Archive | January 2010

Can you stop by Afghanistan on your way out?

To anyone who has ever served in the military, changes to plans are as commonplace as breathing. We even have a type of order for that helps us handle sudden shifts in direction. FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) are used throughout the military planning process, but usually end up as the “oh crap!” type of order that we all use to switch things up. FRAGOs aren’t complete (hence the fragmentary part) and go along well with “stand by” or “more to follow” instructions. Back in the states, waiting for the boss to arrive at a briefing? No problem. Deployed, waiting for the boss to figure out which road won’t lead to certain death? A little more interesting.

We usually just laugh about situations that go 180 degrees every four or five hours. I could tell you a lot of stories that involve a lot of troops waiting for hours in the rain, pounding metal rods through concrete (unsuccessfully, as we figured) to set up tents, briefing changes, ammo changes, miscues…normal stuff for most offices, but with high-caliber weapons and no climate controlled lounge to vent frustrations.

So, I’ve been looking forward to finishing out my term of service for a while now. My original plans involved getting out in January of 2008, but stop-losses being what they are, I stayed in a little longer. Truth be told, being locked in turned out to be the best thing for me. I ended up teaching at the military’s journalism school (and thereby escaping Fort Hood!), and was ushered in as one of the DOD’s social media paragons.

And yet, even the extended time was to eventually end–June of 2010 in my case. We get to save up our vacation days in the military and use them, if we wish, to edge back our final day. We call it “terminal leave” which is an ominous moniker that simply refers to the fact that at the start of this “terminal” period, we will finish spending our vacation days at the legal end of our enlistment contract. So, for me, having not taken many days off in the last while, I have a solid two months of vacation time saved up. So, June became April. Getting out of the military isn’t as easy as it sounds (as in NOT getting up early, NOT pulling duty, NOT saluting every third person you see). It actually involves mountains of paperwork to document the physical trauma most of us suffer at the hands of environments and men who try to kill us.

So the “out-processing” period takes time. Time, for me, that was rapidly approaching its end. Yet there was enough. I was starting to disconnect myself from work—a common theme, as commanders expect their subordinates to take care of themselves on their way out—nothing shirking about it.

That is, until I got a FRAGO of sorts. I got a call as I was heading out the door one morning from a Navy captain I know from the U.S. European Command. He said that Lt. Gen. Caldwell’s office needed me in Afghanistan ASAP. I thought it was hilarious—sounded like something out of a spy movie or action flick. Can’t really say “no” to that sort of direct request. I was told “more to follow” and the higher-ups got to work on the preparations.

So I’m heading over to Afghanistan in the next couple of weeks. NATO is revamping its NTM-A (NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan) websites and wanted me to put in social media initiatives and join a small, select team to formulate the strategic communication plan for NATO and the Afghan people.

Beyond that, there really is no plan. These sorts of special missions rely on the ability and knowhow of people who are put in the mix. So there will be no “wait and see” on my part. I’m starting my prep to hit the ground at full speed. What’s cool about NATOs intent is they want something that can interface with the Afghan people directly. There are, as you might figure, a number of obstacles and quirks to dealing with the Afghan public directly. One being a lack of computers. One being relatively high illiteracy. One being dialect issues.

However, a large chunk of the people have cell phones, in a strange juxtaposition of pre-industrial/post-industrial trends and technologies. These phones are hardly the ones most U.S. commuters cart around—and the cellular infrastructure is barely 1G; but they have cell phones! They get text messages, by and large. There are some Afghan carriers that have data plans, but those are often too expensive for much of the public. If NATO is to have success in establishing a rapport with the Afghan public, it can’t just have a fancy website with social media links and a Twitter feed, it’s going to need a shift in information distribution.

That’s where I come in. I’ve talked with some of my coworkers who have spent some years over there. I’ve tried to get some insight. I think a quasi throwback approach will be best for NATO. We can put a website in place, sure. That will serve the local and international media well. But I also want to see an SMS system put in place, where people can text to a number and get information. That means mobile-friendly versions of the sites. Moreover, that means very, very basic mobile-friendly versions of the sites.

Since dialects and illiteracy are still barriers to communication, I will also want to explore the possibility of having a sort of call-in voicemail system. Regular people will hear that they just have to call a certain number to hear what’s going on, and someone on NATO and the Afghan government’s side will read the stories aloud to them over their phones.

