It has been sometime since I have added an update to Higher Bar.  It was a very busy 2007 covering education and work.  Instead of continuing the potpourri of posts to this one site, I have started two additional blogs to separate health & fitness and personal rants from posts dedicated to research-based business and political observation.

Should you be interested in reading or subscribing to my other sites, I, as always, appreciate your continued support.  There will of course be new material as well as updated versions of some of the more popular posts from A Higher Bar.

Health & Fitness:  Strength Systems

Rants & Raves:  Mr. Horse – coming in February 2008

If you have been following my feed, you may have noticed a drop off in new posts this week. I finally had to come off the ropes swinging at my dissertation if there is hope to get a defense completed anytime this year. I am slowly converting one room of my house into a command center, wall covered in post-its, two hard drives backing up my work, charts, dry-erase boards, and so on.

I have been working on new material for the site as well. I will continue my Healthier You series this weekend with a post on How to Pick a Personal Trainer in addition I will attempt a less partisan article on the current Iraq War. Next week I will temporarily halt my normal business/HR writing (with exception to small news tidbits that may make it across my desk) to have a special full week report on Religion and Complex Society. I do encourage comments on these upcoming post and hope it will lead to some intelligent discourse on the matter.

As always, for those who have been regular readers thank you for your support and for the newly attending, welcome.

I’ve always done reasonably well in school, that is why it was a shock when I received a D- on a paper I had written. Now it wasn’t my favorite class (administrative law) and only counted as a small percentage of my overall grade. I went through the expected cycle: shock, denial, anger and depression. I then, as usual, began looking for the underlying reason, not only to my abysmal grade, but why I, and others it turns out, reacted with such emotional clamor and oh yes there was clamor.

The reason for the mental distress is the same reason a crushing defeat at the last minute in football stings so much or why movies that lead you through a spectacular build-up and fall flat with a mediocre ending leave you dejected. It is called the peak-end rule, a mental heuristic we all possess. Take the case of Yahoo researcher, Cameron Marlow,

In the case of my vacation, the last high-point of my time in Europe was in Florence, followed by one brief day in Copenhagen. Not that there’s anything wrong with Denmark, but that day ends up coming up in more of my conversations than the rest of the trip because that is how memory works (that and blood jello is really, really disgusting). If you’re planning any trips soon, make sure to end on a high note, because you will be the one telling the stories.

In my situation, the feeling that everything was going well was partially rooted in the lack of direction and expectations set by the professor. When the grades were received, those who misinterpreted the scope of the assignment were obviously distressed. Since these concerns were addressed with the professor following this initial assignment, everyone proceeded with a clear understanding going forward.

Unfortunately higher education is not the only place this lack of common direction exists, supervisors and managers are guilty of the same actions. Goals are poorly set with few guidelines, leading to an atmosphere were employees become complacent or pursue the wrong development plans. Some managers go so far as to ask employees to set their own training objectives with little support, then chastise them when they fail to live up to the internal expectations the manager initially had conceived but failed to communicate. When a performance review is finally conducted, generally every six months, employees are left confused and irritated with diminished morale.

- The Star Trek Zone -

Have you ever been watching the news about a social ill or sitting at work puzzled over a productivity issue and said, “I thought we already had a handle on that.” If you were wrong, as it turns out I have been as well, you may be living in what I call ‘The Star Trek Zone (STZ).’ Many might say, come on now, you don’t really believe transporters and replicators exist. The answer to which is obviously no, but I do have a certain expectation with regard to our technological level that may be overinflated by too many hours of Star Trek and Babylon 5.

What is this magnificent zone where all of societies problems have already been solved? I was reading a post about the worst IT worker in the world and wondering why it was that some members of the IT/IS staff share so much contempt for non-tech employees. Sure there are always those who forget their password, can’t see the network printer or think the mouse is used like a remote control, but then there are those special circumstances where they want the impossible from the current system, hence living in the STZ.

- Full Automation AI -

My personal expectation is the belief in a fully automated factory. “Why are hands touching this product at all?” I’ll give you an example, my wife used to work for a pharmaceutical wholesaler. What a surprising number of people do not know is that the backbone of shipping and receiving of drugs is handled not by the manufacturer, but two to three large wholesalers. Anyone who gets a great deal of spam for discount Viagra and Lipitor or who has paid any attention to the practice of importing drugs from Canada, is familiar with the governments warnings on counterfeit drugs. Some states such as Florida have gone so far as to introduce paper pedigree systems to ensure drug purity. Another problem stems from some shipments, particularly narcotics, “falling off the back of the truck.” My initial thought, where is the automated factory with materials going in one end, products being loaded via robot onto truck and delivered factory sealed to the end user.

- How William Shatner Changed the World -

It turns out there may actually be something to this effect as Discovery recently had a special on How William Shatner Changed the World. Now it is highly unlikely that those who are non-technical watched much Star Trek, yet the fact remains that many continue to expect more from technology than is currently possible or probable. At the very least maybe this will provide a humorous idea the next time someone wants the impossible from IT.

“The Synergies are Working”

I have two colleagues with whom I discuss various management issues. Both work for the same organization and within the past two years have encountered a buy-out and a merger. Of course job security is an issue, but I am more impressed with the communication plan instituted. This past week on two different occasions both told me independently “the synergies are starting to work.”

