Futures Ramblings # 53

Some of you know my son Harry, he used to help us with video editing back when we did that kind of thing. Harry has always been a smart kid, who had quite an advanced vocabulary even as a young child. His first words were somewhat typical of early speakers: Mom, Dad, No, Mine and then the little snark started saying dammit when he dropped his bottle. We immediately blamed our rogue rouge nanny for this; certainly we were not at fault, we were doting model parents who had read every baby and early childhood book published!

Our nanny denied every swearing around Harry, the solution to this mystery came to me one day as I was driving in Chicago where we lived. Another driver cut me off, naturally I delivered a colourful diatribe on his driving skills and overall level of intelligence. You most certainly would have done the same, after all, if we common people don’t stand up and educate others our society will be reduced to the lowest common denominator! Basking in the sense of release and community pride, my gaze fell to the rear view mirror; there he was, my adorable little sponge brain son absorbing it all. That was the moment I realised the power we have to influence other human beings. It was also the moment I was thankful that small children have a harder time pronouncing words with S or F in them.

Every day we influence people and other people influence us; for parents, governments and companies being able to harness that influence is critical to achieving goals. Understanding how to do this is particularly challenging today when pulling out the old chestnut ‘do this because I am the boss’ has little sway. Heck this line rarely works with children once they reach ten, so why would we believe that in this time of building self esteem and confidence we could use it on a young adult co-worker? This my friends, is why having the ability to motivate, direct, persuade and influence people is more necessary today than ever before.

So what do we know about influencing others?

Researchers have done studies on persuasion; one experiment done in 1968 and reported in the Journal of Personality found that people physically stood closer to one another once they learned that they had something in common. In another, researcher F. B. Evans found that people buying insurance were more willing to purchase a policy from a salesperson who was the same age, religion, or even had similar habits – such as smoking. What these studies show is being able to persuade others is reliant on deeply rooted human drives and needs. People want others to like them; therefore, they are influenced by people they like and who are like them.

When it comes to influencing decision making another key factor is reciprocity. If someone has done us a favour, we feel the need to return it. This is precisely why furniture manufacturers bring us food and hang around chewing the fat with designers in the office. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that these gestures of good will do not influence our decision making, but that would be more than somewhat naïve. In fact, many organisations recognise the sense of obligation is human nature and therefore prohibit their people from accepting gifts, lunches or expensive conferences. My husband works for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and as an employee of the federal government he can’t accept a candycane from a supplier at Christmas without fear of losing his job.

In his book Influence author Robert Cialdini writes of the ‘awesome strength’ of our nature to reciprocate when someone does us a favour. “So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of such things, that a term like ‘much obliged’ has become a synonym for ‘thank you’ not only in the English language but in others as well”. According to Cialdini there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule of reciprocation and sense of obligation, it is pervasive in human culture. So I guess you could say resistance is futile and rather than fight this, understand and use it.

Within the office the situation is similar, we gravitate toward people we like and those who think, dress and act the same as we do. The term ‘yes men’ came from this type of behaviour and for obvious reasons it has its downfalls. Particularly if you are an organisation that cares anything about connecting with clients, pushing innovation or basic business evolution. These tendencies can be especially limiting when it goes beyond simple reciprocity of favours, to influential people in the office making it clear that rewards will come to those that help them and retribution will come to those that don’t.

We are all people with complicated emotions and while we should, we do not always base our decisions on logic. The fact is we frequently are not aware of how much we rely on emotions to make decisions. Once this is recognised, you can use it to your advantage and become a more powerful influencer by appealing to a person’s values, self image and sense of belonging. I for instance have commented over the years on how nice Peter Geyer’s hair looked and you can see the personal rewards that has brought.

It often helps to couch requests in a larger purpose vision and express confidence in a person’s ability to do the job. By listening for clues you can determine what motivates another person and appeal to that. For an excellent tutorial on this technique I recommend watching Leave it to Beaver a 1960s American television show, note the behaviour of Eddie Haskel. I watched this show faithfully in my formative years, again you can see the personal rewards it has brought.

Some would not label the behaviour I have described as influence, but might call it office politics. This term is often labelled with negative perceptions, as it is believed to lead to a decrease in job satisfaction, low morale and commitment; and can become a catalyst for employees leaving the organisation. However this is only if you’re on the wrong side of the equation. Empirical research shows that being politically savvy and seeking power actually pays off, this is because there is a correlation between managers’ primary motivations and their success. Some managers need to be liked, others like to achieve targets or goals, others are interested in power. I am motivated by money, so the few people in the organisation that report to me would find that making a small cash contribution towards my son’s school tuition would serve them well.

Power, like office politics gets a bad rap, this is something we should all get over because the experts claim that to be successful and influence other people, you must develop personal power. According to Colin Gautrey, this need not be Machiavellian, nor does it need to be a violation of personal integrity. Gautrey maintains Influence is the outcome of people doing something they would not otherwise do, Power is something about you which motiviates people to be influenced by you and Politics are the behaviours which people use to influence others in a positive or negative way. He believes that by focusing on developing personal power, people will become less dependent on the use of politics to create influence. In other words those that have power don’t need to be political, even though they sometimes are.

Some of the things that can make an individual powerful are:
Position on a particular project
Ability to veto or sign-off proposals
A friendly and fun personality
Qualifications, skills and experience
Good relationships with key people around the organisation
Being very tall and/or attractive (fortunately for me – sometimes ugly and menacing works)
Positive public profile
In a position to provide help and support.

Of course if that is all too hard you could just hire someone to build your influence, I recommend Mekanism in New York. Mekanism, they bill themselves as a production company, but they are really an advertising agency that has been focusing on the Web. The company is known for being quite unconventional, never the less have created spots for a number of established companies like Microsoft, Frito-Lays, and Unilever. Jayson Harris from Mekanism makes the bold guarantee that they can create an online campaign go viral. Their confidence isn’t all cocky luck, for each campaign they leverage social-media tools like Quantcast, Visible Technologies, and Visible Measures. They also tap into a list of influencers to pair the right tone and content to get the proper balance of reach and credibility.

Fast Company magazine is so interested in this they have challenged Mekanism to create a viral marketing experiement whose outcomes will be documented in the magazine’s November issue. This experiment called The Influence Project, is attempting to measure influence on the Web and explore how influence and influencers spread and kill ideas on the Internet. Mekanism has suggested a number of possible site ideas that could be used for the experiment, one a Twittering Business Jesus who responds to companies in distress, another titled f&*k China were passed over. Fast Company settled on something more mainstream, individuals who participate will measure their influence based on how many people click the link to their personal profile. If you participate you will get your photo on the cover of Fast Company so if you’re interested there is still time. While the project hasn’t taken off as quickly as David After Dentist, or Dog Poo girl it has been quite popular in the US with people resorting to bribes and other underhanded means to get others to open their link.

While you may not believe an individual’s personal online influence is any measure of real influence, it is interesting to note the people who made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people. According to the list Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton and Brazil’s leader Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva top the annual list. How does the leader of Brazil, whose behind the drive to end social injustice and inequality, and someone who wears no pants (Lady Gaga – not Bill, although one could argue he has on occasion dropped his) get on the same list? Time says it is because these are the people whose ideas and actions are revolutionising their fields and transforming lives.

This brings me back to the beginning of this piece, you never know who you are going to influence, or how you might do it. I for instance, might influence you with this article and while I may intend it to be taken one way, you may take it another. Just as when twenty years ago while doing my civic duty I influenced my young son. Perhaps it was me who influenced a whole generation of young people to use swear words– as nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, a trait that appears to cross cultural, educational and economic lines.

