018. Yes, I Survived.

Yes it’s time for my end of year reflection. The post-Christmas, pre-New Year period is made for contemplation, especially when the weather is hot, the cricket is slow and the Christmas Ham seeps into every meal.

It’s the time of year 18 years ago my Dad passed away too. We had great Christmas and then went head long into a period of grief and hurt as a family. It’s a period where I was numb, my memory is hazy and while I know stuff happened, those 2 or 3 years after have merged into a tangled mess of memories and emotions. It’s after we visited Dad’s grave that I sit down to write this up, feeling a bit choked up and malaised.

This year has been bit of a roller coaster. It started well, building on some of the momentum and success from 2017. I changed my work arrangements and dropped to 4 days a week of work at the uni. That day off was great, I wished we’d been able to afford it a long time ago. It was a release valve, I could get stuff done that needed to be done, or wallow around a bit when life got a bit hectic and chaotic. It was a chance to recover and rejuvenate.

I got to spend more time in startup world – winning the AgriHack challenge with Rob and Ben with out [Chickon] idea. We went through the process of setting up a company, applying for a research grant, and going into a few more competitions – Hybrid World Adelaide and the AgInstitute conference.

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We didn’t manage to repeat the success of the year before at these events but it was a great learning experience. I learnt a ton at the Hybrid World Lab and conference, I got to speak to speak to the biggest audience so far and in front of the biggest damn screen I’ve seen. There was growth and learning happening which was great. It wasn’t anything to do with technology, which was refreshing, and it didn’t involve trying to help create and generate change. It was personal and it left me asking a lot of questions of myself, what I’m doing and where I’m going. I was frustrated a few things, especially the research grant, didn’t get up but what’s done it done.

Career-wise I don’t seem to be really going in the direction I anticipated or projected, there’s a sense of coming full cycle, which includes that unnerving sense of coming back to where you started. The year ended with the offer that I go back to the roll I started in at the university 11 years ago. The adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has been ringing in my ears for a lot of this year. There’s a realisation that the rhetoric about innovation in my institution hasn’t been met with any tangible action to change nor willingness by those in leadership to embrace it. There’s a cultural inertia that I’ve felt the full force of over the last few years, an unwillingness to bend or move forward, so it’s no wonder that my two year secondment to uImagine is set to end a year early. I have mixed emotions, but I exhausted by the politics and decision making. I don’t seem to able to make my voice heard or do the work I feel will make an impact and be fulfilling. Instead I spent far too long single handedly reskinning Blackboard, developing up a style guide, building all the sites, writing all the HTML and CSS, running training and communication sessions. I also had to bear the full brunt of complaints that something had finally changed at the university and that they weren’t happy with it. A lot of decisions got made that I didn’t agree with yet I had to deal with the fallout. It’s hard dealing with that feedback when you essentially agree with the points being raised.

After a very long hard start to the year I took some time out from work and spent a couple of months on long service leave. It’s not something I would have expected to accrue, especially not before I turned 40, but here I am. I wasn’t overly happy with work and when they announced that there would be a restructure I decided that it was something I didn’t need or want to be a part of. I’d hoped that on my return it would be sorted, but typically it’s now been delayed until June. It seems like I’m expected to just sit in limbo for another 6 months till that happens. I’m over it. Despite my service it still seems that there’s an inability within the organisation to treat it’s Human Resources like actual people.

I need a change.

I’ve spend the last few months moving our company from a piece of paper to setting up some structure around it. We now have a name (26fifty), logo, email and a [website]. We’ve grouped our startup projects under one banner and we’re looking at a few new options for other work.

The time off has really given me an opportunity to think about what it is I want to do, what drives me and what my skills really are (decoupled from history and roles and disciplines). For me it’s creativity that’s the driver. I relish nothing more that the solving a problem, coming up with novel solutions, working through them, testing and building them. I’m able to bring my broad set of skills together in those situations and it’s something that I truly enjoy doing. There was a podcast that I listened to early on during my leave that discussed creativity, and something that stuck out at me is that creative people hate repetition. It’s something that I’ve come to learn about myself – that repetition is my enemy – it’s something that I really struggle with. I’m quite happy with a certain level of it – to get a process developed, tested and refined, but at a certain point I get bored with it, frustrated even, and my mind yearns to go elsewhere. I need to find work that supports that, not just a job that pays the way.

