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Disrupting ISIS Networks Could Thwart Growth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, June 09, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, June 09, 2015

ISIS Wives Collaborate to Evade Surveillance    

Twitter and other social media platforms are integral to ISIS's global recruitment and radicalization efforts. Twitter has shut down some of the more inflammatory ISIS accounts, but Isabel Nassief, a social media analyst, suggests in a New York Times story that ISIS’s far flung reach may be more important than the content of its messages. She reports that on Twitter, a relatively small group of pro-ISIS accounts disseminate information that is then broadcast by their followers to thousands of other users. This process repeats itself over and over every day. As more than 20,000 foreigners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join extremist groups, she writes,  ISIS's strategy is clearly working. She suggests disrupting ISIS’s social media networks to thwart its growth.

Another New York Times story by Eric Schmitt describes a trove of intelligence that American agencies recovered from computers, cell phones, electronic devices and other materials seized after an air strike on the headquarters of an ISIS leader in eastern Syria. The information yielded clues on how ISIS’s shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi and regional leaders keep their locations and activities secret. Among other tactics, the wives of ISIS leaders pass information among themselves and then to their spouses, to evade detection.  U.S. officials said ISIS is sophisticated,  highly networked and resilient. The information also provided insight into ISIS’s business enterprises, which include kidnap for ransom, and its oil, gas and financial operations. Read the stories here and here.

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Bin Laden’s Bookshelf Reflected Managerial Concerns

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 04, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Readings on Networks, Leadership, and Politics

Future  challenges for counterterrorism efforts won’t be Al Qaeda but what will follow Al Qaeda—a decentralized network of radical extremists that will be more difficult to identify and monitor,  Paul R. Pillar wrote  more than a decade ago.

Pillar, now a Brookings Institution scholar, is a former deputy chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counter Terrorist Center, and author of Terrorism and U.S.  Foreign Policy. He wrote in 2004 that the centralized organization that Osama bin Laden had headed before the September 11 attacks was already in disarray, with many senior and mid level leaders incarcerated or dead, and others on the run. But he warned that the roots of the extremism were very much alive and growing deeper in a global network that extended well beyond Al Qaeda itself.

 Pillar predicted new threats would emerge from an eclectic and decentralized array of groups, cells and individuals, including jihadists  who might not be attached  to a particular group but  who could draw support from  networks of like-minded extremists He also suggested decentralization would increase the complexity of combating terrorism. Intelligence would become harder to gather and analyze, and lack of a large, visible and well financed centralized organization could make it harder to enlist foreign and domestic support for anti-terrorist initiatives.

Pillar’s essay, from a 2004 issue of  the Washington Quarterly,  was among the books, journals press clippings and other documents found. in Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbotabad  when U.S. Navy SEALs captured him. The director of U.S. National Intelligence released a declassified list of the reading matter. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kukatani  called the collection a “weird hodgepodge” that included mainstream scholarly works on economics and U.S. foreign policy and wild conspiracy theories. It’s not clear what Bin Laden actually studied or thought. But Kukatani and other reviewers say the material reflected Bin Laden’s ambitions and managerial concerns. AlQaeda had become a kind of giant corporation—prospective fighters had to submit a thee page  job application and those accepted had to turn in expense reports. The library suggests the terrorist leader was trying to keep tabs on his own splintering organization and understand global issues, probably in search of wiser ways to attack his perceived enemies.  

Pillar wrote that post Al Qaeda terrorism would have “more moving parts, more geographically disparate operations, and more ideological momentum.”  He predicted new leaders would emerge. But he said the looser the network connections become, and the less terroristic activities are associated with a single individual, the harder it will be to identify operatives and track their movements and relationships.    Given these limitations, he said, counter terrorism will have to rely on other policy instruments, such as physical security to thwart attacks and efforts to understand and address the appeal of the radical extremists. The growth Islamist extremism in the Muslim world, he asserted, was fostered by distrust of America and its Western allies, and by the lack of credible alternatives to oppose the despised established order.

