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As the year draws to a close, reviews of the year appear as do predictions for the future. The latter are inevitably rooted in the former. Without the past and the present, there is no future. This week’s varied links are all about history.

As the year that made Bitcoin mainstream and saw the launch of ApplePay draws to a close, some are predicting the end of cash, never mind that 2 billion people in this world remain without access to banking and other more sophisticated financial services. This fascinating history of money, from shells and coins to apps and Bitcoin, explores the evolutionary aspect of money and the divergent narratives of what money signifies, and makes the case for how it is all about human relationships.

Money is a special good, however. It can’t work without the technological and regulatory infrastructures enabling it. The evolutionary story leaves out the regulatory and consumer protection architectures that are necessary to make any new money and payment systems function. The state will enforce the payment of a debt in its money – but you are largely on your own if you want help enforcing a debt in your own private token or, at least, having it treated as a real debt. The state will also usually accept only its own money for the payment of public debts: taxes, fees, tolls and fines. Here we see clearly money in its means-of-payment aspect, indicating the state’s power to create money, trumping its means-of-exchange aspect, and the market’s power to set prices.

The evolutionary story also leaves out the fact that people do all sorts of things with money besides earn it, pay with it and save it, let alone that people are already doing all sorts of things with the ‘latest’ stage in the evolution of money – the mobile phone. Money – and mobiles – are very special items in that they both express relationships and, in a very real way, are relationships. This is what we miss in the evolutionary story, and this is where the action really is in innovations for how we pay. Imagining new moneys, and new payments, is thus simultaneously a reimagination of our relationships with each other. So: how would we like to pay?

Money is of course most valued for its fungibility. Which brings us to things money can buy.

Fashion, for instance. This week I came across a photo essay documenting Chinese women’s fashion over a century. Fashion’s deep links with culture and politics of a time are in evidence.

As the years went by Western influences gradually became more prevalent in Chinese society. Take note of how the short collar has become more prominent, how the clothes hug the body more closely than before. The first women to bring back this new style were individuals who had the opportunity to study abroad. It was readily adopted both by the wealthy and by prostitutes of the era.

Image copyright Sina.com.cnThis NPR interview with author Aja Raden is worth listening to.  Her book Stoned takes a walk through world history using jewellery as the lens.

Aja Raden’s new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: “The history of the world is the history of desire.”

“There’s no more powerful statement than ‘I want,’ ” Raden tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. ” ‘I want that. I wantthem.’ … Even if it’s an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain.”

As Raden tells it, jewelry is the quintessential object of desire — and it’s the perfect lens through which to view human history. She makes her case through the stories of eight noteworthy jewels, starting with the glass beads a Dutchman used to buy Manhattan from the Lenape Indians in 1626.

The recent weeks have seen one of the GOP Presidential hopefuls sound more and more fundamentalist, some say “unAmerican”, in his speeches that are drawing large crowds in the world’s oldest democracy. This long essay wonders about the history of the religious fundamentalism he is citing and the role of the west in shaping it.

The force at stake here does not stem, in what constitutes it essentially, from the resources of what is called “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism”. Certainly, active, vindictive and aggressive fundamentalism — be it Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even exceptionally Buddhist) — characterizes for a significant part the last 25 years. But how can one ignore the fact that this fundamentalism is a response to what can be called the economical fundamentalism inaugurated at the end of the bipolar separation and the extension of a “globalization” that had already been identified and named almost two generations ago (McLuhan’s “global village” dates back to 1967)? How not to notice also the haste in which the experience of totalitarianisms was erased? As if representative democracy, along with technical and social progress, could adequately respond to the concerns raised a long time ago by modern nihilism, as well as by the civilizational “discontent” mentioned by Freud in 1930?

It would be remiss to not remind ourselves of George Santayana, as we stand at the brink of many political and social changes: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

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The luxury sector is negotiating the tight rope between its traditional exclusivity and the open-all-hours, democratising nature of the web. It is a fascinating space to watch as new ways of enticing and engaging with the customer emerge.

