Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Dawning Of The Age Of Assange?

I find myself with little sympathy for the various government officials expressing outrage over Julian Assange's release via his Wikileaks website of the US State department cables containing secret communications between US diplomats and their governments.

Yes I know Hilary Clinton among others have said that lives will be lost as a result. But still I find these protests unconvincing. Let's face it, government officials are completely invested in the current ways of conducting the affairs of state. Clay Shirky said "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." This is the aggregate effect of the phenomenon described in Upton Sinclair's statement that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

So the fact that the US' Secretary of State is alarmed by the thought of letting more sunlight into the diplomatic machinery is neither surprising nor persuasive as to the actual merits of Assange's desire to let the sunshine in.

In fact some of the strident defending of the status quo sounded like what I imagine members of the aristocracy might have said about the concept of democracy when those troublemakers Voltaire and Rousseau started going on about individual rights and self-determination. It must have been unthinkable to a member of the nobility that the nation's future was going to be in the hands of the unwashed & uneducated masses.

Clinton said hyperbolically, "This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it's an attack on the international community". Well, I guess it's an attack, but I'd say it's an attack on subterfuge and secrecy. And secrecy itself is arguably an assault on democracy. It's a safe bet that had transparency existed around the 2003 debate over the invasion of Iraq things would have played out differently.

One of the interesting revelations from these cables is that it seems possible that China is not so committed to defending the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea as we have been led to expect. China has shown hints of being willing to live with a Korea unified under the current South Korean government & system. If this is true it opens up the question of whether the US needs quite the military presence in South Korea that it currently has. I have no way to come to a sensible opinion about that question, but I am pretty sure that the debate is different with the possibility of an ambivalent China rather than a fiercely committed one. And if it weren't for Wikileaks I'm reasonably confident that we wouldn't have had a clue about that possibility. Governments that want to maintain high levels of military activity will not be keen to entertain discussion that will lead to a reduced sense of peril among it's constituents.

If an intransigent China poses a problem to which increased US influence is the solution, then it will be difficult for those in the halls of power in the US to do anything but preserve that problem, and if that means portraying China as more intransigent than they really are, so be it. There are a lot of salaries dependent on failing to understand any other reality.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

How Jamaica should be more like Switzerland

I was having lunch with a business associate from Switzerland the other day. He told me that the German that is spoken natively in his homeland, known as Swiss German, has no written form. Their written language is "High German", as he called it, also called Swiss Standard German. High German can be understood by non-Swiss German speakers. Swiss German can not.

Swiss German is spoken in all but a few contexts - the classroom (though not the playground - not only do the schoolkids use Swiss German on the playground, but so do the teachers); in multi-lingual parliamentary sessions; on the main news broadcast; and in the presence of German-speaking foreigners. There are many formal contexts in which Swiss German is the norm, such as business meetings, and court testimony.

He didn't say this (it would have been un-Swiss to say it out loud) but it seemed clear to me that the use of Swiss German was a matter of pride, and perhaps an important differentiator for the Swiss people.

Somehow it didn't seem important that his native language was not a written language. Nor that, as he admitted, Swiss German speakers are usually far less fluent in High German. Nor that their language was not intelligible to German-speaking foreigners.

It hasn't crippled their economy to have a native language that is unknown outside their borders. There is no social stigma associated with the use of Swiss German.

It has its place, and High German has its place, and that's all there is to it.

I can only wish that the same will one day be true for Jamaican Creole.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Management Lessons From The Road

I recently travelled to London via Miami. I flew American to Miami and British Airways to Heathrow.

While I was waiting for the agent in Kingston to check me in, I heard him asking his colleague what happens if they are checking in a code-share passenger when the second airline involved has a more restrictive baggage allowance than American. For instance, American allows two checked bags free, but Delta only allows one, and charges $27 for the second.