The moral to the story is quite simple, as with so many things the more you practice your influencing skills the better you become at it. By noticing what floats another’s boat: logic, emotion or relationships you can give yourself a leg up, but be careful relying too much on one of these may blind you to opportunities with another. You need more that one tool on your tool belt. If you practice extending your range in different situations and take note of the responses you get, you can develop your own style of influence and build personal power.
I don’t know about you, but I am going to start right now – If I were to own a dog, the only dog worth owning would be one of those Monopoly dogs – Scottish Terriers I think and of course it would have to have a regal name. People who own those dogs are really smart.

Borden Mark; Gary Vaynerchuk on Influence, Emotion and Being a “Douche Bag”, Fast Company; July 6, 2010

Borden, Mark; Popularity, Ego and Influence – What is the Influence Project?, Fast Company, July 7, 2010

Cialdini, Robert B, Harnessing the Science of Persuasion, The Harvard Business Review, July 1, 2010

Gautrey, Colin, Personal Power and Influence, The Sydney Morning Herald

Hoffman, Greg, The Art of Corporate Influence, The Age, July 12, 2010

Hurley, Robert F, The Decision to Trust, Harvard Business Review,

Nicholson, Nigel, How Hardwired is Human Behaviour, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 1998

Pfeffer, Jeffrey, Power Play, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2010

Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Lula Top Time’s Influence List, The Age, April 30, 2010


Cultural Diversity – July 30, 2007

Embracing Cultural Diversity

Issue 32

I got a letter the other day from the Hon Kevin Andrews MP – Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. He was writing to say he was DELIGHTED to advise that my application for Australian citizenship had been approved. This came as no surprise; I had passed the entry test at the department of immigration the week before with flying colours. The short quiz one is required to pass to become a citizen of Australia paled in comparison to the horrendous mound of paperwork that had to be produced to become a permanent resident!

Please do not get the wrong impression, there were others taking the test the same day who were not finding it effortless. Those that do not have a command of written English found the essay questions very challenging; defining the terms ‘fair dinkum’ and ‘bloody oath’ and outlining the appropriate times to use them. The dexterity section required participants chug a scooner of beer while simultaneously turning over an entire barbeque grill of snags, which you might think is easy, but in some cultures ambidexterity is not common.

A woman taking the test the same day as me spilled her beer before she even got the barbeque tongs in her hand. Unfortunately, the rules are very strict. It was sad to think she would not achieve her dream; on the other hand, we simply cannot have citizens of Australia spilling our precious commodities. I am fortunate to have come from a country that has similar customs and beliefs, spending my teen years chugging warm Budweiser in the back of a pick up truck prepared me well.

Unless I do something really wrong or fall upon unfortunate circumstances like Mohamed Haneef – the Indian doctor from Brisbane, I am here for good. Of course Haneef can remain in the country now that all terrorist charges against him have been dropped; however, I suspect that now even applying for a rental card at Video EZ will be quite an ordeal for him.

Luckily Americans and Australians are quite similar: both thought the war in Iraq was a good idea, but thought the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t, both have an insatiable desire for reality TV. Naturally, there are some differences. Driving on the opposite side of the road, eating differently and fortunately for me there is a difference in approach to the topic of immigration and multiculturalism. While Bush has been working to keep foreigners out, Howard has boosted the rate of legal immigration to Australia – and one of those immigrants is yours truly.

One good thing for Geyer is that my being around will not warrant any changes to the work environment, which is not the case for many businesses that hire immigrants, and this can become a point of confusion. Knowing where to draw the line when it comes to acknowledging diversity is a challenge for many organizations. The reality is, we should and do, openly welcome people from other cultures into our work environments, but often do not want the baggage that comes with embracing their culture; whether that is celebrating different holidays, allowing native clothing to be worn, or participating in religious rituals unlike our own. Despite the fact that Australia is increasingly culturally diverse in terms of participants, our business culture continues to follow the predominant Australian culture.

According to the psychologist and IHR consultant Leonie Elphinstone the Australian business culture can be defined as relatively flat, egalitarian, time focused – sequential – monochromic. She says there is a focus on outcomes rather than harmony and that in Australian business communication is direct and of low context. Elphinstone goes on to explain that workplace cultures are influenced by industry area, size and ownership (Australian or International). 

Conducting a workshop with one of our clients a few weeks ago we were exposed to the often violent reaction many organizations have to suggestions that the work environment be amended to reflect the diversity of the people that work there. Like many, this organization was quite eager to point out that diversity is a major driver for their business, but when it came to providing prayer rooms, allowing employees to wear a head scarf, or installing squat toilets they wanted nothing to do with it. They said ‘this is Australia after all’.

After all it is Australia, and what that means today is that we are comprised of 216 different nationalities and speak 134 different languages. Only 60% of Sydneysiders were born in this country, in Melbourne that jumps to 64%. 36% of Australians speak another language and 7.5% speak a language other than English at home. In the workplace, the percentage of workers born overseas is 25% and 15% come from non – English speaking backgrounds. The inhabitants of the group of people I sit with in Sydney are a good example of this. I was born in the USA, Ji Wei in Malaysia, Neil in Wales and only Sally and Sean were born in Australia.

As you might expect, the biggest gaps in culture come as a result of different religious beliefs, so perhaps it is fortunate that in Australia 18.7% claim to have no religion. It is interesting to note that in Melbourne 20% say they have no religion, but only 14% of those residing in Sydney claim no religion – and this is the city referred to as Sin City? The source I got this from claims this is due to the fact that ¾ of all Lebanese Australians live in Sydney, and Lebanese are devout. It is also due to  the high percentage of Lebanese Australians in Sydney, that the percentage of those that believe in Islam is 4%.    

The question to consider is how much tolerance are we prepared to accept when it comes to embracing diversity? Beginning with dress, what ethnic and religious styles are appropriate in the work place, when is it acceptable to wear a sarees and kameez, dreadlocks, braids, and a turban to work?  According to Chandra Prasad, from the IMDiversity Career Center,many professionals are unwilling – and in some cases, due to religious and cultural beliefs, unable – to comply with the standard corporate dress code.

There are many reasons why people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace. It may be to maintain the culture of their homeland, or simply a way to express cultural pride. Some do it to be trendy, or as a means to educate others about their home and customs. All of these generally produce positive outcomes and do make the work place more interesting. On the other hand, when people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace it plays into our tendency to assume, or jump to conclusions. Prasad says a very common assumption made when one wears culturally specific styles is that they don’t speak English. 

Rosa Anabela Tavares is a family practice physician who is mixed Haitian and Angolan; she lives in New York and wears wraps on her head and sarongs to work. Apparently in the past she wore dreadlocks, which caused people to assume she was “radical, liberal and not approachable. Tavares says “In my capacity as a physician and role model, [my own style] is a strong signal to my patients and colleagues about being open and not being afraid not to be mainstream.” Tavares believes that people should wear the fashions with pride: “As a minority, you run the risk [of being labeled] regardless, so you might as well do it while embracing something you care about.”

A critical factor in this discussion is where you work, we have a great deal of latitude in our dress, it is almost expected that designers wear clothing that is out of the ordinary. Internet and high tech companies tend to be more lenient than law firms and some retail stores. Very traditional companies may regard cultural styles as substandard, so it is important that employees pay attention to what is happening around them and check with their employer if they wish to deviate. My son Harry was recently given a warning at work for not shaving, his employer Hoyts explained that facial hair was acceptable; however, the scruffy growth Harry was sporting could not be considered a beard. You cannot have a scruffy teen scooping out popcorn at the Harry Potter opening and uphold the brand.

Wearing different cultural styles may also bring unwanted attention to the employee, which may be positive or negative depending on the circumstances. There is the story I read of Mary, an Indian reference librarian, who believes that wearing a saree works to her advantage. She explains, “On the street when I wait for the bus, in the grocery store, and at functions on campus, students will stop by and say, ‘Do you remember me? You helped me with my research last semester.’ It makes me feel good about being recognized and acknowledged for my services in a vast, impersonal campus.”

