Sunday, August 30, 2009

Unintended consequences

Extracting liberally from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's writing gives one a good idea of how smart people think about complex systems today.

1) Climate Change. I am hyper-conservative ecologically (meaning super-Green). My position on the climate is to avoid releasing pollutants in the atmosphere, on the basis of ignorance, regardless of current expert opinion (climate experts, like banking risk managers, have failed us in the past in foreseeing long term damages and I cannot accept certainty in a certain class of nonlinear models). This is an extension of my general idea that one does not need rationalization with the use of complicated models (by fallible experts) to the edict: "do not disturb a complex system" since we do not know the consequences of our actions owing to complicated causal webs. (Incidentally, this ideas also makes me anti-war). I explicitly explained the need to "leave the planet the way we got it" ...

2) Crashes. [I also] crusade against the risk of financial collapse and the need to robustify society. I find it depressing that the British public could have saved several trillion pounds and hundreds of thousands of jobs had they minded these hidden risks in the system. My position is that a robust system needs to produce frequent crashes, with citizens immune to them, rather than infrequent total collapse, for which we have no robustness. By constraining cycles and assuming "no more boom and bust" (as your current government did) you end up with a very large bust -and I am sure that I do not need more events like the most recent crisis to prove the point...

3) Social Fairness. I spent 13 years fighting bankers bonuses (when nobody else did) and am currently crusading for clawbacks of past compensation as I have shown how regular taxpayers have been financing bonuses of millionaire bankers ("socialism for the losses, capitalism for the profits"). We are financing today those who got us here, with tax hikes on those who do the right thing, and larger tax break for those who blew us up. Companies who made mistakes and fragilized the system are being subsidized by the countercyclical ones who make it more robust...unless we lower debt to "definancialize" the economy (instead of increasing deficits through stimulus) we face more risks of blowups. Read more from source

If you find any of this interests you, and particularly if you are very young, get thee a lot of books that thrill you and perhaps get to a place where people have similar interests so you can talk and learn. I learned a lot of "systems" from being at Caltech, and inspired by John C. Doyle. Sadly, in the real world, there is too little of this kind of understanding. More pertinently, even John's, Nicholas's, my understanding is very shaky and full of holes. The world is waiting for the kids with new ideas to help us understand systems. In this event, rather than not disturbing complex systems, we learn good and unsafe ways to disturb them.

If you're convinced that you're too old for very original thinking, you may still follow the thoughts on systems, complexity, robustness, and the like: If you like maths, any advanced study that makes you understand very well what solutions to ordinary differential equations look like is a great start. Without maths, try Nassim Nicholas Taleb's books The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness, mostly on finance. I've never read them, but read reviews and discussions about. He's pretty much right.

Study Systems online:
I'm too lazy to read the following, but if you decide to study it, I'll gladly your take questions by email, since it will help me review the material that is supposedly my core area of study.
"Course Description
Many books and thousands of papers cover the field of system dynamics. With all of these resources available, it can be difficult to know where to begin. The System Dynamics in Education Project at MIT put together these resources to help people sort through the vast library of books and papers on system dynamics. This course site includes a collection of papers and computer exercises entitled “Road Maps,” as well as a collection of assignments and solutions that were initially part of a guided study to system dynamics. Note that while the level of the course indicated in the upper right corner of the screen is "Undergraduate / Graduate," the material is suitable for people ranging from K-12 students to chief executives of corporations."
Download the readings
Post feedback in the comments.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What makes us happy at work? Hint: Times have changed.

Winning the Talent Wars

We live in a world where companies are working exceptionally hard to attract, retain, engage and motivate their talented employees. A new generation of young people has started entering the workplace in the last decade, bringing with them new values, different expectations and a fresh outlook on work and the workplace. The shift in the values of these young people is necessitating a shift in workplace culture. Those companies wishing to attract the attention of these young stars – as employees or customers - must take these shifts seriously.

How Times Change
Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, and TIME magazine’s "Manager of the 20th Century", was asked on his retirement a few years ago what the most significant change in the workplace was during his career. As recorded in an article in Newsweek (4 April 2005), he answered as follows:
“In the 1960’s and 70’s all my direct reports were men. Many of those reports were fathers, and fathers were different then. They did not by and large, attend ballet recitals on Thursday afternoons or turn down job transfers because they didn’t want to disrupt their kid’s sports ‘careers’. Most of their wives did not have jobs with their own competing demands. All that changed of course.”
For Welch, the workplace of his early management days was one where employees were expected to work overtime without question, to be in the office over weekends on a regular basis, and where these things happened with no reference to the personal and family life of the employee. Today's workplace is very different.
The old workplace contract included terms such as “paying your dues” and “the system will provide”. The old contract swapped loyalty for security. In essence, the employee would come into an organisation and sell its products and services to its clients at its price through its channels, using its systems and processes. In exchange for the employee becoming that unmarketable (think about it - the more you learn about one company's systems and processes, the more unmarketable you become elsewhere), the employee was offered one thing in return: security. It was a simple contract, and it worked!
But how many companies can offer security these days? Not one!
Yet, that does not concern today's young workers. They are not asking for security, because they know that it is an illusion, even if it is offered. So, if your company cannot offer security, why is it still asking for loyalty? That's what today's young people want to know. If you can't give a long-term commitment, why are you asking for one?
Today's young people are looking for more than just a secure pay cheque at the end of every month. They are desperate to find deeper meaning, self-development and 1
fulfillment. They want to remain employable - having skills beyond just the current job description, and a confidence that they could get the job anywhere at any time. The more confident they are of that fact, the more likely they are to stay exactly in the place that is giving them that confidence. This is a paradox - but understanding it is the beginning of success with today's young talent.

