It is no longer trendy being green

Last week I was invited to a breakfast on “Green IT” in Sydney where Fujitsu  launched their report: “Global State of ICT Sustainability: Is the IT industry going backwards?” We were told that they are now avoiding the term “Green IT” . “Green <anything>” is no longer trendy as we are all swamped by other concerns brought on by the GFC. “Green” is now hidden under a more general concern with economic sustainability.

Despite the anti-green trend, what I call “Green IT” involves strategies to reduce the Carbon footprint of IT.  These have been on the agenda for the last few years following a surge in advocacy for the environment around the time of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, the Stern Review  and the Kyoto Protocol. In 2007  Gartner released a Report claiming that IT was responsible for 2% of the world’s GHG emissions, which is comparable the much-maligned aviation industry.  The Fujitsu report shows that things are getting worse. As our global use of ICT grows so does its Carbon Footprint has now climbed to 2.7% and estimated to reach 6% by 2020. The main culprits are equipment lifecycle (procurement and e-waste), end-user computing (desktops etc), enterprise systems, networks and data centres. The report also tackles a more positive aspect of “ICT”, namely the view of IT as a “low carbon enabler”.  The latter is popularly called “Greening by IT” in contrast to the traditional Green IT focus on the “Greening of IT”, where IT is castigated as a major polluter. My field of Information Systems (IS) uses the term “Green IS” to focus on both the positive and negative aspects of IT in respect of the environment.

As green is no longer trendy and attention goes off the environment, major degradation goes unnoticed. The rapid disappearance of the polar ice cap, at an all-time low in 2007, has sunk to these extraordinary low levels again in 2011. At the recent CHOGUM in Perth islands and low lying countries Tuvalu and Bangladesh, among the poorest countries on earth pleaded for help from the more affluent members of the Commonwealth against an imminent water crisis,

At the same time the world’s population has just topped  7 billion and the Occupy movement is drawing our attention to the inequitable distribution of wealth even among the developed countries.  Equally skewed is the per capita Carbon footprint of the 1% compared to the 99%.  So what to do? The climate change  problem is a wicked one and too complex to ever hope to get everyone to agree on any one solution.  It requires contributions, knowledge and expertise from many disciplines. My field of IS can contribute.  It is concerned with how IT automates, supports and enables what we do. Many of us are into Green IS, which investigates ways to reduce the environmental footprint of IT while at the same time using IT, and the systems they drive, to enable others to reduce their footprint.  Examples include: systems to reduce energy consumption through efficiencies; ways to measure, monitor and increase awareness of emissions; and technologies to reduce the need to travel by holding more meetings online.

The Association for IS is persevering with its Green IS agenda.  We are holding a global virtual workshop, on November 4 2011, to try out different online applications for getting people together from all over the world to “meet virtually”.  We just want to see what works for what. If you are interested please take a look.

From Kibbutz to Palestinian Refugee Camp

The exchange of one Israeli soldier for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners is pause for thought and the subject of commentary even here down under

I have experienced the Israel-Palestine situation from several different perspectives and learnt from experience that trying to provide a balanced view of the issues there is no way to win friends.  It is a topic on which almost everyone has strong deeply-held views and a problem for which so many of us pray for a just and peaceful resolution which now seems as far away as ever. My rather unusual Israel-Palestine story spans almost the existence of the modern State of Israel. All I can do is to tell it.

I remember back to my days in a Presbyterian Sunday School in the early 1950s. This taught me a lot of the history and geography of the “Holy Land” and I still have my copy of the King James Bible with colourful maps of the area in the back. 1956 was a big year in Australia. Television began and the Olympics were held in Melbourne. International events raised tensions between some of the athletes, Russia had just invaded Hungary and Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. At the closing ceremony of the Olympics all the athletes marched together for the first time as a demonstration of unity. TV and the Olympics brought to us down under a much more vivid awareness of the far-away world’s problems.

