Re-envisioning Unions

Thought of broadly the job of a union is to act on behalf of union members. Ideally the union acts within a cooperative, collaborative ecosystem including current and potential future employers – but always acting primarily for the benefit and on behalf of the union member.

German unions go beyond the “collective bargaining” role to act on behalf of workers and the economy for social, economical and even environmental goals, but particularly for labor market policy and professional education.  While that requires a level of political power that US unions may not have any time soon, it is the premise of this blog that even German unions have envisioned their job too narrowly and failed to help prepare workers for new jobs with current and future employers.

Currently (union and non-union) workers are hurting.  There are not enough jobs. Many of the newest jobs require skills that did not exist before or mixes of skill that were not required together.  For old and new jobs its not easy to learn new skills, or to be recognized as having skills you do have without experience using those skills on the job.  Less skilled jobs pay less.

Workers need organizations that can support them in navigating the rapidly changing world, organizations that know what the new skills are and are dedicated in working on behalf of workers to help them obtain those skills.  Unions have been traditionally focused on the jobs and skills that change the slowest.  If unions are to regain power and help workers they have to being to focus on new jobs and new skills.  They also have to focus more on helping the worker become more marketable.  If unions represent more marketable workers, the union job becomes easier.  The most important job that unions have is to ensure that the workers they represent are better trained, more productive and more adaptable to new work.  If a union can make that true for their members, the collective bargaining job becomes trivial – bargaining from a greater position of strength.

This “farther outside the box” role of the union becomes different than how most unions envision themselves.  It will require more long term thinking. I will have more to say about can reshape their operations and contracts both with companies and with union members to accomplish this.

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Using Machines to Race

This is an informal summary of Race Against the Machine (Brynjolfsson, McAfee) which I found intriguing.  The book says that much of our increased structural unemployment is due to the rapid pace of technological advancement and the inability of training to keep up with this tech progress.  Economists refer to this training lag and the technologies most subject to it by the acronym “Skill-Biased Technical Change” (SBTC).   In the author’s view (and mine) SBTC is one of the primary factors in the current economy which has broken the link between value creation and job creation. The authors point out that capital equipment spending has returned to pre-recession levels, but our human skills at creating and supporting the newly technologically possible innovation and organizational processes is sadly lagging.

There are a large number and wide variety of potential jobs that would be available if there were people who knew how to do them. More people with the new and evolving hands-on computer skills are needed.  Equally or more important, people are needed who can conceptualize new uses of technologies to redefine decision work flows, user/customer incentive systems, and a whole range of other processes.  These are ways to combine computer and human capital making the sum greater than the parts. Interestingly, it is getting the process right that matter most.  The authors say, “weak human + machine + better process” was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to “strong human + machine + inferior process”.

Superior processes are easily replicated by competitors – so the real competitive advantage goes to organizations that have the process improvement process as a core competency.  That means we all have to be in the business of organizational innovation.  Improved business models, organizational structures, and technology platforms are the scaffolding required for some of the future superiority in processes. Knowledge of the business domain is critical – but it needs to be paired with being adept at conceptualizing it as being done in a different way.

The book speculates about concurrent experimental process innovation by thousands of “micro-multinationals” (businesses with few employees with worldwide suppliers, partners and customers).  This large number of innovators could lead to a combinatorial approach to configuring applications, systems, activities into processes for sales, distribution, financial and other activities. Using IT, processes can either be scaled up or customized as needed for a product.

The fastest growing areas of system and process innovation would be the ones that are rewarded for collaborating on and sharing their new methods.  Perhaps the most critical area for this is education.  All of these approaches will need to create control groups for alternate approaches, quantify what works – but only some will have the culture to share their findings and replicate superior approaches across organizations.

Towards the end the authors say that “successful economies in the 21st century will be those that develop the best ways to foster organizational innovation and skill development”.

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What would a better democracy look like?

Our current democracies are poor at serving the needs, never mind the wishes of the public.  Some of this is for obvious reasons – tyranny of the majority, particularly in the US with a two party system, the entire political system is built explicitly around a zero sum game, which at a minimum means it cannot be ‘win-win’. (Note: For a better understanding of why pretty much all human progress depends on the development of better non-zero sum game, see Robert Wright’s book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny)

What would a better democracy, look like?

Well first it would be designed not just to achieve majority, but to treat a greater level of agreement as inherently better – the possibly unachievable ideal being mass consensus.  The harder problem is to overcome the ‘power corrupts’ problem.  No known political system can be truly leaderless for long.  Ultimately individuals have to be given positions of power with limited oversight.  Recent social science experiments suggest that power really does corrupt.

