Under “the Long Tail”: A Reflection on E-writing.

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The “long tail” illustrated.

The long tail theory seeks to upend Pareto’s simple 80/20 rule: Twenty percent of the literature – on any topic – satisfies 80% of the need. So, four out of five library books sit like wallflowers waiting to be asked to dance. I have experienced the 80/20 in libraries. Indeed 20% of the collection is used frequently and 80% is used less frequently or never. Internecine strife may still erupt when advocates for Use come into conflict with advocates for Conservation; the just-in-time gang vs. the just-in-case mob.
Very likely, in our age of e-resources, the use of the legacy print collections (books) has slipped from 20% to possibly below 10%. One study conducted by a reputable agency discovered use of print collections at 6% of holdings.

The long tail advocates hold otherwise: To paraphrase the theory, in the digital world, when large number of users are given access to large numbers of items (books, DVDs, shoes, garden hoses, underwear, etc) to choose among, a wide variety of items will be chosen. In other words, the user's choices will encompass the obscure and esoteric, like a merciful rain that falleth gently on all below. The serendipity of finding what you did not know you were looking will rule!

Google is great except when it’s not.
Well, ubiquitous choice may apply to refrigerators and rubber boots, or any commerce in which one can pay to “improve” search results - but it surely does not apply to the blogosphere. We are told there are now over 152 million blogs. And that, “Goosh!” 172,800 blogs are added daily!
Their age, frequency of use and other demographics are largely undetermined. How many of these millions are under the very long tail of our dinosaur friend? I would modestly suggest that well over 99.9% of all blogs are indeed under the long tail – a very long tail. And this blog is clearly one of those.
As someone said, “never have so many written so much to be read by so few.” Unless you are in the top .01% of the blog universe, your message is just one of millions in millions of corked bottles, bobbing in a boundless sea. Yes, Google will pick you up from time to time but it is not a given and highly unlikely you will achieve the blogger’s apotheosis, going “viral”.

Well then, why blog?
I do so for two reasons: discipline and for potential print publication. Twice a week blogging requires discipline. I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline. And, blogging – putting stuff out there for even a few to see - is a way of distilling my thoughts about the underlying concepts of this blog: freedom at work, the democratic workplace, teamwork, collaboration and cooperation, and, the unboss, among a few others.
And, I do see producing a book or two based on these now several hundred entries. So, for me, these writings are so many drafts eventually to be gathered and edited into a paper format.

Books are better.
Yes, that sounds contrarian given some of the above – did you expect anything else? - but if one is to reach a larger audience than those few regular blog readers, books are still vastly superior. For one thing when vetted prior to publication and then reviewed by discerning readers (for better or worse) a book gathers an audience of interested people. Word gets out.
One’s ideas in ink on paper just look better than pixels on a screen. Hardly viral, an audience of 500 individuals and libraries willing to pay for the book is certainly superior to remaining under the long tail.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Abstemius’ “Capons Fat and Lean.”*

Posted by jlubans on December 26, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A is for Abstemius, a fabulist from the 1500s.

"There were a great many Cramm’d Capons together in a Coop, some of ‘em very Fair and Fat, and Others again did not thrive upon Feeding. The Fat Ones would be ever and anon making sport with the Lean, and calling them Starvelings; ‘till in the End, the Cook was order’d to dress so many Capons for Supper, and to be sure to take the best in the Pen: When it came to that once, they that had most Flesh upon their Backs, wish’d they had had less, and ‘twould have been better for ‘em."

"Prosperity makes People Proud, Fat, and Wanton; but when a Day of Reckoning comes, They are the First still that go to Pot."

So, unless you have friends at court, try like the dickens to avoid having the fattest salary, playing the cramm’d capon – however unintentional - at your organization, less you become a marked man among the envious and devious when the Day of Reckoning arrives. Wear camo; take benefits that do not appear in your salary line. Once the envious are in ascendance, they’ll use your prominent salary against you and your job will be in jeopardy, regardless of past, current (or potential!) accomplishment. Like the Australians, say, the tallest flower in the field is the first to be cut.

*Source: Translation by Sir Roger L’Estrange available here.
Professor Laura Gibbs has this to say about Abstemius:
“Laurentius Abstemius (Lorenzo Bevilaqua) was a fifteenth-century Italian scholar. Although he was the author of various scholarly works, he was best known for his Hecatomythium Secundum, a collection of “original” Aesop’s fables inspired by the classical tradition of Aesop’s fables, (Venice, 1499 )It is a truly marvelous collection of fables, marked by sharp social satire, including satire directed against the church. Aesop himself would definitely approve!”
He was librarian to Duke Guido Ubaldo under Pope Alexander VI.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Trying/Not Trying: the Unboss.