Granted, some will cry “propaganda” from these channels. One, that’s in direct violation of the DoD Principles of Information and the standing intent from our highest levels. Two, we have tried unsuccessfully to repair and restore the country for nine years. The Afghan people aren’t stupid, they know when they’re being fed BS. For my part, the system will be for the distribution of genuine information.

That is, unless I receive a FRAGO that orders me to cancel the Afghanistan trip and head downstairs for a meeting about the school’s website redesign. Ha! Wouldn’t that be painfully normal?


The importance of conference rapport

I have, to date, spoken at some two dozen seminars, conferences, panels or other public events where the audience is not my coworkers.

Not bragging, just saying that I’ve been to a few. Enough, I hope, to give an observation without having the more seasoned public speakers of the world laugh too hard. I know I’m just starting at this whole speaking circuit thing, but bear with me. I’d like to delve into a common mistake I see most of the VIPs at these conferences making. I want to explore why I think a measure of meekness is essential to be accepted as a worthwhile speaker. First, just a little background on yours truly.

I started my speaking gigs by accident. I was attending a social media for government seminar a couple of years back. My organization wanted me to go learn about what social media was. I already had a healthy knowledge of things, but they said they would feel more comfortable if I had a certificate or something, saying I knew what I knew. Fine. They ponied up the thousands of dollars necessary for me to earn a listening spot at a table in a Washington, D.C., hotel; I was able to escape the clamor of the office for a few days. Fair trade.

The conference was well-organized. The speakers were varied. The audience was engaged. But I had heard most of it before. A few of us had. I and a couple of others raised our hands a bit to bring up points of discussion. There were a few times when I was able to add a fresh viewpoint or other perspective. I tried to not be too overbearing. I know how annoying those know-it-alls in school always are. Still, by the end of the conference, people knew I was pretty comfortable with social media. I guess it was enough to show through in the end-of-conference summaries, because the organizers of the conference asked me to return for their next venue and speak.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary—these conferences self-perpetuate as attendees grow, learn and are asked to speak. It’s how the companies who run these events stay fresh. I was excited at the chance though. After the next event, I received several more invites. After those, several more. These things have a way of begetting further speaking opportunities.

DINFOS has a training course for new instructors. In this course, veteran educators teach the ragtag bunch of military journalists, broadcasters and public affairs officers how to impart knowledge in the classroom. There’s a lot to do to successfully reach the mind of an adult. Unlike children, who respond with external motivational factors like grades, candy or perhaps recess; adults learn through internal motivation. Someone has to appeal to an adult’s inner self—perhaps through self-interest (what’s in it for me?) or some sense of duty (performing well for the betterment of whatever). There are important steps that must be done prior to instructing.

An instructor must be respected. He or she must be seen as an authority or someone with a skill or bit of knowledge to share. An instructor must then be accepted by the audience. An instructor must coax engagement out of the audience, give an avenue for them to show their intellectual growth and then leave them encouraged at whatever skill or challenge an instructor wishes to impart.

This game is a miniature version of every leader ascension in the history of civilization. When a new leader wished to prove his or her dominance over a tribe/town/region/nation, these sorts of games had to happen too. Rapport was essential. An audience had to feel that the leader was a part of them—that the leader and they shared something. Perhaps it was a common interest in surviving. Perhaps it’s iPods. Whatever. Without rapport, people might listen, but it’s more out of dread or terror; either because of the position the leader/instructor holds, or the fear of what will happen if the audience member does not absorb the presented knowledge.

So, fast forward to most seminars and, finally, what I’m aiming at. I think it is essential that speakers show up early, stay for the entirety of the conference and know when to change their presentations. Most VIPs at these conferences whisk in and out. The most important ones have to, really. How often can President Obama just hang out? Probably not that often. So, were he to speak at one of these social media seminars, it would be an in-and-out venture. Granted.

But most of us can afford to stay longer. Perhaps we choose not to, because we wish to mimic the spectacle of the truly important members of society. If I’m jet setting to LA, Paris, or some meeting, I just have to scurry along. “Sorry I’m late, blah blah blah.” I’ll speak, get the applause and move out—on to the next critical event. I think too often speakers look to be celebrated as some sort of royalty. So whether it is because of honest busyness or ego, too many of us don’t invest in our audiences.