So 2018. Politically, socially and emotionally it’s been a dumpster fire. Career wise it’s felt like that too. I’m not going to touch on any of it – you all experienced the nightmare too.

On the family front though it’s been great. Alise has become so much more independent and in so many different ways. I don’t feel I ever come close to the “Best Dad Ever” that she likes to exclaim (especially when dishing out sweet things) but her love keeps me ticking over. I know I’ve been a moody bastard at certain points this year and Clare remains focused and supportive no matter what. She’s provided moments of clarity that have been invaluable, where I’ve only been able to see the tree in front let alone the whole forest. I love our little family and love that two new nieces joined the clan just last week.

2019 – well I’m booked to travel to India for 10 days at the end of January, taking Chickon international before it’s even off the ground. It’s a great opportunity and there’s something to be said about my attitude with the startup to just say yes to everything that comes along. Beyond that… well there’s quite a lot of [Fog of War] ahead. I’m hoping that new opportunities will arise and I’ll hopefully get some more exciting projects to work on.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for journeying down the road with me. Feel free to get in touch – let’s meet up online and have a coffee and a chat!

Peace out, 2018!

Where am I going? What am I doing?

I have just a couple of weeks of long service leave to go. It’s been so good to have a break from work, without the threat of worrying where the next pay check is coming from. I’ve been working since I was 16 and during that time there have been a few stints of unemployment, but they never felt like a break, more like a slow unravelling of everything you had as you try to dodge the poverty line and deal with the onset of depression. In comparison to that this break has been great!

I haven’t had the luxury of being able to travel during this time, unfortunately the family doesn’t accrue the same leave, nor does the bank account stretch far enough to indulge the expense. Instead I’ve been doing admin. I hadn’t realised just how much admin is involved in our modern lives, but when you stop and let it catch up, you end up drowning in it. Modern life is full of tedious tasks and the mundane. Lots of checking stuff and following up with people.


I’ve been using the time to do some re-evaluation of my work and where it is I’m going with it. To be honest I’m keen to make work do more for me, provide more opportunities to learn and grow, to be more of a challenge. I think I’ve settled into doing tasks, rather that achieving things – and there’s a subtle difference between the two. Doing tasks is easier, it requires less effort and expenditure, and I’ve fallen into that over the last few years, mainly because life got hard. Family life changed considerably over the last 6 years, a child and then the fire, were pretty significant life changing events. The disruption to the norm that a child brings was challenging and the need to be in parent mode during all of her waking hours was draining, physically and mentally. The fire and the experience of losing everything, as well as the added trauma of dealing with a recalcitrant and obstinate insurance company, was incredibly stressful. So slipping into a state where work was easy was perhaps inevitable.

At the same time work can’t own me. I’ve given a lot to my job, worked a lot of extra hours, pulled projects out of the fire and tried to offer my insights and knowledge to better the institution, but the reality is they don’t seem to care. Individuals might but the institution doesn’t, and it never will. I need to change my expectations in this regard, to do more for me and to maintain my autonomy. Achieving shouldn’t be the completion of a task or project, I need work to be bigger than that, to give me something in return for my effort. Trying to eek that out of work might be challenging, but at the moment there’s some interesting opportunities on the horizon.

I’ve never held much credence in personality test, and I know Myers Briggs has been discredited on numerous fronts, but the words describing my “personality type” (INTP) have always resonated with me. Say what you like about the theory and practice, the words always resonated with me… deeply. For me it was an articulation of what goes on in my head, and often how I think and behave. It’s not all 100% correct, but there were swathes of my profile that literally describe myself and how I work. Like this:

… their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. They seek patterns and logical explanations for anything that interests them. They’re usually extremely bright, and able to be objectively critical in their analysis. They love new ideas, and become very excited over abstractions and theories. They love to discuss these concepts with others. They may seem “dreamy” and distant to others, because they spend a lot of time inside their minds musing over theories. They hate to work on routine things – they would much prefer to build complex theoretical solutions, and leave the implementation of the system to others. They are intensely interested in theory, and will put forth tremendous amounts of time and energy into finding a solution to a problem with has piqued their interest.

There may not be anything to the label of INTP, but that passage describes the kind of worker I am, what I am good at and honestly where I struggle. The routine and the repetition of task based work is something that I’ve become frustrated with and I need to move on to bigger things. That much I know.

After some deep reflection I realise that at my heart I am a creative. I need to create, to be inspired, to build as well as destroy, to move matter (ideas, concepts and code too) and form it into shapes and expressions. I need to work in an environment that will let me do that. One way is to find a role that will let me do that, the other is to make it happen on my own.

