Chris Hardie

Blog, Tech, Business and Community Building

April 4, 2014

Powerlessness and Empowerment with Frances Moore Lappé

A week ago I had the opportunity to hear Frances Moore Lappé speak here in Richmond. She's primarily known around the world as author of Diet for a Small Planet, but she's also an Earlham College graduate, so it was great that she came back to her alma mater to give a talk.

Lappé's talk overall was about how we can move from a place of powerlessness to a place of empowerment when it comes to working on addressing various ills that plague the world - from climate change to energy/resource crises to poverty, and all of the other systems and issues that are related.

It's a topic, a question that's been on my mind lately as I think about my own vocation, and where (to borrow from Frederick Buechner) my talents and interests might meet the world's deep needs. The question wasn't answered for me during the talk, but there were a few insights and random bits of wisdom that I want to preserve here:

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April 3, 2014

Are you leaking institutional knowledge?

Been through a lotIs your business or organization leaking institutional knowledge? How much is it costing you every day?

Every kind of business, not-for-profit, government office and other organization has institutional knowledge. It's the information you share with new people joining your staff about how things work. It's the decisions you make at meetings or in conversations with your co-workers or volunteers. It's the bits and pieces of shared understanding that develop through email messages, memos and other printed and electronic material that you create.

But many organizations don't take steps to preserve this institutional knowledge, or to give their staff, volunteers or other stakeholders easy access to it.

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April 1, 2014

Influx by Daniel Suarez

I recently finished reading the novel Influx by one of my favorite "tech thriller" writers, Daniel Suarez - here's a quick review.

The basic premise of Influx is that humanity's scientific and tech geniuses have created many more technological break-throughs than most of the world knows about, and that a secret department of the U.S. government has taken extreme steps to hide those break-throughs in the name of protecting everyday people from their practical implications. The plot thickens when there's resistance to that department's methods, and I won't say much more about it to avoid spoiling what unfolds, but you can imagine the story-telling fun that can be had when futuristic-and-very-advanced human tech and mindsets meets present day human tech and mindsets.  And most of it is pretty dark stuff - no kibbitzing with humpback whale scenes here.

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March 22, 2014

Shutting down Richmond Brainstorm

20140322-screenshotFive years ago this month I launched the community improvement website RichmondBrainstorm.com. The site allowed users to submit ideas for ways to make Richmond, Indiana a better place, allowed other users to discuss and vote on those ideas, and shared success stories of ideas that had been implemented. I created the site because I think it's important for a given community to shape its own course for the future instead of waiting for solutions from state and national governments, and because I was tired of hearing good, creative ideas from others that never seemed to get the attention or visibility they deserved.

In the time since, some 86 community improvement ideas were submitted and discussed, and a number of the ideas became real projects that were implemented. The site got over 140,000 visits from around 45,000 unique visitors. I've also received contact from people other communities around the country asking for help to create a similar resource in their city, and so the idea of an online community improvement idea inventory seems to itself have become an idea worth spreading.

But, after an initial period of significant activity, the Richmond Brainstorm site had become largely dormant, with no new ideas submitted to it in close to a year. Over the years I've regularly talked to local community development organizations who have said the concept of the site is an exciting one and could even be integrated into their own efforts at prompting further conversations and action, but as yet Richmond does not seem to be a place where most of those kinds of conversations want to happen online, for better or worse. That combined with the time that it takes to keep the site's software current, deal with spammers and perform other administrative tasks has begun to outweigh the value that I think RichmondBrainstorm.com is currently bringing to the community.

So, as of today I'm shutting the site down.

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March 16, 2014

How I stay current with tech

Deloreans on paradeI'm continuing my series of posts about how I do or have done certain things in my business/tech career, and it has been helpful for me to write out my responses to these questions in a way I can point other people to. I'm honored to get requests from friends and colleagues now and then to talk with their students, children and co-workers who have an interest in developing tech skills, going into business and related topics.

One of the most common questions I've gotten is how I stay on top of current trends and tools in information and Internet technology.

Of course, the answer to that has changed a lot over the last 10-15 years. It used to be that one actually did have a hope of being on top of most of the major breakthroughs, news and trends happening with the Internet and related industries, if you were willing to spend the time on it.

