critical thinking

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill.

Whenever I give a presentation or a speech, I always start out by giving the Twitter hashtag for the event. This is not merely an act of housekeeping – it’s also a teaching moment that starts with crickets.

Yes – the sound of silence – a room full of blank faces when I ask the assembled audience how many of them use Twitter as a daily tool of professional development. Out of a room of a few hundred, I might get a dozen hands that go up. So, I ask why, and the answer is usually, “I have nothing to say,” or “There’s already someone on our department who does the tweeting for us, or even Twitter is passé. It’s Instagram now.”

Those are good answers – in fact there should only be one person in charge of tweeting on behalf of a company or department. And social media outlets like Instagram have their place. But that overlooks two of the three main benefits of using Twitter. People assume it’s just for outbound activity, sending notes and opinions out to the world. But that’s only useful if you have an established audience. That’s why celebrities and politicians use it.

But there’s a far more valuable use of Twitter that often goes overlooked, and that has to do with inbound information. When properly tuned, Twitter is an excellent tool for keeping up to speed on what’s going on in your business – the facts and development you need to know.

Yes, Twitter is awash with garbage and hate. That’s very sad and says a lot about people in general. But inbound Twitter is an ideal tool for lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is just what it sounds like. You keep learning every day of your life. That’s not a new concept, but for many of us, such an idea paints pictures of having to go back to school, take formalized courses and write formalized exams and paper to get formalized degrees. These are all still good, of course, but in between those events, other things are still happening: Industry news. Innovations. Events. Opportunities.  Being aware of these developments in real time is what gives people an edge or even a lifeline.

How else can you know what you need to know? It doesn’t matter if you never send an outbound tweet ever. Maybe you don’t need to. But by following a handful of carefully chosen experts, and checking your twitter feed once per day, you will receive vital, career enhancing knowledge without having to wade through all the garbage.

The Knowledge Base

The other reason I promote the Twitter hashtag at my session is that it allows me to talk about its service as a shared knowledge base – something that can and should also later be translated into an internal, intranet-based tool.  When I have a group of people in front of me, there is bound to be someone with something valuable to contribute – maybe a thought, an idea or a resource, like a link to a website or online article or video. But they are unwilling to speak up. Often times, the quietest ones are the ones with the most profound observations.

By tweeting a comment or a link, using the event’s hashtag, every participant, even those who were not there, are able to read ideas and suggestions from people they don’t yet follow, by simply searching for the common hashtag online. This use of Twitter hashtags is a public activity using a public, non-confidential forum – but it represents a powerful way of sharing information and building on synergies that more and more people find more appealing than out-loud dialog. It is the Wiki approach – a shared knowledge base, built out of the contributions of many.

Internal Wikis

As powerful as shared knowledge through hashtags is for public events, it also highlights the power of internal Wikis, that every company should embrace. I come from an age – not that long ago – where policies and procedures were stored in vinyl binders, updated every quarter or so by a new raft of 3-hole punched papers intended to replace the older ones. It’s all we had at the time, and their quality and relevance were dependent on the person or consultant who wrote them.

But when an organization takes on the Wiki knowledge base mindset, capitalizing on the interaction and ubiquitous access that Twitter and Wikipedia offer, the collective wisdom and experience of a wider swath of employees is tapped – and that’s a significant development. People may not always be willing to speak up. But they are often more willing to both contribute and learn, when given the chance.

Centralized knowledge bases give people a renewed opportunity to learn new skills, reaffirm procedures and best practices by enabling employees to look it up online – to read a short article or watch a quick video. Having a Wiki means updates to knowledge bases can happen quickly, helping ensure no-one is referring to an outdated copy of a policy or procedure that has been sitting in a binder for years.

This again, is digital literacy – centralizing knowledge – taking full advantage of the accessibility of online material and ensuring the right message gets through.

The Scuba Diver Factor

An additional benefit of digital literacy comes from social media in general, which is why many employers and HR departments will routinely scan the social media sites of employees and candidates, like Facebook and Instagram, not to snoop, but to better understand the passion that drives employees.