In a 2014 essay, Pillar discusses ISIS as one of the organizations that emerged in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s deterioration and the dispersal of its leadership. Despite the horrifying and highly publicized brutality of ISIS, Pillar warns against a U.S. policy narrowly focused on destroying it; he says we want to be sure that in going after one monster we don’t create another one.  The lessons from Al Qaeda, he writes, illustrate that even though a particular organization might be destroyed, its methods and ideologies are likely to emerge elsewhere and take other forms as long as he underlying enabling conditions exist. .

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Simple Rules from a Founding Father?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 29, 2015

When Benjamin Franklin was in his 20s, he began what he called “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He created a catalogue of 13 virtues. He made a chart to record his daily performance on each one by itself for one week. The plan was to cycle through the list four times each year and persevere for as long as it took to make all the virtues habitual.

In his Autobiography, Franklin explains he devised the plan after first finding behavior change much harder than he’d expected. “In guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another;” he wrote. “habit took the advantage of inattention.” He decided good intentions weren’t enough to prevent “slipping” and that bad habits needed to be broken and good ones established before one could depend on “uniform rectitude of conduct.”

The virtues he pursued were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. That last was added because a Quaker friend suggested Franklin needed to counter his tendency to be argumentative, overbearing and too proud of his own assertions.  Franklin describes maintaining simplicity in his definitions and the steps for achievement.  For example, to achieve temperance, he would  “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”  Confining the goal to food and drink, he didn’t have to moderate all other appetites and passions while working on temperance. For the virtue of moderation, his meaning was “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”  He made an ink dot on the chart for each slip, and his goal was unmarked pages.

He describes his trouble with order. Putting things neatly in place and a keeping a strictly scheduled day  didn’t come naturally to him. But the hardest job was humility. His simple strategy was enormously complex: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates. “

“I cannot boast much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it,” he wrote after years of experimenting. He noted wryly that if he had actually suppressed his pride, he would have become proud of his humility. A black mark generator!  But the project was more than a check list. He learned to eliminate aggressive contradictions and dogmatic language and to pleasantly concede some value in opinions he opposed. He reported conversations and relationships improved. He credited his new skills with enhancing his influence with fellow citizens and others in the councils he joined and the diplomacy he negotiated.  When proposing new institutions or alterations to old ones, he wrote, “I generally carried my points.”

Does Franklin’s project exemplify simple rules?

In addition to extraordinary leadership as a Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Franklin was a diplomat, scientist and social innovator. He was also a pioneer or continual self improvement and behavior plans.  Franklin made a conscious choice to change old patterns in his behavior, create new ones and align his actions with his objectives.  He had profound impact on those around him.

Much of the scholarship on simple rules deals with how people function in organizations and businesses. A thoughtful Harvard Business Review article “Simple Rules for a Complex World” by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt discusses research on some of the simple rules that have helped decision making and problem solving in business environments where fast pace, competition and change are the norm. The authors even suggests rules for developing simple rules:

Identify bottlenecks that pose barriers to organizational goals

Let data trump opinion.

Let users make the rules.

Rules should be concrete and easily understood  

Rules should evolve as circumstances change.


Two books that explore this topic and the science behind it are Simple Rules: A Radical Inquiry into Self, by Malary Tytel and Royce Holladay, and Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Katheen M. Eisenhardt.

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Drugs in Water May Be More Potent After Purification

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 22, 2015

Unintended Consequences of Wastewater Treatment

Some pharmaceuticals that find their way into sewage may emerge from wastewater treatment with intensified potency because of unexpected chemical interactions between the drugs and the agents intended to purify the water.

Scientists have found two common methods of purification may have the unintended consequence of strengthening prescription medication residues in water instead of removing them. In one instance, researchers performed tests on wastewater before and after treatment with microbes often used to decompose organic matter at the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which serves the greater Milwaukee area. They found carbamazephine, an anti-seizure and mood stabilizing drug sold under brand names that include  Tegretol, Carbarol and Epitol,  was 80 percent stronger than when it went into the sewage.  The same researchers found ofloxacin, an antibiotic sold under many brand names, was 120 percent stronger.  The findings are described in Scientific American and Environmental Health stories by Brian Bienkowski.