Dealing with an employee wearing a turban to work is quite minor compared with other more challenging aspects of cultures that might be manifested in the physical environment. I mentioned earlier the suggestion of installing squat toilets in an Australian headquarters nearly made it necessary to get a defibulator for our client. After his violent reaction we didn’t have the fighting spirit to tell him about our other client just a bit further down the road that has had to repeatedly replace the toilet seats in their fitout due to employees standing on top of them.

Last year when working with Ngai Tahu our brief called for special areas and requirements for food preparation and greeting customs. This had an impact on the physical environment and amount of space required for the fitout. Given the purpose of Ngai Tahu it seemed natural and appropriate, but how would we have reacted if it was something less mainstream or from a culture more foreign to us than the Maori? How would we react if this was an insurance company with a large number of Maori employees?

As we enter a new chapter in the war for talent, the question of what is Australian and what is not will be on everyone’s mind. The labor pool we tap from will be increasingly diverse and as organizations we will all need to decide just how far we will go to make others feel welcome. Alternatively, those of us who are new entrants may just need to learn to adapt to the culture that has accepted us and get on with our work.






Exploring Culturally Specific Styles in the Workplace

by C Prasad


Cultural Diversity in the Australian Workplace

Leonie Elphinstone

Presented in May 2005 at Griffith University


Immigration the Defining Difference

By Duncan Currie

The Sydney Morning Herald

July 12, 2007


Two Cultures, Changing Dreams

By Deidre Macken

The Australian Financial Review

June 28, 2007-07-27


Demographics: The Population Hourglass

By Andrew Zolli

Fast Company

Issue 103 March 2006

Convergent Technologies – July 30, 2007

Convergent Technology

An important event is happening this month, and no it is not Peter Geyer returning from the ‘world tour’. Of course it is highly likely that you may not even be aware of this important event and that is not because you are out of touch, it is because you are designers and not nerds. It is quite possible that you are not sitting on the edge of your chair like every geek across the Silicon Valley counting down the days, hours and minutes to the June 29th release of Apple’s long awaited iPhone.

You might not care, but in the view of those at Apple, the iPhone will change life as we know it. Why? Because the iPhone will be the ultimate in convergence of technologies. To ice the cake, it will take Apple’s concept of user friendliness, exhibited in the iPod, and apply it to a mobile phone. This is good news for those of us who cannot figure out how to work their mobile phones. Sadly, I must admit that I am also personally challenged with operating an iPod. Let me be more specific, otherwise I risk fanning the flames for those of you who believe I am a complete technical moron; it is not the iPod that is confusing, it is iTunes and downloading that causes me to seek advice from my tech savvy son.

The Economist magazine describes Apple as “masters of innovation” they say we can learn four key lessons from the company about inventiveness. The first is to innovate from without as opposed to within, this is referred to as ‘network innovation’ Stitch together your own ideas with others, and perfect them. The iPod was not a new device, but it did have elegant software and stylish design and of course the iPod has the multi touch keyboard that makes it so much more popular than other MP3 players. Apple brought user friendliness, good looks and a dynamite marketing campaign to the game, they didn’t invent the portable music player.

Lesson 2 is to design for users not the demands of the technology; otherwise we run the risk of having devices designed by engineers for engineers. According to Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device – our fingers – and the iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse” Jobs predicts the iPhone will “revolutionise the industry”.

The third lesson to learn from Apple is that smart companies should ignore what the market says it wants today. It seems a bit counter intuitive, but it makes good sense, you will never innovate if your frame of reference is how we do things right now – today. To drive this point home consider the absurdity of this prediction about telephones made by the Boston Post. “Well-informed people know it is possible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value”. Okay I am cheating; this prediction was made in 1865. The point is, we don’t know what we don’t know, and to stay ahead in the game we need to continually challenge ourselves to “think different”.

The final lesson to be learned from Apple is to fail wisely. Again not being geeks, the fact that the Mac was not Apple’s first foray into personal computers is probably not common knowledge to us.
Depending on the source, some say the Mackintosh computer was a descendent of Apple’s Lisa computer developed in the 1980’s. The Lisa was a personal computer with a graphic user interface. Lisa was a flop and Steve Jobs was forced to leave the project. Apple has a history of flops, but they keep going. They learn from their mistakes, and clearly Steve Jobs is tenacious. Some believe it is the leadership of Steve Jobs that saved Apple from bankruptcy.

So within days the iPhone will be released. When you hear so much about the arrival of such things you begin to anticipate, have expectations and in my cynical view wonder if you’re being duped. Is it ever going to happen, is it for real, will it deliver on the promise? e.g. the paperless office, Elvis being alive, the Geyer Blog or the completion of the Melbourne fitout.

The iPhone is a multimedia and internet enabled mobile phone. Its functions will include: a camera, a multimedia player, mobile phone, e-mail, text messaging, web browsing and visual voice mail. The touch screen will have virtual keyboard and buttons; it is a quad-band GSM phone. The phone has so much technology in it that Apple has applied for over 200 patients! Soon you will be able to purchase the iPhone if you are prepared to part with US $499 for a 4 GB model, or really go hog wild with the 8 GB model which will set you back US $599.

The lure of having one device that will do everything is attractive to some. For me I have my doubts, mostly because as a family we have gone through multiple mobile phones for a variety of reasons. You might say, of course, she has teenage boys they lose everything. Unfortunately, it was not my sons who popped my mobile in the washing machine on the normal cycle. Even after a rinse cycle retrieval and emergency mobile phone CPR (soaking the phone in mentholated spirits) it still wouldn’t work. By the way that technique was recommended to me by Peter McCamley who had a water accident with his mobile, it worked for him!

Whether we like it or not the trend toward converging technologies is in full swing. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference – geeze sorry I missed that, I wouldn’t have been invited anyway because it is Microsoft’s annual meeting where they chart their aspirations for the future, At WinHEC Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, predicted “We don’t see the desk phone existing as a separate device in the future”. In Microsoft’s future vision, the PC would incorporate all of our desk phone’s functionality with our PC’s. We would be able to set up a conference call with the click of a mouse and you could play solitaire on the conference call if/when it got boring.

Sounds good to me, it took at least seven people to help me set up a three way conference call on my phone last week and that was just the people in our office working on it. The guys from the two other companies I was attempting to connect with couldn’t do any better. It wasn’t till Sean dug out the operating instructions for our 1975 handsets that we were able to successfully complete the call. Having this occur when the Sydney office was down an office coordinator and IT guy didn’t help.

In his article Skype Overcomes Hype with Fun Factor, Peter Moon talks about how much fun it is to make phone calls over your PC. It must be, why else would 8 million people be connected via skype at any moment. Just as we are seeing a convergence of technologies with mobile phones and PCs we are seeing it with skype too. If you think all you can do with skype is make phone calls you’re wrong. The latest release of the software provides the ability to transfer money using Pay Pal. Moon points out how useful this will be when your kids are calling you for money, one seamless transaction.

Wait – were not done yet, there are more converged technologies to report. There is the Qmedia speaker system that turns any MP3 player into a clock radio. With a secure digital card, a USB cable or a 3.5 mm jack you can go to sleep listening to your favorite podcast enabling you to learn as you snooze!

Wait that’s not all!! Convert your hand-held PC into a portable satellite navigation system, and with that you will have everything required to become a cab driver in Brisbane. My experience has shown one needs only a vehicle and a Pocket PC with a Bluetooth GPS satellite receiver and mapping software loaded – no need to have any knowledge of the city or speak English and by all means if you intend to be a cab driver in Brisbane don’t for one minute think you will need a street directory for back up. The receiver will cost you about $81 dollars, and the mapping software for a pocket PC will cost about $199.
A few warnings about the immanent convergence of technology; Don’t try to do it by yourself or bad things could happen such as attempts to converge your mobile phone with your I key in your purse. If you drive a Nissan or Lexus the mobile phone will render the key useless, the car wont start and the best thing is it can’t be reprogrammed. OOPS
Another warning, if you do intend to become a cab driver in Brisbane don’t be fooled by mobile phones with a built in GPS, every time you lose contact with the phone network you will lose satellite navigation capacity. This would make you no different than your passenger, if your passenger is like me they will have no idea where to go because they are from Sydney. To complicate matters further, they may even still believe that they are going ‘down to Brisbane’ from Sydney. This clearly demonstrates they don’t even have the most rudimentary knowledge of Australian geography. As a result you will be hopelessly lost and will need to charge your passenger a double fare.