Posted by jlubans on December 23, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: To intervene or not.

“Just don’t do it” goes one so called Zen tip-of-the-week. Zippy, it suggests one of the alternatives to the Taoist’s admonition to act/not act. Some would say, wrongly, this is the hippie/hedon's way - “turn on, tune in, drop out." Not doing is far more.
John Tierney’s “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying
probes the concept of “wu wei”; an allegedly anarchist idea. I use it in my classes on freedom at work. It’s gnarly, appealingly paradoxical. Here’s what I said about the notion in a previous blog on canoeing and letting go:
“I slide the paddle into the water; I yield to the water. Bossing not bossing; unbossing! When I lead, I let go, I yield to the staff.”
Tierney reviews a new book by Edward Slingerland, “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.”
Slingerland argues and illustrates how Chinese civilizations have tried for millennia to use virtue to help people cooperate and get along. Slingerland is inspired by ancient texts – bamboo slips - discovered in 1993 in the village of Guodian in central China. The text reads like a Taoist paradox (it may well be): “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.” Engaging, at least to me, but what does it mean?
Like the best Theory X practitioners, the Confucians took the pursuit of virtue to the extreme, very likely laying the ethos for generations of Chinese bureaucrats who rigorously adhere “to rules, traditions and rituals, the makings of a Confucian ‘gentleman’”.
I ask my students to consider the Taoist view - the opposite of Confucian micromanaging – that seeks “to liberate the natural virtue within.”
The Taoist’s worldview is as much Theory Y as the Confucian’s is Theory X. Here are a few questions my students discuss among themselves (of course!):
1. The Taoist believes that “the best government does not govern at all.” How can that be?
2. Lao Tzu (a 7th Century BC librarian) recommends “Practise non-action. Work without doing.” What does that mean? What is “real work” to the Taoist?
3. Lao Tzu teaches that the “best ruler leaves his people alone to follow their peaceful and productive activities.” Is it true that “People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature”?

These philosophical notions all relate to the “unboss,” a term I first used in 2006 and have been exploring ever since.
The boss controls, the unboss less so. Tierney includes a quote from psychologist Jonathan Schooler: “Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”
So, if you know your “stuff” - you are as one with your subject - going with your instinct makes good sense, “just do it” (to coin a phrase!). “(A)ctual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”
That’s what really good teams achieve when individuals look out for others and subordinate to a group goal; personal glory is an incidental and often irrelevant after thought, a non-motivator.
Slingerland refers to the 4th century Chinese philosopher Mencius, “who combined the Confucian and Taoist approaches: Try, but not too hard.” Mencius used parables to suggest a middle road. One story is about a micromanager - the heavy handed boss - specifically a farmer who weeded his fields so much, he yanked all the wheat shoots, destroying his crop. “Something natural … requires gentle cultivation. You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves.”
The unboss farmer.

A note from Santa: There is no better Christmas gift for your favorite unboss than a copy of Leading from the Middle. Free shipping at Amazon.

Each book comes with two free weekly blog posts at Leading from the Middle.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Bear and the Two Travelers”*

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Henry Justice Ford, ca. 1888 at age 28.

“TWO MEN were traveling together, when a Bear suddenly met them on their path. One of them climbed up quickly into a tree and concealed himself in the branches. The other, seeing that he must be attacked, fell flat on the ground, and when the Bear came up and felt him with his snout, and smelt him all over, he held his breath, and feigned the appearance of death as much as he could. The Bear soon left him, for it is said he will not touch a dead body. When he was quite gone, the other Traveler descended from the tree, and jocularly inquired of his friend what it was the Bear had whispered in his ear. ‘He gave me this advice,’ his companion replied. ‘Never travel with a friend who deserts you at the approach of danger.’”

“Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.”

“Aye, it be true, young Jim,” talking like a pirate out of Treasure Island. This fable’s moral dredges up an unpleasant memory. After a business acquaintance – he worked at a different institution - was fired, I saw him at a national meeting and failed to approach him. I avoided offering him my best wishes or reaching out to him. I’ve an excuse – embarrassment for him, maybe - but more likely it was some quirky avoidance reaction on my part. It’s not that I “cut” him - to use a British term – that’s deliberate and mean-spirited. This was more a feigned not noticing - yet knowing - someone in a crowd of people on a conference floor. I’d change it if I could. So, listen me sea-faring laddies and lassies; do what’s right when you next encounter someone upon whom fortune is leering.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Kelburn Library of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Luck and looks”

Posted by jlubans on December 16, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: NYCs The Hungarian Pastry Shop in summer.