At every seminar I’ve ever been at as a speaker, I’m evaluated as the top or in the top three, so far as audience ratings go. Why? I think it has to do with rapport, honestly. I enjoy conversing with the attendees. I am an attendee at these seminars. I sit through the other lectures. I laugh and ask questions like the other attendees. When lunch comes around, I don’t make plans. I hang out with the others who are unsure where to go, how long we all have before we have to get back. Sometimes I eat alone. I crack some jokes. Most importantly, I think, is I listen. I talk about how the seminar is going. I hear people’s feedback on the other sessions—how two or three covered the same thing, or how one’s slides were too small, how another just tap-danced around the questions.

One disadvantage of most of these seminars is a general lack of content coordination. Most speakers flux—some cancel, all have different experience levels and areas of ability. As a result, especially in the volatile and formulating world of social media, many speakers cover the same thing. Or, they are so far removed from the audience members, they have absolutely no relevance.

The audience makeup doesn’t help speakers prepare either. Most of the seminars I have participated in are for government, but that is little help. In the audience there are usually contractors, government service employees, federal agencies, state agencies, non-profit, think tanks, marketing, businesses wishing to get into the government scene. There are police departments, Army guys, IT, legal, public affairs, directors, managers, workers….

A mess, especially if someone is trying to prepare material to speak to this disparate mob. So, most speakers default to a single or small series of lectures they give routinely. I know because I’ve seen several people pitch the same lecture years later. No one is the wiser if they attend only one event.

What I try to do is remain adaptable. Even if I’m covering similar material and borrowing from past presentations, I will rebuild new slide shows for every event. If I see several people giving the same lecture, I make sure I remove that material from my upcoming speech. If I hear people complaining about things being too loud, or the slides being too dark, I change my presentation to assuage the complaints. Most importantly, though, I listen to their situations through our conversations. I try to empower them. I try to build them up as much as I can. I offer my services. I give them examples. I add value to their conference experience.

And the result? Glowing reviews. Honest relationships. Continued invitations. It takes listening to make a great public speaker. The more grandiose a speaker’s introduction—when degrees and acronyms trip up the event organizer as he or she reads the biography…those are usually the speeches that lose the most people. There’s a hell of a disconnect there from the average government worker and the celebrated darlings of event organizers. If that speaker hasn’t taken the steps to be accepted by the tribe he or she stands before, then the following hour or two becomes a waste. The applause afterward is as much for the audience congratulating itself on surviving than any showing of appreciation.


Rethinking ownership

One of the aspects of social media and collaborative work environments that people have a lot of trouble with is this “sharing” aspect. Many people aren’t comfortable letting others into “their” space, to learn about “their” knowledge. They feel that “their” job might be threatened by someone else. This goes along with our traditional viewpoints on territory, ownership and individualism. But what happens as people shift their mindsets? What happens when people realize that by contributing to a pool of resources, they can do more with more? Socialism? I would argue “no,” not in the politically tarnished sense. As every generation adopts values and behaviors that befuddle and confound the generation that precedes it, I want us to take a look at our concepts of ownership and how we or our children will perhaps redefine what it means to have “stuff.”

Have you ever read copyright law? A lot of people have, actually, that’s why I ask. Usually it’s for some media law class in college or an ethics thing. I remember when I had to pour over books and try to decipher how we treat copyrighted works. It’s an odd thing.

Did you realize that when you “buy” a movie at whatever store, you aren’t buying the real movie? You’re actually buying the license to watch the content provided on the disc. It’s like buying a movie ticket, but the movie studios entrust a physical copy of the movie to your care. If you’ve ever taken the time to read the FBI warnings and such that flash near the beginning of things, it speaks about how the movie studios have the right to take back said movie if certain conditions of the law are violated, blah blah blah.

When I worked at Blockbuster, people would occasionally lose movies. Our systems would add charges to a customer’s account after so many weeks went by after a movie was due. It was like a bench warrant. We didn’t necessarily release the hounds to hunt them down, but if they ever tried to rent another movie, the charges would show up. Imagine the surprise of the average customer when they had a $120.00 charge on their account for the loss of one movie. Usually there would be cursing. The customer would say we were ripping them off and that they could replace it for $14.99 from Wal-Mart. They were wrong.

You see, it’s a matter of copyright. For $14.99 at Wal-Mart, when a DVD is “purchased,” an individual buys the license to watch a movie. This is an individual viewing license. By law, as it is written (though completely unenforceable), if anyone else is ever in the same room as the buyer, or within earshot of the TV as the movie is playing, the buyer of the DVD is breaking copyright law. You see, if more than one person is viewing the content of a DVD, it is considered, under law, as a “public showing.” And public viewing licenses per movie are far more expensive—about $120.00 more expensive. Hence the hefty penalty.

