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You are here: Home > Citizen Audit > Fast revolutions, long reforms: citizen audit and knowledge after COVID-19

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Published on 2020-07-12 11:25:48 | words: 4110

First, a disclosure (that is not really needed if you read previous articles or worked with me).

In business, I would like to see less use of words such as mission, vision, philosophy, evangelist, and, of course, revolutionary- and their variations thereof.

Just to be clear, on the "why"

yes, it is not "mission" per se (I use it too, e.g. as a synonym of "contract"), but the "detachment from reality" that many embed in the concept, reminding more of The Mission than Mission Impossible (albeit, being testosterone-driven, in business the talk is always echoing the latter even on the most mundane assignments)

half-jokingly, if you have visions, start a cult, not a business; yes, it is normal that, when you a start a company or initiative, you have a concept of what you would like to achieve in transformational terms, but the term "vision" embeds of element of unlimited loyalty worth of lemmings in a Walt Disney movie, not the "swarm" that many of us identify as a characteristic of XXI century business the way forward

well, this is one of the most overused terms in product and service PR- replace it with e.g. "Weltanschauung" (how you view the world), and you will see how often writing "philosophy" in your PR is as relevant as the mumbo-jumbo in many PR for art exhibitions that try to convert mundane art into something projecting all of us toward a new manifest destiny

let's be frank: I am agnostic but was raised as a Roman Catholic, studied other religions, and had more than my fair share of discussions about theology with those identifying themselves as belonging to other denominations (personally, in their absolutist zeal, I consider also Atheists a religion- but to cut discussions and attempts at conversion, as a teenager identified myself as atheist with those "pushing" their denomination, and agnostic with atheist- as I would have none of either intolerance); so, my concept of "evangelist" is somebody "spreading the word", while for many companies "evangelists" are about asserting control (and, often, getting as close to libel against competitors as laws allow to)

well, I will explain below why I do not believe in revolutions as a viable tool to generate and implement sustainable change; but I found laughable when e.g. I see (as others too reported) fintech startups announcing that their new offer is revolutionary- being just a move online of the old end of month loans for salaried employees (in my travel by car from Michigan to Arizona with American friends in 1996, I was surprised to see so many of those shops across all the States with traversed).

Why the title?

Because many consider revolutions painful but delivering a result quickly.

Frankly, I was skeptical about revolutions already when I was 14 (being called back then "a reformist" was an insult), for one simple reason.

Already back then, my readings and my (limited direct) experiences, plus observations of the reality around me, pointed toward a statement: revolutions change the players, but not the tune.

I will be more precise, as I was back then: real reforms requireinvolvement by those who will have to live after the reforms change what they considered "normal".

So, in my view, you can have fast revolutions that replace a group by another group- and then deliver what we saw after countless revolutions.

Or you can be in for the long journey: and, as cultural change is made by countless micro-adjustments, it will be more disappointing longer than a revolution, before you can see the benefits, but then will be more sustainable.

In this context, "sustainability" implies the typical assertion about democracy (e.g. by Fukuyama in his book on the end of history that many commented, few read- well before social media converted this into a "new normal" for reviewers).

Or: a change is sustainable if, at the end of the journey (or even before, if needed), enables you do adapt and adopt with less disruption the next time around.

As will be discussed in the next two sections, this article is in reality both an update/refresher (on strumenti, the only book I published in Italian so far), and an announce (on the section that this article appears on, Citizen Audit).

The latter is actually a concept (and, at the time, website) that I launched few years ago, but then decided that it was too early.

The pandemic crisis, with all its ensuing increase in communication via social media, and exposure of the weaknesses of our "expert-based" decision-making processes and organizations, showed how in reality in our knowledge-based societies knowledge and analysis capabilities are more diffused than we assume.

Also, while knowledge-generation (notably in science) is made of false alleys as a structural element, our "knowledge bureaucracies" in the past shielded this from audiences, and tried to present a "rational" one-way journey from ignorance to knowledge and expertise- resulting in false expectations.

Knowledge bureaucrats (a.k.a. academics, for most part) sometimes are also researchers who should know better that presenting as "cast in stone" knowledge that is in progress.

Unfortunately, politicians and other decision-makers (and the professional media) got used to generating media over-exposure and over-simplification while co-opting knowledge bureaucrats in their communication.