Wells and Fences
A story might help to explain this. In South Africa, Karoo sheep farmers spend considerable time and resources maintaining the fences at the edges of their farms. Their sheep, in turn, often move to these fences and graze at the edges of the farm - sometimes even putting their heads through the fence to taste the sweet, green grass on the other side.

In Australia, however, most outback sheep stations don't have fences. Their focus is on building wells at the centre of their farms. They believe that the best way to keep sheep on their stations is to dig deep, clear, cool wells of water at the centre, and to draw the sheep in and keep them close.

The same applies in our businesses. Too often, we spend our time building fences (e.g. contracts) to protect the “boundaries”, and don't take the time to make the centre attractive. We focus on stopping people leaving, rather than giving them a reason to stay.

“Every afternoon at about 5 o’clock, all of the assets of this company leave the building and go home. It’s my job to ensure that they want to come back the following morning.” Jim Goodknight, CEO of SAS Institute, consistently rated one of the world’s best companies to work for (from an interview aired on Carte Blanche in July 2006).

Three Spheres of Life
Every human being operates in at least three spheres in their lives. The first is their personal life, which relates to their self, their body and soul. The second sphere is the social, which includes family, friends and community interaction and involvement. The third sphere might be called professional, corporate or work, and involves the income-generating activities of a person's life. These three interlinking spheres of life all need to be addressed by the individual.

Historically, companies have focused almost exclusively on the “work” part of this trio, leaving the individual a few hours a day, or one or two days a week, to look after the other two areas of personal and social interaction on their own. This must change. Companies are now expected to have some input and contribution towards an individual's personal goals and development, as well as their social and family commitments, over and above their interest in the person as a worker and employee.

What You Can Do
In order to build some wells to attract talented people, companies must consider at least the following:
• Work-life integration – we need to go beyond simple “balance” of work and personal commitments and help people to integrate. We already enable them to take work home, with laptops, cellphones and Blackberries, but now we need to reciprocate, and allow them flexibility to let their personal lives intrude into the office. Today’s young people ask questions like: “If I answer emails on a Saturday night, can I take my kids to a movie on Tuesday afternoon? If not, why not?”
• Outputs-based remuneration – companies that have tried flexibility and failed to make it stick invariably did not adjust their remuneration and reward systems to take account of the work-life shift. To be truly effective, you need to pay people for what they produce, not how many hours they spend doing it.
• Better use of technology – to achieve the above two goals requires everyone to use mobile and interactive technologies, and especially requires leaders to learn new skills of managing virtual teams.
• Significance – they need challenging work that stretches and develops them, and a sense that they are contributing to changing the world in some way.
• Mentoring – they need access to the senior leaders in their company, to learn the things you can’t read in books or get from studying. They want to have access to the years of wisdom often locked up in the unwritten instincts of those who have been on the job for a few decades.
• Savvy Leadership – to achieve all of these, companies need new types of leaders that are not constrained by command and control approaches, but are willing to learn, unlearn and relearn on an ongoing basis.

The war for talent is not a temporary blip in corporate history. It is a new reality that is here to stay, and the sooner companies make adjustments to their cultures, the more competitive they will be able to become. Talent is the most important component of a sustainable competitive advantage in the 21st century.

Found at via MIT OpenCourseWare
Find more at TomorrowToday's blog and Ethical Customers

The author, Dr Graeme Codrington, is an international expert on talent and the future of work. He works with, a strategy consultancy focused on helping companies get the most out of their leaders and talented staff and customers. He can be contacted at See more by the author at

Hmm, food for deep thought.

Monday, August 24, 2009

International Development Design Summit

The International Development Design Summit is put on by Amy Smith and her students at MIT. This year it took place in Kumasi, Ghana – which will be followed by Maker Faire Africa this weekend in Accra, where some of their work will be shown.