Although it didn't apply to me and my one bag, it was obvious that checking me in had triggered the question. And neither my agent nor his colleague knew the answer. I talked to them about it, and neither could recall the question ever being addressed in their training.

When I arrived at Heathrow I was waiting for the driver who was supposed to pick me up. I called the car company and they put me on to him. He was in the airport and so we had to agree where to rendezvous. I was standing under a large banner hanging straight down from the ceiling identified the area as the Northern Meeting Point. "That's a great idea." I thought, as I relayed this information to the driver.

He'd never heard of the Northern Meeting Point. "Can you see the Costa Café?" he asked. I could. It was 20 yards away from me, and I made my way over there, found the driver, and off we went.

What is the point of these episodes? I think they exemplify two of the pitfalls that face those who make decisions that then have to be acted on by others.

In the first case, the code-sharing arrangement created a practical difficulty that the agents did not know how to overcome. Either the system designers failed to recognize the issues that could arise, or they failed to communicate the solutions to the customer-facing agents.

In the second case, the well-intentioned banner seemed to be largely ignored. My driver, who presumably regularly does airport pick-ups, had no idea that there was such a thing as the Northern Meeting Area. The truth is, the café was a far more obvious landmark than the banner.

With respect to the code-sharing issue, it's not just a matter of failing to provide the correct training - involving people at various levels in the design process, with their different perspectives, is just good practice. A system that taps into the wisdom of crowds (link to James Surowiecki's excellent book), has a much greater chance of being robust enough to survive contact with the real world.

And the question of whether, and how, to provide landmarks at the airport would be best addressed by incorporating input from those whom the solution is intended to benefit. Perhaps there are particular areas of the airport that do not have readily identified landmarks, and that is where some signage should be posted. Or perhaps people will inevitably find their own way, and in reality the banner is a solution in search of a problem.

It's really pretty simple: as much communication as possible, as early in the decision-making process as possible.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Best World Cup Final In Decades

I’ve already heard expressions of disgruntlement about the world cup final. It wasn’t exciting; not enough goals; why is the third place play-off always so much better.

I couldn’t disagree more. I watched a thrilling final. There is a view, somewhat fed by lazy sports journalists, that goals=excitement. I do not share that view. The fact that the ball does not end up in the net does not invalidate an intricate, creative build-up, or a telepathically-engineered combination of perfectly-timed run and sublimely-weighted through ball that gives the defender no chance.

It is special when a brilliant move is rewarded with a goal. But to put so much store by the result seems a shallow way of thinking about the game. This final was a battle between two distinct ways of thinking about football, and, maybe, life.

It was clear that the Netherlands were going to come at the Spanish as they did Brazil – pressing all over the field, not allowing the Spanish time on the ball to settle into their possession-based domination, chipping away with tackles and fouls to ensure that no rhythm could be maintained.

Meanwhile Robben would do his thing, running at the defence whenever he had the opportunity, or Sneijder would take opportunities from outside the area, whether in open play or from a set piece. But it was always going to be based on winning the ball and making a quick counter-attack.

Spain, of course, would look to do what they have done for the past three years. Short passes, Busquets-Xabi Alonso-Xavi-Iniesta, probing for weakness, waiting for the defence to lose first patience, then shape. Which would allow room for Pedro or Villa. For variety, throw in some Pedro runs, and Ramos’ streaks from defence, and rely on Piquet and Puyol to guard against the counter.

And here’s the interesting thing about that match-up. In many ways, it's ass-backward.

In the mythology of the World Cup, The Netherlands teams of the 70s are not only the best team never to have won the World Cup – they are also the doomed romantics. The inventors of Total Football, defeated by the pragmatism, if not cynicism, of the German machine in 1974, and swept away by 80,011 Argentines in 1978 in the belly of the junta.

It would be unthinkable for Johann Cruyff, in the public’s eye the spiritual father of Total Football (and with those initials, who else could it be?) to express the sentiment as Dutch star Arjen Robben did that they would be happy with an ugly win.

