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Archive for July, 2010

I wanted to briefly follow up last week’s ruminations on the mind altering implications of new media technologies. As I noted at the end of last week’s post (July 20), my instinct is that if you try to do everything, you do nothing. I am frequently as much of a crazed multi-tasking fool as any other executive, as I rush through the hydra-headed challenges and crises of being the CEO of my own firm Corporate Rain International. Yet this flittery, fast-paced daily race often leaves me with the breathless sense that I am missing the bigger picture, of seeing the trees but not the forest.

Russell A. Poldrack, Director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas, states:

Our research shows that multitasking can have an insidious effect on learning, changing the brain systems that are involved so that even if one can learn while multitasking, the nature of that learning is altered to be less flexible.”

Or consider the work of Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA. She warns in a Science article last year that our growing use of the Internet, with all its advantages of speed and accessibility, seems to be weakening our “higher order cognitive processes [including] abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking and imagination.

Likewise, William Powers new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, putatively argues convincingly that the distractions of manic connectivity can lead to a lack of productivity. Though I have not yet read his book, Mr. Powers apparently warns that an excess of digital activity reduces mental life to “a blizzard of snapshots” (WSJ review-David Harsanyi-June 30, 2010).

Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows (see last week’s post), begins his excellent book with a quote from HAL, the super computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL’s mind is being slowly erased at the end of the film and HAL plaintively says, “My mind is going. I can feel it.” Carr goes on to expound, “Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory….Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Well put.  Thank you, Nicholas.

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I love P.T. Barnum. Yes, he was a bit of a scoundrel and a con man. But very wise and seminal and modern in his practical thinking about business.

One of Barnum’s maxims I recently came across appeared in his essay “The Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Money Making” (1880). Barnum says: “When a man’s undivided attention is centered on one object, his mind will constantly be suggesting improvements of value, which would escape him if his brain was occupied by a dozen different subjects at once.” Barnum’s advice is most applicable to my present inundation-of-new-media conundrum.

One of the reasons I write this business blog is simply to clear some contemplative time for myself each week. It helps me coalesce my anomic ideas into something coherent. In a sense, I don’t know what I think till I write it down.

On July 6th I posted about the value of lifestyle and life balance accommodations for my employees. As a boss and a creative entrepreneur, clearing open-ended, spacious time for quiet contemplation without agenda is crucial for my emotional health and life balance.

Which brings me to Nicholas Carr‘s new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain.” Mr. Carr’s book sounds the alarm about the discomfiting implications of our manic connectivity, our addictive cyber hyperactivity. Carr points to significant neuroscientific evidence suggesting that the Net, with it’s constant distractions and velocity, is turning us into “scattered and superficial thinkers.” Carr states in The Wall Street Journal: “Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” He cites extensive science in support of his thesis.

People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time….Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory” writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel.

I will admit to being instinctively a bit of a Luddite. I’m not a techie, though my company, Corporate Rain International, is a cutting-edge technology-driven company. I hire technologists. I hope my instinctive caveats about our accelerating cyber-phantasmagoria are unwarranted. I try not to let the fear of the unknown interfere with a practical business reality. However, for myself it is important not to compulsively try to connect with every magic of the Internet (tweeting, texting, friending, linking, etc.)

The Roman philosopher Seneca said succinctly, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” I must agree. Thank you, Seneca.

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I’ve just finished Harlan Coben’s novel Caught. It’s lots of fun, as are most of Coben’s novels. This one has a particularly labyrinthine and rococo plot involving the disappearance of a beautiful teenage girl, a disastrous scavenger hunt at Princeton, a drunken driver, a vanished corpse, a planted GPS, etc. All making an enjoyable and entrancing thriller, if you’re looking for a good beach read.