For example, imagine that you discovered through Instagram, that one of your employees was a passionate weekend scuba diver, and in addition, is certified to teach scuba diving? What relevance would that have to the job he/she currently has? Some might note that someone with these passions might be a natural leader with the brains to learn complex procedures and the abilities to teach and lead others. But that might not be obvious as a line item on a C.V. or even on a LinkedIn page.

The potential within every employee needs new avenues to reveal itself. People who make hiring decisions take a huge risk. The cost of attracting, onboarding and training an employee is huge. Knowing more about who they are and what makes them tick – or more precisely how they can best fit into a company culture, is of enormous value. And the information is right there.

In many cases, 90 percent of an employee’s potential goes unseen, untapped and unappreciated. This is serious, especially given the career mobility that professionals of all ages now recognize. People know that there’s something else, something more fulfilling out there. It’s up to HR and hiring managers to know fully and completely who they have at their disposal and where their passions truly lie.

Digital Literacy and Critical Thinking

Finally, there is the vital component of corporate survival: critical thinking. The experts who research and discuss the future of work regularly describe the skills that employers will be looking for, the skills that people will need more and more in the months and years to come. This is especially prescient as artificial intelligence and machine learning take over many parts of many types of jobs and professions.

These skills are very human in nature, not surprisingly. They include – but are not limited to – critical thinking and empathy. People in general are becoming increasingly emotionally disconnected the more their technologies connect them. Think for example, how many of us would prefer to send an email or a text than pick up the phone and talk live, out of the fear of what? Time being wasted? The fear of confrontation? Social awkwardness? Disinterest? Well, these aforementioned skills are coming into high demand very quickly. Here are just two examples:

First, critical thinking as it applies to phishing. Phishing and spearfishing emails are getting much more sophisticated. Cybercriminals have figured out ways to mimic the web pages and two-factor authentication techniques that we have started to rely on as a defense. The truth is that any and every communication that an employee at any level might have, whether with an outside agent like a supplier, customer or job applicant, or even with an internal colleague, must be suspect. That colleague’s email might not actually be from that colleague after all. This is why data breaches are so scary. Impersonation of people is easy once the bad guys have access to the types of personal data that accounts use for verification.

So that’s one reason why critical thinking is so important. The need to not trust anyone. The need to second guess each email when it arrives, and the need to not click out of reflex – these all confirm critical thinking as an essential skill, if only to help keep the company safe.

Then there’s empathy. As one of a collection of social interaction skills, these will come into greater focus as more and more people choose to use video conferencing and telepresence as their ideal method of communication. Video conferencing means body language, facial gestures and eye contact reestablish their prominence in the art of human interaction. Being self-aware is equally as important as being aware of the body language in others, when you can see them through high definition video. Some people shy away from this technology for those very reasons, but as videoconferencing technology becomes more ubiquitous, it will become the norm, in the same way that email replaced physical mail all those years ago.

Conclusion

Digital literacy is not just about known how to install and use an app. It’s about understanding how to parse information and non-information from an infinitely growing ocean of data. It’s about finding meaning and delivering meaning through an understanding of just how these technologies work and how they affect and influence people.  It’s fitting, in a way, to see humanity become the primary skill in a world dominated by technology.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. It explores the relationship between the way today’s tunes are written, produced and marketed, and the way in which we think and react as human connected to our phones.

 

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about everything that is wrong with modern music. The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. It wasn’t like one of those 70-something prog rock old timers telling us what’s wrong with today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era, and I think there are some direct tie ins to at work productivity and workplace skills.

The video is available here. It’s about 20 minutes long.

Thoughty2 goes through a number of mechanical reasons about how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are written by a very small group of people, and how a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

Now, as a musician myself, I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 was saying, but I could also picture his grandfather standing in front of a camera in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles, or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music by Sinatra or the Big Band era. Go back even further and is great-great grandfather would have been complaining about Gershwin tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

So is this change in music a change management issue? Every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of work involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975, an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour.

Access to recorded music was expensive. But concerts, were cheap, compared to today, because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. Now, as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, music is free, which is why artists and their employers – the record companies – must recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

So, is free instantly available music the culprit? Because it’s free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the process, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal and familiarity. To be too different entails too much risk. Tunes must have an instant hook – no long-extended introductions – and in many cases these play as a mere backdrop to the video.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, in my opinion. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort of it is to make money.