And as careers are built on visibility (publications but also media exposure), one of the side-effects of the first global pandemic crisis is raising doubts about that "one-way journey from ignorance to knowledge", as way too many got used to this media exposure as a shortcut toward advancing in career.

Now the temptation would be to "rebuild trust" (i.e. ignorance on the methods).

Instead, this could be a chance to develop a multi-layered communication approach on explaining why it is normal to start a quest by looking at precedents, end up in amending multiple times, finding some blind alleys, and anyway have a long process.

During the pandemic, when some announced a vaccine first as viable in spring 2020 (!), I actually shared charts from official sourcs showing the average lifecycle of a vaccine.

So, you do not need to use convoluted arguments about science and its method: you need to raise awareness while giving confidence that decision-makers and knowledge bureaucrats are doing what is needed, under appropriate supervision to ensure that personal career will not interfere with appropriate due process.

Yes, I know, just the second half of the XX century released many instances of "PR-related ego battles" between scientist: but it is exactly the point in this article.

In the past, "peer review" was considered the best tool to ensure filtering.

In our times, we had articles being retracted not in years or decades as happened before, but in weeks and months- and, personally, I see that as an advance.

Now, what is the next step toward a further improvement? .

Complexity and moral suasion in social media times

If you are reading this text, you live in a complex world.

Actually, as I wrote this to be posted online, I too live in a complex world.

Social media represent an innovation on disintermediation (what most consider) and in time allocation (what most forget).

The first dimension is obvious: anybody can share what gets through her or his mind- and, often, audiences do not look for credibility or credentials.

What matters, on social media, most often is just pattern matching- specifically, matching your prior choices with what you are about to like, share, comment.

Actually, there is obviously a missing element: reading- but, for all the like-ing, comment-ing, share-ing, it is the less common action on social media.

The second element is more interesting, as is part of the reason of the "reading-deficiency", but has also greater impacts.

If you are working in traditional media, ignoring what goes on social media makes you miss a lot of fake or re-surfaced news (how often did you read something that was old news, but went around as if it were new).

Anyway, ignoring where directly (those who dwell on social media and use it as their primary source) or indirectly (through personal connection in real life or casual encounters) most information on what is going on appears, is a risk.

So, the first instinct ("scoop") evolves into a second ("mud-racking"), to catch the news before other do.

For all the grand-standing about fake news, quality journalism, etc, I lost count of how many distortions, half-truths, omissions, or just plain PR from companies or public figures turned into news found again during the lockdown, when, between March and June, almost on a daily basis read half a dozen of Italian newspapers.

And this does not apply just to Italy: I quoted in past articles and books a (now) old research on how much the media acted as soundboards, and also shared a recent "advisory report on how to use 'framing' in media".

Nothing really new: another book I often quote is Bernays 1920s "Propaganda", as well as... a more recent book that showed how in Ancient Rome, for political campaigns, did not refrain from both mud-racking and spreading lies.

Decades ago, it was common to talk about "pure" and "non-pure" editors.

Being anyway businesses operating to generate profits, it was as relevant as those holding up the pretense that there are full-time "non-professional" sportswomen and sportsmen.

So, there are few departments that over decades have been reported as declining.

It is curious how our "sentiment analysis" society often sounds as a bit of the "partecipative democracy" at end of the movie The Rise and Rise of Michael Ritter.

A continuous stream of influencing and polling on so many technical minutiae, that eventually opens the door to something else (yes, as "Brazil", this movie about politics and spinning is Monty Python-esque- both in form and in content).

What matters is always a balance- you need to know what is the "sentiment", while admitting that sentiment and reality sometimes clash.

Imagine that you were to be suddenly confronted by the unexpected, such as contacts with alien civilization, and that all the knowledge tools at your disposal to understand this new reaction were to be "framing" your perception of reality.

What would be your "sentiment" influencing your course of actions?

Also if you had all the means at your disposal, how would you make "sound" choices?

I shared in the past a funny diagram trying to show all the different perception biases that we all suffer from- at different times, on different choices, we aren't machine.

Pretty much as, after living, as most of us did recently, in self-imposed reclusion for months on a time, the first time you walk your legs hurt, despite your memories of how much (at least in my case) walked, the same goes when you are in an unfamiliar scenario where our natural inclination, embedded in our brain, is to "look for familiar patterns".