Similar findings were reported elsewhere, though the strengthen effect was not discovered in most testing.  Canadian researchers found that carbamazephine more than doubled its medicinal strength after passing through treatment in a plant in Peterborough, Ontario, Bienkowski writes.  Blair and colleagues found 48 pharmaceuticals in the wastewater they tested, and carbamazephine and ofloxacin were the only two that increased in strength. 

It’s not surprising that sewage contains pharmaceuticals, because people who take prescription drugs excrete whatever passes through their systems, unused drugs are often flushed down toilets, and some pharmaceutical manufacturing plants emit waste products into the environment. But how do the drugs get stronger? Dr. Benjamin Blair, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, began the research when he was a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin. He thinks when people take medications, their bodies break them down into different metabolites, and that the microbes used in water treatment take those different parts of the drug and put them back together, recombining them in new ways that intensity potency.

Dr. Oyla Keen from the University of North Carolina and colleagues found that when the common antibiotic doxycycline was exposed in laboratory tests to the chlorine used to treat wastewater, the resulting product was even stronger than the doxycycline that had been the parent compound. A ScienceDaily story reports that chlorine treatment may even encourage the formation of new previously unknown antibiotics that could contribute to antibiotic resistance when they enter the environment. Research is underway to identify the new products.  

“Treated wastewater is one of the major sources of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics in the environment,” Keen told ScienceDaily. “Wastewater treatment facilities were not designed to remove these drugs. These molecules are typically very stable and do not easily get biodegraded. Instead, most just pass through the treatment facility and into the aquatic environment,” and into streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and eventually drinking water.  Environmental groups have asked drug companies to design medicines that are more efficiently metabolized by the body.  

The World Health Organization reports that the very low concentration of pharmaceuticals that get into drinking water pose a very low human health risk. But WHO calls drugs in the water an emerging issue that needs continuing review. The effects of long term exposure and the possible combined effects of pharmaceutical mixtures are unknown. Keen says pharmaceuticals can harm aquatic creatures, slowing their reaction time in the wild and disrupting their hormone systems. The Harvard Health newsletter says estrogen and similar chemicals have had feminizing effects on male fish and have altered male-to-female ratios among fish. The newsletter also reports fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants have been found with antidepressant medications concentrated in their brain tissue.  

Read an Associated Press report on pharmaceutical chemicals found in drinking water in American cities.


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Neighborhoods Impact A Child’s Future Income

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Surprising New Discoveries in Research Revisited   

New research shows that where we grow up influences the rest of our lives, and that wealth isn’t the whole story. The findings suggest place plays a big part in which poor kids escape poverty as adults, and that a childhood move to a better neighborhood can change a life trajectory.

After the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago, Congress created an antipoverty initiative called Moving to Opportunity, which provided vouchers to help poor families move to better neighborhoods.  The vouchers were randomly assigned so that researchers could study the neighborhood effect. Initially, little economic difference was found. Though some health benefits were identified, the program was considered a failure.

In a new study on upward mobility across America, researchers examined earnings records of millions of families who moved with children.  The mass of data they gathered showed poor kids who grew up in some cities and towns had a much better chance of escaping poverty as adults than similar poor kids who grew up elsewhere.  The researchers, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, found that among those who had moved, every year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood contributed to measurably improved economic outcomes as adults. For kids whose families relocated to worse neighborhoods, adult economic outcomes changed by the same degree but for the worse. The research is described in a New York Times story by David Leonhardt, Amada Cox, and Claire Cain Miller.    

“The data show we can do something about upward mobility,” Chetty told The Times. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.” Because each year had an impact, the research showed a teenagers’s year in a better neighborhood mattered as much as a younger child’s year. Chetty and Hendren reexamined Moving to Opportunity, and with longer-term and more recent data, found that those children too benefited financially as adults.

Places most conducive to upward mobility shared several traits: good elementary schools, stable families, high levels of civic involvement, less income inequality, and more residential integration of affluent, middle income and low income families.  Future prospects for low income children varied significantly depending on location. . For instance, data showed the probability of a child reaching the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4 percent in Charlotte but 12.9 percent in San Jose.  