In the 1960s the film Exodus was a great hit, particularly for us teenage girls, with Paul Newman in his prime. There was great admiration for the way survivors of the Holocaust succeeded against all odds to “make the desert blossom as a rose”.  So it was quite popular here when Israel triumphed in the 6-day war of 1967 and expanded its borders. I was teaching in a country girls boarding school at the time and I vividly remember a school assembly when our religious Head Mistress warned us all that Armageddon was nigh.

So intrigued was I that, the following year, as now a post-grad student, I went on a 6 week trip to Israel over our summer break. Straight off the plane at Lod I caught a bus to Galilee which I remember well – the first time I’d been jetlagged and was somewhere no-one spoke English.  I spent an inspiring 4 days at a Youth Hostel on the lake just south of Capernaum then celebrated Christmas with friends at a Hospice just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. After that I worked for 5 weeks as a volunteer on Kibbutz Nirim in the Negev just east of Gaza. There was a sand strip around the Kibbutz that was raked each night and checked each morning for footprints. If some were found, we could not go out to work in the fields until they were scanned for mines. I came back to Australia captivated by the whole country and full of admiration for Israel and the Kibbutz way of life.

Not long afterwards I was given a copy of the book “Peace in the Holy Land” by Glubb Pasha, a British Officer who had advised the Jordanian army for many years. This book gives a very detailed history of that part of the world, demonstrating how intricate and diverse are its past realities that evokes such passion. Different people use these to justify their claims of ownership of the small strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This book, together with an overland trip for 6 months through Africa from Capetown to Morocco in 1972 began to broaden my views.

After backpacking around Europe and I ended up in Munich in 1973 where I joined a very multi-cultural youth group called Die Arche. Many of guys in the club came from Arabic countries and, even though this was just after the Olympic when Israeli athletes had been attacked, they were well accepted and helped the rest of us learn enough German to get by. I was particularly impressed by one, Saleh, who produced and starred in the annual Christmas pantomime. Saleh was Palestinian, born in Haifa, in 1948  he fled with parents and young sister eastward to his grandmother’s village and then to Jordan where he subsequently grew up in the Wahidat refugee camp in Amman. However, despite our budding romance, when the Munich winter froze my bones, I decided to head south back to an Israeli Kibbutz, this time Zikim on the beach just north of Gaza.

Once again I loved the life although the mood was now more sombre following the losses of the Sinai and Golon Heights in the Yom Kippur war. With the full approval the Kibbutzniks, I continued to correspond with Saleh and headed back to Munich in the summer of 1974. We were married later that year, purchased a Merk and drove to Amman (a hair-raising story of its own),

We arrived at the family home in Wahidat not long after the Jordanian authorities had expelled the PLO.  The houses were riddled with bullet holes and all had a place under the floor to hide from police and army raids. Fortunately, by this time, these were rare but it was pretty rough with only intermittent flows of water and electricity and poor drainage. Most Palestinian homes had a picture of Nasser on the wall, a symbol of new Arab nationalism. Most of Saleh’s family were away working in Libya or in the Gulf but gradually they returned and things improved. Despite his experience in the hospitality industry in Munich, Saleh could not get well-paid work and with a child on the way we decided to move to Australia.  The nearest Australian Embassy was in Beirut and getting Saleh’s visa meant a couple of trips there just as the civil war broke out (more hair-raising stories).

Despite an initial shock at the unintelligible Aussie English, Saleh adjusted pretty well to life in Australia, getting a diploma and a good job in hospitality.  In 1981, with our third child on the way we went back to Jordan for 2 years. Utilities in Wahidat had improved remarkably.  The construction, health and education services provided by the UN have done wonders there.  Our oldest daughter went to school and, as the wife of a refugee, I took the new baby to the local post-natal clinic where I was given good treatment including packages of dried milk (ironically donated by the Australian government). At that time relations between Jordan and Israel had improved to the extent that it had become relatively easy to cross the border.  Hopes for peace were high and we were visited by family relatives who had remained in Israel in 1948 and had not met since.  The second year there I taught Maths at an American School mixing with lots of diplomats and expats who were also optimistic on the future.