It’s Not PC to Predict the Future
By John Davidson
The Australian Financial Review
May 22, 2007

Just the Gift Every Mum’s Waiting for
By Peter Moon
The Australian Financial Review
May 1, 2007

Skype Overcomes Hype with Fun Factor
By Peter Moon
The Australian Financial Review
May 22, 2007

Why Apple’s iPhone is Not the Next iPod
By Saabira Chaudhuri
Fast Company
May 2007

TWIT # 98
The Big Bang

The Economist
Apple and Innovation – cover editorial
June 8, 2007

Short Attention Spans – May 15, 2007

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 30
Short Attention Spans

Over the years that I have been doing Future’s Ramblings many of you have passed along your comment on the articles: if you liked them, were exposed to new avenues of thought , or had a spark of inspiration that came as a result of reading them. Not all of the comments are rosy. My personal favorites are those that are quick to point out grammatical errors and typos, advise me to get a technical advisor and the guy that ever so gently reminds me – over and over and over again – that Sony did not make the IPod. Yes you know who you are.

One of the most frequent comments I get is about the length of the articles and the fact that they ramble so much! (Hey maybe that’s why I call it Ramblings) After all, how can a busy executive be expected to read such a long diatribe off a blackberry in the airport? Well I want you to know that I do appreciate your comments both good and bad, and have taken many of your suggestions on board – I now use spell check. Just to show you how much I care I have also put my normal defensiveness aside to seriously considered the length of the articles. My conclusion is that it’s near impossible to cover a topic with any detail in much less and that you all must have seriously short attention spans.

Fortunately, I do have a soft side which I got in touch with, so upon further reflection decided my stance was a bit harsh. Consequently, this months Ramblings is dedicated to learning more about our ability to pay attention; in hope of gaining a better understanding of why some of you just can’t do it. My research began with an online quiz from Psychology Today that consisted of a series of questions. Here are a few examples:

 How often are you late for work or an appointment?
 How often do you find yourself daydreaming at work?
 Do you lose your patience easily?
 How often do you interrupt people during a conversation?

Well I must say it came as a shock, A SHOCK I SAY, to learn that I have a rather short attention span. The website advises this might make me disorganized, miss deadlines, and pay my bills late. They offer that it could be due to fatigue, the side effect of medication or a personal problem and suggest I visit a psychologist to asses whether ADD might be a factor. Well what do they know, that’s not a reputable magazine anyway. Not like Who Weekly and their excellent quizzes on how sexy are you? Or determine if you need a daily moisturizer.

It appears the US government is as shocked as I am about my inability to pay attention, which is why they have funded an effort to counteract what some medical professionals have termed “epidemic-level shortness in the attention spans of American citizens”. This was done in response to a study that determined Americans, compared to other nations, and themselves a few days or weeks earlier, suffer from dramatically short attention spans.

Psychologists in America think this may be due to the overabundance of irrelevant and distracting information. Thank goodness there is none of that here! Even though the irrelevant and distracting information comes from multiple sources, the television is a major contributor. In America 90% of children under the age of two and 40% of infants under three months old watch television regularly. Studies link television watching to not doing your homework, being bored in school, not going to college and shortened attention spans.

Another reason given for short attention spans is the time we spend web browsing. Apparently too much browsing can leave you with the attention span of approximately nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. The positive side to that is that every time a goldfish swims by the little castle in the fish tank he thinks it’s a new thing so has high job/life satisfaction. According to Ted Selker an expert in body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things, if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” This does not seem to be the case with people who read news articles on line, apparently 77% of online readers finish an entire article where their print reading counterparts measure in at only 62%.

Having a short attention span, or making people think you do, is not completely bad. Last week articles appeared in the paper commenting on the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s lack of concern for Peter Costello and the other Government backbencher’s yahooing. Everyone wondered why Rudd was unfazed by the yelling and heckling going on around him and questioned whether he was in fact paying attention. Rudd appeared to be tidying up papers and writing a speech while there was utter mayhem happening around him. This lasted about six months and then Rudd finally lost his cool and yelled at the Prime Minister. So good news, he wasn’t sleeping on the job or wearing ear plugs – a good move considering he wants to be the next Prime Minister.

You don’t need to have a long attention span to lead a country. Doug Hannah, a friend of G. W. Bush’s since childhood, has found that an attention problem runs in the Bush family: “They have an attention span of about an hour.” When he and George were boys, he remembers, “Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes…. At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning.” “Even today,” writes Gail Sheehy in the October Vanity Fair, “nothing engages Bush’s attention for more than an hour, an hour max? more like 10 or 15 minutes. His workday as governor of Texas is “two hard half-days,” as his chief of staff, Clay Johnson, describes it.

He puts in the hours from 8 to 11:30 A.M., breaking it up with a series of 15-minute meetings, sometimes 10-minute meetings, but rarely is there a 30-minute meeting, says Johnson. At 11:30 he’s “outtahere.” He tries everything possible to have at least two hours of what he calls private time in the middle of the day to go over to the University of Texas track or run a hard three to five miles on a concrete path at a pace of 7.5 minutes a mile, then relax and return to the office at 1:30, where he’ll play some video golf or computer solitaire until about three, and then it’s back to the second “hard half-day” until 5:30.”

Generally we don’t think about what we are doing between 80 and 90% of the time and for the most part this is harmless. Many of the common tasks we do through out the day do not require our full attention. The problem is when we are distracted from things we should be paying attention to. This can have catastrophic consequences, at the least you may miss your exit on the freeway, but in extreme cases you might end up like the guy that went to work and forgot his 10 month old son in the back seat. It was in California and it was very hot, unfortunately the child died.

Main stream psychology hasn’t paid much attention to distractibility, but now some scientists are beginning to see positive aspects of mind wandering and link this to basic operations of the brain. Since mind wandering taps into the same part of the brain that we engage when we are doing nothing, it serves the purpose of calming us. We can then apply idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems which is a perfect situation for creative thought.

As we move into an age where creativity and innovation will take centre stage it is worthwhile for us to consider how we can better tap into our natural tendency to day dream. We also need to acknowledge that, as interesting as we think we are, when we make presentations to clients they will most likely zone out part way through. This can be quite a challenge because we don’t want to dilute our message to the point that it loses meaning, nor do we want to make it so complicated that the average person can’t see it through to the end.

This is particularly prevalent in Futures. It is not uncommon for us to do months worth of work and have only three minutes at a companies board meeting to present it. In this kind of situation it is critical to make our point quickly and effectively. Since you know all of us you will understand what a challenge this is, we have the gift of the gab and getting us to stop talking is no small feat.

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to solving it. So please have some patience, I for one am trying to muzzle myself. You could help too by improving your concentration by purchasing one of those new electronic games they have been marketing to senior citizens to keep their minds active. If that doesn’t work go get yourself a prescription for Ritalin.