It is probably achievable to continue to move incrementally closer on the continuum from majority toward mass consensus.  One possible incremental mechanism might be a referendum voting system where a group of people representing all known major views work to craft the questions, so that these questions are phrased in a way more acceptable to all parties.  Another mechanism for consideration, would be making sunset laws with a testable goal (e.g. did this law demonstrably cause a decrease in unemployment, in two years, show evidence).

A harder part is the step beyond representative democracy, where individuals are chosen to fill roles as specialists where their incumbency is based on agreement that they are best for that specific job and that their tenure only lasts as long as they are doing what is needed.  I know of no great models for this, however various books fiction and non-fiction provide near and short term models for how this could work.  These include:

  • ‘The Art of Community’ by Jono Bacon talks about how governance is done in the Unix community, mixing meritocracy and consensus.
  • ‘Freedom (TM)’, the Daniel Suarez novel defines reputation systems that identify who is good at something and how trustworthy they are.  This reputation is dynamically created based on their interactions with others.
  • ‘Adiamante’ (far future L. E. Modesitt, Jr. novel) has many interesting concepts – but one is that people who are designated as leaders have to work off this obligation later.

Balancing democracy with meritocracy while minimizing the potential for power to corrupt is a hard problem, which I will no doubt continue to struggle with and pontificate about:-)

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How important is strong pseudonymity for democracy?

Anonymity and and pseudonymous accounts – are needed to support whistleblowing, and to make sure that people do not avoid getting the information they need (e.g. on homosexuality, aids) because they want to avoid embarrassment or worse.  > cannot find information – loss for all of us).  We have some valid concerns about big brother (government or marketing).

There are real and obvious costs to anonymity or pseudonymity done wrong- security, fraud (dummy accounts), child porn etc.  – these need to be addressed.

Currently most pseudonymous (and anonymous) accounts and actions are treated as low assurance, in other words, if an account or transaction cannot be publicly tied to the attribute ‘legal name’, then it is suspect. There is certainly some truth to this perspective, however in some other sense – it is disturbing.

There is a need for anonymity, but also pseudonymity in political speech.  It would seem that any pseudonym that is weakly or not authenticated is subject to spoofing.  If democracy really does depend upon voices that cannot be silenced by mechanisms of power one of the ways to silence, is to spoof, more specifically to impersonate known and respected (even if pseudonymous) voices in a way that weakens, distorts or contradicts their message.

Democratic systems need to establish, not only anonymity and pseudonymity are protected for most speech and actions on the net.  More importantly if there are reasons where it is legal authorized to break the veil of pseudo or real anonymity, these reasons must be clearly defined in the legal system.  For example, if incitement for violence or child pornography are valid reasons, these must pass some kind of test of the judiciary system – so we don’t suddenly see these mechanisms used against say incitement for digital piracy.

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Personal Automation Toolkit

We each need a toolkit that will allow us to define and generate electronic transactions.  These notification transactions should be able to come to us later and/or notify other people or things, based on events.  Definition of future transactions would be user initiated and therefore inherently decentralized.  It should be easy to manually define one or more combination of events that would create notifications once these events occur.  Alternatively devices can be set to create notifications.  Events and/or notifications can require sequences involving one or more people or devices.  New notifications can be created only in response to a series or combination of non-events.  This makes possible a bottom up driven automation framework for among other things a potential workflow system.

How does my Mom use this system to create a workflow for me to participate in.  OK, clearly a very simple programming interface is required.  With that programming interface and an underlying event creation and response engine (e.g. Kynetix) that is pretty much the heart of it.  At that point it just becomes more powerful as more individuals and network aware things are available to be part of this notification network. The Personal Automation Toolkit then encompasses external and internally generated events, calendar managed events, and controls and events from the ‘Internet of Things.

Architecturally it would have to have standards that both allow and constrain (for interoperability) workflow event and sensor notification syntax and semantics, perhaps some other protocol variations.  It should allow normal humans to program it so that they can connect to people and things and collaborate with people for shared interests and to create community.

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Can automation create better consensus

Can an automated consensus process provide features that would give it some advantages over the in-person kind?

I’m not sure, but I think that there are options worth exploring. Right now lots of people are doing distributed consensus over new media including email, wiki, and video conferencing.  For example, see notes on the Wikipedia consensus process (

My sense is that some of the consensus processes and methods that have been used extensively for group decision making are more mature than current distributed processes.  In person processes rely on visual group mechanisms and other in-person group dynamics, some of which may not be replicable in cyberspace.  Other processes and conventions that were developed in shared physical environments, if rethought, could be distributed and might be more scalable by automation. Once automated it should be easy to automate certain counting, recording and real-time display functions. This might help to compensate for the lack of visible body language or other in-person feedback mechanisms.