Areas that fostered measurable upward mobility for poor kids included large cities—San Francisco,  San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Providence, R.I., and suburban counties such as Fairfax, VA, Bergen, NJ,  Bucks, PA, and Macomb, MI.

Researchers found low income children from Baltimore faced the worst odds of escaping poverty. Boys who grew up poor in Baltimore earned 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born there and moved away as children. Other places where poor kids faced daunting odds included areas of some of the nation’s biggest cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, The Bronx and parts of Manhattan. The Times published charts showing how childhood location influenced adult income.  See The Times interactive map on the best and worst places for upward mobility.   The researchers’ Equality of Opportunity Project has a wealth of information, including a listing of the future income impact for poor kids in the country’s 100 largest counties. 

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Can One Prosecutor Disrupt Mass Incarceration of Black Men?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 11, 2015

A Prosecutor as a Change Agent


The mass incarceration of African American men and the high percentage of young and middle-aged African America men missing from life in their communities is a growing focus for scholars and political and social leaders. There is even growing agreement across the political spectrum that we incarcerate too many people. But where can reformers start?


State and national criminal justice systems are huge collections of entities that interact but don't necessarily collaborate productively. Elected politicians legislate definitions of crimes and their penalties. Police decide whom to arrest, and prosecutors, grand juries, trial juries, judges, lawyers and probation and parole officers, all operating in their own distinct environments, influence individual fates and the way the law is carried out.


In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate, documents historical, economic and social forces that coalesced in recent decades to cause the disproportional incarceration of black men. She and other scholars say the inducement of millions of dollars of federal funds in the 1980s led local police departments to target black communities in the War on Drugs. Alexander wrote that in 2003 the justice system employed nearly 2.4 million people, and that government figures showed the U.S. spent $185 billion on police protection, detention and related activities, a figure that had risen to $212 billion a year by 2013. That's a lot of jobs and strong economic incentive to maintain the criminal justice system as is.


Who can initiate changes? Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin describes the central role played by prosecutors: they decide whether to drop a case or take it to trial, what charges to bring, and whether to demand prison time or accept probation. In his New Yorker article "The Milwaukee Experiment" Toobin tells how Milwaukee County Prosecutor John Chisholm is fostering reform. He invited independent researchers examine the work of his own office and they found racial disparities in charges and prison time for low level drug offenses, prostitution and property crimes. Chisholm initially thought the larger number of white people arrested for property crimes suggested some racial balance until further probing found suburban property crimes got more attention. What the data really meant, he told Toobin, was that "we devalue property crimes in the center city." Car theft? Probably just a junker anyway. In Chisholm's view, that was one more disparity to address.


Chisholm began what he called an "evidence-driven public health model." He wanted his staff to do more than just process cases. He realized the least experienced staff members were handling the most minor cases, and generally following what had been done in the past, without examining whether the person should be charged with a crime and whether incarceration was necessary. Chisholm began community outreach and an early intervention program that allowed some low risk offenders to be diverted into unofficial probation or more intensive post-arrest supervision initiatives and drug rehab. Those who successfully completed alternate programs could have their criminal records expunged, increasing their chances for employment. A Chisholm staff member convinced Habitat for humanity to renovate houses in a particularly crime-ridden neighborhood, and the crime rate dropped precipitously. Still, Chisholm's approach has had critics. Governor Scott Walker and allies who favor tough arrest and sentencing policies are adamant ideological opponents.


The effort has been partially successful. Chisholm's office is sending far fewer low level offenders to prison. But violent offenders are still being locked up and racial disparities in incarceration persist. Chisholm says broad forces beyond prosecutorial control-poverty, hopelessness, lack of education, addiction and the easy availability of guns-impede solutions. Toobin calls that a lesson in humility. "We redesigned our system," Chisholm told him, "but we learned that no individual actor can change the dynamics of what goes on in a complex larger system like a city." Read Toobin's piece here.  