Our usual approach is the one we learned during the Cold War.

I quoted often two items on deterrence: Destroying the village: Eisenhower and thermonuclear war and a small movie, Deterrence.

But, in both cases, the concept what dealing with known issues- anybody who saw the side-effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki isn't so keen on starting to exchange volleys of ICBMs, as you know when it starts, but there is no winner.

Our past experiences might negatively influence choices, trying to apply
I could suggest books such as The Guns of August or The Evolution of Cooperation, or you can also have a look at an episode of a TV series ("Outer Limits") where the President of the United States is confronted in a bunker with a choice on how to react to a contact with the unknown.

As in Axelrod's book on cooperation (or the Dixon's book that I quote within the book review linked above), it is really a matter of "games"- about communication, about perception, and about adapting interpretation to perception in such a way that it becomes self-supporting.

Or: if communication "glides" on existing perception, it is in the end your audience that takes care of communication on your behalf.

In the end, probably the best reference for this kind of approach is a book that I purchased years ago after following, while living in Brussels, an online course on Game Theory from Yale University- specifically, a book on the Prisoner's Dilemma (you can find a summary on Wikipedia).

In the end, the concept is quite simple: communication on social media is, in effect, an act of cooperation.

Actually, with a parasitical element embedded into it (hence, the Prisoner's Dilemma reference).

When you criticize somebody as a routine, you are actually increasing her or his visibility.

Social media such as Facebook and Linkedin continuously "tweak" their own behavior on links and comments for their own purposes, so for example you might share an article with your commentary debunking the article, and many of your connections might share the link assuming that they are sharing your commentary.

Instead, you could end up feeding the "viral" side of that article- by allowing it to enter your own circles, circles that normally would not use the publisher of that article as a source.

I will not discuss specific cases, in Italy or elsewhere.

Because, let's be frank: as I wrote about the past of "fake news" used within the electoral cycle in Ancient Rome, also in modern Italy and modern Europe there are politicians who are intensive users of "social media publication tricks".

Anyway, if you look from outside, you can actually see how many those grand-standing against such misuse of social media, in the end, use either the same or a different mix to "steer" public opinion toward them.

We are back to the beginning of this section: complexity.

Which implies: damned if you do, damned if you don't, as in our times the spinning cycle is too fast and with way too many channels that cannot be controlled with "old boys' network" approaches.

So, controlling complexity implies really surfing on complexity, and adapting.

But, in order to adapt, you need to have access to enablers that will give you the interpretation key that is needed each time.

And this brings the next section.

(re)introducing the citizen audit concept

If you look at my CV, you can see that, since my first project in 1986, I was more often than not working first on software projects, then also on management consulting and overall cultural and organizational change (which include also helping to develop activities, or close negotiations).

Routinely, for my network, since the late 1980s I have been asked to comment on some business or political events based upon only on my own "connecting-the-dots" approach (you can see few books on this website following that approach- basically, multidisciplinary and generalist at the same time).

Sometimes I was asked how did I manage to connect that information, which sources I used- but, frankly, I prefer to use a mix of public sources, experiences, prior readings, etc.

Albeit, sometimes, if you have past experience, access to public sources, and know how connect the two and attempt to fill future dots due to past patterns and current information, you end up disclosing as a probable course of events a potential choice that has not yet been announced.

In those cases, for decades, more than once somebody assumed that I had confidential sources: no, it is only that those making choices assumed to be smarter than those that they relied on to make choices.

Way too often I saw announcements of "decisions" that were presented as "new", while they were a mere rehashing of past communication or past patterns: the more they were, the higher the chance that the next few steps too will be consistent and, therefore, predictable.

I use public sources also because, when you use a source that you procured just for the purpose of your analysis, you (or others) might influence the information definition criteria, filtering out what you would need later.

It is an issue that I observed often when I was helping to design decision-support models, in the 1980s-1990s: if you access sources that know that they are feeding your decision-making, you risk getting biased information for both positive and negative reasons.

Anyway, I will not discuss here the point, as I discussed it at length in previous articles and book (and will return again on these issues in the future).

This does not imply that information from public sources isn't biased- but chances are, that, however biased, you can do another element I do in "connecting-the-dots": never rely on just one source.