Online Readers Have Longer Attention Spans: Study
By Humphrey Cheung
April 2, 2007

“Short Attention Spans Serve Purpose”
By Malcolm Ritter
Discovery Channel News
March 19, 2007

“The Empire Strikes Back”
By Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 12, 2007

“Nine in 10 US Babies Watch TV”
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2007

“Are We turning into Digital Goldfish?”
BBC News
February 22 2002

Bush Watch
March 16, 2007

“Effort Underway to Improve Short Attention Spans of Americans”
By Ion Zwitter
Avant News EditorWashington, D.C.
January 19, 2007

The Wikiworld – April 9, 2007

The Wikiworld
Future’s Ramblings – Issue 29 – April 9, 2007

The Wiki world in 3 parts

Part one – World of Warcraft

My son Harry spends an incredible amount of time playing World of Warcraft. This game, created by Blizzard entertainment, is a MMORPG or massive multiplayer online role playing game that takes place in the world of Azeroth. In this game each player controls a character within a persistent game world; they explore the landscape, fight monsters and perform quests on behalf of computer controlled characters (sounds like a day in the office to me). What intrigues me about the game is that it requires players work together to solve problems, or in this case defeat monsters. The players do not know one another personally; never the less, they are in constant communication with one another via e mail developing strategies, discussing what has worked or not worked in the past and sometimes just chewing the fat.

There are 8.5 million people in the world that play this game, a little under half the size of Australia! Harry is now in level 70, which is the highest. A testament to his nerdity. Of course if you own shares in Blizzard you would be delighted that 8.5 million players happily fork over 30 dollars a month to play the game. However, as a mother of a child who plays, I have concerns. Mostly I wonder why can’t he do useful things in his spare time like sit on the couch with a beer and watch TV like his parents. Also I fear he is neglecting his formal education, even worse, he might get gaming addiction. Don’t laugh there is such a thing. As a matter of fact in an extreme case a couple in China was arrested for neglecting their baby because they spent so much time playing the game.

On a more positive spin, improving ones communication and collaborative abilities is a great thing to do given the role these skills will play in the future. Another bit of good news is the mainstream has now recognised that there are plenty of gamers out there who can work collaboratively to solve tough problems. A bunch of nerds playing a game to one mob is an untapped labour pool to another.

This is why researchers at Stanford University have struck a deal with PlayStation 3 which will enable PS3 owners to convert their consoles to help find a cure for cancer. The PS3 is powerful machine, its user interface and 3.26 Hz power PC processor allows the machine to download a segment of a problem from another source. Therefore, by connecting to Stanford’s systems through your PS3, any gamer can download their information and help out with specific program if they choose.

One such program at Stanford is Folding @ Home which is a study of how proteins fold. When a protein folds incorrectly it creates problems none us want to have, like Parkinson, Alzheimer’s and Mad Cow disease, not to mention cancer. This is similar to another system, SETI @ home, that crunches data from radio observatories looking for extraterrestrial life, despite the added manpower no aliens have been located. Never the less, the point is that by adding additional machines and brains your chances of solving a problem increase.

Part two – Living in the Wiki world

The reality is that Harry and all of the other kids that play this game live in the wiki world, and though you might not know it, you probably do too. If you don’t maybe you should because it is the wave of the future.

Wikis, blogs, chatrooms, open source, social networking, crowd sourcing, smart mobs, crowd wisdom what ever you call it the ‘blogsphere’ and new ways of collaboration are enabling millions of people to actively participate in innovation, wealth creation and social development by collaborating with others. People are using a growing suite of collaboration technologies to brainstorm new products and services, manage projects and share ideas and data. According to Brad Anderson CEO of Best Buy, North America’s largest consumer electronics seller, it is all about “unleashing the power of human capital”

Already this new economic model extends beyond software and music to every part of the global community. The new art and science of collaboration, ‘ wikinomics’ will force us to think differently about how we compete, how we maintain profit, and how we harness mass collaboration to create real value

We work in the ‘wiki workplace’ by collaborating with piers across organizational and geographic boundaries. We consume products that we helped to create online. If we at Geyer are smart, we will begin to brainstorm how we should design for the wacky wikiworld’s workplace. Amanda Wood put this challenge to the Melbourne office in a past presentation by asking how are we going to design for the ‘flat world’ because the status quo isn’t going to cut it.

In the flat wikiworld workers will develop their own self organized networks that will cut across company divisions, they will have the ability to communicate and interact as a global, real time workforce. This will be exacerbated by the entrance to the workforce of the Net Generation, a group with familiarity and comfort with working with web-based tools. All of this combined will drive a massive shift in how we design, produce goods and services, store service and sell product.
As a result, the way companies and countries compete will change; smaller companies will have the ability to go neck and neck with giants by creating partnerships to increase their size and skill base.

Not everyone embraces the wiki world, some are concerned with intellectual property and the risks of airing dirty laundry to the world, but the reality is that in the wikiworld you will not be able to hide. Every individual will have the ability to post data or a picture of you on the internet doing something you should not be; like watering your garden during restrictions or leaving your dog’s poo on the grass. This will be an especially enlightening time for politicians, organizations and companies. They will no longer be able to afford to not walk the talk.

Part three – Wiki Companies
Companies like HP, Chevron, Boeing and Telstra agree this is the way of the future and have joined the wikiworld through company blogs. While many are controlled vehicles used to blow the company’s horn, others are open means of communication engaging employees, customers, shareholders and the general public. The Telestra blog bears all, complements and complaints of the company. The site launched in December and already it attracts 7000 hits a week. Editor Rod Bruem says “The company philosophy now, since Sol Trujillo came, is to be open and honest. What is worse? Somebody coming to us with a problem or going to Ray Hadley or the Today show?”

He has a point. No company, politician or person is immune to having their personal lives on view in the wikiworld. One of my favourite examples,, is a site offering dating advice to young women by profiling men that are unfaithful, have sexually transmitted diseases, don’t pay child support, or are just plain cads. I have not checked the site yet to see if there are any Geyer guys there. Last week Judge Stanton Wettick ruled that he had no jurisdiction over a lawsuit filed by Todd Hollis who was profiled on the site. Lawyer Robert Byer summed it up well “I think he must have the idea that just because you can access the internet anywhere in the world you can sue someone anywhere in the world” clearly not true – there is no wikijustice.

Nope no justice for Mr. Holis or Tony Blair – pranksters added an entry to his profile on Wikipedia stating his middle name is “Whoopdedo” they also said that Kylie Minogue “is the more beautiful and more talented older sister” of Michael Jackson and that Sharon Stone and Demi Moore headed the Soviet secret service. Interesting but untrue and that is the challenge with open source collaboration it could be really good or really bad. This is why proposed guidelines are being created for blogging netiquette.

It gets a bit overwhelming, what does it means to free speech and personal rights, copyrights and most important to us, what does this mean to upholstery fabric?


“All Profit in the Wiki Workplace”
By Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams
The Australian Financial Review
March 29, 2007

“Kill Baddies and Fight Cancer”
By John Davidson
The Australian Financial Review
March 20, 2007

“How Gamers Can Help Cure Cancer”
By Jim Martz
Wired Magazine 6.14.05

“Baring It All on the Company Blog”
By Fiona Smith
The Australian Financial Review
August 15, 2007

“Don’t Date Him’ Site Beats Law Suit”
By Joe Mandak
The New Zealand Herald
April 12, 2007

“Wikipedia gets Minister’s Vote Despite errors”
The New Zealand Herald
April 12, 2007

“War of Words Prompts Call for Blogging Netiquette Code”
By Brad Stome
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 10, 2007

“As Gadgets Get it Together, Media Makers Fall Behind”
By Saul Hansell
The New York Times
January 25, 2006

By Don Tapscott

The World is Flat
By Thomas L Friedman
Penguin Books

Chicks Rule – March 9, 2007

Chicks rule?
Future’s Ramblings – Issue 28 – March 9, 2007

I went to a lunch sponsored by the Australian Institute of Management earlier this week; it was in celebration of National Women’s Day. The main speaker Ann Sherry, the CEO of Westpac in New Zealand, made all of the women in attendance turn to the person sitting next to them and exchange a hair or make up tip, then we all did a show of hands vote on who Meredith on Gray’s Anatomy should end up with, McDreamy or the Vet.