In my prolonged youth, whenever I went to New York City I’d stop at the Hungarian Pastry Shop located in Morningside Heights, the Columbia University neighborhood. I got to know a couple of the regulars there – I met them through a mix up over the poppy seed and cherry cheese strudel. The two were pensioners, recent retirees, and long-time friends, Jack and Joe. On the job, they’d both been at or near the top, inside the “corridors of power” – no Willy Lomans these.
One winter’s day we were having coffee at the back of the store. They got to reminiscing about the world of work and what defines personal success and failure. While each had some career episodes they’d do differently, for the most part there was plenty on the positive side and enough in the bank account to keep the wolf from the door.

Joe: “I’ve been thinking, Jack, about life and how things turn out or not. You’ve done pretty well. A long career, maybe some downs but mostly ups. You got started early did you not? I mean right out of school you went into management. How’d that come about?

Jack: “Looks and luck! And, no getting around it, gender still mattered in my business in the mid-60s. I looked good in a suit and that made me an automatic candidate for managerial jobs, at least in my field. My “good looks” got me noticed and opened a few doors. And, fortunately, I met some people who seemed to think I might go somewhere – even though there was hardly any academic evidence of that! But they saw something in me, in spite of my rough edges, and were willing to encourage me. You know, they trusted me. Of course, there were always others who saw me as an empty suit. Hell, I probably did more than a few things to confirm that impression. I’m not blameless. Overtime, if you stay in the same job, poor decisions can mount up and erode support. Maybe if I’d been more of a diplomat, a better communicator…?
As I think about it, maybe I moved up too fast, that I “peaked” too soon. If I had wanted to I could have lain low – like some of my peers - and laid out a trajectory with a big job at the end. I could have been like Gilbert & Sullivan’s, “… the very model of a modern major general”, a prissy bureaucrat!
But, I guess, I never had the discipline or the desire, really. How about you?

Joe: Well, no Adonis, I did get credit for having brains, but that was not an automatic pass into management! (For that matter, I really did not want to be a manager – I loved working with the customers.) Regardless, I did my job well and moved up in position and salary. And, eventually the bosses saw that I could lead. I probably could have kept on moving up – in my immediate field or even other fields – I was pretty good, you know, (smile).
But, I had a family, kids and a wife with an established career; why would I want to move, to the west coast or to some university center in mid-America? And, I had plenty of opportunity where I was to do what I wanted to. Much of the time, I had excellent support – my ability to get grants was better than average (“I’ll say!” exclaimed Jack).
I had a pretty good run. Then, when I thought I was really hitting my stride, new leadership showed up and began to change things. The new leader initially was supportive, but then less so. You know whom I’m talking about. He was all about teamwork (“There’s no ‘I’ in team”, he loved to say). We were supposedly equal members of "his" team, but I think he wanted more obeisance than I could offer. His definition of team captain was closer to “THE boss” than mine. Hell, I think I scared him because I had ideas. This guy was on record for wanting innovation but he really was a traditionalist at heart and if it was not his idea, it was not a good idea.
So, I had to leave, a very scary time. Luck was with my family and me; I landed on my feet and found another institution and new challenges.

Jack: I had a somewhat different “finale”, Joe. The daily grind came to an end sooner than I wanted – or so it seemed at the time. But being forced out actually freed me up to do things I wanted to do. There are times when I think I should have gotten out long before I had to.
Anyway, you know I am still doing what I want personally to do. That’s me – going well beyond the job description and pursuing my own, job-related questions. My questioning annoyed some people, of course. If you are moving, there’s going to be friction when you brush up against the unmoving. If there is such a thing as an incremental enmity among the people resentful of change – those with the ruffled feathers – I was able to avoid it until near the end of my career.
When my luck did run out – there’s no denying it, I was in a funk. But, the gloom lifted and rarely returns.
Like you, Joe, I’ve discovered there’s always more to do, more to offer, more to explore, so in a way, I am happy to be free of the endless meetings – gad, some of that routine is awful!
I still get excited in following through on my own ideas; if I fail, it’s largely my fault. If I succeed, well, it’s never just me; invariably it is someone else who says, “Hey, I like that idea. Let’s do it.”

Joe: It may sound trite, but I’m happy to focus on family and in sustaining the relationships from my career, the folks, like you, I want to stay in touch with – it’s friendship. And, you know I still teach. I want to keep doing that as long as I can. It’s a confirmation of my expertise and the school wants it and the students see it as relevant and of interest. So, I guess I am like you in wanting that confirmation.