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Healthcare with the Mail: A Novel Delivery System

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, May 02, 2015

Take Two Apps and Tell Us How You Feel

A partnership of Apple, IBM and a company called Japan Post plans the in next five years to provide millions of elderly Japanese people with new health services that combine electronic gadgetry and data analysis with personal visits.

Japan Post Ltd. is a government-owned holding company that runs a postal service. It already offers a service called “watch over,” which charges a small fee to have postal employees check up on elderly customers  and report back to their families on how they are doing. The plan is for Japan Post to buy some five million iPads from Apple and distribute them to elderly customers. The iPads will be loaded with apps for scheduling medical appointments, hiring home maintenance professionals, coordinating travel and getting reminders to take medicines, and other “quality of life” apps. When postal employees visit, they will explain how to use the devices and answer any questions about the apps. Japan Post will charge a fee for the service.

As a Fast Company story by Sarah Kessler points out, it’s smart for a company with workers that have daily access to people’s homes delivering mail to expand into elder care. It’s also a good deal for Apple to have a big market for all those iPads. IBM, which is designing the apps, will analyze the data collected through their use.  Customers will be able to share their data with their postal helpers, or have IBM make it anonymous.

Japan Post does more than handle mail. According to its website, it has 24,000 post offices and 195,000 employees—making it Japan’s largest employer. It’s also a bank and an insurance company, and CEO Taizo Nishimuro says it is the biggest life insurer in Japan.  Fast Company reports IBM executives say the data will help identify trends, effectiveness of treatment and medicines, and enable personalized healthcare on an unprecedented scale.

As a Forbes story by Mathew Herper notes, Japan Post already has a massive big-data style collection of health care information, and additional information could help its insurance business by helping customers live longer, healthier and more independent lives.  

Japan has a rapidly aging population; 25 percent of its people are aged 65 or older now, and the population I that age group is expected to grow 40 percent in the next 40 years. A siliconangle story by Collen Kriel reports the global aged population is expected to rise from 11.7 percent to 21 percent by2050.

Would a program of the type planned in Japan work in the U.S.?  Herper of Forbes writes that many pilot studies, including initiatives by Apple and IBM are being tried in the U.S. But he says the U.S. healthcare market is far more fragmented than it is in Japan and no one company has the reach that Japan Post does. In addition, he writes, “trust issues about giving information to insurers are a bigger hurdle in the U.S. than in many other countries.

CEOs of Apple and IBM spoke at a news conference announcing the initiative in Japan. Tim Cook of Apple hailed the prospect of building a useful service that will be scalable around the globe and “put a ding in the universe.”Ginni Rometty of IBM said the service could “re-imagine life” for the largest generation of elderly the world has ever had.  

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System Leaership: Crossing New Thresholds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 24, 2015
Updated: Friday, April 24, 2015

System Leaders Inspire Others to Lead 

System leadership requires a new capacity to catalyze the leadership abilities of other people in multiple sectors who can then work together on intractable problems, business theorists say. Climate change, ecosystem destruction, growing water scarcity, poverty, inequity and unemployment, they suggest, typify the systemic challenges that are beyond the reach of existing institutions and hierarchical authority structures.

In a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania describe the systemic and collective leadership skills and commitments that collaborative initiatives need to function and flourish.  These authors join the scholar Otto Scharmer in tracing ancient understandings of leadership.

The verb “lead” comes from the Indo-European root “leith,” which means “to go forth,” “to cross a threshold,” or even “to die,” Scharmer has written, and embracing leadership in that sense includes realizing that a threshold needs to be crossed  and that something must be left behind for something new to emerge. That means letting go of what we think we know or want to control, he writes, and that may be experienced as a form of death to what has been familiar.  


Senge and colleagues say Nelson Mandela exemplified transcendent system leadership with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a radical innovation that allowed those who had suffered and those whose actions had caused suffering, to “face another, tell their truths, forgive and move on” to build South Africa’s future together.  The authors call the work a “profound gesture of civilization,” and a “cauldron for creating collective leadership.” They note the process would have been impossible without the leadership of others, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President F.W. de Klerk.