Saleh worked there on an innovative UN project to set up a hotel-college in Amman to train locals in tourism skills on the job. We went back 10 years later and were dismayed to find the collage in ruins.  The Intifada and reactions to it have had disastrous effects in the tourism industries of both Israel and Jordan. This may not seem much among all the destruction and setbacks of the last few decades but it is one of the images that symbolise the sadness and despair of those who seek peace.

Revelling in Complexity

It is common in our Western culture to want to solve problems with logic and reason. We like being in control, understanding cause and effect, and knowing all the facts before we make decisions. However, there are many wicked problems about these days, take for example issues associated with climate change, and these cannot be dealt with in this way.

We are facing an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future and, while this may be quite daunting it is not something we should fear.  Rather we should rejoice in the exciting prospects that complexity offers. Our stuffy bureaucratic institutions no longer offer the best way to organise what we do. Modern organisations need to be less rigid and more innovative, creative, flexible and adaptable. But to do this they need to appreciate the complexity of wicked problems and adopt approaches that are appropriate for complexity.

Wicked problem are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements or because there are too many interdependent components in the system. In this case the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. The trajectory of a wicked problem depends heavily on its context and small events may trigger spectacular consequences. Compare the recent public protests in London, with those in Cairo, with those in Damascus and in Libya.

Complexity Theory can help us deal with wicked problems. It is concerned with the behaviour over time and space of complex systems. It recognises the effective unknowability of the future and acknowledges that essential systems elements are lost by attempting to simplify them.

Closely associated with complexity is the concept of emergence. When all flights in Europe were grounded by ash from the Icelandic Volcano the airlines were effectively hamstrung. Yet all sorts of alternative ways of moving people around emerged through the self-organising efforts of local entrepreneurs. Positive emergent outcomes can be encouraged through the application of attractors and boundaries as articulated by Dave Snowden when he describes the Complex Domain of his Cynefin sensemaking framework  He uses the example of a party of early teens which will be quite successful if they are left to their own devices with some attractors (food, music etc) and some obvious restrictions (boundaries).  Try to impose too much structure would require a lot of effort and be a definite killjoy.  For more on emergence see Wikipedia .

In order to get desirable emergent outcomes I find carrots more valuable than sticks. Using attractors instead of rules and regulations or command and control is more pleasant and more cost effective. It is reminiscent of the Productivity Paradox: getting more out of people by demanding less. Attractors are often already at work in complex situations but may be hidden.  People talk about the attraction of the water cooler in providing an opportunity for people to chat informally and promote knowledge exchange. We need to be careful not to remove these hidden “strange attractors”.

Diversity of views and capability can also be of great value when working on wicked problems. The The Law of Requisite Variety applied to social systems refers to the advantages of having an organisational capability which matches the level of complexity and diversity of the context in which it operates.  For example if your customers are young people, have young people on staff.

I tend to view many wicked problems as a dialectic synthesis of a thesis (one side of the story) and its antithesis ( the other side). The synthesis resolves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common or divergent truths while allowing both truths to stand.  A simple example of a dialectic relationship is that between the right to life and the right to choose.  One thesis, or view, is in practice the antithesis of the other but both have validity despite the protestation of those who hold strong views on either side. 

So, how do we deal with wicked problems that have inherent complex and contradictory aspects?  My advice is that we need more than just good information or knowledge to support our decisions and actions. Wisdom and courage are critical to recognising that a problem or situation is complex, then to be comfortable with that before deciding what to do. The uniqueness of the context should be recognised and you should not blindly apply something that worked elsewhere. Don’t expect simple, complete or even any, solutions that please everyone. Avoid setting concrete measurable targets. Bring together people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Be creative in applying suitable attractors and boundaries. Then reward responses that move the situation in a positive direction. As a last resort get advice from parents who have survived the teenage years of their children.

