Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Category Archives: Changing Processes

Telepresence Tourist

Telepresence robot

I have become fascinated by the possibilities of telepresence robots. There are a bevy of new companies that are making these machines.

You might imagine one as a Segway scooter with an iPad on top, except in this case instead of riding the scooter you are driving it from 100 or thousand miles away over the Internet. And, the iPad projects your image, or presence, in addition to bringing you sight and sound.

Actually there are a number of configurations of these devices that range in price from about $3000-$15,000 each. You can see some examples here.

A number of years ago I had the experience while talking with someone over a Skype video connection of having them carry their portable computer around and introducing me to people and showing me the convention facility where the person was working. Some years afterward I remember visually remembering this experience and feeling a certain amount of confusion, because I knew I had never been in that place with this person. Yet, in my visual memory it felt as if I had actually been there until I recognized it was this person acting as my telepresence robot and moving through this space to show me things.

I realized from this experience that when I eventually use one of these telepresence robots I’m going to have to create a new set of mental file folders for visual experiences at a distance. And, I also realized how interesting those experiences might be.

I’ve been to Paris, but I’ve never toured the Louvre Museum. I wonder what it would be like to tour it as a telepresence tourist? Could I wander down the halls with my remotely controlled presence and stop and enjoy artworks of particular interest? How would others react to my presence? How comfortable would the museum authorities be knowing that the person controlling this device was well beyond their physical, or perhaps even legal, reach?

Are there business opportunities for telepresence tourist agencies? Could the museum itself organize a fleet of these 21st century avatars and offer special tours at times when the museum might otherwise be closed, but that would be prime time for tourist many time zones away? With a globally aging population that might have strength or agility limitations, might these folks represent a new, untapped market for the museum? People could tour from the safety of their lounge chair, yet have much to talk about with others over dinner in the evening.

So, keep your eye out for telepresence robots. They may let us expand our world in new ways.

Where do you think the opportunities will emerge? What issues and concerns can you envision?

Evolution of US Democracy

Are we stuck? Structurally stuck? Sometimes I feel that we are. Our democratic processes feel like they are stuck and not evolving.

We have evolved in the past. We changed the way senators were chosen. We removed structural barriers to voting based on gender, race and age. Now I wonder how we evolve in an age when information and communication tools potentially provide new options.

I wonder about senators. Does a compromise that was made several hundred years ago fit the reality of today’s world? How do we justify two senators in states like Rhode Island, Delaware and Wyoming, or others with smaller populations, when a large state like California also only has two senators? For that matter, do state boundaries themselves reflect the realities of how people live and work today?

I have a very difficult time imagining the process that would change either of those two conditions. It is hard to imagine the amount of sustained energy, perseverance and determination, let alone what interests could be brought together to cause it to happen, that could facilitate such change.

We want government to be stable and predictable. An unstable government is not a pretty thing, as we can see from headlines around the world. We created bureaucracy because it helps create stability and continuity across elections. Yet, when does that stability become hardening of the arteries?

Perhaps the more important question is how do we make sure our democracy keeps evolving so that we can avoid the violent transitions when governments cling to the past and do not evolve?

Two words that float in a growing word cloud of change vocabulary might give some hints about seeds of evolution – “engagement” and “collaboration”. The Internet has allowed us to move from silent consumers of information to engaged contributors. I do not believe it has done as well in giving us tools for collaboration, or, at least, they are not used as broadly as they might be.

I am more familiar with local government because I spent several years as chief administrative officer of a city, so let me suggest a local scenario that might nurture those two seeds.

A prominent, and well tested, model for orchestrating change at the local level is the blue ribbon panel. This is a group of local citizens who are willing and interested in helping their community and represent different constituencies in the area. Typically these groups are limited in size to the number of people a large conference room can accommodate. I participated in many of these groups.

