Archive for January, 2011

Learning styles, nature and nurture

January 25, 2011

Look back in this blog to the spring of 2009 and you’ll find a couple of posts about learning styles.  One of them is among the  most frequently read posts on this blog, perhaps because it name-checks Frank Coffield who has put together some robust criticisms of learning styles.  I have always stated that I don’t want to engage in a debate about the exact psychological reasoning behing differences in learning styles and strategies, because that could entail revisiting the entire nature-versus-nurture debate which has interested scientists for decades.  However I will allow myself some observations.  The work of Anthony Grasha in the US has been very influential, discussing both teaching and learning styles, and does revolve around asking students about their own preferred styles – to this extent it tends towards seeing learning styles as nature.  Honey and Mumford, whose inventory of learning styles is used in management development, set out a starting point that ‘we all learn in different ways’ – again an argument that this is about recognising differences in nature.  Incidentally Coffield, despite his scepticism about learning styles, notes that Honey and Mumford’s questionnaire has value as a reflective tool in some settings.  Arguably Howard Gardner’s approach suggests that different intelligences are a matter of nature; as mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve seen Gardner’s ideas communicated to primary school children, and if they are used to make children aware of differences and diversity of abilities, something valuable is being done even if it doesn’t lead to measurable outcomes.

By comparison, from the 1990s in higher education in the UK the work of Paul Ramsden and Diana Laurillard had an impact: both have written hugely influential books on teaching and learning in universities.  Ramsden drew attention to the importance of deep learning – proper understanding of a subject – rather than surface learning characterised by memorising a few repeatable facts.  Both of these authors are conscious of different learning strategies that can take place within a university.  But their perspective is one of promoting nurture, by encouraging students to adopt learning strategies that encourage deep learning.

Now something similar is observable in management development as well.  Eugene Sadler Smith from the University of Surrey, who incidentally has an interest in learning styles, has written The Intutive Mind which discusses the different rational and intutive aspects of a manager’s work.  On my reading this is also about nurture – the stance presented very early on in the book is that all managers have an intuitive component in their abilities, and the challenge for them is to use this effectively.

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The cult of the celebrity CEO

January 25, 2011

There’s an interesting piece about Steve Jobs of Apple in today’s Guardian – it should come as no surprise that there’s a ruthless player of corporate politics behind the calm demeanour and unchanging polo-neck top.  However I disagree with the argument that global supply chains make one individual less powerful.  Most Apple hardware, including my iPod in an attractive shade of (something like) British racing green, carries the slogan designed by Apple in California, assembled in China, as a reminder that Apple’s suppliers may be spread around the world, but they are kept under fairly close control.  Globalisation doesn’t diminish the role of the chief executive or the product designer – it just means that they put in more conference calls and air miles.

From weemee to you

January 25, 2011

I mentioned a couple of posts earlier the use of weemees (cartoon-ish pictures) as avatars in the NHS.  Here is a weemee of me created by my childrenmy weemee and, of course, holding a laptop computer…

Should you bring your own computer?

January 14, 2011

There is a piece from the BBC about whether staff should be encouraged to use their own computers for work at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12181570 .  The issues about the technical support, particularly, at the boundaries between an organisation’s information systems and an employee’s computer are interesting and may well get more complex with time.  I’d take issue with a couple of points though.  Many big organisations still have Windows XP as their principal operating system for PCs, and the reasons are likely have more to do with standardisation and sticking with a known, and understood, quantity than reluctance to pay for new hardware.  This is certainly the case for my (largely XP-based) employer.  And, although IT provisioning is expensive, for a big employer it’s still often cheaper to buy a computer, or even an iPad, for an employee’s use, than to increase the employee’s salary by enough for them to go out and buy the equivalent machine for themselves.  For a start, the employer can probably negotiate a more attractive price, if they are buying in bulk, and for another thing an employee would usually have to buy the computer out of taxed income.

Continuity and change

January 12, 2011

There’s a particular paradox which surrounds the management of information systems.  It arises because the pace of change, both in the technology that’s available and the ideas that can be exploited to use this technolgy, is very rapid indeed, so case studies can get out of date very quicky.  But some of the organisational issues have remained the same through several generations of technology.  In fact the pace of change means that novelty and uncertainty are constants, and the managers responsible for implementing information systems have always had to contend with both technical and definitional uncertainty: would a system do what it was supposed to, and would it be acceptable to users and useful to an organisation?  Another constant has been that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between a project being delivered within its budget, in terms of cost and time, and the resultant system being valued and usable.  One of the best books on IT project failures is still Crash by Collins and Bicknell, published in 1997, and it’s significant that one of the authors is still blogging about public sector IT, and particularly about major project failures today.