And that’s where I am. On the edge of a decision. I’ve been going towards this point, and what I do has led me here. I now need to make the next move and see where it might take me. And maybe it’s not one decision. Maybe it’s not a clean cut, but a fade out/in, a movement between spaces over the year ahead.

My Kodak Moments

I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.

The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.


Confusing what you do for how you do it.

At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.

Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.

Tip 1: Change the How

If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.

A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility

Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.

Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.

There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.

Tip 2: Focus on Learning

Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.

Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.

Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces

The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.

Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.

The Debt Generation

One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.

I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?

Tip 4: Think Financially

Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?

Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.

A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty

A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.

Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.

Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.

Tip 5: Start with your Own People

Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!

Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.

Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.

You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.

The Rise of Innovationism

Over the past few years I’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of fanaticism, a new ideology that has taken hold within the tech industry and has begun to seep into other industries, sectors and government as technology increasingly important role. It defines itself through an undying and unquestioning devotion to the concept of innovation. It has reached a level in many areas where it has become more that just a function of a business, but an ideology – an ism.

Innovationism.

Innovationism looks past the history of failed innovations, incremental improvements and plain old luck, to cherry pick a creation story that exists entirely of lightbulb moments and messianic inventors and prophets. It is the new manifestation of the intelligent design story. The individuals involved come complete with omnipotent powers of insight, but there’s a wilful ignorance of their human failings and the simple fact that for every success there was a score of failures. Pointing this out to a devotee of Innovationism is tantamount to heresy and is met with howls of derision and abuse from the bro culture that regards TechCrunch as the Holy Book. It is through the lens of religion, and its side kick of fanaticism, that we can finally gain an understanding of what is going on within the Church of Silicon Valley.

The Kodak Moment

The story of Kodak’s failure to recognise and reposition it’s film business in response to emerging digital technology is legendary. Mythical even. The Kodak story is how we’ve been sold the concept of “disruptive innovation” and how innovation itself is justified. It helps transform it from a buzz word into an ideology. This Innovationism uses the Kodak story as a way of simplifying a complex business and economic environment with 20/20 hindsight into a simple message – Innovate or Die.

I See History

When I look at the Kodak story I see history. An environment and time made into an artefact that we can dissect and make sense of. History is how we can move forward, but it’s equally true that it’s why we stay rooted to the spot, doomed to repeat events again and again. What allows us to move forward isn’t history itself, but recognising the moments and conditions of inflection – learning and identifying when and what to change – and providing an alternative at the right time. These three things (recognition, alternative and timing) need to be done in concert in order to affect change. This is why history so often repeats – we can’t coordinate those required actions.

Innovationism bypasses that logic. It doesn’t seek to know or understand, it seeks only to innovate. Innovation is the means and the end. By their logic we must innovate or die, so that we can innovate and die. By dying we can live forever. Those that seek innovation are doomed to repeat history simply because they are not on a path to change it. Intersect it, maybe, but change it, no.

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Ideological Distortion

We are dealing with an ideology that has distorted the function of innovation. That has bastardised it to suit the needs of it’s masters and support their world views, baked in biases and dangerous beliefs. It reinforces their privilege and distorted view of the world that needs another app or phone update rather than address the climate catastrophe their products are contributing to.

Innovation on it’s own is not the problem – it’s this particular manifestation. The move from a function that helps to facilitate change into an ideology. It has bought with it a destructive nature that is having a massive effect on peoples lives. From Uber drivers through to Facebook’s new army of content moderators – lives are being profoundly affected by those loyal to the dogma. And like those in power in other areas before them – the church, the aristocracy, the politburo – they remain unaffected. They benefit greatly from the adherence and growth of this ideology. It’s what funds the billions of dollars into the accounts of Bezos and Gates before him. It’s what widens the gap between rich and poor, divides cities and classes and people into ever smaller marginalised groups.

History doesn’t need to repeat. We have been here before. The church, the state, the aristocracy. All have risen, but all have fallen too. It’s becoming easy to recognise the problem. The time is right for change. We just need an alternative. It might be time to innovate.

No Work …. till Next Year

This blog has been neglected a bit this year. The silence has felt deafening on this end – there’s been plenty to write about, lots has been going on in life, but finding words and being able to talk things openly have challenged my expression. This site has been a place where I have shared a lot, and I often feel that it’s a disservice when it’s left idle.