While dotmocracy (, may also be a viable process to base automation on, this post concentrates on an examination of the mechanisms and automation options for “Fist-to-Five” consensus (

Fist-to-Five hand signals allow all participants to indicate visually without speaking the wish to:

  1. block consensus (fist),
  2. suggest changes (one finger),
  3. raise minor issues (two fingers),
  4. let the issue pass without further discussion (three fingers),
  5. affirm the decision as a good idea (four fingers), and finally
  6. volunteer to take a lead in implementing the decision (five fingers).

This can be done by having a facilitator ask everyone for a response, but can also happen spontaneously during discussion. Because it can be done immediately and non-verbally in response to a speaker – immediate feedback sometimes occurs, which in the best case can speed and create widespread comfort to the participants that the conversation/decisions are heading in the right direction.  In other cases, it provides immediate feedback to a speaker that they are heading in a direction that may not have much support, allowing the group to collectively change course faster.

So in the distributed and automated context something based on ‘Fist-to-Five’ would support the same six indications.  Either by originator or in summation indications could be automatically displayed to all participants.  Derived values could also be automatically tallied and displayed (e.g. 84% consensus, 0% blocking, seems promising to continue working it).  As within meat space, a facilitator or group member could request responses from all.  Responses would also be generated from participants spontaneously and displayed in real-time. Text from responders including reasons for blocking, comments and suggested changes could also be displayed to all.

I’m thinking about this mainly as a real-time immediate response form of distributed consensus.  To use the benefits of the in-person model, the main dialogue might be phone based dialogue, comments, blocking and suggested changes generated by individuals without necessarily interrupting the main flow of the dialogue.  This is just one model.  Non real-time models where a question could be left open and worked – as long as there is some cut off of ideas and a consensus process at the end might provide more value or be an alternative available process.

Clearly most of the technology toolkit components exist – the hard part is having groups begin to agree on, adopt or implementing an adequately configured tool kit. Then the next hard part – having groups begin gain experience and begin to adapt and change them.

The ideas above need work, however simply replicating our current voting system as an electronic process complete with the tyranny of the majority, seems short sighted as we continue to look for ways to distribute and scale democratic processes and allow them to be used and supported by a wider range of processes and entities.

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Democracy X.0

I woke up wondering about what version we are up to now? Democracy 3.0, perhaps more.

Without dealing with too much history, clearly representative government allowed democracy to scale over what I gather was essentially the town meeting model of Athens under Pericles.  Transitioning to something closer to universal suffrage is perhaps another major version advance in democracy.   Clearly, more major advances would be welcome, as most of those that I talk to think that the current system in the United States is horribly broken.

I believe that radically more effective democratic institutions are possible and that ‘we the people’ will create them in the future.  Let me unpack that statement – because it uses  some words that have some conventional meanings.  We have to question the standard assumptions and nuances of commonly used words to get to ‘radically effective’.

First government vs. business – the core problem is independent of these labels – how do we create organizations that are more responsive to the needs of both those who do the work of the organization and those that the organization serves. Thought of in this sense words like business, government, polity, workers, customer fall away – and a blank slate is available at least for conversation.  How do you organize people around goals? How do you obtain and use resources to achieve those goals?  What organizations need to stay in existence for on-going efforts?  How can organizations end gracefully and efficiently once their goals have been met? Lots of similar questions.

Many people are working in this space – trying to scale consensus based activities, so that appropriate subgroups are chartered to act quickly to produce detailed results acceptable to the whole.  Sociocracy, holocracy, and ‘open space technology’ are some of organizational modes in this space.

It feels to me that perhaps (regardless of their success) this is the direction that the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ folks are groping toward. I see reports of twinkling (consensus hand signalling) and bar camp like (open space technology) spontaneous generation of topics, ideas, initiatives.

I tend to think (unsurprisingly for those who know me) that automation – only once it is fully integrated with human centric processes and conventions – can allow real-time consensus to scale. This can create the basis for the next generation of organizations that are more responsive to those they derive their existence from.  Anyone who has experienced both, knows that there is something similar between saying something in a group and seeing immediate hand signals that indicate agreement, and posting something and seeing the lurkers on a forum immediately start posting disagreement – immediate feedback, spontaneous real-time democracy – that works.  That’s where we need to head.