I have enjoyed Mr. Coben for many years. (We both love musical comedy, for one thing.) His characters are silly, heroic, original, kinky and quite contemporary.  But one subplot jolted me and aroused my anxiety as a small business entrepreneur.  This subplot shows the Internet being used to totally ravage the reputation, business and careers of five accomplished men who were roommates in college. I was struck with a stomach-clenching fear as this subplot unfolded. Could this happen to me or my company Corporate Rain International?

I don’t know. But, to judge from Coben’s fiction and cyber conjecture, it’s not at all out of the realm of the possible for any small business owner to unfairly take a reputation hit from a concerted effort to besmirch. Or perhaps this is just entrepreneurial paranoia.

Ah well. It’s part of the small businessman’s job to worry each day about the hypothetical, as well as the real, even if it is from the phantasmagoric imagination of Harlan Coben. As Pierre Beaumarchais noted in The Barber of Seville (1775), “I would rather worry without need than live without heed.” Thank you, Pierre.

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Stay home. Be happy. Increase the efficiency of your company.

Last week I wrote about the under-appreciated value of the older employee. This week let’s consider the virtual employee. Both of these non-traditional HR solutions have buttressed the value and efficacy of my executive sales outsourcing firm Corporate Rain International for 16 years and I heartily recommend our approach. It’s the way business is increasingly going, whether you like it or not, but more importantly, it can lead to a cornucopia of personnel riches for the entrepreneur and a large boost to corporate esprit de corps.

Traditionally, the most valuable employees are those who arrive at their desks early and remain there after everyone else goes home. And they often are great workers. However, these single-minded office hard-drivers are not necessarily what the evolving worker wants to model himself on.

The Kenexa Research Institute of Minneapolis, Minnesota has done extensive research on the telecommuting employee. Surprisingly, in a poll of 10,000 US workers, 73% of remote and home-based workers were happy with their company as a place to work, compared with 64% for traditional office workers. Furthermore, 70% of the telecommuters said they were “proud to tell people I work for my company,” in contrast to 64% for traditional office workers. Jack Wiley of Kenexa states:

“When companies allow employees to work remotely or from home, they are explicitly communicating to them that  ‘I trust you to be dedicated to the accomplishment of the work, even if I’m not able to observe you doing it.’ It boils down to respect. I respect you and I have confidence in your commitment to the work—to do this under the conditions and at the time you feel will be most productive for you.” (WSJ-September 11, 2007)

Lifestyles and people’s needs are changing. I believe most contemporary employees are looking for a freer, less top-down work atmosphere. Jack Wiley of Kenexa notes that the most important thing an employee wants from an employer (besides compensation) is appreciation for the work they contribute and to be treated respectfully.

Flexibility is an increasingly valued commodity for employees. Many of my executive sales associates are very out-of-the-box in their needs and values. They are not people who necessarily want a traditional career. For example, Corporate Rain has sales executives who are raising venture capital on the side. Also, mothers who have held high-level corporate positions, but no longer want to be in that particular rat-race. We  have two associates writing books on the side, as well as associates who consult independently in fields like PR, HR, Non-profit, ROI augmentation, and the production of beer. We even have had a former VP of Jack Welch who owns a trout farm in North Carolina!

These are non-traditional employees who value the lifestyle flexibility offered by my firm. Most of these folks are of a quality I could never afford but for the fact that Corporate Rain offers unique support for flexible lifestyle enhancement. (My company is also a company of equals. In many ways, it’s intentionally as close to a Communist company as you can get and still be a going capitalist concern. But that’s a discussion for another day. Maybe next week.)

Employees’ changing values and desires will change the office world. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester are exemplars of a new school of “happiness” research. They have found that employees do their best work when motivated from within, when they have control of their time and decisions, and when they feel a deep sense of purpose. (Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior–Plenum–1985)

So, why not happiness, freedom, AND work? Thomas Jefferson, who died on July 4, 1826 (as did John Adams), said, “It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness.” (Letter to Mrs. A. S. Marks–1788) Thanks, Thomas.

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