But it’s the speed issue that I’m looking at here. As attention spans shorten and instant access to information dominates, skills such as critical thinking tend to atrophy, and this poses great danger to businesses and productivity.

Thinking is a process that requires a type of mental massaging. I tell my audiences that two of the best ways to think are, 1. To take a walk – just walk around the block and think about nothing. Do not check your email. Just let your mind relax, and let the thoughts come. Number 2 is to write things out. This is particularly productive because firstly it lets your thinking mind let go of preliminary thoughts and place them on a tangible surface – paper or a dry-erase board. Without this step you will simply be stuck holding on to an initial idea or worry. You can only move past this by depositing it somewhere and giving your brain permission to move on. Also, hand-writing has a correlation to the pace of clear thought processing. The speed at which you write things out buys time for creative processing to happen. These two actions together help “real thinking” really happen.

Much of the challenges people have concerning time management and prioritization has to do with the speed of reaction overtaking the quality of thought. We respond instantly to any incoming stimulus out of the fear and pressure of high-speed messaging. We have lost the ability for example, to exert influence over others, to manage expectations and buy time for ourselves. Why? Because influence requires careful thought and time to implement.

Look at ransomware for example. How often does cybercrime like this happen not because of any sophistication on the part of the hackers, but because they send one of those phishing emails that fool people into thinking their bank account has been frozen? People read them, and they react without thinking. They click on the link and the malware is allowed in. Phishing is a crime of distraction that exploits the busy-ness of its victims.

Similarly, much of the polarization happening in politics, especially in the U.S. also has to do with the fact that people no longer need to think through issues or talk with other people to come to a considered opinion. It is easier now to simply find an organization or news site that already sides with your beliefs or fears and wrap yourself inside. You will no longer hear a person of one political stripe say to someone with the opposing belief, “yes you have a good point there.” Instead disagreements are started and ended with a fast demographic smear: “you’re a liberal” or “you’re a dem” or you’re a republican. An “us versus them” mentality has taken over politics and has extinguished reasoned argument.

Critical thinking is a skill. It is the type of skill that needs to be taught to school age kids as well as to adults. It’s like street-proofing. You must give people an awareness of the importance of stopping and thinking before acting, otherwise their lives or careers will be in jeopardy.

Now in case you think I’m playing the old man here, dissing the younger generation for acting too quickly with their mobile phones and their autotuned musical heroes, I’m not. Music reflects its culture and our current culture is high-speed and ubiquitous. But there’s one thing that is not evolving as fast as technology, and that is the human brain and body together.

Reaction is reflex. It is not thought. Consequently, people lose the capacity to prioritize or frame a discussion when they exist solely in a reactionary state. Building a strong relationship with your manager, managing up, as the term goes, is impossible when neither of you have the time to do it. The same goes for delivering feedback to an employee or engaging in active listening. So many valuable activities and resources go out the window when people do not give themselves the time to fully use their thought processing skills.

A recent article in Quartz at Work outlined the concept of the silent meeting, being used by groundbreaking companies like Amazon, in which the first 30 minutes of an in-person meeting are spent in silence as the meeting attendees read the meeting material and reflect upon it before speaking.

This strongly echoes the original philosophy of Apple when they were the ones changing the world, whose campuses included lots of space and time for employees to meet, chat and cross-pollenate their ideas. This is where human brilliance and synergy some from.

One last example: how many careers, political campaigns or brands have gone quickly south due to a single ill-advised tweet? A moment of passion which flies around the world and eradicates years of carefully built trust and reputation?

There seems to be no time allowed any more to sleep on idea. To see how you feel about it tomorrow. There’s a lot to that idea, because twelve or fourteen hours from now you will be a different person: chemically, emotionally, refreshed and re-set after a night’s sleep. You will be a different person tomorrow.

What I am saying here is that critical thinking and taking time to think things through before acting will become a competitive advantage to companies that actively support it. Because far from me, or Mr. Thoughty2 being the old man in this scenario, the truth is, we are all old, female, male, of any age, we share a physiology that is not evolving as fast as our machines. We all use the same type of brain matter and autonomic reflexes to keep us alive. I honestly think the future rests with those who can use the best of their physical and mental makeup, and that has more to do with time than with speed.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.