Something that I never knew about technology in the NHS…

January 12, 2011

… is the case study at http://www.3chillies.co.uk/casestudies/weemee-integration-microsoft-nhs.aspx of the rather charming, cartoonish, avatars known as weemees being promoted by Microsoft for use by NHS employees

Nicholas Carr, and the decline, or not, of literacy

January 12, 2011

There’s a tenuous connection between the reference, in the previous post, to Swindon as a railway town, and this post.  Here I’m looking at the work of Nicholas Carr, an influential thinker and blogger, and particularly the author of an interesting Harvard Business Review piece from 2003, on whether IT still mattered to business.  Why the Swindon connection?  Because part of Carr’s argument was that for many businesses IT was becoming a commodity, as power supplies and railways had become in the past.  Whereas I would argue that, whether you are looking at the impact of the rail industry on Swindon in the 19th century, or the importance of the Crossrail construction taking place in the 21st century, very close to where I work, there are plenty of places where rail networks aren’t purely a commodity. 

In general, my answer to Nicholas Carr’s question of ‘does IT matter?’ would be ‘it depends’: of course there are numerous information systems in businesses, particularly back-office systems, which have become commoditised, as the basic components of computer memory and Internet bandwidth have become ever cheaper,  But there continue to be businesses that are exploiting completely new markets that have only been made possible by IT, and the emergence of completely new business approaches (notably apps for mobile devices) in recent years serves as a reminder that these new markets haven’t been exhausted yet.

Carr’s more recent work is best represented by his piece from the Atlantic entitled, rather provocatively, is Google making us stupid?  It’s a well written and considered criticism of the Internet from somebody who uses it a lot – it certainly isn’t a rant against the whole concept of the Internet in the style of Andrew Keen (I’m tempted to suggest that you google him if you want to know more but you could also look back in my blog).  Carr has picked on some important points, notably that the net makes it easy to skip from finding out about one piece of information to another, and that following hyperlinks means that you can instantly pursue any digressions that might pique your interest.  Implicit in this effect is that, to navigate the Internet effectively, we need to have some new skills to manage those digressions and to come back to where you started.  But he also expresses a concern that we are losing something in the ability to read things at length, that we are so innured to the web-browsing approach where we jump around information that we have lost sight of the value of narrative, of the ability to read a long, coherent, piece of text that tells a story.

These are legitimate concerns, discussed at much greater length in the shallows, but I wonder if they are still misplaced, and the article is too pessimistic.  Storytelling is an idea that’s deeply embedded in the way that humans make sense of ideas, and areas of knowledge management such as that promoted by cognitive edge take advantage of this.

Wikipedia suggests that Nicholas Carr was born in 1959, which places him a year younger than both Madonna and Sir Fred Goodwin (now there’s a group of three names that you might not have expected to see in the same blog post).  So  one reading could be that, now he’s in his fifties, he’s a bit more cynical about new tecnology than he might have been a few years ago.  But he’s also a member of the first generations to have grown up with television around as an everyday artefact.  In many ways it would be very different from the television of today: fewer channels, no home video recording, no 24 hour broadcasting, very little colour television when he was a young child.  Still, it had a profound effect on the way that people occupied their lives – if anything simple 1960s television afforded more opportunities simply to slump on a sofa for hours in front of a screen than today’s multi-channel, interactive, equivalent.  Moreover, the advent of television didn’t lead to the end of literacy among Nicholas Carr’s generation, and I wouldn’t expect the Internet to destroy literacy either.

It’s possible, of course, that Amazon’s Kindle is a bit of a special case.  But with its screen, monochrome and not backlit, cleverly designed to mimic the effect of reading off paper, and even its range of literary screen-savers, this is one gadget that sits on the Internet that very specifically encourages reading.  And not just reading fragments of text: the very model that the Kindle sets out to emulate is that of sitting down to read a book from cover to cover.

Knowledge around the world

January 12, 2011

To start the new year I’m linking to a couple of pieces on the BBC website: both are relevant to technology as a tool for developing knowledge globally, and both have elements of discussion of technology in the developing world, something that I can see generating a lot of interest this year.  One is an account of the emergence of knowledge transfer networks showing how some of the issues surrounding management of innovation are played out in practice.  My one (important) disagreement with the piece is that I don’t think the reference to Swindon as a centre for knowledge should cause any surprise.  Not only is it the base for the UK operations of Intel and Honda, and the centre for a somewhat unsuccessful experiment with the Mondex smartcard during the 1990s, but as the town’s excellent steam museum reminds us, it grew up in the nineteenth century as a technological centre for the Great Western Railway.

Meanwhile, the BBC also reports on the development of a tablet/touch screen device aimed at the developing world.  It’s a development of the one laptop per child project which aims to deliver chunky, colourful, and reliable machines for a target price of US$100 apiece.  At first sight, this seems some way from the original, low-technology, ideas behind the hundred dollar laptop, but in fact it’s a neat example of adapting to a new trend which nobody really anticipated.  Remember that two years ago if you spoke about a tablet computer, you were referring to a conventional laptop with a swivelling screen, aimed at a niche market.  And the demand for affordable devices in the developing world has everything to do with the increase in wireless connectivity, which in turn fits with the sort of switch between wired and wireless connections that Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of one laptop per child, was writing about many years ago.