Work has been challenging. My job has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and in the last year has been quite challenging. There’s been significant movement within my division, and that looks set to continue with a review completed and a restructure on the cards. That’s all led to a feeling of disillusionment and deep questioning of what I’m doing.

I’m lucky enough to have been at the university for 11 years now. It means I’ve been here long enough to understand the machinations of the place, and I’ve been here long enough to unlock long service leave.

So that’s me for the rest of the year – I’m on leave. No more work till 2019!

I’ve got enough time up my sleeve to actually go and do that thinking, to work out what I want to do next. I’m not sure about the university, or the sector as a whole. I don’t know what it is I should be doing and spending my time. But I’ve at least got an opportunity to go away and have a think about it.

Because work is not life, and in general life is good.

We’re a happy family and enjoy being together. I’ve found more interesting avenues outside of work – setting up a startup and currently looking for ways to fund it – has engaged my creativity and challenged me to do new things and push myself. I would never have got up on a stage in front of 300 people and pitched, or be interviewed on the radio. I feel I’ve got a great professional network going in EdTech – I’ve managed to find the honest, compassionate and engaging people in that space and ways to stay connected with them. I have a lot to be happy and grateful for – and work has helped create that for me. I’m glad to be back in our lovely home and in this great regional community.

It’s time to think about what comes next!

PS – Please get in touch about any projects or work that you think might be of interest. I’d love to here about what’s happening in my network, opportunities that I’d never have thought about or considered.

Some Online Learning Truths

I haven’t written here for ages, but there have been plenty of things of late that I’ve wanted to engage with. Instead of that deep engagement in posting my (Twitter friendly) equivalent of me yelling stuff out of a car window as I pass by at the speed of life:

  1. Online courses don’t need to be massive. You can have a viable class with 15-20 people. In fact the bigger the course the less of a “class” it feels.
  2. If you keep the numbers small you can dedicate more time to more students/teacher interactions. Both will feel more nourished and engaged.
  3. You don’t need to have a quiz at the end of a topic. Have a conversation instead. Don’t discount informal assessment.
  4. A course doesn’t have to be content driven. Sometimes conversation and the generation of ideas and context are more suited and more beneficial to learning. Could you run your course with zero materials?
  5. You don’t need a course to learn. Guess what!? You can just search for stuff online these days and learn by yourself! Education providers don’t have a monopoly any more. In fact formal education – you’re more difficult to engage with than ever before.
  6. Making stuff that’s meaningful is a better tool for assessment than any exam or essay.
  7. Essays are an abstraction of writing for purpose & communicating an idea. An essay is a format, a style – and for this it fails to do its job. Why? Because in essence you’re actively hiding an idea under a ton of formatting.
  8. Word count is not a signal of proficiency. Challenge the learning by forcing a more succinct statement. A tweet, a 5 minute presentation.
  9. Text is not the only way to assess. It would be faster to mark 10 x 5 minute presentation than 10 x 3000 word essays. But from a students perspective, and in the assessment of learning – just as much time/effort is required – it’s not a lesser format.
  10. Don’t forget, there are a myriad of tools and tech out there that enable conversation and dialogue. The forum can be replaced. The forum often should be replaced. Get your students to talk to each other.
  11. Different LMSs are just like Coke vs Pepsi – neither is really good for you, they have no nutritional value and you should probably just have water. We need to Think beyond the LMS.

Earn or Learn, Eat or Read

Reason students leave school: time and money. For many it’s earn or learn, eat or read… today’s system is not designed for today’s students. #asugsv2018 https://twitter.com/DesieLiz/status/986281713453056000/photo/1

This tweet hit my timeline this morning as I sipped my coffee. It stuck in my craw.

The debate around the education system doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, instead it tends to centre on apportioning blame for one shortcoming or another. Education is a complex beast, mainly because it spans civic, private, social, public and increasingly, corporate realms. It involves economic, political and financial aspects at both macro and micro levels. So many spheres with so points of interaction and intersection that it is a tangled mess. But that’s what it is. No amount of streamlining, efficiency dividends, restructures or regulation will change that. Educations place in our society is as a nexus.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that the situation described in that tweet is real, students are increasingly faced with the choice to earn or learn, eat or read. And to rub salt into the wound, they are paying to do so!