 Mandela is an iconic national hero, but Senge and colleagues say the core systemic leadership capacities that he and other lesser known leaders have practiced can be learned and developed. One capacity is seeing—and helping others see—the larger system existing beyond any one individual view.  When people come to share that larger vision, they can pursue health of the whole system rather than fragments of it.

A second, the authors say, is a capacity to foster shared reflection and more generative conversations. That requires deep listening, self awareness and the ability to appreciate the reality experienced by others who differ from us. The authors call those abilities essential for building the trust necessary for collaborative creativity.  The third capacity, the authors say, is the ability to shift “the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.” This is generally a gradual and deliberate process, in which leaders help people to build an inspiring vision of the future, recognize difficult present realities, and use tensions between vision and reality to inspire new approaches.

The authors describe successful system leadership in Roca, Inc., a Boston community group that has evolved to work with urban youth at a critical interface with gangs, police, courts, parole boards, schools and social agencies. Among other practices, Roca leaders used American Indian “peacekeeping circles” to get all participants to describe their deepest intentions. The idea was to illuminate how the community is impacted by everything that impacts individuals.

They point to another systemic leadership success in the evolution of Nike’s effort to eliminate toxic chemicals from its top running shoes. The head of Nike’s research department discovered the toxin and engaged dozens of people throughout the organization to design and produce toxin-free apparel. A result of that collective leadership is a movement throughout the sports apparel industry on waste, water, toxicity and energy.  Today the Joint Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals is a joint initiative of Greenpeace, Nike, Puma, Adidas, New Balance, and others.

The kind of systemic leadership Mandela practiced in South Africa was depicted recently in a New York Times story about division and disention in modern Turkey over the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. The official position of the Turkish government has been a century of silence or denial, leaving an Armenian population with psychic wounds passed through generations. In the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, the Times reports, a different narrative of reconciliation, apology and acknowledgement of a painful past is underway. Kurdish authorities in Diyarbakir helped restore the Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East, where descendants of Armenians kidnapped as babies and raised to believe they were Muslim and Kurdish have recently been gathering to discover their family roots.

Click here for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article System “The Dawn of System Leadership.”

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Savings Groups: Self-Organizing Agents for Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, April 11, 2015

Catalyzing Capacity for Problem Solving


In Just six years, membership in local savings groups in some of the world's poorest regions has burgeoned from one million to ten million people spread across 65 countries, an extraordinary growth rate for a global social movement.


Members of savings groups agree to contribute small savings on a regular basis to a communal fund, and they agree to loan money to each other when need arises. They augment the fund by agreeing to pay small amounts of interest on the loan, and small fees for late or missed deposits. There are no administrative bureaucracies, no subsidies and no institutional support. Once the groups are established, they operate with virtually no outside help.


The task of aid workers is not to provide services, asserts Jeffrey Ashe, a fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and a research fellow in Global Development and Environment at Tufts University. "It's to catalyze the capacity of people in poor communities to resolve their own problems." In fact, he says, many savings groups around the world have not only maintained their existence for financial purposes, but have developed the social capital and cohesion that has allowed them to expand their reach to community needs in agriculture, health, education, and business literacy.


Ashe is the author, with his colleague Kyla Jagger Neilan, of In Their Own Hands: How Savings Groups Are Revolutionizing Development. It's an inspiring account of achievement and innovation. People experienced with local culture, called animators, helped the groups organize and practice inclusive conversation and reflection that let them develop their own rules and practices.   


Frances Moore Lappe, co-founder of The Small Plane Institute, an international organization devoted to fostering conditions for inclusive democracies, says successful societies have distributed power, transparency in human relationships, and a culture of mutual accountability, all characteristics that are embodied in savings groups. "I see the beginning of self organizing power to meet deep human needs: for connection, for meaning, and for power itself, for power understood as our capacity to create ad make an imprint," she wrote in a forward to the book.