Of course I’m messing with you. Ann Sherry talked about the status of women in business, which compared to the status of the women the speaker who went before her described, was pretty good. The previous speaker was from United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM works for women’s human rights, economic empowerment and political participation which is a pretty big deal in places like the East Timor, Cambodia, Guatemala and Afghanistan.

Of the many insightful things Ann Sherry said, the one that stuck with me was a message to all of us in the room that “with affluence and influence comes obligation” What she meant was that all of us educated and affluent women in the room should be supporting groups like UNIFEM and mentoring other women in business to enable them to make it to the tops in organizations. Her rational was not a moral one but an economic one, because if we do not engage the entire workforce, our chances of success in an ever increasingly competitive global economy are slim.

This made me think of my past mentors and my time at the University of Arizona, Judith Chafee one of only two female professors, did influence me greatly. Judith went to Yale in 1950 and was the only women in her architecture class; she studied alongside Charles Eames at the American Academe in Rome and went on to work with some of modern architecture’s greats: Edward Larabee Barnes, Eero Saarinen and Walter Gropius. She is well known for her houses in the Tucson desert which were described as an American modernism bred of the desert. When I was studying with her she refused to participate in a show of women architects because she wanted to be recognized for her architecture, not for being a woman.

After Judith’s death Chris Macdonald British Columbia Architecture chair said “to have made such fine work in the face of such a powerful cultural force (as Postmodernism) and this in an environment where a forthright and passionate woman would be patronized as a matter of course – represents an accomplishment of singular determination”. I like that quote, but there was another I like better from Professor Robert Nevins, who also taught me and went to Yale with Judith. He said “she was fu%$&ing scary, but even drunk she was smarter than anyone I’ve ever known”. Being a hard drinker and chain smoker, she had mannerisms and a forthright style that frightened many.

She taught me a lot, and I must say I did want to be like her, but have only managed the hard drinking part. There were others like Professor Ellery Green who made this statement to all of the fifth year architecture students in the Ethics and Practice class he taught. “None of you women (there were about five of us) will really make it in business because you don’t play football, and to really understand business you need to understand football”. Yep, it was with those words I began my career in architecture.

Of course today there are plenty of women at the top ranks of organizations around the world: Carly, Martha, Theresa Gattung (ok I’m being cheeky they are all no longer in the job). There are also many women who occupy the top job in the country. In fact there are 8 female presidents in the world at this time: Chile, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Liberia, The Philippines and Switzerland and 5 women in the world that occupy a Prime Minister position: Germany, Jamaica, New Zealand, Mozambique and the Netherland Antilles. Who knows over the top of many a republican’s dead body there might be a woman or black president in the United States?

Today women are making in roads in a number of fields that have been traditionally male dominated. Drew Faust is the first president of Harvard University; she succeeds the previous president Lawrence Summers who suggested there was a biological explanation for women failing to excel in the field of maths and science. He said this was not his own view and that he was being deliberately controversial. Never the less, it is interesting that following his appointment in 2001 the number of women offered tenured jobs declined dramatically. Out of 32 four were women.

In Australia women represent 17.2% of professors in Australian universities. According to Judith Bessant who has completed a study on gender in academia, the higher up the career ladder you go in Australian Universities the worse the situation gets. So much so that the University of NSW has launched a leadership program for women in academics.

Of course if we think academia is bad, imagine mining? Interestingly the number of women in this profession is increasing, mainly due to the number of women studying geology. As a matter of fact the head of technology at BHP Billiton is a woman, Dr Megan Clark. Megan did have to do a few hard yards; she got in some hot water for entering a mine in 1982. At that time she worked for WMC resources and was the mine geologist, the law at that time said that a woman could not work underground which made doing her job a bit difficult. After dodging the mine inspectors she finally said stuff it, and went through the mine with one of the inspectors. The inspector had her prosecuted for it. Clark appealed to the then governor-general Sir Zelman Cowan and in 1982 won a waver directly from the Queen which ended centuries of prejudice against women in mining.

Statistics are quite alarming for a number of other professions. In law firms the percentage of women partners 15.6% compares to 84.4% men, corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies have 15.7% women in the top jobs compared to 84.3% men. The worst profession is doctors where the top earning doctors are only 6.6% women compared to 93.4% men.

So why is it that there are so few women at the top? In Paths to Power: How Insiders and Outsiders Shaped American Business Leadership written by Harvard Business School’s Anthony J Mayo, Nitin Nohria and Laura
G. Singleton the authors claim that in all cultures there is a sense that some have won the “ovarian lottery” because they have been born to the right parents, get the right education, have the right skin colour, the right gender and belong to the right social institutions. It is true that in twentieth century America it was the wealthy, white, Protestant (especially Episcopalian or Presbyterian) men from the industrialized centres of the Northeast that had the greatest advantages and opportunities.

According to the authors there has been a gradual opening of access, with education being the greatest contributor. Unfortunately, they believe that there are still are three areas that will place a person on the outside path rather than the inside and those are: social class, gender and race. Like Ann Sherry at Westpac the authors of this book also believe that “the businesses that will succeed in the 21st century will be those that embrace the diversity of their workforce, that can compete in a global, competitive landscape and can differentiate their products and services for a more discriminating customer base.” Leaders of the future, men and women, will need a global perspective, managing this level of complexity will require a broader view.

There is another view as to why so few women are at the top, this view is shared by women and men alike, and that is that they simply don’t care to be. While there are many who will say that women don’t work as hard as men and it is true that the aggregate, statistics show, women work less. They also don’t compete as hard as most men (I guess Professor Green was right). I prefer to align with Charles A. O’Reilly III, professor of behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has done studies to isolate the qualities that lead to a corner office. His conclusion: Success in a corporation is less a function of gender discrimination than of how hard a person chooses to compete and the folks that tend to compete the hardest are the stereotypical manly men.

In The Myth of Male Power author Warren Farrell says that “When a woman gets near the top, she starts asking herself the most intelligent questions” He goes on to say that the fact that women don’t make it to the top is a measure of their power and not their powerlessness. “They’ve learned they can get respect and love in a variety of different ways – from being a good parent, from being a top executive, or combination of both” Free from the ego that drives many males, women are more likely to consider the trade offs and opt for the saner path. According to Mary Lou Quinlan who stepped down as CEO of advertising agency N. W. Ayer says “ The reason a lot of women aren’t shooting for the corner office is that they’ve seen it up close, and its not a pretty scene … It’s about talent, dedication, experience or the ability to take heat. “

So I guess my mother was right when she would say “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”


“Where Are the Women?”
Fast Company
By Linda Tischler
February 2004

“Women’s Role Receives Greater Recognition”
By Damien Lynch
The Australian Financial Review
January 16, 2007

“Who Rises to Power in American Business?”
By Sean Silverthorne
Harvard Business School
Working Knowledge
January 8, 2007

“Faust Track: Harvard Shows the Way”
By Catherine Fox
The Australian Financial Review
January 2007

“Women Strike the Mother Lode”
By Tim Treadgold
Australian Financial Review – BRW magazine
January 11 – 17 2007

“Stayers Make Their Working Life Work for Them”
By Catherine Fox
The Australian Financial Review
February 13, 2007

Wikipedia and Google for stats on countries and bio of Judith Chafee

Distractions Part Two – February 9, 2007

Distractions part two

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 27 – February 9, 2007

In response to the last Future’s Ramblings I received an e mail from a colleague who pointed out that iPods are the least of our worries when it comes to workplace distraction. Of course he is right, and he would have been right even if he wasn’t from the Melbourne office; that as you all know, has been living through an office renovation that took longer than anyone imagined. Who could keep focused with loud saws, paint fumes and construction workers in shorts? Never mind poor guys like Lorenzo who has been skipping lunch for the past six months out of fear he might gain a few pounds and not be able to squeeze through the one foot aisle leading to his desk.