Here’s a quick list of the projects they have been working on over the last five weeks:

- A press that speeds up the process of extracting oil from shea nuts- A device for generating electricity from a playground carousel

- A machine for making recycled plastic products from used water sachets- A set of tools for threshing groundnuts

- A mechanism for producing chlorine from salt water using readily available materials

- A simple, low cost battery made from local materials, for household lighting and other uses

- A human powered grating machine for speeding up cassava processing

- A thresher to improve the quality of rice by preventing stones from mixing with the grains

- A chlorine dispenser for disinfecting drinking water

- A family friendly latrine designed to promote use and hygiene among young children

- A device for monitoring the growth of children under five through cell phone technology

- A container that extends the shelf life of tomatoes during transport and storage

Niall Walsh also outlines the importance of IDDS's move to Ghana this year:

The main difference between IDDS Ghana and IDDS in MIT is the proximity to community partners and potential end users of the projects. IDDS prides itself on the spirit of co-creation and this movement from the States to Africa is a crucial one in line with this vision. The difference between participants sitting in lecture halls in MIT, learning about international development and the importance of speaking to at least fifty villagers before designing a technology, and actually living with and talking to hundreds of villagers all over the country, is immeasurable.
In total IDDS this year worked with ten villages throughout the Bromg – Ahafo and Ashanti regions and teams had the chance to make three separate two night visits (spread throughout the design process to make sure they had input into every stage) to these villages. Among a huge number of other factors, the simple experience of having end users actually become extremely excited about your prototype, and seeing them test it out, is an incentive for teams to continue their project after IDDS.

More here
reBlog from Emeka Okafor, Timbuktu Chronicles, Aug 2009

Nigerians in Diaspora

There is a Committee on Diaspora Affairs in the Nigerian House of Representatives. The current chair is named Abike Dabiri-Erewa.

I sometimes think *somebody* could help promote working visits for interested highly-skilled workers, especially Nigerians in Diaspora. Now I hope the somebody could come from Diaspora Affairs.

Like if you had one month, three months, or say a year off from normal employment at say Microsoft, the Mayo Clinic, or MIT, and wanted to do something useful in Nigeria, how to go about it? How to find the place where your skills are most needed and apply yourself to that for several hours a day (and not to figuring out bureaucratic crap among red-tape artists, for instance)?

One way is to go for NYSC (like I just did) if you're under-30. It's only 11months at most, and it's a lot of fun. It's real: nobody will stop you from making a contribution (once you've figured out the system a bit, that is.)
I've also heard of the occasional program for doctors to volunteer their time in Nigeria.
I haven't heard of an IT program, really.
But these kinds of things need to be massively encouraged, and the scale needs to be greatly increased. We need not 100 skilled visitors a year, but perhaps 10000 or more.

In this post, I'm focusing on science and tech fields, because I have seen the specific need for rural doctors, for IT expertise, and for state-of-the-art tertiary education. Yes, I'm sure such a plan can be extended to several other fields too (agriculture, government, risk management, ...)

What do you think? What would you have to have guaranteed before you venture to Nigeria for a one-month work leave? Is it a matching salary? Is it a certificate? Appreciation? Housing? Security? Or just a visa? Would you have to live with your folks, or would you be open to seeing some new parts of the country? Or you're just not going to Nigeria for work, period?

Please post a comment at

Consider visiting the tres-modern website of the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs and sharing your ideas and opinions there as well.


Update, September 2009
In related news, the National Planning Commission engages Nigerians in the diaspora for National Vision 2020...
NPC engages Nigerians in the Diaspora for NV2020

London, August 2009 - Nigerians living in the United Kingdom and the United States have canvassed for greater involvement of Nigerians in the Diaspora (NIDs) in the NV 20:2020 process, especially in the implementation phase. This request is one of the outcomes of the town hall meetings held with them by a delegation of National Planning Commission officials, NV 2020 Secretariat and Accenture, the lead consultants for the process. The delegation, led by the Honourable Minister of National Planning, Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, was in London from Aug.20-21 and in Washington from August 22-23. In London, the meeting, which was held under the auspices of the Central Association of Nigerians in the UK (CANUK), was attended by over 200 people from all walks of life. The association challenged the Federal Government on the need to faithfully implement the recommendations in the final blueprint. They called for social welfare of the citizenry to be central to the outcomes of the Vision exercise,continuous reform of the Civil Service, and the need for Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) to be an integral part of the Vision implementation, among other issues. In his presentation, the Minister challenged NID to support initiatives drawn up in the Vision document with analysis of where gaps exists, implementation strategy and canvassing for investments to support Nigeria's infrastructural development, using their links abroad. The town hall meeting held at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington was convened based on requests made by the US Chapter of NID to the Business Support Group (BSG) of the NV20:2020. Exploring areas of collaboration towards the implementation of the NV20:2020 blueprint was also central to the need for the trip, NPC said. A key outcome of the meeting was the need for the Federal Government to create unique roles for NID in the Vision process through the launch of a Think Tank. As a first step, the NPC was enjoined to initiate the creation of a database of NID, to serve as a reference point for any request for subject matter experts abroad by Nigeria's development partners.

Previously on UpNaira