“Hey, Junior (me), pour me some more of that coffee!”

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “The Father and His Two Daughters”*

Posted by jlubans on December 12, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A literal interpretation for a Turkish version of this fable.

“A MAN had two daughters, the one married to a gardener, and the other to a tile-maker. After a time he went to the daughter who had married the gardener, and inquired how she was and how all things went with her. She said, ‘All things are prospering with me, and I have only one wish, that there may be a heavy fall of rain, in order that the plants may be well watered.’ Not long after, he went to the daughter who had married the tile maker, and likewise inquired of her how she fared; she replied, ‘I want for nothing, and have only one wish, that the dry weather may continue, and the sun shine hot and bright, so that the bricks might be dried.’ He said to her, ‘If your sister wishes for rain, and you for dry weather, with which of the two am I to join my wishes?’

At one time I was active in a professional society. It alleged to be an egalitarian grouping but in truth had more levels and ranks than a Masonic temple. And, while some professed it mattered little, elected positions were jealously coveted. So, I found myself unintentionally caught in the middle much like the father in the fable. A professional friend told me he was running for office and asked for my vote. This was well before the slate was set, so I did not know his opponent. Regardless, since I liked him and thought he'd do a good job, I promised him my vote. Lo and behold, shortly before the election another friend asked me to vote for her! I decided honesty was the best policy and told her, as much as I admired her and would have readily voted for her, I could not do so since I had promised my vote to the opponent. She seemed to take it OK, but our correspondence ceased nor has it (now years later) resumed. She won the election, as I knew she would, but I apparently had failed her. A friend no more.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Copyright John Lubans 2014

An Un-boss Quiz

Posted by jlubans on December 09, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

How much of an unboss are you? Or, how democratic are you when leading others? This is a short quiz* about decision making in the workplace. If you are not a supervisor but would like to be, then answer these statements the way you WOULD lead others.

The answers for each of the 12 statements include Never (1 point); Seldom (2 points); Sometimes (3 points); Often (4 points); and Always (5 points).

So, How frequently do you allow others to participate in:
1. Defining personnel needs for your group?
2. Deciding which new people to hire?
3. Defining training needs for staff?
4. Making job assignments for the group?
5. Deciding on promotions for group members?
6. Making decisions about what work YOU will do?
7. Scheduling work for the group?
8. Setting performance standards for the group?
9. Making performance evaluations for group members?
10. Defining group norms, (e. g. start and end times, leaves, breaks, etc.)?
11. Preparing the annual budget for the group?
12. Preparing annual plans and defining objectives for the group?

There you have it. Sum up your scores. To illustrate scoring, if you “Seldom” allow others to take part in #11, “Preparing the annual budget for the group”, then you would score yourself 2 points. The maximum score for all twelve statements is 60 or that you always involve others in decision-making. The lowest scores is 12 or that you never involve others.
Once you have your score divide it by 12. If you got 60 points your base number is then 5.
The base score of 4 and greater suggests you practice “decision decentralization”. You are more of an unboss or a “democratic leader” than the traditional boss. The lower the base score (2 or less) the more it appears you practice “decision centralization” or limiting the input of others into decision making. You are the boss!
There may be good reasons for retaining exclusive decision making authority: inexperienced group members; unwillingness of group members to take part in decision making and/or the organization frowning upon supervisors who involve workers in decision making. On the other hand if you have highly experienced members in the group with ideas to offer, then it is probably a mistake not to involve them in decision-making. In my experience, decentralizing decisions usually produced higher quality decisions and improved our “product” and customer satisfaction.

*Adapted from J. L. Pierce, “Employee Affective Responses to Work Unit Structure and Job Design: A Test of an Intervening Variable.” University of Wisconsin. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1977.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Lubans’ Neptune and the Curlew.

Posted by jlubans on December 05, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Littoral Curlew/Sandpiper.

ONCE Upon a time the curlew resided in Neptune’s pelagic kingdom. Instead of feathers, the curlew had scales and swam in the deep ocean. While he loved the water, his curiosity took him ever toward the surface. Skimming along, he could see the sandy shore glistening under a blue sky. He dove down to tell the other fish of his adventures.
Neptune was jealous and annoyed with Curlew’s description of the wonders beyond the sea. He made the curlew promise not to return to the shore.
Well, as you can imagine, it was not long before the curlew once again was swimming in the rushing surf, ogling the new sights. Alas, this time he became stranded on a sand bar, a fish out of water, gasping his last. Neptune intervened and spared Curlew but angry over the broken promise, changed him into a bird and banished him to the water’s edge, never to return to the depths of the sea.
So, the curlew now skirts the shore and wades into the water, torn between the water and the land, plaintively calling to the unhearing sea.