This long Luxury Society piece explores the emerging influencers and how brands are finding their feet in this new dance. The most telling line in the piece:

“The internet is a chance for luxury, because in order to maintain the dream value of the brand, you have to permanently refuel that dream…”

Refuelling dreams repeatedly is easier when the shop front is really open-all-hours as the web makes possible.

Relevance. As thing go digital at a rapid pace, relevance is the holy grail for luxury brands too, as Rebecca Robins writes.

An even more fascinating movement among the legacy brands is the movement across brands – the “brand tangos” that boost their reputation through collaboration. Think the Apple Watch Hermès cross-over. Legacy brands are tapping into tech brands to increase awareness and connect with consumers. Tech brands are tapping into legacy brands for their heritage and exclusivity.

The resulting blurring of boundaries increasingly calls into question whether we will even be defining brands by sector in years to come.

Talent is central to this ongoing quest for relevance. Lately luxury brands have been poaching talent from among mass market brand leaders. The skills at a premium? Time to market and omni-channel reach.

“Traditionally reliant on in-store experiences, the luxury end of the market is slowly realising that online retail is a crucial factor in future growth. .. Luxury brands are looking for broader retail skills to match today’s omnichannel retail world, Twyford said.”

“Twyford explained that luxury brands pale in comparison to the likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Zara when it comes to their speed to market. As mass-market brands soar in their ability to maintain low-costs while still appealing to millennials, logo-reliant brands like Ralph Lauren feel static,..”

And finally, a luxury good we all desire more of — silence. The essay discusses advances in airlines and automotives, to create silence which may be physically nauseating — our vestibular system draws upon noise to give us a sense of balance and spatial orientation —  and ends on a note which summarises why silence is truly a luxury good.

The hushed halls of affluence buffer the rich from the hubbub of poverty, but for the poor, the clatter of modern life—like other forms of pollution—is inescapable. And as noise continues its inexorable advance into the quietest eddies of wilderness, even the rich may find a silent retreat impossible to locate.

Bonus link: An impossible to locate silent retreat is what Rachel Nuwer found when she set out to locate the last place on earth without human noise. Two fascinating nuggets stand out:

Hempton and Krause hope that nations will adopt a quiet area program akin to dark sky programs. They are pushing for the US National Park Service to adopt such regulations in 2016, in time for the agency’s centennial. “I absolutely believe we will have our quiet places,” Hempton says. “Just like we went through with water quality, things have to get really bad before we recognise them as a basic value and clean them up.”

Where others tend to become uncomfortable in the disconcerting silence, Foy relished the chance to be completely cut off. But minutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness. “The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.

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This week, we have interesting ones on leadership even though much more is written about business leadership than political leadership or personal leadership.

In the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, many questions about leadership, complicity and honesty are being asked. Research conducted over two years by a leadership consultancy finds a link between virtuosity and business success.

To determine how to rate character, Fred Kiel, KRW’s founder, and his team of researchers combed through a list of 500 behaviors and traits from a classic study of anthropology to boil it down to four universal principles:

  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Forgiveness
  • Compassion

Says Kiel, “Someone with high integrity but low responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion scores would probably spend all their time micromanaging and would fail to engage the workforce. Integrity isn’t enough, and neither are any of the other three traits on their own. You need all four to achieve virtuosity.”

The timeliness of the publication of these results aside, it is hard to not think of business leaders, who have been wildly successful and who definitely didn’t meet all these criteria for virtuosity. The explanation for that lies perhaps in that we do not stop to ask these questions when things are going well, with businesses returning huge gains to shareholders – individual and institutional alike, gaining market share, producing category busting innovation. Steve Jobs? Or Fred Goodwin till his fall came? The converse is also true. The moment we sense all these qualities in someone we start to look for chinks in the person’s armour as if inherent goodness is somehow hiding something. Leadership exists on a broader societal context. I hope to find more readings that take that into account.

