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Archive for June, 2012

This is a guest post from David Schaub-Jones who works with SeeSaw, a social venture that focuses on how technology can strengthen sanitation and water providers in developing countries. “SeeSaw starts from the point that technology is no silver bullet, but when applied right, it can harness and strengthen the ‘business models’ of those that provide services. SeeSaw helps to focus on the sorts of institutional partnerships and relationships needed to support progress at scale. So SeeSaw is about empowering sanitation and water providers.” (Follow @ontheseesaw)

One of the early trends of this decade is how ICT (Information and Communications Technology) tools are changing the way that service delivery works – with radical improvements being hoped for in the way that health, education and other sectors function, particularly in developing countries.

The water sector has not been as quick as some others to take up these new tools, but as the field matures somewhat, interest is growing. The of cellphones to read meters, pay bills, report faults is of great interest to water utilities specifically – whilst regulators, governments, donors and NGOs are all interested in how it can help them better understand what is happening on the ground, react to changing situations and plan and invest better.

To look into this area SeeSaw, a social enterprise that customises technology to support sanitation and water providers has partnered with iComms, a University of Cape Town research unit (Information for Community Oriented Municipal Services).

Today marks the second day of the two-day workshop “But Does it Float?” where practitioners have been both enthusiastic and cautious. While the potential for ICTs in the water sector is fairly clear, it is also clear that there are hurdles to be jumped. Partly this is because getting water and sanitation up and running in poor communities is a very difficult challenge – and is not so much a technological challenge as it is an institutional challenge. It is the messy politics, the lack of voice and visibility, issues around land tenure and poverty, that make it ‘hard to do’, not the technology per se.

Yet practitioners also believe that new technology offers them a way to change some of these relationships for the better, particularly where systems are planned to take account of the different incentives and barriers that key stakeholders face in adopting them.

As Professor Rivett put it to a journalist covering the event, “We wanted to have a very real discussion about the possibilities – but also the challenges – in this area… Many people think using information technologies offers an easy – often even glamorous – solution to research problems. The reality, of course, is sometimes quite different. There are challenges to using mobile technology in everything from reception coverage and system failure to education barriers and municipal capacity to act on the information we gather. This workshop lets us share those challenges honestly and, hopefully, begin to find their solutions.”

In our work at SeeSaw, we’ve noted that one of the key opportunities is that in talking openly about how we can use cellphones to improve services, we are able to also discuss some of the visible and not-so-visible challenges that are currently blocking service delivery. Bringing cellphones into the equation – discussing how they enable us to build confidence, share information, reduce costs – means that we need to focus on practical improvements that can be rolled out widely and, importantly, sustained over time. So even if no cellphone-based system is eventually adopted, we still get valuable insights into what needs to be done.

Members of the media, academic community and public will join the practitioners today for the second day of discussions.

Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for another post where SeeSaw and iComms share the background paper and post-workshop summary. You will also be able to find links and video in the coming days on SeeSaw’s blog.

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“Google employees get to take 20% of their time to do their own thing,” is a phrase that is often repeated and praised in the circles where I run. I have to agree that it’s a fantastic idea — I’m a big fan of side projects.

Chade-Meng Tan works for Google, and he took his 20% time to work on the idea of bringing ‘mindfulness’ into the workplace. (His long-term goal is the loftier one of world peace–but more about that later.)

Meng’s idea turned into a course for Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself” (pun intended). It was a kind of meditation course for geeks and engineers. His book (by the same title) walks readers through the course, going from very very simple ‘learning how to meditate’ to (my favorite) ‘mindful emailing’ and onto his idea that if we each start by developing peace and happiness within ourselves, we will develop compassion, and if everyone is happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace.

I was skeptical about reading Search Inside Yourself because I’m not big on self-help books or reading about hot business management trends or which ‘7 Habits’ will transform my life. I’m also not super touchy-feely. I did enjoy the book, however. It was a pleasant and easy read, and I’m guessing it rolls the key points of most of those other self-help books into one. (Though I could be mistaken, since I haven’t read any of them!)