Moral: Set your sights to the achievable lest you perish in the pursuit of the impossible.

Leading from the Middle citation:
I ran across Michael F. Bemis’ ‪”Library and Information Science: A (bibliographic) Guide to Key Literature and Sources.” The American Library Association published it in 2013. Here’s what Mr. Bemis thinks:
‬‬…. “The ‘contrarian’ in the title stems from the author’s nontraditional view of leadership. Again and again, he shows the limiting nature of the command-and-control model used in a majority of organizations, which basically means that the person at the top gives the orders and the loyal underlings are expected to march in lockstep as they carry them out. Lubans’ view is one of true empowerment, in which everyone in the organizational hierarchy is not only allowed but expected to contribute opinions, ideas and suggestions. Quite simply the author argues for a democracy within the library, rather than a dictatorship.”

A good reason to get a copy for Christmas for your organization.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

"The Singing Revolution"

Posted by jlubans on December 02, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)


This 2009 documentary explores how the little nation of Estonia escaped from the Soviet Union, largely through its cultural heritage of song and literature.
The DVDs “Extras” include several historical clips and side notes. One, “Role of culture under Soviet Occupation,” features interviews with two participants in the Singing Revolution - from the late 80s to the year of independence, 1991 - Marju Lauristin and Artur Talvik. Lauristin is now a professor emerita at the University of Tartu and a former Popular Front leader for the transition from communism to democracy. Artur Talvik was an outspoken participant and leader in the Singing Revolution. Both risked exile to Siberia, or worse, had Russia not been in its own turmoil (or “thaw” if we use Lewin’s change model) during the late 80s.
Lauristin observes that arts of all sorts (culture) were supported by the Soviet/Marxist philosophy. Of course, much of the Soviet notion of culture was about inculcating Lenin, Stalin and Marx. Nevertheless, the arts provided subterfuge for captive people to “argue” ideas, sub rosa. Or even to make trade-offs of propaganda for national identity. Talvik describes how during the 1987 national song festival the choirs sang Soviet “crap” for three days, songs about Lenin and Stalin and Soviet happiness. Then at the end of the concert the choirs – 30,000 participants - erupted into forbidden national songs. In this instance, the KGB allowed it, thinking perhaps that after 3 days of incessant propaganda a little nationalism might be innocuous. More likely, the KGB did not know what to do under the new notion of “glasnost” which supposedly permitted openness and transparency in government and allowed an undefined amount of free speech and expression. As one commentator in the DVD remarks, “The ghost (of freedom) was out of the bottle”; no putting it back. Lauristin describes the phenomenon as springtime; forbidden Estonian flags blossoming like so many flowers.
Estonian audiences knew and were well versed at “reading between the lines.” While the risks were there, especially prior to glasnost, the Russian police were pretty much hapless as to what to do even when they understood the veiled literary or musical reference. (See my Pūt vējiņi: Of individual freedom.)
For example, in a Tallin theater’s 1970s production of Hamlet the curtain went up on a blank stage only decorated with architectural columns. Behind each column was a man, in hiding. The audience applauded; they knew. Those guys were the KGB, sneaking around and spying. And, the play’s line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” was immediately applied by the audience to the sorry state of the Soviet Union.
So indeed, culture was a vehicle to get out ideas, to get people thinking, and, eventually, changing its society.
I will use this DVD in teaching about change and about democracy in the workplace, about freedom at work. And, I’d like to work the DVD into a discussion about sustaining large change. How does any organization moving from dysfunction into effectiveness, continue the progress? For Talvik, not long after 1991’s glorious independence theater and films became “highly boring”, there was “nobody to fight,” “the tricky jokes (about the Soviet) were gone.” No longer did theater provide the hidden messages of freedom and the arts went back into their ivory towers. Lauristin explains; during Soviet times Estonian poems were published in runs of 30,000; now editions of 1000 or less sit on store shelves waiting for readers.
More broadly, consider the low voter turnouts in democracies.
Once we reject totalitarianism, what do we want to be? What can any organization do to advance movement and avoid the stagnation implied in the conclusion of a W. H. Auden poem:
“So an age ended, and its last deliverer died

In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:

The sudden shadow of a giant’s enormous calf

Would fall no more at dusk across their lawns outside.”

@Copyright John Lubans 2014