We are all rejoicing because the Melbourne office renovation is complete and it looks great!  Now we can get back to normal, a relief not only to the occupants of the Melbourne office, but also for those of us that talk to them on the phone. Working without distraction is necessary in the workplace. The Journal of Facilities Management  conducted a study in the US in 2002 and found that the workplace attribute found to be most effective was the “ability to do distraction – free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)”. Now with the construction complete all we need to do is worry about all of the other distractions.

When it comes to distractions the most explored subject area is around acoustical privacy. In studies done by ASID 70% of the respondents claimed they could be more productive if the workplace was less noisy. Noise level is something that can be easily measured in the workplace but it is not the noise that is the issue as much as how annoying that noise is. Annoyance levels fluctuate with sound level, but also are impacted by predictability and variability. Spikes in variable noise can be annoying but less so when they are expected. This is why the guy that presses the button on the printer does not get as annoyed with the sound as the guy sitting next to him who didn’t anticipate it.

Visual privacy is also important in work environments but visual distractions are different from auditory distractions because they elicit a different response from the brain. It is more difficult to return to ones thoughts after a visual distraction than an auditory one because the mechanism that helps re-orient task relevant information in the brain does not engage; making visual distractions more harmful to our productivity. Boy there are so many visual distractions that confront us each day! In the futures pod alone we can lose a good thirty minutes of work if someone has a new outfit or haircut.

Clothing or the lack there of, can be quite a distraction in the workplace. This is why I will share with you David M Kruk’s feelings on what people wear to work. In his article “The Corporate Dress Code” he identifies the clothing that is not suitable for the corporate environment because it is too distracting.

  • Sweat suites of any type – Sorry Sean I know you wanted to wear your orange track suit and diamond necklace from the Christmas Party again.
  • Clothes that are transparent or any part of an undergarment
  • Lack of proper undergarments
  • Unsafe footwear and flip – flops
  • Halter tops, bare midriffs, crop tops, tank tops – There goes my plan of wearing my Christmas Party outfit too, $20 down the drain! Good news for all of you that appeared in a wig at the party, they’re not on the list.
  • Low-cut clothing, thin shoulder straps, sundresses

Mr. Kruck makes exceptions if you are good looking, which is of course subjective. He also suggests that many of theses outfits should not even be worn outside of the workplace, particularly if you weigh more than 150 pounds. I should point out the source for this is Red Tractor USA touted as The Best News Satire in the Field. David has apparently not heard that the world is changing and that people wear jeans to the theater and camisoles to church. Jamie Oliver did not wear a tie when he visited The Queen and the NorthwesternUniversity women’s lacrosse team went to the White House in flip – flops.

Sorry I got distracted; there are so many interesting things you can find on the internet!

Draught is rated as the most annoying climatic factor in a work environment. This is characterized by varying air velocity and turbulence intensity. One third of employees in large offices complain about draught, this can reach 60% in a cold workplace. Environmental quality has been linked to productivity in offices, studies done by The University of Sydney measured occupant satisfaction with seven comfort factors and found that these had a direct  impact on performance at work – they measured: thermal comfort, air quality, activity related noise, spatial comfort, privacy, lighting and building related external noise.

So big deal, we all know that noise, visual and climatic factors can be distracting, we experience this daily, but why and what do we do about it?

To perform well at work, or in anything else, we need three things; first the knowledge, skills or abilities, second the motivation or desire, and third positive psychological factors. It is the psychological factors that give us a tough time because these impact our ability to concentrate and focus. There is no doubt that some people are able to control their attention, even in times of great stress, while others like Leyton Hewett cannot. This is psychological factors at play.

According to Robin Pratt from Performance Equations, Inc. our focus or concentration works in channels which range from external to internal and broad to narrow. There are three attentional channels that each of us moves through at any point in any given day.  The first channel is External and broad – which is about environmental awareness, concentration on the things happening around you. The second channel is broad and internal – a more analytical, conceptual style. Focusing on process, this style connects past information with the future and is good for planning and strategy. The final channel is narrow and external – this channel will focus on follow through and execution of tasks.

We use all three channels as needed; the catch is that we cannot be in two channels at the same time. Each of us has a different pattern of attentional strength and weaknesses and we differ in how quickly we are able to switch styles. The higher your distraction level, the more difficulty you have of switching channels and it is the ability to switch quickly that makes you productive. For example if I am happily concentrating in Channel two, perhaps  working on a spread sheet or reading something and suddenly an ambulance goes by my brain sifts to Channel one, external broad awareness. My effectiveness and the level of my productivity will depend on my ability to quickly shift back to Channel two. Some people are just faster channel shifters than others.

We each have a dominant attention style and if we are lucky we will choose professions that align with that style, I think we can all agree that we want an air traffic controller or brain surgeon to maintain a strong internal – narrow focus. Each of these dominant attention styles will have a different reaction to stress or distraction; therefore, a person’s attention style can be influenced by the type of environment they are in. As a result when someone says they cannot possibly do their job in an open office environment; depending on which attention channel is dominant for them, it may be true.

Someone like me has broad – internal focus this is good because it allows me to analyses and synthesizes input from various sources. I am able to conceptualize relationships among events, so I can easily develop strategies or plans and anticipate the consequences. My approach is conceptual and I like solving problems. On the other hand because I am broad, I have difficulty with focused concentration. Staying on topic long enough to take care of the details and finish something is a challenge for me. I am seduced by a new idea or project more than finishing the old one. Unfortunately I also have high external distractibility.

External distractibility falls into three types: the first is due to boredom, you would rather pay attention to things you find more interesting than the task at hand. The second is due to irritation, you get distracted because you’re irritated at someone talking or the phone is ringing. Finally the third type of external distraction is from feeling rushed; you’re so distracted by all the things you have to do that you cannot pay attention to what you are doing at the moment.

We can’t change who we are, but we can learn to deal better with our weaknesses by altering our environment and surrounding ourselves with a team of people with complementary skills. If you have a high level of external distractibility you may need to put yourself in an environment where there are fewer distractions, like the quiet room for certain tasks. If you have a high level of internal distractibility, you get lost in your own head, it may be best to team with others who can help you to see a broader perspective. If your dominant channel is broad you may need to learn to slow down, learn to not overload your agenda, keep notes to maintain focus and team with more focused individuals who will keep you on target to get the job done.

Finally, at a business level here are a few thing employers can do to help:

  • Be more flexible – allow time outside of work for people to deal with their family issues
  • Provide an employee assistance program – to resolve personal problems relating to health, financial situation or family
  • Install acoustic products that absorb office noise – sound masking
  • Institute a work – safety program – disaster plans, fire safety procedures
  • Control the rumor mill – be honest with employees about the company, its financial situation and their future.



“Removing Employee Distractions”

Business Toolbox – A library of business management info.

By Vicki Gerson

October 2, 2004

Paper – “Environmental Quality and Productivity in Offices: Some Local Research”

David Rowe – School of Architecture, Design Science and Planning

The University of Sydney.

Paper – “Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.”

Justin Mardex – CornellUniversity, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis


“The Corporate Dress Code”

By David M. Kruk

Red Tractor USA – June 13, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe on office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

Paper – “The Psychology of Distributed Workers”

Robin Pratt

July 2003

Future of Work Executive Roundtable

The Attentional & Interpersonal Style Inventory

TAIS Business Report for Laurie Aznavoorian

October 2, 2003

Enhanced Performance Systems Inc




iPods at Work – January 10, 2007

iPods at work

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 26 – January 10, 2007


Happy 2007!  I wanted to get this to you before Christmas because I am sure some of you had an iPod on your Christmas list – but it wasn’t meant to be.