I began to make several observations about the limits of this method. First, it does not fit the growing engagement model because a relatively small group of people make the decisions and then look to get “buy-in” from the rest of the community. Buy-in is a selling process not an engagement one. Also, as the problems got more complex the blue ribbon panel lacked the depth and breath to address the issues. And, often the members of the multiple panels that existed at any one time, addressing different community issues, overlapped because their jobs allow them the flexibility to participate in meetings during the normal business day.

Today’s online tools provide the possibility of greatly expanding the number of people who can be involved, and have engagement in the process, while still maintaining a sense of order. Let me briefly suggest a scenario just to illustrate how such a process might work.

The area where I live, like many areas in the country, is de-industrializing its river. The river connects three small cities in the region and also flows through some suburban municipalities. The question of how to plan for development of the river in the future is one that crosses many municipal boundaries, and reasonably should have coordination among these different governmental units.

Suppose instead of a blue ribbon panel we had a much larger group of interested and knowledgeable community members each of whom could make a small contribution of their time and knowledge. We might have people from universities who have charted the river or who do survey research. We could have different interests from each municipality represented. We could have engineers and hydrologists. Suppose instead of 30 or 40 people, we had 500 or 600 people involved and engaged.

We could potentially create the plan for future use of the river in greater detail by tapping the expertise within this broad group. We might use a tool like a wiki as a place for collaborative writing of the group’s report. At the end, we would also have a large group of people who have invested their time and energy in the project and who can collaborate to help move the recommendations through the political process.

Could such an approach work in your community? Could you personally be more involved in such a process if it provided the flexibility of online involvement and contribution?


Depressed Robots and Workers?

At a Ben Franklin Technology Partners events last year I heard futurist Jack Uldrich explain how the field of robotics will grow 1000-fold in the coming decade. Hearing this presentation made me start to ponder the implications of this type of change and pay more attention to articles that related to the growth of robotics.

Several months later a flurry of news articles occurred when Foxconn, the company that does the actual manufacturing for companies like Apple Computer and produces its iPhone and iPad products, announced that it would be deploying 1 million robots by 2013. This article gave some reality to Uldrich’s prediction.

As I recall Uldrich did not offer any particular definition of a robot. My own imagination tends to think of a robot as something that has physical form and mechanical motion involved. I began to stretch the definition when the IBM Watson computer competed on the Jeopardy television program and successfully outperformed the two previous most successful contestants on that show. As I might imagine a mechanical robot having implications on the manufacturing floor, I began to imagine Watson’s successors having potential impact in the office.

Watson’s success helped it (and IBM) get a new job in the healthcare field. It is now in training to become a very powerful assistant to oncology doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. A health insurance company, WellPoint, is the client for the project.

Although Watson sounds like a person, it does not have a physical and mechanical form like a robot. It is simply a voice that we hear from an invisible and distant computer system. It is generally placed in the category of artificial intelligence or AI.

In that same category Apple introduced for its newest iPhone the AI assistant Siri. While Siri is not in the same league as Watson in terms of the questions that it can answer, I find it interesting because it introduces this type of tool to a broad consumer audience and stirs the competitive pot for other major companies like Google and Microsoft.

In a previous post I mentioned the Stanford University AI course that was offered for free and that attracted something like 160,000 online students. This certainly shows the level of interest in AI and now there are a substantial number of people who know more about it from two of the top people in the field.

Related to that course two business entities, Udacity and Coursera, have been formed, and Cousera has received $16 million in venture funding. In addition, MIT and Harvard have formed an entity, perhaps in response, to similarly offer online courses. All of this means there is a lot more learning possible on a global basis.

“Everything will be automated, and all we will have to do is learn and learn how to take care of each other.” My one friend says this to me frequently. Although we are a long way from that, the blips on the radar screen that I mentioned above all seem to point in that direction.