Today there are legions of news sites, social media feeds, conferences and other cottage industries devoted to covering technology trends, news and breakthroughs that seem to barely scratch the surface, and trying to keep up with them would be more than a full time job. So whatever your area of focus or interest, you surely have to do some picking, choosing and compromising, and even then you'll probably miss out on some relevant or even important stuff. A lot of my own approach is focused on keeping up on trends related to website development and online publishing, software development for the web, network architecture and security, encryption and privacy issues, and "life hacks" that make me more productive.

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March 16, 2014

Educational attainment in Wayne County, Indiana

An article in today's Palladium-Item quotes the U.S. Census Bureau statistic that "7.9 percent of Wayne County residents have a four-year college degree. The state average is 14.6 percent."

I haven't been able to find the data that supports those statements. According to the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates, the numbers are a little better than that: 16.8% of the Wayne County population over 18 have a bachelor's degree or higher. Other collections and analysis of data also suggest better numbers, e.g. 13.7% of people 25 or older have a bachelor's degree or higher or 17.1% of people 25 or older have a B.A. or higher degree.

I wholeheartedly agree with the article's point that the community needs to address 'brain drain' and improve our education situation. But I was troubled to read that the number of residents with a four-year college degree or better are that low, and at least with some initial research, it appears they may not be.

I'll reach out to the Palladium-Item to see if I can get more information about the source of the stats.

UPDATE on March 18th: Louise Ronald at the Palladium-Item helped clarify the discrepancy, noting that the original percentages in the article were from the EDC's strategic plan, and that

"The strategic plan numbers represent a % of the total population, whereas the quick facts is only taking into account the population ages 25 and older. Quick facts is also including bachelor's degree and higher into their 17%, whereas the strategic plan report has them separated between 4 year degree and graduate degree."

So, depending on whether you want to include people with graduate degrees in the stats of people who have a 4-year degree, or just want to identify people ONLY with a 4-year degree, the numbers are different.

March 14, 2014

How I learned to run a business

Meeting RoomContinuing in the theme of last week's post on how I became a computer geek, I thought I'd also share some thoughts on how I learned to run a business.

I get asked now and then what path led me to the world of business ownership/management, and I think the short answer is that I've always just learned what I needed to know to support my other interests and passions, and in one particular long-running case, that meant learning the world of business. I've never set out to run a business for the sake of running a business, and I don't have any formal educational training in that skill set.

I'm not sure that my story should be any kind of model for others; I don't claim that I've always learned to run a business well, and I'm sure that there are many things I could and should have done better over the years. But by at least a few traditional measures of my company Summersault's performance from 1997-2013 - profitability, financial stability and customer satisfaction - I think I can claim some success along the way.

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March 7, 2014

How I became a computer geek

chris-geekOccasionally people ask me how I got started working in the world of computers and Internet technology. There were a lot of different factors - from my own curiosity to the learning and discovering my parents and teachers encouraged to the timing of what tools/tech became available as I grew up. I don't think I can hold one particular decision or moment up over another as key, but I thought I'd try to hit some of the highlights.

As a kid I was apparently very, very curious about how things worked, especially appliances and other mechanical things. I would take them apart to understand the innards, and then try to put them back together again more or less in the same working order. I was fortunate to have parents who let me do this exploring, and where they might have had good reason to be exasperated by having household fixtures disassembled and strewn about, they instead were supportive.

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March 4, 2014

An odd jobs list for staff and volunteer engagement

SwansWithin any given business or organization, the ideal is (probably) that everyone working or volunteering there will not only take on all of the tasks and projects that are clearly a part of their recognized role, but that they'll also work on things not necessarily assigned to them but that are still useful to the overall goals of that organization.

If everyone shares the same vision and goals, and everyone participating is sufficiently empowered and inspired to work toward those goals, this ideal can be easy to realize.  There is almost certainly always something else that can be done to support or further the mission of the places we work and volunteer; if there's someone who regularly ends up having some "down time" with "nothing to do" then there's probably something else wrong - with the person's mindset, the structure they are working within, or the organizational culture overall.

In practice, I've found that people have different personalities and personal/work backgrounds that lead them to respond differently to this idea of "working on things that weren't necessarily assigned to me."  For some, it's a no-brainer and they can jump right into that mentality.  For others, it represents a threshold of riskiness and potential for failure that they may not be willing to cross: "If it wasn't assigned to me and I do it wrong, I don't want to be responsible for the outcome."  For still others, it can just be the challenge of imagining tasks or projects outside their job description or previously assigned duties; the inertia of working within familiar problem spaces is hard to overcome.

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