Search Inside Yourself is meditation and mindfulness merged with emotional intelligence and research on how the brain works applied to the workplace, relationships and life in general. Throughout the book are quotes and conversations with renowned Buddhists such as Matthieu Ricard, (noted for being ‘the happiest man in the world’), the Dalai LamaRichard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn (pioneers in the field of contemplative neuroscience), Norman Fischer and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Meng starts us off with very accessible exercises to learn to meditate. (Chapter 1 is titled ‘Even an Engineer Can Thrive on Emotional Intelligence’) Starting with 2 minutes a day, he says, you can get going. (I tried, and even I was actually able to slow myself down for 2 minutes). He moves on to ‘mindful activity,’ and ‘other-directed mindfulness,’ and  ‘mindful conversation’ exercises that help develop non-judgmental listening, empathy and compassion.

Next, he walks us through moving from emotional self-awareness to accurate self-assessment to self-confidence, focusing quite a bit on the concept of ego. Following this, Meng covers ‘self mastery,’ managing pain and stress, and dealing with distress and managing emotions. One quote I particularly liked was by Thich Nhat Hanh:  ‘wilting flowers do not cause suffering; it is the unrealistic desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering.’ There is a nice section on dealing with emotional triggers and managing negative emotions with calm.

Meng backs up his ideas with neuroscience and behavioral theories, including those of Tony Hsieh who started Zappos Shoes and Daniel Pink who emphasizes that the best way to find motivation at work is to spend most of our time and energy working towards higher purpose rather than short-term pleasure chasing. ‘If we know what we value most and what is most meaningful to us, then we know what we can work on that serves our higher purpose. When that happens, our work can become a source of sustainable happiness for us,’ writes Meng.

I found the parts of the book that talk about empathy to be quite applicable to the work that aid and development agencies (and non-profits in general) do, especially in terms of results, accountability and effectiveness and how development agencies interact with staff and partners at all levels, internally and externally. People often imagine that at non-profits, everyone is there for a good cause, therefore everyone is nice and there are no nasty internal politics or bad management issues or unpleasant interactions with ‘beneficiaries’ and participants or staff. I promise you this is not true – non-profits need to work on this every bit as much as for-profits — and maybe even more since there are usually less resources to go around or to invest in management and staff training in these areas.

One section I really liked was where Meng refers to Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of  a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. The only way to change this, says Meng, is starting off with sincerity, kindness and openness and with 3 assumptions: that everybody in the room is there to serve the greater good until proven otherwise; that no one has any hidden agenda unless proven otherwise; and that we are all reasonable, even when we disagree, until proven otherwise. Also helpful, he says, is ’empathetic listening’ and ‘political awareness,’ eg., the ability to read an organization’s emotional currents and power relationships.

Meng talks about compassionate leadership and offers advice on turning foes into friends and on dealing with difficult conversations and situations, based on David Rock’s SCARF model for the social brain which describes how status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are major drivers of social behavior. This is where we get our tips on ‘mindful emailing.’

The book closes out with an explanation of how Meng would like to see meditation and mindfulness enter the public sphere in the same way that exercise has. Eg., one day everyone will know that meditation is good for them, anyone will be able to learn how to do it, companies will understand that it is good for business, and meditation will be taken granted: eg, ‘Of course you should mediate…. duh.’

Search Inside Yourself is great example of what can be created when employees have time to think and work on those side projects that add meaning to their lives and value to the greater good. I enjoyed seeing where I’m already being mindful, empathetic and compassionate, analyzing where I could improve, and having some clear and concise instructions on how to get started working on areas that need more effort. Meng has taken an excellent step towards his dream of making these concepts accessible to everyone.

*****

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending over the complimentary copy of Search Inside Yourself for review!

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