Some suitable tools and techniques for dealing with problems include:

ž Storytelling  – to get richer and deeper view

ž  Playing games –to encourage exploration, cooperation without criticism

ž  Holding “world cafes” – for conversations among large groups

ž  Using social media – for sharing knowledge and experience anywhere anytime

and take advantage of the emotional intelligence of people:

ž  Apply common sense – the collapse of Lehman Bros was ascribed to  “a  colossal failure of common sense”,

ž  Use imagination – the failure of US Intelligence agencies to foresee 9/11 was put down to “a lack of imagination”

Finally, heed the message of Dave Gray (X-plane) When you make the complicated simple, you make it better, but when you make the complex simple, you make it wrong.

Social Learning and Collective Knowledge

Many people argue that learning is something we can only do as individuals; that what we know and remember is an essential part of being human and resides in our individual brains. The traditional model of learning is the transfer of knowledge from an expert to a novice; from teacher to students in a classroom or from master to apprentice on the job.

As we now automate the collection, storage and availability of organisational ‘knowledge’ in databases, online documents and Intranets,  the contemporary business literature is full of metamorphic terms such as ‘Organisational Learning’ ‘Corporate Memory’ and ‘Knowledge Management’.  Some argue that these metaphors are just management hype. For others, they highlight the growing importance of social learning and collective knowledge generation as ways to make sense of the increasingly complex and uncertain business environment.

However, while entrenched computer-based systems make a business more efficient and productive, they can diminishes its scope for flexibility and adaptability.  To succeed in uncertain times, a business needs the creativity and imagination that come through informal social interactions.  In other words, businesses need to re-learn some social skills that many have lost over the years.

While social media on the Internet has broadened the scope of who we can connect to, there has always been the ability for disparate people to develop common identities, understanding and purpose in a societal context. I am a long-time member of what is known as the ‘blue and gold army’, (fans of the Parramatta Eels Rugby League club in Sydney).  I have been at football matches where I feel a connection to 40,000 people whom I have never met but who have a collective knowledge of team history, the player s, their nicknames, the team chants and a common desire to will them to win. Everyone there knows that everyone else has the same knowledge and sense of purpose.  That kind of connection can now be enhanced virtually as evident from all the tweets when Australian hero Sam Stosur played Serena Williams in the final of the US Open tennis this year.

Social media is being used to some effect in the work place.  I have heard of CEOs and other senior managers who blog in order to connect with employees and customers. Many work groups set up an online space in which to collaborate either internally or, more likely, externally if their internal IT is too restrictive.  Such spaces are useful whether the team is co-located or distributed. I work with groups within my own organisation and with colleagues all over the world on LinkedIn, Google, Wikispaces and occasionally Facebook. 

Many freely available online applications readily  support the processes of social learning and collective knowledge management as they are flexible enough to be used in all manner of innovative ways.  They can also be fun allowing members to explore ways of working with audio, images and video  and with tools for sharing of desktops, documents and whiteboards, and allowing co-creation and development of digital products which describe and model new ideas and new knowledge. We are probably only  beginning to understand how learning is essentially social, and best carried out in a hybrid of face-to-face and online settings where the more experienced facilitate the learning of others and in the process continue to learn themselves. Important to this process is the need to periodically acknowledge and celebrate the co-generation of collective knowledge that enables individuals, groups, communities and organisations to grow and do things better to their mutual benefit .

Women at the Top

Watching the constant and often spiteful attacks on our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, I have being trying to gauge how much of the angst comes because she is a woman. Initially most Australians were quite proud to have our first woman PM but as the novelty wore off, many seemed to became uncomfortable with the way she went about the job. I am sure being a woman is a factor in her current negative polling. This may not be deliberate or even conscious but I suspect that having a woman as leader just does not make sense in many quarters. I have seen similar quite obsessive assaults on women holding leadership positions in academia often when they introduce more cooperative and consultative ways of working.