But how will we handle all of this as individuals, and as a society. One of my clients in its manufacturing facility has three or four robots and several hundred employees. What will that facility look like in 10 years if the number of robots increases by a factor of 1000? This is a company that values its employees highly and did not have any layoffs during the recent great recession. How will it accommodate competitive pressures if others in its industry, without the same value system, use robots extensively to their advantage?

If we are all going to have to learn – new skills – new opportunities for learning certainly are emerging rapidly with a very different cost structure, but still the requirement of a lot of effort on the learner’s part. Will we be able to provide the government, business and social support necessary for people to move through these transitions and feel optimistic about their lives and the future? Or, will we, as the workers, feel as bad as Marvin the robots does in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” movie?

Demonstration, Not Certification

In my last posting I talked about “designing a seed” and here I would like to add some first strand of DNA to that seed.

The seed I am talking about is the conceptual design of a learning model for adults that can take advantage of the new infrastructure of the Internet and help spread knowledge around the globe. It is a seed in the sense that it must contain the essentials that will let it grow into something much larger.

The definition of andragogy (more focused on adults) versus pedagogy (more focused on children) emphasizes that adults want to learn things that they can put to use in their life. Children are often learning things that will have potential future value, but may not immediately be put to use. Andragogy is also more about self-directed learning and learning that draws from sharing adult life experiences. So, the design of this seed will draw on the concepts of andragogy. You can find definitions here and here.

Most traditional educational institutions provide some type of certification in the form of a high school diploma or college degree or a professional certification. These certifications are part of the function of the institutions that provide the courses or training and they are part of the financial structure for those institutions. My sense is that to address global learning needs certification may be more a barrier than an enabler. For this reason, I suggest exploring the idea “demonstration, not certification” as part of the DNA of the seed.

By making demonstration a part of the process it reinforces the idea of learning that can be put to use. A demonstration can show how the learning is, or can be, used. With the increasing availability of video a demonstration of new knowledge can also be documented.

The idea that part of the process is sharing adult life experiences means there needs to be a group of adults as part of the effort. Since the learning is self directed, each adult in the group may be looking to learn something different versus the structure of a traditional course where everyone is looking to be taught the same thing. The group in this case acts as supporters, enablers and documenters.

The idea of individualized learning, not only in style but also in content, is a challenge that many people in education are considering today. Individualization is a major design criteria for this seed.

There is certainly a huge amount of content on the Internet and a growing amount of that content is intended to help people learn versus selling services or products. The challenge is finding the appropriate content, or putting it together in a way that can be most helpful for someone who is interested in using it for learning. Sometimes I think of this as someone putting together a playlist, like grouping a series of musical recordings around a theme. In this case linking instructional, or informational items, that someone can use as part of an individualized, group supported learning program. I have begun to think of the person who puts this playlist together as a “curator”, like someone who organizes an art exhibition for others to enjoy and learn from.

So, here are some of the design criteria that I think need to be part of this seed that might grow into a harvest of newly educated people:

1. Individualized learning for adults;
2. Self-directed learning that the individual finds of value and use;
3. Supported by a group of individuals similarly engaged in learning;
4. Curated playlists of Internet content as learning modules; and,
5. Demonstration, not certification, of the knowledge and skills that have been learned.


How many adults around the globe do you think could benefit from new knowledge that could help them improve their lives and living standards? Could it easily be several billion people?

How many people do you think could afford to pay for that learning at the rates that are charged for college courses or continuing education programs or business workshops? Probably not very many.

What new tools and social factors might help us reduce the cost and deliver new knowledge broadly? The Internet is certainly one of the tools. Research about how we learn and the differences in learning styles offer other tools. Social factors like new organizational forms that produce results like Wikipedia and the Linux operating system offered new ideas about organizing and getting people involved in such activities.

Another major social factor is that we have more people living longer who have immense amounts of life experience and expertise that they could share. Also, many of these people have enough “retirement” income to give them greater flexibility in terms of how they spend their time. And, some may want additional purpose in their lives and enjoy connecting with people in other places and other cultures.