So, I want us to think about ownership. Do we “own” our stuff? Our cars (any car loans?)? Our houses (renter? mortgage?)? Even movies, books, or any copyrighted work that we simply have the licenses for?

Now, I want us to think about how ownership is changing. Look at companies like Netflix (and their video game sister company GameFly), Zipcar or the startup cloud computer gaming company Gaikai.

I had a friend who talked about how she and her husband were trying to cut back on the number of video games and movies they purchased. I asked her about Netflix and GameFly, which operates under the model that you pay a flat subscription fee per month and select DVDs or video games that come in the mail. Customers can hold on to them for as long as they want or go through as many titles as they want, with only the day or so wait as the mail comes and goes. She said that they had tried both of them, but it was actually more expensive. I asked why. She described how there would be a good choice of movies or games that her husband and she would know they wanted, and would buy at full price. Then they had this Netflix and GameFly thing that they only used for titles they maybe wanted, but weren’t sure. The subscriptions became wasted money.

I asked her to reconsider ownership. Why did she still buy movies and games, I asked? Why didn’t she just rent a title more than once? After all, a customer could keep a game for a solid three or four months and still have other titles coming and going, before reaching the same price as one game. The concept was foreign to her. She had never thought about NOT buying something to “own” it, but she would think about it.

“But what if I want to watch a certain movie now?” she asked.

“Other than wait a day?” I asked.

She conceded that her want of instant gratification might be standing in the way of the potential cost savings.

Now look at Zipcar. Have you ever explored that service? They market their company as “an alternative to car ownership.” Basically, you subscribe to the service (monthly fee and whatnot). You are issued an access card. You reserve a type of car from a place for a set amount of time (hours–whole day, etc.), then you return the car back to the same spot in the same place when you are done. You might not get the same car if you reserve another pickup, let’s say, the next day, but you’ll still have the type of car you want, pretty much when you want it.

Now, I’ve heard some people lament not “owning” a car. “Yeah, but what if you wanted to just go to Alaska? Can’t do that with a Zipcar.”

Well, yes, granted. How often does that happen? If, for you, that’s a normal thing, then I concede you probably need to “own” your own vehicle.

But what about the rest of us? Companies like Zipcar talk about how the average car, when owned, sits idle for 90% of its life. We don’t think much of it, but that’s a lot of metal, oil and gas, just sitting in parking spaces and driveways all throughout the country. On ships, the Navy often “hot racks,” that is, as one sailor is waking up to begin his or her shift, another sailor, who is just finishing, climbs into the “still warm” bunk and goes to sleep.

Most people scoff at that. They say “ewwww.” Apart from the potential sanitary problems, what’s so wrong about that? Is it that a person doesn’t have his or her “own” bed? Is that such an alien thought? But isn’t it a better use of limited resources?

It is the very American thing to have stuff we own—cars, houses, books, whatever we want. But what if we started to reconsider our concepts of ownership? What if, for the sake of the environment, the costs of insurance, gas—whatever, we gave up the potential privilege of driving to Alaska TONIGHT or watching “Short Circuit 2” NOW, and instead took on the more pragmatic and realistic attitude of using a service when we needed instead of having millions of redundant devices we hardly use?

Finally, let’s take a look at Gaikai. It’s still in its early stages. The concept, though, is fascinating. Computer gamers are always chasing after the latest and greatest hardware to run the latest and greatest games. Video cards, RAM, faster hard drives, processors—there are dozens of components that turn the average computer into a screaming hot rod. High-end computer systems from companies like Voodoo run upwards of $15-20,000. Insane. All for a machine that will be “outdated” within a year or two.

So, enter Gaikai. For a subscription, a gamer is promised remote access to the most state-of-the-art hardware. Gamers can use whole computer systems “on the cloud.” They can remotely load their computer games onto these machines churning away in Topeka or where ever, and never have to worry about dumping another $800 on this month’s newest video card.

Isn’t it interesting? People wouldn’t need to even “own” their computers. With a dumb terminal, maybe a decent monitor, and the ubiquitous Internet connection, people could have all the processing power they wanted.

Now, yes, security concerns, privacy concerns, infrastructure concerns…on and on, sure. But I’m just saying what if our ideas of ownership continued along these lines? Wouldn’t it be interesting if our children or grandchildren looked at us with near disgust and said, “You OWNED your own car? What for? Wasn’t that wasteful?”

Stranger things have happened.


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