But it’s this next bit that rubs me the wrong way – “today’s system is not designed for today’s students” – because I don’t think this is a problem that’s systemic within Education. Yes education has problems that contribute to this situation, but I think it’s society itself is the problem. The society that we live in is increasingly not designed for its citizens, in fact it’s becoming It’s more and more hostile to vast swathes of people, in particular the younger generation.

I’m not sure that the Education System is capable of addressing the kinds of problems that are on table. I think we’ve got a society whose value system has gone awry, and what’s happening in education is symptomatic of that.

We are in a state where we are asking to student to pay for the privilege of choosing to earn or learn, eat or read. Apparently we can’t afford to educate people any more, while at the same time we hand over billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. We can’t afford to feed or house people any but we can give away our natural resources and sabotage our land and water.

Education can’t and won’t fix that. Education isn’t the solution here. It might even be part of the problem as the system seeks to maintain relevance and prestige by changing the concept of education to fit the ‘work ready’ mantra. We’ve shifted the costs and the burden of being a citizen onto the next generation to the point where they have to choose whether they eat or read!

Catching Up on the Year

Wow, this year is rocketing by. I was thinking today it must have been a while since my last blog post. I just checked and it was 31/12/2017. So lets catchup on where I’m up to.

I spent the last six months elbows deep in Blackboard developing up a new theme for CSU’s deployment. A lot of that work exists as a GitHub repository and it was great to really try out GitHub and use it to it’s full potential. I’ve used the Issues and Projects features of GitHub extensively to manage and maintain the projects momentum. I also built a whole Style Guide (built with Fractal) – designing and coding the thing from scratch which has been migrated into the new theme in Blackboard.

That’s the good part of the project – the creative and challenging bit. The actual implementation into Blackboard has been a real headache for many reasons. For starters the code base for Bb is awful. Styles are all over the place and the HTML of Bb itself is atrocious. Because I’ve tried to to really take the theme that somewhat resembles modern web practices – responsive design, relative measurements and improvements to readability – it’s made this a challenge. I’ve got about 20 years of technical debt present in the application code and HTML that I’m trying to update with CSS. Add to that 10 years of technical debt when it comes to content and a lack of consistent tools and practices and I’ve reached the limit of whats possible with CSS.

There were a lot of teething problems with the roll out – communications aren’t great across the institution for these kinds of changes, there were unforeseen problems caused by the theme, and the change to a responsive design was a bit much for some very vocal staff. I bore a lot of the blowback because I was the one who’d made the changes. And that was a big part of the problem, this wasn’t a team effort – I was responsible for the whole thing. I’d done the design, code, documentation, training and communications for the whole thing.

This whole thing ate the first quarter of the year for me and also a lot of the hours that I had hoped to dedicate to other projects this year – because this was supposed to be my year of the Dog. I’m no longer a full-time employee of the university, having dropped back to 4 days a week with the aim of spending the other working day on Kelpie. I’ve managed to squeeze in some some work on it – building out a new website in Jekyll and taking my new found CSS wizardry to a new level and incorporate some CSS Grid into the site. I’ve also used my new found design system skills to work on one for Kelpie, experimenting with how and what to take from a lot of great examples out there. Visually Kelpie is looking sharp now, I’ve cleaned up the logo, colours and type concepts and really got into working with Sketch.

Over the Easter holidays I took some extra days off and managed to get a few other projects underway:

  • I finally got on top of my photos. I now have a consolidated RAW archive that’s backed up to the cloud and a jpg archive in Dropbox and in Flickr. This is a huge relief. I lost all my RAW files in the fire – having backed up across disks, but not sites and our awful internet speeds mean the cloud was out of the question. I was lucky that I had started to do a yearly archive in Dropbox so we didn’t loose everything, but it was a huge loss.
  • Yard Cleaned Up – We’ve been in the house coming up to a year now and there are still a few outstanding jobs to be done. I think we fell into a bit of a rut having finally arrived home, there was a collective sigh of satisfaction having survived that ordeal and we never really got back up. But now we’re on the move. We got a tree out the front removed and our beautiful shady tree out back was in need of a drastic trim. There was also all manner of building materials, bricks and old stuff that we needed to get rid of. So over the weekend we filled a skip bin of that detritus and sent it off on Tuesday morning.

There’s plenty more to come in 2018… and it feels a bit like the year has just started in many ways now that I can mark a few of these jobs done (or at least deferred).

Design Thinking

Or, how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t.

Or, how to waste time and money without making progress.