My son’s grades arrived in the mail about a week ago, they were by no means bad, but I must admit that I expected them to be a bit better. After all this kid has been scoring top marks since he was six years old and even skipped ahead a year in school when we moved to Australia. If a person does not do as well at something as you know they can, you cannot help but wonder why. I suppose it is human nature to want to point the finger at something as a catalyst to the change and in this particular situation I am pointing my finger straight at the Sony Corporation. Why, because it is Sony who developed the iPod that is permanently attached to my son’s ear.

Soon to be 17, my son is quintessential Netgen – he blissfully multi-tasks, IMs, e –mails, reads and does all of this while he talks on the phone and listens to his iPod. Prior to this set of grades, it appeared he was quite capable of doing this all at the same time. I think extension English was what upset the apple cart, they made him read Dostoyevsky. Doing that and listening to the iPod appears to have tested the limit of his multi- tasking brain. Call me old fashioned, but being from a generation that believed it  risky to light a cigarette while holding an open beer for fear of spillage, it is difficult to comprehend how effective work can be done with so many distractions. Especially reading, even I miss important information when I try to read New Idea while watching Australia’s Biggest Loser, just imagine Dostoyevsky.

You can’t grow up surrounded by gadgets and not expect to bring some of your toys to work with you when you grow up.  Looking around the office I see I am pretty much alone, being one of the only people in my immediate area that is not supporting the Sony Corporation by listening to an iPod. The reality is that one in five workers is listing to iPods or similar listening devices at their desks. Obviously, the type of work that one does has an impact on whether they can listen to music:  80% of technical and creative workers listen to music more than 20% of their working hours, while at management level the proportion of workers listening to music drops to 20%. Clerical workers spend 40% of their working day listening to music.

With over 40 million people worldwide using iPods, there is bound to be an impact in the workplace. Determining the distraction level of these devices, and weighing their risks and benefits will be a challenge for many employers. Companies will struggle with drawing the line because many employees will argue that using a personal music player helps them concentrate and therefore improves productivity. It is true that in today’s ‘always on’ culture people find it difficult to concentrate. No wonder, a report from New Scientist noted that petty distractions: e mails, phone calls, people coming to your desk and computer generated reminders take up on average more than two hours of our working days. Another study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry found constant disruption had a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana.

Years ago while doing work for Netscape I was told that if a computer programmer was interrupted while writing code it would take him or her 30 minutes to get back to the same place. According to a University of California study, if you’re interrupted while trying to remember what it is you were doing you might as well go home. The study showed more than 20 percent of interrupted tasks were not resumed the same day. The same study found that most distractions in a typical work day are self- inflicted: sending e mails, playing with things on your desk, bothering your busy colleagues, getting 37 cups of tea.

Tuning out distraction is only one of the reasons people listen to music at work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and you thought Aznavoorian was a mouthful) who directs the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Management says workers are turning to music as a form of distraction from otherwise boring work. The implications here are far greater. If employees are so uninvolved in what they’re doing that their minds need to be distracted, at the least there will be losses in productivity, in the worst case scenario there may be safety risks. If our people, particularly the younger ones, are listening to music because they are bored what hope do we have of keeping them in the workplace?

Some of the problems with iPods at work are the real or perceived message wearing headphones sends of being inaccessible or not wanting to be bothered. Some believe that this is creating a wedge between older and younger workers due to the fact that it is predominantly younger people donning the headphones, making the older ones feel alienated. There can also be risks to the company’s network when employees connect MP3 players to their computer to download and store songs; those same players could be used to download other information making it possible to infect a network with a virus. In the event that you have not thought of this, MP3 players that have the video capability may be used to watch pornography or other inappropriate material on the job! Of course you would have to be pretty dumb to do that, the screen is too tiny and you would strain your eyes.

The more obvious issues are with not being able to hear people talking to you, or the phone ringing, which puts a real damper on the type of collaboration we are trying to encourage in many of the workplaces we design. In some industries not being able to hear can be a source of broader safety issues; particularly if it is critical to hear warning alarms and bells, warnings shouted by co workers or other workplace sounds such as moving forklifts. Some claim there are also problems with inaccuracies and mistakes on the job due to people being more mentally engaged in the music than the task at hand. If the TV dramas are accurate, this is not true because doctors always have rock music pumped up to the highest volume in the theater during surgery.

In the event an employee is tuned out a co workers may be forced to get their attention by other means. As an example when I want Josh I just throw one of my old imperial scale rules or an adjustable triangle at his head, it is good to put this obsolete drafting equipment to use. However, employees with poor aim may be required to get up to touch their co worker to get their attention. This can scare or startle the person, or in extreme cases (like if you live in the USA where suing others is as common as birth and death) the touching could be misconstrued as harassment. The lesson here is that if you want to get a co workers attention it is better to tap their shoulder and not their behind, breast or crotch area.

In some instances listening to music can be a distraction to others. Surely you have had the experience of being next to someone listening to music with the volume on so loud that it is clearly audible right through the earplugs. The only thing worse than this is those people who like to sing along, dance or drum on their desk.  Also not everyone likes the same music – Adam Weissman from DBA Public Relations says “Sometimes in those random occasions when someone is having an extremely bad day, there is nothing quite like scrolling through my iPod and cranking the Muppets theme song” Yep I bet there is nothing quite like that, thank goodness Adam does not work here. When you add  visual distraction to auditory, environmental distractions such as thermal comfort and air quality and the internal distractions we all have: your hungry, your sleepy, your feet hurt  –  there are so many distractions encountered in the typical work environment you wonder how we get anything done.

So what is an employer to do – ban the iPod?  Cary Cooper a professor of organizational psychology and health at LancasterUniversity said “It’s crucial to give workers autonomy and bans of any sort can alienate them. Bosses shouldn’t care about how employees accomplish their objectives as long as the job gets done” (sounds like something the late Kenneth Lay would have said). Others believe that if people spend time listening to music instead of working it is a firms right to ban MP3 players. In the end it is up to employers to establish protocol for personal electronic devices and enforce them.

Some companies are being quite innovative when it comes to iPods and are using them to their advantage. Capital One uses iPods as a part of an audio training program for employees. Pod casting enables companies to put training programs on files or shows, which enable employees to listen to them when it suits such as while riding to work. Other companies like Homestead Technologies in Menlo ParkCA have used iPods as a perk when they gave all 77 employees engraved devices as 10-year anniversary gifts.

Clearly office cultures vary, a technology company in the Silicon Valley will be different to a law firm. Either way the atmosphere in the workplace is changing by becoming more informal, more gadgetized, and more employee centric. The demands and expectations of the next generation of worker we hope to attract are having an impact on the work environment, and the rules are shifting for everyone.  As these shifts take place grey areas in workplace decorum will emerge, in sorting through those many employers will be put in the uncomfortable position many of us with children find ourselves in – determining whether something is really bad or just different to the way you did it.

Whether to allow flip flops to work, strappy tank tops, encourage properly punctuating e mails, allowing the use of  emoticons and acronyms in office correspondence, as well as when and how you can use your iPod all be a parts of the new work landscape companies will need to navigate their way through. As for me, my son can keep the iPod. After a summer working for Hoyts sweeping up popcorn off the floor he now understands the importance of getting better grades. He now recognizes that without a formal education the best he can hope for is being elevated to the Hoyts candy counter, and if he is really stellar, some day ticket sales.


“The Disrupting Influence of Technology”

By Tim Dowling

The Sydney Morning Herald

August 21, 2006

“MP3s Banned as Workers Switch on and Switch Off”

By Ben Quinn

The New Zealand Herald

November 2, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe in office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

“iPod use in the workplace”

Employment Law Bits

August  28, 2006

“Are iPods Good for the Workplace?”

The Chicago Tribune

February 13, 2006

“Music Hath Charms for Some Workers – Others it Annoys”

By Stephanie Armour

USA Today

March 23, 2006

“iPod @ Work”

By Matt Krumrie

Star Tribune – Minneapolis – St. Paul Minnesota

October 30, 2006

Auditory, visual and physical distractions in the workplace

By Justin Mardex

Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis