Memory: A reality check

This weekend I had dinner with friends and we discussed an occasion where the two others distinctly remembered a previous outing (and a discussion about tipping) and I couldn’t recall this at all. Not only did I not recall the event, I also didn’t think that the behaviour described was something that I would say or do. I couldn’t check it on Wikipedia, nor was there a log on Facebook/Twitter or other social media. So that was that, I just had to accept that this had happened as I was in the minority.

Ok, so much for the personal anecdote. However, it does beg the question: Is our perception of (historical) reality reliable? Furthermore, is our ability to remember things changing due to technology?

Through my readings, I came across the wonderful website of BrainPickings. In particular, upon reviewing the effect of technology on remembering, the following paragraphs is poignant, albeit in relation to tip-of-the-tongue recall: ”

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.

What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

As a lecturer, I find that some students are less willing to engage in racking their brain, going into the chest of drawers that is their knowledge, which is built up from episodic and semantic memories. They tend to check Wikipedia instead and there is an entire journal devoted to computer assisted learning that tells us we need to understand how to embed technology in education. I am all for blended learning but think a certain skill will be lost if students can’t sit together in a seminar and ponder/deduct, without instantaneously knowing the answer, yet being comfortable with that uncertainty.

It would be interesting to see if, through the development of technology, we are moving towards higher uncertainty avoidant cultures at a macro level. It seems that, for now, this has only been explored the other way around: Do certain cultures affect adoption of ICT? This is because we view cultural values as guiding principles, stable over time, especially at the national level. Or, we embrace ICT as democratic enablers, causing revolutions such as the Arab Spring, although the jury’s out on the tenacity of old systems but we have not (yet) considered the impact on the evolvement of our cognitive abilities over time.

As a researcher, I wonder how the future of social scientific research will be affected if our lives are logged on social media and we may thus be less inclined to store personal knowledge or perceptions of the self in our ever expanding mental cupboard. So, we quickly cut-and-paste something on Facebook and our episodic and semantic memory abilities are not engaged, let alone reasoning and deduction. What if technology advances to such an extent that neuroadaptive systems allow us to update our status cognitively, without a keyboard? It seems that experts have considered the same questions. We would then not consciously process our state of mind and ‘work through it’ before sharing it with the rest of the world. That said, it seems some (trolls) are already devoid of any filter. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook will function as a new tool for longitudinal research on our psychological contract with humanity.

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Syria

I had a meeting with our University’s Dean of Law to discuss my novel on human smuggling. We also discussed Syria, which he described as “Hell on earth”. Bombing indisciminantly is not a solution, also due to the complexity of allegiances/role of Iran/oil, so beware what you vote for. He questioned usage of the 2007 Resposibility to Protect militarily. The Mid East is bursting at the tension seams and intervention by the US/EU adds fuel to fire, as much as it would annoy Putin.
It may be that the opposition (Free Syrian Army vs Al Nusra??) and Syrian gov need to fight it out and the world must provide aid to refugees. But it is a disaster.
Factsheets on aid make it clear how much is spent already and how difficult it is to reach people (EU commission Syria factsheet). Za’atari camp is an example of the misery (newyorker.com) BUT, controversially, the Jordan villagers nearby sees aid arrive while they live in poverty (irinnews.Org).
Knowing who to donate to is difficult. Mercy Corps tries to help refugees specifically and focuses on the local impact, but there are others too (if you prefer a religious org for example). I donated to the Red Cross per advice from a friend in Lebanon as the RC is non-political but again, you may believe in smaller local aid organisations.
There so many more humanitarian issues, I know this. I care about the environment and welfare of animals too. So why?
Because there are 2 million refugees outside Syria, half of them children, and 4.5 million displaced within the country. That is approx 30% of the population or Paris plus Los Angeles. The resolution of this tragedy requires collective efforts at (inter)national, organisational and individual level by humans for humans.

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Inspire in class.

In order to prepare students as a well-rounded global business professionals, the content of the degree BA International Business that I lead develops competencies to enable students to be effective in a global business context, exploring a variety of international business issues. They will also learn the fundamentals of marketing, human resource management, economics, operations management and accounting. Most of these modules use standard textbooks, seminar activities such as case study analysis and assessment such as presentations. We try to make it interesting with visuals such as videos. I am currently working on next year’s curriculum and lecture content.

Below are three examples of TED talks. TED is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”. Lecturers use videos in class to raise a question to be discussed in seminars or in course work.

ted_logo

Typical TED talk for first year students: What was the greatest invention of the industrial revolution? Hans Rosling makes the case for the washing machine.
Topics: Statistics, Economics, globalisation, technology, human resources
Typical questions: How are wealth and a washing machine connected to globalisation? How can statistics help the international manager? How would you, as a student, manage without a washing machine?

Typical TED talk for second year students: What makes a good idea? What is a theory or model? How do we know a global leader’s X Factor? Simon Sinek talks about leadership in action.
Topics: Multi-National Corporations, values and beliefs, leadership, management and human behaviour
Typical questions: How do we know business practices work? How can we recruit the best people? What is the evidence for the recipe for success?

Typical TED talk for final year students: How can we keep our global supply chains honest? Van Heerden makes the business case for fair labour.
Topics: Rule based vs. Consequence based decision making, cross cultural management, ethics, strategy.
Typical questions: Do companies have a corporate social responsibility? Do you agree with the speaker? Why/Why not?

In the end, I aim to provide students with the critical tools and mindset to analyse and identify responses to such questions. The class environment is a great context to explore perspectives of management, which is very important in the global environment.

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He said, she said.

Communication is key. As many translators and language instructors know, it’s one thing to teach someone to speak a foreign language, it’s yet another issue to teach them how to communicate. That’s why many translators find themselves in the world of cross cultural consultancy. Points madeWhat is perceived as an acceptable way of getting the message across in one environment, may be entirely unsuitable in another. For example, a plane or boat crew dealing with a dangerous situation are best to throw their diplomatic skills overboard. Yet, at the same time, there is need for reflection on the directness of social media and how we address each other via Twitter and Facebook, especially in terms of foreign policy affairs, due to cultural differences.

In the past year, I witnessed a series of events that culminated in a break down of communication between people who, due to the nature of how entrepreneurs often work, have been friends and use the services of each others’ small businesses. It seems that business chats over dinner or promises of payments over a picnic can be, sadly, a recipe for disaster. Throw in some personal curve balls of relationship ups and downs, stress in this time of economic malaise and thus threats to subjective well being and one is dealing with a pressure cooker that is ready to explode. We may forget to remember why we were friends who went into business together in the first place and make a judgement call, even though it’s a fact that we are not neutral in our interpretation of a situation and thus what is a reality or truth is always subjective. When we forget this, it stands in the way of finding an integrative solution. I too dismissed from my mind the option to ask questions, listen carefully and get things in writing.

Good advice that I learned this week from a successful businessman who set up a company with his classmates, is not necessarily never to mix business with your friends. But if you do, take the next professional step and create a contract. Yes, that’s BEFORE any service, any introduction, any product is rendered, made or sold. A document that sets up the exact parameters of the deal, signed by all involved with a clear ‘what if’ clause (what if I do X for your company but it goes into administration, what if I take on the running costs for time Y but you can’t pay me back, what if I am the mediator between company A and B and the collaboration is a big success/failure?). Research has shown that gossip has its role. But when it comes to money and friends, clear and direct communication signed and honoured by all involved is the way to avoid that metaphorical plane crash.

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Mental health – An individual issue or a challenge for society?

The Guardian featured an article on mental health that stated the statistic that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Despite some celebrity exposure (at least in the UK by Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry), very few of us seem to care about mental health issues unless it affects us personally. We let those who suffer from any issues deal with it alone. Even if we understand, our busy lives may not allow us to ignore cognitive shortcuts such as rude=avoid, gloomy=avoid.

The irony of this is that our individualistic society is learning that it is a collective responsibility.  At a macro level, some researchers identified corporate psychopaths [sic] who work in the finance sector and take unnecessary risks to the employee. But harsh labels aside, the mental well being of an industry under pressure must be analysed and any advice must be implemented by governments. At the organisational and individual level, managers, teachers and others in decision making roles must be guided about the challenges employees,  students and our neighbours face who suffer from depression, anxiety or panic attacks. For example, if a person’s reaction seems unusually down or rude, perhaps stop to think why this may be.

In social psychology, studies have found a significant difference between the diagnosis of mental health issues – what’s considered desirable behaviour varies. There are also cultural differences in explaining people’s actions or the allocation of blame: Western countries tend to make more personal attributions, blaming the individual, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to make situational attributions, blaming the situation for a person’s rudeness, for example. We’re dealing with a spectrum, not categories of mental wellbeing and the perception of (adequate) adjustment.

What does this mean? As Ruby Wax said, we do need to get organised. Not only do people suffering from mental health issues need medical care (and thus funding for research is paramount), as humans we benefit from communal spaces, where we have a sense of belonging and are not judged for our ‘different-ness’. It’s not just tolerance (as tolerance indicates a power relationship “I tolerate you”), it’s one step up – pro-social engagement, which involves education (not merely formal), consultative communication and empathy.

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Art as an identity

I have been reviewing art and craft for the Artists Open Houses as part of the Brighton Festival and Fringe Festival. There are quite a few of us volunteer reviewers who were allocated certain trails. This was great because it meant we would encounter a variety of houses, without having self-selected the places, which would have been subject to our taste(s).

In one of the houses, ceramic butterflies and birds were displayed on a wall as part of an initiative for those with learning disabilities. The brief read that the artists are aiming for a ‘collective identity’ – the works are rustic, with lots of colour. When I say ‘rustic’, I mean rough around the edges. The question of is it art or craft and how are we to review this came to my mind.

The same occurred in a venue with many more items made by people with learning difficulties. The two venues couldn’t be more different, yet carried a similar message: See beauty in places where you may not expect it. I found that the pieces made by artists with cognitive challenges are a) incredibly varied and b) surprisingly beautiful.

The Montefiore Artists’ Collective are part of the Grace Eyre charity, who help people with learning disabilities. I was welcomed by Anne who sat by still life photography, who asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. It was cold outside, so I did (£1) at the indoor Angel Cake Café. The people involved with the charity also organise plays with their group Grace Enders. As I sipped tea, I checked the displays. There were two spectacular painted mosaics of Brighton and of a dragon by Maurice Wilson, prints on linen, framed abstract art (stencil print and colograph print) and papier mâché puppets.

The church was light and the exhibition colourful.  I was especially taken by the mosaic ceramic tiles, each sold separately. There were plant pots and other items with mosaic detail for sale too. I also spotted a story book “A caterpillar called girlfriend and other stories” with limericks, stories and poems. The team were very friendly and evidently committed.

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So, did my surprise show I had made some assumptions? No, I didn’t have any before I came to this venue. But yes, once there, I could recognise works that were simply lovely and then there was art that was genuinely beautiful. I want to highlight this because the church was empty and when I went to the next house, two streets further, with, if you like, ‘proper’ art, it was full. That is unfortunate for any visitor to the Seven Dials trail who decided to skip house 9 and go to house 8, almost next door. The Sunday experience of the 3 venues was exactly so inspiring and memorable because they were so different. ‘Proper’ craft after proper craft the brain couldn’t cope with, but this made an impact to all the senses.

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Nineveh

Nineveh, directed by Ailin Conant and written by Julia Pascal, is a “physical show” inspired by the testimonies of international soldiers. The show is based on Ailin Conant’s work with ex-fighters, peace activists, veterans and child soldiers from Lebanon, Rwanda, Israel and Kashmir, as part of The Return Project. Conant is also the Artistic Director of Theatre Témoin. I went to see it on Thursday 18th of April, together with film director Joe de Kadt.

The set up is intimate: The audience is close to the stage, made up of ropes, chains and spiky metal objects that reminded me of the empty shells of rockets a friend in Lebanon has displayed by his fire place for bitter comedic effect, as a reminder of the civil war. Men march in and the beginning of this show is, indeed, physical, like a ballet, which feels a little too theatrical at times. They also banter and I recognise and enjoy the typical Israeli/Arab style of humour. Like the audience, they are trying to puzzle together where they are and why they’re here.

The banter relieves the tension of the harrowing stories, which are not told by storytellers, because soldiers aren’t good at telling coherent stories in the artistic or academic sense. We are being provided with an accurate portrayal of how experiences are remembered and shared. It reminded me of the research by Martin Euwema, who interviewed Dutch soldiers in Iraq: No, they don’t think about their cultural values. Yes, the do care about the brand of peanut butter available in the camp. Less mundane, but similarly surprising to the audience are the concerns of the men in Nineveh: their family, having ambitions to make it big one day, drive a certain car perhaps. It begs the questions: Can anyone love when there’s a war? Are they supposed to dream about seemingly frivolous things? If they, as individuals, commit cruel acts against another person, who is responsible? How do they themselves decide on their fate? Nineveh may make you fold your arms and frown when you listen to and witness inner turmoil.

The audience has the responsibility to allow the stories to sink in. It cannot be judged with a mind that wants a more coherent narrative or happy ending, because that is just not the reality of soldiers’ experiences. Nineveh is a physical and verbal relay of cruel acts that humans inflict upon fellow humans, relieved with dark comedy – A must-see.

Nineveh is on at Riverside Studios, London until May 11
May 3 Post Show talk Playwright Julia Pascal and Director Ailin Conant about ‘The Return’ Project, a year’s creative work in Kashmir, Israel, Lebanon and Rwanda that preceded the play
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Arguing over Argo

The film ‘Argo’ won an Oscar (Academy Award) for ‘Best Picture’. I watched it and researched it, as I wanted to know the different perspectives of the film. It seems that Canadian effort wasn’t adequately represented, Britain’s role wasn’t mentioned and New Zealand’s reputation was put in discredit because they refused to help.

A variety of people have commented on it and an overview of opinions can be found via Twitter #Argo.

The reason for this blog entry is that the discussions surrounding the film encapsulate the issues related to perspective taking, identity, culture and management. It isn’t an isolated incident, as a cross cultural ‘expert’, I get many questions about how to manage cross cultural conflict. With my MBA students, we do a ‘Game Theory’ exercise that requires mutual understanding and engagement. Students work in teams and negotiate over a scarce resource. Those who intend on convincing the other of their entitlement will lose. Those who aim to work together and try to see the others’ perspective, win.

We may all have encountered a dispute of opinion. I recall a discussion via email between American and Lebanese friends about the rights/wrongs of the invasion into Iraq. The Americans felt that surely the liberation of a people and the introduction of democracy was the way forward. The Lebanese questioned the American interpretation of democracy and the motives for the invasion. A stalemate situation, over which friends were lost.

So what is the solution? Well, show the whole picture. Just last week I asked my students what they thought the job-market was like for women in Dubai. All sorts of stereotypes came up. The few students who came from Dubai gasped at the preconceived ideas, much fuelled by popular culture and media. I then showed a short film of a British divorcee with 2 kids called Sonia, who works as a trainer in Dubai. It was a small alignment to stereotypical views, I hope.

The Iranians displayed in Argo, is a simplistic image, regardless of the token heroine. Especially the market scene is worthy of an award for most stereotypical display of a people. Whether or not Argo was a political tool to boost a pro-USA mood, is another discussion. What matters is that if Iran decides to sue, that conflict should not be wiped off the table as a hot-headed knee-jerk reaction.

I think the Middle East is tired of being depicted in a certain way, including Israel. Just as the majority of Russians were in the 70s and 80s and the Germans have been since WWII. Are ordinary (young) people to pay for decision making by autocratic leaders? As a producer, George Clooney could try and make a film that is less subjective about Arabs. Thanks to Syriana, my ‘street cred’ increased as I have travelled to Beirut several times. Clooney made it look positively dangerous there. Indeed, when I told friends I was invited for a wedding in Lebanon this summer, the reaction was all-round disapproving. That’s sad; it’s a great place to visit.

In management and governance research, experts support the notion for taking an other’s point of view: in the Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory (4* ABS), Ansell & Gash (2007) argue that “stakeholders’ level of commitment to collaboration is a critical variable in explaining success or failure of governance. … stakeholders may wish to participate in order to make sure their perspective is not neglected or to secure legitimacy for their position or to fulfill a legal obligation. By contrast, commitment to the process means developing a belief that good faith bargaining for mutual gains is the best way to achieve desirable policy outcomes. Such a belief is not altruistic. A developer may believe that the best way to get his houses built is to engage in a good faith bargaining effort with environmentalists. Yet commitment to collaboration can still require a very significant psychological shift, particularly among those who regard their positions in absolute terms. As a first step, such a shift requires what is sometimes called ‘mutual recognition’ or ‘joint appreciation'”.

We’re more similar in terms of our aims for security and social well-being than pop culture, media, politics would like us to think we are. I was inspired by Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui’s story. A young man, currently visiting New York, will soon follow in his father’s footsteps as a political leader and defined wealth as being ‘rich in culture, biodiversity and spirituality’. He says he likes film and technology and wants to use both to learn about the world outside his village and hopes the world will learn about them.  Clooney, Affleck et al – take note.

 

 

 

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Becoming more business-like? Marketization and its impact on the construction of NPO identity in South Africa

We (Frederik Claeye and I) submitted a paper to Academy of Management that investigates the impact of the trend of managerialism on the construction of organizational identity in non-profit organizations in South Africa drawing on the more critical traditions within both Development and Management Studies. 35 semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers and team leaders from 15 NPOs. Using an interpretive framework, this study analysed the outcomes in light of two discourses (managerialism and Ubuntu) at the global/local interface. The data suggest that processes of sense-giving and sense-making shape the construction of organizational identity. Managers derive a sense of identity by internalizing the managerialist discourse and the ‘best practices’ that go with it in order to obtain legitimacy as ‘proper’ organizations. At the same time, however, they also wish to emphasize the distinctiveness of NPOs, which gives rise to an identity that centers on human interconnectedness that is in line with local cultural value orientations, such as Ubuntu, as the corner stone of organizational identity.

We aimed to illustrate how sense-giving structures are being mimicked under influence of isomorphic pressures and the quest for legitimacy. At the same time, however, processes of sense-making may be seen at work through the ways in which culture offers a lens through which the managerialist discourse can be translated, and aligned to local cultural values.

The paper’s main contributions are both theoretical as well as to development praxis. At the theoretical level, it offers critique that blends postcolonial, critical management and critical development approaches in order to build an understanding of the implications the dominance of managerialist modes of thinking may have on the construction of organizational identity. In this way it contributes to the debate on managerialism by offering a more fine-grained and empirical analysis of power and resistance underlying processes of sense-giving and sense-making in the construction of organizational identities in NPOs in a developing country. At the level of development praxis it highlights the need to allow room for the expression of the local cultural values in order to ensure staff commitment and thus enhance our current efforts to make aid more effective.

 

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Pseudo science, faking it and cheating

There have been several articles circulating on Twitter and Facebook about pseudo (neuro) science, academic cheating by academics themselves and the ongoing challenges of cheating students.

It is certain that this isn’t a recent thing. The tools have become more sophisticated but the actions of some to take a short cut in order to sell more, get published, obtain fame or get a diploma is not a new development.

Fortunately, there are plenty of die hard science critics who are constantly monitoring the validity of others’ publication, such as Ben Goldacre and Steven Pool. Then again, others argue that these writers are too critical and that the translated message is like a dish served in a restaurant: We as consumers don’t need to know if 2 eggs were used or 3. They like the work of people like David Rock, who dilutes/processes research for us so we can develop ourselves, using evidence based management.

As for academic cheating, be it by academics or students. There are discussions going on why it’s done. Is it the rat race? Too much pressure to publish or perish? Alok Jha explores the reasons behind academic cheating. Certainly in our department colleagues have circulated stories via email about retractions etc. Some of us feel better when we didn’t quite make the REF or that 4* journal this year.

Then, there is the cheating by students, which has become more and more difficult to detect via tools such as Turn It In because students can now purchase bespoke essays and reports via websites such as Freelancer. Some companies are so bold to come onto campus and hand out flyers. As a reality check, academics should enter their course work instructions into Google and see what comes up.

Apparently an investigation was due to be launched back in 2006. I tweeted that link to the Guardian Higher Education and Times Higher Education accounts but it doesn’t seem that the global HE industry is shaking on its foundations (it should – we are unleashing frauds as graduates on a mass scale – if you think that’s an exaggeration, check the bank balance of the founders of essay writing services that students can use for ‘guidance’).

The problem is that students think that the end product is what’s desired and they delegate the responsibility. Some are amazed to hear that skills such as searching for sources, reading, being able to summarise, process, critique is what we’d like to see and a course work is evidence of the student having obtained those skills. This year, I’ll ask students to do work in seminars that they can hand in at the end of each session, which will count as attendance and activity (not just bum on seat) and that will be included in the portfolio with the final course work product.

So as I am continuing to read articles on the spectrum of fakery and falsifying it occurs to me that there is a need to shift from outcome focus to process focus. Reward students and professionals (also outside academia) for the process as much as for the outcome. This requires a culture shift. It’s cognitively tasking to monitor a process. It’s easier to reward the outcome, regardless of how that was achieved. But, as the economic crisis has taught us, it is necessary to be vigilant and observe who does what when and on what intelligence this is based.

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