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Personal Capability Maturity Model

I was not as resilient as I expected to be while unemployed.  I had dozens of technical areas I wanted to grow and extend, when I finally had time, I expected to jump to it.  I found myself without motivation and watching a lot of TV.

I was beginning to re-think from scratch my approach to taking care of my emotional and psychological health – including motivations for work.  Now that I am about to return to the working world, I’ve realized that I still need this re-think.

From my undergrad and after I have various models of sequential human growth.  They don’t do it for me – wandering in the un-definable direction of  ‘self-actualization’ or trying to identify and apply some step-wise abstract process based on Erikson’s or Kohlberg’s stages of personal development.

I really like and understand Capability Maturity Models (CMMs)

to define and measure progress. For years as a home-office based consultant I have had a daily ‘Personal Capability Maturity Model’  taped on my computer.  Level 0 includes behavior such as overeating, no exercise, watching TV incesantly, no social activities, and work being irregular and unchecked.

Level 6 includes daily minimum goals for exercise, social progress, minimizes TV watching, requires documenting the effort for and the number of completed accomplishments,  and requires some daily time on short and long term goal re-setting.

I am now expanding my personal CMM (PCMM) to apply beyond daily for personal and professional goal setting and tracking of how I’m doing. It is my intention to define and use a PCMM model which defines capability maturity levels in terms of specific actions and modes of thought.  This model supports both gradual and step-wise progress from psychological resilience:

toward general happiness, passion for work and an accelerated ability to gain expertise. There are increasing bodies of practice around what used to be general terms like ‘hapiness’.

Similar to Maslow’s Hiererchy and CMM, my PCMM is beginning to define the lower layers that must be maintained to achieve and maintain the upper layers.  Clearly resilience is a precursor to maintaining happiness and the continued improvement in the ability to learn, grow and be more effective.  Another key component for my progress appears to be in examining and strengthing my inner credibility.  This will involve:

1) better understanding and definition of my ethical system consistant my evolving view of the best motivations (e.g. Gaia, creating a better future)

2) ensuring that ethical system supports and brings energy to my personal goals including – but not limited to or by – happiness and professional goal fulfillment.

3) an increased confidence that I am increasing the level that my actions are ethical and effective at acheiving my goals.

4) ensuring that I deeply understand the organizations I support. work with and work for and align my passions with the goals of those organizations.

Please don’t mis-understand, I’m not going to be a slave this thing or set myself up for failure according to this system.  That said, I refuse to allow my thinking to preclude or stop working achieve the hightest PCMM level that I can define, as often as reasonable.  For this to work, my joy and passion have to be congruent with my ethics and goals in a way that causes action.  The PCMM is a defacto measurement of this congruence on a scale that includes the best and most effective actions that are possible for me.

Can’t find anything on the web that talks pychological, emotional and effectiveness progress in a similar way to this, but if you know of related areas of thought – I am interested.

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Resolving conflict through restorative justice

I’ve just listened to the audio version of this videoblog (mp3 download on page)

between two academic evolutionary psychology types (Michael McCullough, Dacher Keltner) who talk (among other things) about the results of the fact that  justice systems often do not provide closure.  Justice systems were preceded by the evolved behavior of revenge which while costly – historically acted before governments existed to ‘enforce’ cooperative behavior.

Historically in most societies that depend on this cycle of revenge, there are rituals designed to end the cycle of revenge which involve acknowledgement of wrong doing, apology and in some cases exchange of tribute.

The whole download contains a range of vastly more detailed and nuanced concepts and is well worth listening to, but the modern version of this acknowledgement and apology they bring up is:

which is the theory behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  The underlying theory is that even today with government, laws and punishment based on a ‘fair’ judicial system – apology is sometimes required to create a greater feeling of justice and end a cycle of violence.

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Entrepreneurial Rubicon

Mindset is everything.  There is an entrepreneurial Rubicon that one can cross slowly or with great rapidity.  I am crossing it slowly, because I might work for an organization that I am not the primary owner of again. On a deeper level though the Austin Tech Ranch has helped me to cross this Rubicon.

I am beginning to gain a deeper responsibility to creating and growing enterprise, and from here on out:

1) I will continually not only look for needed products and services that fulfill an unmet need in business and society, but will recognize that I have some responsibility to bring one or more of those products and services to fruition.

2) I will always be looking for potential team members, and will continue to expand my loose consortium of potential partners – so that when a new product and service idea seems viable – I can quickly look within this group for potential team members.

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