Ashe, a pioneer of microfinance, spent decades helping people in impoverished urban areas in Africa, India and Central America, get small loans to start small businesses and earn money to support their families. He received the first Presidential Award for Excellence in Microfinance from former President Clinton. Despite microfinance successes, Ashe realized it wasn't reaching extremely poor people in rural areas, and people in regions disrupted by conflict and economic collapse. He had learned from experience that very poor people can save, and that people can learn the mechanics of financial operations and record keeping without having had formal schooling. For instance, seeds, pebbles and twigs can be used to tally outstanding loans and interest.  


He launched and led the Oxfam America Saving for Change initiative that catalyzed savings groups among some 650,000 women in Mali, Senegal, Cambodia, El Salvador and Guatemala. The work scaled rapidly because with minimal outside help, members of successful groups helped others start their own savings groups. Ashe and colleagues focused on women savers, because women generally manage households and care for the needs of children¸ and women in African countries traditionally worked together in some way to survive on tiny sums of money. Local NGO workers who understood cultural contexts helped group members design their own procedures, meeting and contribution schedules, and election of officers.  


Interestingly, the same design and organizational processes were successful in Guatemala, where men had traditionally opposed collective action by women. Eventually women who organized savings groups there discovered transformative power in supportive relationships. They turned their energy to safety from domestic abuse and other human rights issues, and won elections to public office. In Mali, sustainable savings groups worked on such local needs as preventing soil depletion and improved agricultural practices.  


Listen to tomorrow's PlexusCall (details below) to learn more about what savings groups have achieved, how they scaled up, and prospects for future growth of savings initiatives in financially underserved populations in the U.S. Ashe was the founder and director of Working Capital, a group based microlending program that operated in Delaware, New England and Florida, and was for several years the nation's largest micro-lender.


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Our Capacity for Interconnectivity Has Limits

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, April 11, 2015

Does Your Group Pass the "Two Pizza" Test?


Are we hard wired to function best in teams of a certain size? Some scientists and business leaders think our cognition and performance suffer when a team gets too big.


In their book Connected: the Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discuss the work of psychologist Robin Dunbar, who studied the size of different kinds of human groups. The basic Roman army unit was 120 men, and armies throughout many centuries have had 150 men in a unit. Analogous modern armies tend to be about 180 soldiers. Those numbers suggest that despite technological advances, there's an upper limit to the size of a group in which members can function in a coordinated, comprehensive way. Dunbar identified four as the optimum size for a human conversational group, and Connected authors say other researchers studying restaurant patrons, dinner parties and beach goers found people tend to gather in conversational clusters of four.


So what's the right size for a group assembled to launch a product or a sales campaign, to do research, or seek innovation? Rich Karlgaard, in a piece in "Forbes" magazine, advises "Think (Really) Small." Karlgaard notes Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, advocates the "two pizza rule" for team size. A group that needs more than two pizzas is too big, Bezos has asserted. Bezos thinks people communicate more effectively and productively in small groups, and get more done more quickly. In her management blog, Janet Choi describes some of the science behind this idea, and it supports Dunbar's finding that there are limits on the numbers when it comes to effectiveness in groups of people working closely together.


Karlgaard and Choi explain that the issue is how we manage all the connections between and among people, and organizational psychologists have come up with a formula that shows how the complexity of the network expands exponentially with each additional member. If you multiply the number of people in a group by that number minus one, and divide by two, you'll see the number of links or connections. Karlgaard provides a chart:


2 members = 1 connection

3 members = 3 connections

4 members = 6 connections

6 members = 15 connections

16 members = 256 connections

32 members = 1,024 connections


Karlgaard says if a team reaches 1,500 members, and some big company divisions do, the number of interconnections reaches 2.25 million. Our brains can't handle that, and in very large groups, relationships tend to degrade. Choi quotes research suggesting that people in very large teams are more stressed, work more slowly, and are more vulnerable to miscommunication and misinformation.


Researchers and business leaders vary on optimum size, but most advocate keeping working team membership in the single digits. The Two Pizza rule means it's six or seven. Organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackman likes five and he says don't have more than 10. Management expert Bob Sutton says the U.S. Navy Seals consider four people the optimal number for a combat team."


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