That’s right, they pulled out one of the 1990’s million dollar buzz-words. You remember those right, paradigm, synergy, boundarylessness (thanks Jack). The words that were high value until they were put in the hands of bad management. This reminded me of cobuyitaphobia, the term referenced in the Dilbert episode, The Merger.

Asok: Why don’t we merge with a company that is less dysfunctional than we are? They could spend the money for us.

Pointy Haired Boss: A merger? Hmm. That might get us some synergy!

Asok: I didn’t realize Alice suffers from cobuyitaphobia.

Loud Howard: I know what that is. No, I don’t.

Asok: It is the fear of synergy.

- Management Recylcing -

Just like bell-bottoms and micro-minis, bad management styles have a tendency to recycle and since change is happening at a faster rate than ever, we can expect these instances to occur more often. Adrian Savage points this out in his post, Beware of Management Fasionistas.

Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head.

In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.

I experienced this first hand with a prior manager. Unfortunately what seemed to start out as a fresh new business model ended up being written from a 1990’s consulting playbook of spin-selling. This also meant that a majority of information which was being contributed on foreign markets was also from circa 1996. Even life-long learning and development struggles to keep up with the rehashing of old fads. We all know the old adage that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it. Sadly by the time most employees have cut through the clutter and glitz, figuring out the repackaged goods, it’s time to move onto ‘the next big thing.’

Best practices definately need to be followed and emulated while at the same time groupthink, not-invented here (NIH) and bad management need to be kept in check. Cost-cutting can only get an organization so far and following the leader is not an appropriate strategy. Figure out what you are offering, the process to get it to the customer, put the process in the hands of the right people then stand back and watch the real synergy. Of course, that’s the real trick isn’t it?

With digital technology growing cheaper by the day and becoming widely available for marketing purposes, companies are going into overdrive to fill every bit of ad space they can find. Following are a few articles covering this phenomenon.

“What all marketers are dealing with is an absolute sensory overload,” said Gretchen Hofmann, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Universal Orlando Resort. The landscape is “overly saturated” as companies press harder to make their products stand out, she said.

Media and tech companies are falling over themselves trying to get more and more media content onto more and more platforms. Web video on your TV! Music and games on your cellphone! Downloaded movies on your home-office PC hard drive transmitted to your living room home entertainment system!

As I am sure advertising will become part of these platforms, the IPod case brought to you by Google in conjunction with BASF and so forth and amid the growing utilization of technology to press brand management I wanted to focus on a tried yet true method of product marketing, the in-store sample. Due to some recent weather issues I was unable to gather my weekly groceries on my regular schedule, when the least possible amount of annoyances are present. Instead I hit my local Target at noon on Saturday. At the head of every aisle was an employee pushing a sample of juice, granola or frozen organic pizza. As I tried vehemently to proceed down each aisle I was halted by two to three people surrounding the sample cart.

This week I also made it to Target on Saturday, witnessed the same sample carts and decided to stop off for some coffee at the Starbucks and observe. Several times I witnessed a patron coming around the corner of an aisle, stopping to check out the offering, exactly what the store and it’s suppliers want. Meanwhile, there are two to three people stopped behind the sample consumer, slowly getting irritated. By the time this happens four or five times, everyone is in a mad dash for the registers already fed up with the shopping trip. By the time I am finished, there are typically three or four items I have forgotten because I am tired of being in the store, purchases that go to the grocery store up the street.

There has recently been a viral marketing backlash.

Videos such as “Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out” and those posted by Lonelygirl15 on You Tube may help sell products or kick-start a budding actor’s career. But they also have a more pernicious effect on our tendency to trust what seems genuine.

“I can’t see how they don’t make people more cynical,” says Gillian Watson, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

As business and other pursuits take more of our time, can we expect this same backlash against traditional marketing techniques that interupt our schedules? Are markets that over-utilize the in-store sample loosing sales at the expense of increased purchases of a few items?  Regardless, I probably need to take a few deep breaths before my next trip to the store.

Again, despite having experience working in the Middle East I feel there are several blogs which contribute greater public discourse on the topic than I, considering I really only focus on that area a few days a week at most. One thing has recently caught my attention, however, with respect to the escalating situation with Iran.

Last week the administration couldn’t quite get its story straight with respect to the potential supply of weapons from Iranian special forces to Iraqi insurgents. Now one can look at various aspects of the media coverage over the past 6 months. One week Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is speaking about destroying Israel and the West, the next he wants diplomatic discussions. First they have a secret nuclear program, and then it is for peaceful purposes. Stories even run to the extreme on both sides of the fence from a conservative view that Iran wants to convert the world to Islam and a liberal interpretation that the US will conduct a false-flag attack on soldiers or sailors in the Gulf to justify limited bombing runs.

What I find interesting is the lack of reporting on the middle class democratic movement in Iran. Prior to the election of Ahmadinejad and the growing rhetoric on our two countries foreign policy, several stories were run discussing the US-Persian influence, via satellite on sympathetic ears inside Iran. The US government had even committed funds to support such efforts to expand the Iranian middle-class and expand the push for democracy. I have two questions: (1) where has the reporting on this situation gone and (2) have we succeeded in alienating the one constituency in Iran that may have supported us?

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