Our cultural norms were laid down when religious and civil institutions were formed centuries ago. At that time men had distinct advantages in strength, size and loud voices. When large modern companies were emerging in the Industrial era, the child-bearing role of women (ensuring the future of the human race) limited what else they could do. While technological and medical advances throughout the 20th Century have evened up the opportunities for men and women, the basic perceptions of gender roles persist.

A colleague of mine has a picture which shows a distinguished portly gentleman sitting across a table from a smart young woman.  The caption says “doctor I want to talk to you about losing weight”. When the picture is shown to people for comment most say that the young woman looks fine and are concerned that she wants to lose weight.  Few assume that the woman is the doctor even though the man is obviously the one overweight. Our inbuilt perceptions are slow to catch up with the age of equal opportunity.

Our expectations of leaders, and the criteria on which they are judged, still reflect the situations of the past.  We reward and admire what men do well because the measures of success, wealth and power, were built into our institutions long ago. Men tend to focus on a single goal, see things in black and white or as all or nothing. This worked well when life was simpler than it is now. Women, in general, have more holistic, diverse views seeing how things fit together and this ability is valuable in today’s more complex society. However, when women take leadership roles, their integrated vision tends to confuse people used to the more “each issue at a time” approach of most men.

I am not saying that all men and women fall neatly into these ways of working but there are tendencies for men and women to approach leadership roles according to typical gender characteristics. Not all female leaders have the same problems and all Julia’s problems are not just because she is a woman. However I do believe that many of her harshest critics do not appreciate the female qualities she brings to the job and these may indeed be the ones that have enabled her to make progress on difficult issues in the challenging context of the hung parliament.

My first blog

In thinking about writing my first blog I tried to imagine the equivalent of a blog in the 1950s when I was at school.  I guess the closest thing would be a letter to a newspaper or radio station. It was not conceivable that private citizens could create, edit, store and publish whatever they chose without pen and paper, and without someone else judging whether the words should be made public or not. So now that I can blog, I cannot resist doing so even though it has taken me a while to get around to it.

My professional worker as a researcher in the field of Information Systems (IS) has studied the evolution of digital technologies and the World Wide Web.  Right now is an exciting time as social media are invading public and private enterprises. I can now ‘follow’ journalists, the police, revolutionaries, most companies and goodness knows whom else on Twitter. I get alerted to all sorts of things, some earth shattering and some trivial, as they happen. My role as an IS researcher is to try to make sense of what is happening and where this will lead us.

When I was a physics undergrad in the early 1960s the electronic switches which made up the 0 and 1 bits of computers were valves (very large and unreliable). Transistors were just coming into the curriculum and integrated circuits barely mentioned. My research grounding as a postgrad in physics, or more accurately bio-physics, involved recording signals from electrodes stuck into nerve and muscles cells.  This was made possible by the advances in field effect transistors with high input impedances. (This meant that the very small electronic signals we were measuring were not shorted out by the measuring device). In any case I learnt to carefully observe and analyse what was really going on, at that time in the natural world but later on it would be in the world of people and organisations.

So when, after stints of backpacking around the world and raising a family, I returned to my academia career and brought the same curiosity about what was really happening to the field of IS.  This is not synonymous with IT. IS involve the creation, operation and impact of whole socio-technical systems where digital tools (i.e. computers and communications networks) basically do the following: collect data to process transactions and produce information that people use as knowledge to make sense of their world, then decide to act (or not as the case may be).

The changes in what we do (and how we do it) from the 1960s to the present day have been phenomenal and fascinating. We now live in a global space where digital technology is everywhere, mobile and often ubiquitous. Time and space no longer restrict what we can do and with whom we do it. However this seems to make our lives much more frenetic, complicated and complex. This gives me plenty to research and I see myself in a professional ecosystem where I revel in complexity, welcome change, take risks and value diversity. Knowing this may help you make sense of what I publish both here and elsewhere.