He couldn’t even bring himself to support his nation’s team in this final. “I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing.”

Cruyff is one of those directly responsible for the football that Spain was playing. Not as the distant inspiration of a team separated by national borders and three generations of footballers, but as an adopted son of Barcelona, and as the most celebrated pupil of former Ajax and Barca coach Rinus Michels.

It was Michels who took the gospel of Total Football from Ajax Amsterdam to Barca, where Cruyff also spent many years as player and then coach. Cruyff won the European Cup as Barca’s coach, and one of his players then was their current coach, Pep Guardiola. Guardiola of course is also the coach of six Spanish starters in the World Cup final (Villa doesn’t join Barca until next season).

Through that lineage, Spain’s team is made up of apostles of the 1970s Netherlands. while the current Netherlands team have heretically abandoned the faith, and now invest their aspirations in the darker arts (per van Bommel and De Jong).

So one of the questions that we knew would have a significant effect on the outcome of the final was: How much latitude is referee Webb going to give the Dutch? It became clear very early that he was mindful of the danger of practicing laissez faire in a contest between such fundamental forces, with such a prize at stake (with even Brazil practicing the counter-attacking game, if Spain lost would the world ever again see a team employ possession and creativity as their basic building blocks?).

So the yellow card came out early and often, with a nod to even-handedness, and a crystal clear sub-text directed at the Dutch.

They read it loud and clear, and for me one of the remarkable things about the game from then on was how effectively the Dutch were able to defend against Spain’s domination of possession given the early foul trouble. I was actually about to say that out loud when I got distracted by Heitinga’s sending off.

The Netherlands did have a little help from Webb, who apparently didn’t want to decide the game with his whistle (at least not 28 minutes into the game) and so refrained from giving De Jong a straight red for his karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso (who by the way was completing passes at an 86% success rate before the foul, and could only manage 63% for the rest of the half).

It became pretty clear, pretty early, that both teams meant what they had said in the build-up. There would be no foxhole conversions in this battle. Or to switch metaphors, they were gonna dance with the gals they brung (even if, as in the Netherlands case, the gal was ugly!)

So there was a lot of play in midfield, with the Spanish short passes working through the middle third, probing, trying to break down the Dutch. And the Dutch had 8 or 9 players behind the ball much of the time. And I guess that doesn’t sound too exciting, but I was on edge watching Spain try to pick the lock; watching Xavi bring the ball forward from Busquets, envisioning the first move in the sequence that would set the strikers free; watching substiitute Jesus Navas make the runs down the right with such enterprise against the tiring Dutch legs. And equally on edge watching the Dutch trying to defend, knowing that with one defender and three defensive midfielders on yellows, they were walking a tightrope on a gusty day.

Finally, in the latter stages of the second half, and throughout extra time, Iniesta stepped up, finding incisive passes that always seemed to trouble the defence, forcing corners & throw ins, putting Fabregas in one-on-one.

When Navas made another spearing run but this time, instead of taking it all the way down for the cross as he had so many times, as if just remembering that he was playing Spanish football he suddenly turned towards the middle of the pitch. There he laid it on to Iniesta, whose magical back-heel helped work the ball over to the left, somewhat flatfooting the Dutch.

By the time it ended up with Torres playing the ball in from the left, Iniesta had made his way to the right of the goal area. This time when he found the ball at his feet there was no mistake about what needed to be done. A match winner with 3 minutes to play in extra time is a pretty good resolution in my books.

Would it help if we pretended that Ramos’ early header scored? And that Robben chipped over Casillas on the one-on-one, and then Villa’s point-blank effort found goal instead of being blocked away by Heitinga’s left boot, followed by Ramos’ second headed goal of the game, and call it 3-1 to Spain in regulation? Would it have been a better match then?

Not for me. I’m fine with the match that I saw. Apostles 1, Apostates 0.