I’m glad Lee Vinsel wrote this post Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains. While it takes a rather extreme view the further in you go – eventually equating it with the Hitler Youth (does that count as Godwin’s Law?) – it does include a relatively detailed critique of many of the problems that the cult of Design Thinking has caused.

To start – I am a Graphic Designer. I trained in multimedia and graphic design and worked in a variety of roles doing design work over the last 20 years. I’m pretty familiar with the design process, but also the skill of the designer. This is a profession, an art and a craft and it requires a diverse set of skills. Not everyone has them, not everyone has them all, and so you can quickly start to recognise what your capabilities are, what your strengths and weakness are and how to manage them. So for me Natasha Jen’s video really struck a chord with me. Lee returns to her ideas again and again throughout his piece too because they are a really strong critique of the methodology and ideology that sits behind Design Thinking.

Anti-Designer

The main problem that I have with Design Thinking is the fact that it’s hostile to an actual Designer. If you practice design then the linear nature of the process, the toolkit, the ideas, the lack of evidence, iteration or improvement is worrying. What is fundamentally flawed is the lack of “crit” – not just the critical engagement within the process, but the lack of change that occurs because of criticism.

As a Designer one of the key lessons from my years of study is critique – how to do it, what to take from it, how to handle it and what to do with it. And it’s that last one that makes a designer (and hence the whole design process). Being able to comprehend, understand and make (or not) the right changes based on criticism is the most important skill of a designer and the process as a whole. Design is iteration. It is fluid. It is changeable and the form is malleable and adaptable and you do that as part of the process. You don’t just prototype as a singular, you constantly change and adapt to feedback and intuition. Yes, intuition – the tacit knowledge and skill of the designer that is built up through years of practice, success and failure. Design Thinking does none of this. Skill isn’t just missing – its completely absent. The process actively discounts it and instead relies on the supposed meritocracy of the Post It note. Anyone with knowledge or skill can’t really exercise it in the process – they’re just along for the ride.

Absent Friends

Critique isn’t just missing from Design Thinking – its completely absent – and so when it becomes the method for change, for generating innovation, for defining the future you don’t get Design or Creativity. You get…. well nothing but a bunch of half-cocked ideas. You get the same old solutions to the same old problems. You get a vision that is so unimaginative and uncreative it looks like yet another rerun of yesteryear, because it is.

At it’s heart Design Thinking isn’t really about developing a creative or novel solutions to a problem, it’s about involvement. It’s about bringing people together to think about the problem, which is good, but not to actually solve it. Not to actually participate in change. Not to be the change themselves. Because Design Thinking isn’t about doing the work – you know, designing, that happens after the fact when someone actually has to process Post It notes and turn it into something tangible. To take a wireframe and make it real. To take a half-cocked idea and translate it into something actionable. And that isn’t design at all! Design isn’t something that’s tacked onto the end, it is the process. Design Thinking is a poor substitute and I think Lee’s article does a good job of what’s wrong when it is.

Design Thinking is how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t. It’s like a long meeting, with more activity, discussion and Post It’s but the outcome is the same. Nothing actually gets done. No change gets made. You just think about it instead.

The other absentee is history and evidence. Design Thinking assumes a clean slate and it’s dismissal of prior skill and knowledge leads to a process of simplification that wipes away history, complications, systemic issues, even legal, moral and ethical considerations. When you set the scene as a “what if” you remove context from the problem you’re trying to solve, which is the absolute opposite of Design. This really stuck out for me in Jen’s talk:

You bring forth evidence and then everybody crits the heck out of it. And that’s when you can make improvements, right? That’s when you can begin to really evaluate if something is valuable, is good, at all.

When was the last time this happened in Ed Tech?

When was the last time this happened in Higher Education?

This ignorance of history and evidence is perhaps Design Thinking’s most critical flaw. And it’s led to an unprecedented waste of time, money and labour without making much progress. How much change has really happened? How widespread are the changes of MOOCs? How has the lives of students improved because of Ed Tech? If you don’t critique, you don’t improve. If you don’t change what you’re doing then you keep making the same mistakes.

I’ve written before about critique, and more importantly the lack of it in Ed Tech, and more broadly in Higher Education.

the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.

I wrote that in 2015. I haven’t seen much change since then. In fact after 10 years working in Ed Tech I’m seeing the conversations come full circle. The same stuff we were discussing a decade ago are coming around again. We haven’t learnt. We haven’t listened. We haven’t critiqued.