Recent academic research finds that CEOs with female children run more socially responsible firms. Of the two lead researchers, one has no children and the other has a son.

Controlling for other factors, companies run by executives with female children rated higher on the measures of diversity, employee relations, and environmental stewardship tracked by the CSR research and analytics group KLD from 1992 to 2012. We also saw a smaller but still meaningful link with the provision of products and services that are more socially responsible. And having daughters coincided with spending significantly more net income on CSR than the median. That female influence does appear to affect the decisions these executives make, which translates into shifted priorities for their organizations.

Just having the treatment (a daughter) mattered much more than the dosage (the number of daughters).

Unfortunately, our sample of female CEOs—14 out of the 379 executives for which we could collect data—was too small to draw any firm conclusions. But the companies they led did have much stronger CSR ratings in every KLD-tracked category—not only diversity, employee relations, environment, and product, but also human rights and community. We suspect that a CEO’s own gender matters even more than the gender of his or her children.

This is fascinating on many counts. Not least because “female influence” on decision-making of and by male and female leaders.The influence of sisters was not studied while the influence of female spouses may not be significant, per the researchers.

Finding out whether they had a sister or not might have been impossible, though it would be interesting to test that one out. As for spouses, we didn’t look at that factor specifically, but given that most of the male CEOs with sons had wives and that sons had no effect on CSR ratings, we would guess that wives don’t matter as much for this issue.

Dealing with uncertainty is part of every leader’s job description and here are some tips — eleven actually — on how to deal with it. Read the whole thing because I have excerpted a small portion.

They embrace that which they can’t control

We all like to be in control. After all, people who feel like they’re at the mercy of their surroundings never get anywhere in life. But this desire for control can backfire when you see everything that you can’t control or don’t know as a personal failure. People who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it.

Finally some wisdom from the wonderful researcher Herminia Ibarra, on how to act like a leader. Some excerpts below but read the whole thing. And the book.

“That when you are faced with a new role that’s very different from anything you have done before, you can’t think your way into it. You have to experiment and act your way into it.”

“I call it the difference between the ‘insight’ and ‘outsight’ approach,” she says. “Outsight is about the external perspective. It’s about seeing things differently because you have expanded the activities you are involved in and the people you interact with. It gives you fresh stuff, instead of rehashing the old.”

“Being a bridge means you are a boundary spanner as opposed to staying in your silo,” explains Ibarra.

“Moving towards a more skilled version of yourself as a leader feels fake at first as you try to be more people orientated, or more emphatic or to listen more… It might not be who you are, but it’s the only way you are going to learn.”

 

 

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This was a week of critical reading of articles discussing the nature of work, the workplace and the worker. The customer should be the centre piece in any discussions about the workplace. That does not seem to be the case.

We must redefine employment and work, argues Andrei Hagiu in this op-ed. His piece frames ‘work’ and the nature of employer-employee/ contractor relationship as something legalistic. This is a limited point of view. We work and live in an ecosystem. With players such as insurance providers, mortgage lenders, landlords, phone companies, and credit scoring agencies. Unless the metrics of creditworthiness and other ways we engage with the ecosystem shift wholesale — that is, not just between employer and employee/ contractor but also how businesses see customers — this proposal is at best incomplete.

Work 3.0 must retain the principles underlying the employee/contractor dichotomy, guaranteeing employer flexibility and worker protections while permitting a spectrum of options: “employee” at one end, “independent contractor” at the other, and lots of novel ideas in the middle.

Holacracy is Zappos’s much watched experiment in a flat workplace with self-managed teams. Here Chuck Blakeman talks about self-managed teams, using a football metaphor. The metaphor while fascinating is limited. In a football match, both teams have loyal fans, whose ordered “product” — an enjoyable match, preferably a win — is delivered instantly. No returns are expected even if there are quibbles later in the newspapers and on social media. I could go on but I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader’s imagination.