If you can accept these premises – and please feel free to challenge them – how could we design a different educational approach that would be much less expensive and that could be replicated and scaled to meet global needs?

I see that challenge as “designing a seed“, because it has to start very small but have within its core the necessary DNA blueprint to grow into something much, much larger.

I want to explore some ideas about that design in subsequent posts. I am also wondering about the soil that will be necessary to germinate this seed and to nourish it as it grows.

So, what factors do you think fit into this design? Does the Stanford University course with 140,000 registrants mentioned in my last post suggest any factors that should be considered in this design? What else is happening in education that you might know about that is changing the model for adult learning in terms of cost and scale?

Changing Word Cloud

On many blogs, and some websites, you might notice a segment off to the side with many different words displayed varying in type size and boldness. These are word clouds that give an indication of the prominence of certain words or tags on that site.


I have been building my own mental word cloud from speaker presentations at my executive peer group meetings and from continually scanning the Internet. My mental radar tends to pick up words that indicate changes in societal norms that affect organizations and how they operate internally, or interact with their external environment.


For example, about seven years ago I attended a small conference of early pioneers in what was then being called video blogging during a blizzard in New York City. Some of the founders of the video sharing system where there and just starting to patch together an early version of the system. Interacting with the people involved in that conference and the related e-mail discussions made me aware of the emergence of the word authentic. It was very important for these video bloggers that their work be authentic to contrast with the corporate videos that were then the norm.


Use of that word has spread tremendously, and it has been used to contrast with official “propaganda” from businesses or government or the shallowness of political statements. Authentic and open often come together, or are expressed as transparency.


Growth, an always worshiped concept, is being questioned by the word sustainable. Now we might be more likely to hear discussion about sustainable growth, or growth may be put aside entirely and the question may be purely “is it sustainable?”


The question of growth is sometimes addressed in another form by asking is it scalable? Usually this applies to software and Internet services in terms of the number of users or the amount of data, or both. The scale of systems, and the number of people that can be accommodated, is stretching far beyond our previous limits. As an example, a recent experiment at Stanford University offered open access to an artificial intelligence course, which eventually had an enrollment of 140,000 people.


The concept of collaborative activities seems to have a steady and continuing impact on our expressions of how we should work together. The students of the Stanford course very quickly self-organized into many study groups using existing Internet services like and Facebook. Collaboration involves sharing information and expertise, which sometimes clashes with how we were molded in school. We could not share our answers or our homework because that was “cheating”.


Engagement is looking to replace the old process of buy-in. Engagement comes before the decisions are made, while buy-in is the process of selling a decision that has already been made, usually by an elite and relatively small group. And engagement is usually a collaborative activity that involves systems that must be scalable to accommodate larger groups of people than has been the industrial age norm. To have trust in such interactions there must be transparency and authenticity.


These changes threaten industrial age hierarchies. There is more need, and available systems to support, broad group conversation. This is particularly difficult for organizational hierarchies that look to have official positions and pronouncements. Using Facebook to have conversations with customers, while being authentic and not simply repeating the company position, can be very challenging and risky.

The Occupy Wall Street movement illustrated how some of these concepts have come together to affect societal expectations and norms.

Occupy Wall Street participants were questioned by traditional media to determine their positions and demands so that the media could test them to see if the public would buy-in, but there was no spokesperson and no position paper. There was a mismatch of expectations about industrial age processes versus emerging information age processes. Engagement via conversation was the norm, and not just locally, but on a global scale. This USA action is part of a global conversation that Time Magazine recognized this year with its “person of the year” cover story.


So, do any of these words appear in your personal word cloud? Do you think they have any lasting significance? Have you noticed any other words slipping into our global dialogue that indicate shifts in our thinking?

One word that I am watching is the concept of a curator as it is now being applied far beyond its normal usage in the art world. Let’s see if it becomes more prominent this year.