This "multi-source" element includes also developing an array of sources that could be considered reliable providers of expertise, and, if is a person-to-person matter, minimizing their perception on which decisions they are impacting on (e.g. if it is a person-to-person sourcing, I prefer routine updates, than "on demand" expertise, as the latter involves loaded/leading questions).

So, when I was asked to deliver something that needed additional expertise, if it was a mission/contract/assignment for a customer, I might involve others (sometimes, à la Yeltsin, more than one source, with or without knowledge of each other).

Years ago, looking at the increased speed and cross-disciplinary element, considered a further evolution, something that I wanted to deliver as a book called "the method".

Eventually, limited it to something I nicknamed "citizen audit".

The point is simple: if our society is increasingly operating on data, and data are linked to expertise, and expertise is linked to experts, and then you need experts connecting experts, you end up with a conundrum.

No matter how large your organization, how many experts can you hire and then keep busy enough that both is justified to keep them on payroll, and funding their "human capital" continuous investment?

The risk is simply that you will content yourself with hiring experts now for what you need, and then... turn them into your filter toward reality.

This is a way to subsidize a perception bias- typical in "technical" domains- be it information technology or finance, you are somebody as a provider of a specific expertise, but then fail to keep it up-to-date and "operational".

So, the idea is to continuously triage expertise (e.g. see the discussion of this concept as was presented in 2003-2005 BFM2013 and SYNSPEC, two short books that you can read online), and having a mix of both internal and external sources of expertise.

The critical concept is the one discussed above: ensuring that your expert is continuously worth considering an expert, and isn't turning into a roadblock.

Citizen Audit is something even more focused.

First, it is not just based on "one size fits all".

In a complex data-centric economy there are various roles that contribute to keeping the ability to analyse reality without having to hire everybody everywhere.

The idea is that, in many ways, also if you are not an expert in anything, you might actually through your ordinary life collect observations that are actually expertise for somebody else.

There are obviously also experts that have a higher degree of more structured knowledge, and who will need to continuously invest.

The overall concept is simple: have antennas that are akin to "sensor" tailored to specific purposes, and involve them when needed.

Since the early 2000s, there are already sites that are used often in a mix of push/pull mode, but generally by initiative of those who have a need.

As I already opened up with DataDemocracy, releasing few webapps and few datasets to support my own publishing activities.

Releasing online both since summer 2018 is actually a way to convert a "push" approach into a "pull" approach, i.e. moving from an organization sharing a demand and asking for answers, to an organization scouting the web to find elements that could contribute to an answer- acknowleding having done so only at the end.

To make it simple.

Any "citizen auditor" can release data and analysis for specific purposes, but make them available and shareable via generalist websites (I use both my own and, via links, both personal and business social media), or also via specialist website (e.g. for data I am inclined to use Kaggle, for content Github or slideshare.net- you can find the links to all my social media profiles where I share information, analysis, etc here).

Once made available, and with a public update policy, anybody can "pull" and embed in their own analysis and activities.

About the concept of public update policy: since the 1980s, first in politics, then in business, I found ridicolous to release data or data access applications unless you share also where the data come from, how you processed them, and how they will evolve- as your assumptions and constraints might introduce a bias that would make them useless for other purposes that would need exactly the same data, but under different perspectives.

To close down, my personal approach is therefore quite simple.

I have some expertise from my past, some updates I did (and will keep doing) for my own purposes and to avoid obsolescence, and both for personal projects and for others (customers, employers, etc) plan to have more.

For various reasons, after the first public experiment (an online e-zine on cultural and organizational change 2003-2005, you can see it BusinessFitnessMagazine.com), while living in Brussels in 2008 started sharing more frequently articles and analyses on current business and political events.

As you can see from the list of articles on this website (which is a partial list, as I removed most of the articles prior to 2012, when I re-registered in Italy), there is some material, and I keep adding continuously material that I assume could be of general interest.

While obviously I will have to be selective about specific cases, in my activities (publications and others) routinely I look at data sources and events to see what could be interesting and, in some cases, worth monitoring continuously.

Hence, I will add in this new section specific cases, while I will keep publishing other more data-oriented items as well as those focused on business and social analysis.

Stay tuned, as they say.