Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Emotion & Our Techno-Economic Future

Image source: viralspell.com

Emotions are subjective. The only way you can really know how another person is feeling is to ask them. And even then you’re relying on their emotional intelligence and their ability to communicate, honestly. There are nuances and complexities with emotions, and we’re only just scratching the surface.

Emotions are something that humans have and computers simply don’t, or at least that was the case until recently. Technology is catching up. “And the real world will never be the same,” says Steven Kotler in an article in Forbes.

He’s right, if progress is anything to go by; we’re entering an entirely new realm. One where technology is becoming so advanced that algorithms can read human emotions better than humans can. The future is an exposed place if you prefer a little self-containment.

Kotler refers to the ‘Emotional Economy’ as the next wave in techno-economic development. Think the ‘Internet of Things’ on steroids – a giant network of connections between devices, but with the ability to understand human emotions.

For example, you might be travelling home from work one day, thinking about all the things you didn’t manage to cross off your to-do list, and your car and phone detect your anxiety and fire up the coffee machine for you at home. Or perhaps you’re in a Skype meeting with a colleague that doesn’t seem to be going very well, and your computer alerts you to your colleague’s anxiety level, so you can work on addressing it.

Face-to-face, or in this case, face-to-computer, scientists have also found that computers are better at detecting sincerity of facial emotions than humans. Here, there’s still an element of mystery – computers are only reading a person’s physical response to emotions. They don’t really know what’s going on inside – but they chance a pretty good guess at it.

But that’s where things are changing. Once able to conceal our emotions to suit the situations we find ourselves in or the company we keep, but perhaps not for much longer with the rise of the Emotional Economy. A degree of emotional exposure looks like it will be part of our future, but for now, there’s some comfort in knowing that our emotions are ours for sharing.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Neural Ballet

Image source: therunnerbeans.com

When it comes to stories, the majority of us tend to read or watch them, but listening to stories being told (just like our ancestors did) is becoming increasingly popular. Talking books have been around for some time, but it’s the podcast that’s really produced a thriving mini-industry in the last few years.

An article by Kevin Roose on New York magazine gave three key reasons behind the podcast’s golden age:
  1. The stories are good, right up there with popular television series and backed by decent budgets and industry expertise;
  2. The economics are hard to argue with; and
  3. We’re becoming a bunch of otherwise-engaged travelers, consuming media everywhere we go. Even our cars are well-equipped with mod-cons that connect people with streaming audio.
So we’re becoming a world of listeners, but do the stories still engage us in the same way that reading or watching does? “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text,” says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

The Atlantic asked the question of Zak, why do audio stories captivate? In a nutshell, his answer was tension – it’s what all of the best stories have, woven into a type of universal structure that carries some sort of challenge or conflict. It sparks a connection, both emotionally and intellectually. We become transported into the story, feeling it and empathizing with the characters. Zak describes it aptly as ‘neural ballet’ – we’re not physically part the story, but our brain responds to it like we are.

Research has found that podcasts that use a dramatized audio structure, with voice actors to tell the story, stimulate listeners’ imagination and interest in a story, over narration. Sound effects have been shown to help too. It’s all part of building your own personal image of a story in your mind. “You’re creating your own production,” says Emma Rodero, a communications professor at the Pompeu Fabra Unviersity in Barcelona.

What could be more captivating than that?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sounds of the Times

Image attribution / source: Ben_E._King / euanrphoto.com & The Righteous Brothers / fanart.tv

Each year the US Library of Congress selects 25 recordings to be inducted into the National Recording Registry. This year marks the 13th year of the Library’s annual selections, and the new batch of inclusions is notable for a variety of different reasons. You can see the full list here, but a couple stood out for me.
  • The single ‘Stand by Me’ by Ben E. King. Apparently inspired by a gospel song, with one of the best-known basslines in recording history. Not to mention the lyrics. And brilliantly used by Saatchi & Saatchi for Steinlarger – Who Are Still ‘Standing By’ the All Blacks.
  • Joan Baez’s inclusion in the selection was acknowledged by TIME with a piece that revisits a November 1962 story on the folk movement.
  • You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers. They transcended pop and rhythm and blues with a string of Top 40 radio hits that still get everyone singing along.
  • And who would miss out The Doors.
To see the full list of recordings, and recordings preserved by year, visit the Library of Congress website here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Reinvention: The Common Thread

Image source: googleusercontent.com

Above everything else, you must be open to change if you want to survive and thrive as a business, says Lloyd Shefsky in his new book, Invent Reinvent Thrive. “Everything else comes after.”

Reinvention is the common thread of business success, and it’s not just about starting with a new idea or concept that breaks the mold, but about fully embracing change while the business grows – recognizing that constant innovation is key to surviving in today’s world of uncertainty.

In a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, Shefsky (who is a Kellogg School of Management Professor) talks about the trigger for the book, which was the realization that people who succeed do so because they reinvent themselves and their businesses. They all did it and continue to do it. To inform his book, Shefsky went out and spoke with entrepreneurs and family business giants, including leaders of highly successful companies such as Starbucks, Costco, Charles Schwab & Co. and Staples.

Shefsky gives the example of Starbucks. Founder, Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz had an idea, and then went about “trying to convince the American public – who were used to bad coffee – that they should pay a fortune to get some kind of different coffee that they’d never tasted in a paper cup and be happy.” But that wasn’t quite the point. What Schultz ended up selling was an experience – access to a secret club where people spoke a different language, ordering a ‘doppio’ instead of a ‘double espresso’. People wanted to be part of it.