When building self-managed teams in the emerging work world, there is no place for big egos. Leaders who want to make others successful and then get out of the way are building remarkable companies everywhere. Those who want to use people to make themselves look better will be left behind. Zappos will know they have arrived when people at Zappos see themselves in the pictures above, and there are no managers in sight.

Chris Yeh argues for a more radical approach to workplace relationships — and a company’s relationship with its alumni — something he calls “advanced common sense”. Of this week’s readings this was the cleanest argument, and the one that promised no magical thinking. In my reading, Chris is arguing for humanity and trust rather than rigid processes and structures. What huge changes will every employee have to make in his or her psychology, risk taking abilities, ongoing learning and ambitions to make this work?

Bringing this all together, Yeh refers to his approach to employee engagement as “advanced common sense”. Instead of promoting employees to management without any instruction, companies need to provide them with the tools and support to have open and honest conversations with their employees and to treat talent with the respect they would want themselves.

I share this reading mainly because it seems to use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, and is first in a series from the Drucker Forum. The Forum is named after the late intellectual Peter Drucker, who famously said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Do tell me if you think my objection is over-reaching in its criticism. The piece titled “How Managers Can See The Future More Clearly” ends with a screed for leaders.

Every leader must cultivate these four skills in his or her own way. When leaders are not sure about the future, the entire organisation suffers. Turbulence becomes the norm. Confusion reigns. What lies ahead is painfully unclear; and, for humans working inside the firm, there can be little joy. These four skills will equip your leadership circle to clarify what’s next for your organization, and focus your management lens on the future.

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This week, it is all about technology and culture. Culture, to me, is a catch-all term for how we think, feel, live, behave, interact and grow (or indeed retrograde). Technology is but science in action, and co-evolves with culture.

In which, Sebastian Normandin explores the allure of pseudoscience — man’s search, sometimes desperate, for meaning:

“Science, in short, is sobering and provides no succour. Pseudoscience, in contrast, is comforting in the extreme. It rashly speculates on connections and contexts that are poorly supported and largely impossible to prove but that suggest all sorts of possibilities which, while they may seem appealing, are simply not tenable. In their quest to create an easy or oversimplified meaning, pseudoscientists engage in all sorts of scientifically dubious practices — using vague or untested claims, focusing more on confirmation rather than refutation (in this respect the pseudoscientific forgets philosopher Karl Popper’s central notion of falsifiability — essentially that science advances through negation rather than confirmation), making their beliefs about a particular idea a point of personal pride, and, finally, a general lack of rigour in methods and means of expression (i.e. language).”

There is an important place for Luddism today, a long essay worth reading in full.

“Consequently, the Luddite impulse is to embrace a certain distinction between human and machine. Thomas Pynchon put his finger on it in 1984 when he wrote that the midcentury Luddite impulse, embodied particularly in science fiction, embraced “a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine.’ ” “Humanity” was held up as an incommensurable yardstick: You either had it or you wanted it.”

We live in interesting times, which many of us may know is effectively a Chinese curse. But how much do we know about Chinese Philosophy? Does Chinese Philosophy not belong in the academe for its exploration of ways of thinking other than how dead Greek men did? That needs to change, argues this essay.

“Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

In our diverse, globally influenced country, such narrow-mindedness shouldn’t fly.”

Many in my generation — and definitely in my father’s generation — never heard the word “startup” till we were in our 20s. But now every little new business is a startup. With dreams of raising VC money, creating vast wealth through exits and then doing it all over again.. or becoming a VC. This week Peter Griffin provided humour, effective because it cuts close to the bone of the “startup culture”, in the form of nursery rhymes reinvented.

Twinkle, twinkle, start-up star,

O M G, you’ve come so far!

You got valuations sky-high,

But boss, where’s the R O I?