Years later Starbucks faced a few bumps in the road, with concerns about volume and profits. Had Schultz adopted a tunnel-vision approach he might have considered changing his prices in the hope that this would be the magic solution to his problem. Instead, he visited his stores, and realized that Starbucks had changed – no longer was it a friendly place with atmosphere, noise and the smell of coffee. A new coffeemaker had been brought in that eliminated noise and that delicious coffee aroma, and also blocked the customer’s view of the barista. Schultz made a change to take Starbucks back to what it was; a backwards reinvention.

Shefsky highlights the take-away insight for people who are interested in the book: “…invention is really critical. Yes, it takes confidence. Yes, it takes guts. Yes, it takes skill. But you really have to figure out how you’re going to reinvent… Recognize that even the best success stories you can imagine miss things and mess up things. So that’s another kind of reinvention: After you mess up how do you reinvent it to put it back together?”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Friendly Swiss

Image source: alicdn.com

I wrote last week that I was in the beautiful city of Lucerne and about my extraordinary meal at Focus in Vitznau by Nenad Mlinarevic. It was the perfect appetizer for the main event, the World Tourism Conference, where I was a keynote speaker and was asked to address the topic of “irresistible.”

Tourism is a vitally important business to most economies in the world. In 2014 Travel & Tourism generated US$7.6 trillion (10% of global GDP) and 277 million jobs (1 in 11 jobs) in the global economy. Its growth of 3.6% was faster than the wider economy and out-performed growth in the majority of leading sectors in 2014. More than 60% of all air travel is tourism related.

My message was that the keyword for the tourism industry in 2015 is not scenery, experience, adventure, millennial, disruption, technology – but people.

“Irresistibility is not about who has the highest Alps or whitest beaches, nor the most personal data or smartest tech; all are commodities, all replicable in one way or other.

“Irresistibility is about the living force that defines us, about the power and mystery of human emotion and storytelling, about people being understood, touched, involved and inspired by other people. How many times have you heard the story, “the hiking was amazing, the shopping was unique, but the people…they were so helpful and friendly…”

Tourism is an industry that runs on talent, and the 277 million people employed – whether at airport check-in, by-the-pool service, off-the-bungy moment of truth, on the jet-boat – all have major responsibility for delivering personal fulfilment in the chain of interactions.

And not only is the People element critical in the industry itself, it is crucial in the national welcome. In a workshop I co-hosted with Oxford economist xxx addressing the issue of currency fluctuations which is currently pressuring the Swiss tourism industry (an appreciated franc being the issue), I said that the Swiss has to get off the neutral horse and become roundly hospitable.

Generosity is a free resource, doesn’t require any capital investment, just a national attitude shift. If the Swiss tourism industry wants to ride out the currency problem that is inducing many travellers to consider Moscow as a cheaper alternative because of the depreciated ruble, they just have to work on being nicer. Ditch the reserve, open the arms, up the enthusiasm, put on a smile. Won’t cost a franc. We’ll see.

There are lessons for all countries in this, perhaps try starting with the competence and attitude of border control agents who regularly set back national perceptions with their operating ethos of ‘frosty.’ Understandable at a certain level, but when someone is obviously a tourist or an experienced traveller, try a welcome as well as the once-over.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What Makes a Champion Teacher?

Image attribute / source: Doug Lemov / guim.co.uk

We all remember the best teachers we had at school (take a bow Peter Sampson & Doug Cameron from Lancaster Royal Grammar School). The best teachers make tremendous impacts on the lives of their students that extend far beyond the school yard.

So what makes a great teacher? A common view is that people are born teachers; they either have it in their temperaments and personalities, or they don’t. Doug Lemov debunks this view. He believes that great teachers are made, not born. The tenets behind his revolutionary way of thinking were recently recapped in an article by Ian Leslie on The Guardian.

The article is a fascinating read which shines a spotlight on effective teaching as a mindful, considered and utterly important act. An act that is absurdly difficult, ultimately because “thinking is invisible.” But still, an act that can and should be developed and honed, through constant reflection, feedback and practice.

The best teachers, as Leslie points out, instill a hunger to learn, and not just in their pupils. As Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University of London’s Institute of Education highlights, “People make claims about having 20 years’ experience, but they really just have one year’s experience repeated 20 times.”

Lemov’s ideas are simple and transformative. Initially, he set out to answer the question of how to help teachers get better at helping children learn. It started with a revelation he had after an experienced colleague gave him a piece of advice, which was to stand still when you’re giving directions to a class, so students will listen. It worked.

Lemov’s ideas are grounded in research which shows that one of the key determinants of whether a child will do well at school is who teaches them when they get there. “What teachers do, know, and care about” is of insurmountable benefit in terms of educational success. His lessons are insightful, not only for traditional teachers, but for anyone who finds themselves falling into a teaching role. He covers things such as “what pace to move around the classroom, what language to use when praising a student, [and] how to adjust the angle of your head to let students know you’re looking at them.”

He’s coined certain techniques such as ‘no opt out’ which involves insisting that a child repeats his/her answer until it is 100% correct, and ‘positive framing’ which involves making critical feedback encouraging. He emphasizes the need for teachers to maximize the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any particular point in time, and considers that mundane routines can have magical effects.