Simon Fowler's Blog

Want to change the world? Start right where you are.

Posted by Simon on January 6, 2012

In 1990, at the age of 23, I set out on a trip around the world. I was planning on a leisurely ‘sight-seeing’ journey. But God rudely interrupted my life, and as my heart started to change my hike along the Inca trail in Peru was replaced by an uncomfortable two months in a children’s home in El Salvador. The civil war was still raging. Some time later I found myself working with Burmese students and guerrillas in Bangkok, Thailand and at Manerplaw on the Thai/Burma border.

My cosy upbringing and my rose-tinted view of the world (and of myself) was shattered by that year. For the next two or three years, back in the UK at college (I was what is hilariously known as a ‘mature’ student), I wrestled with what to do about it. I didn’t have the benefit of ignorance, and the reality, extent and complexity of the vast problems in the world were too big for me, emotionally and practically. I’d lived with abandoned, abused children. I’d seen people moments after they’d been shot dead. I’d talked to people who’d witnessed or experienced horrendous injustices.  I’d corrected the English of Burmese students writing stories of how “the villager’s legs was were  blown off”. I’d met the Prime Minister-in-exile of Burma, seeing him try to establish a government  in the malaria-ridden jungle on the Thai/Burma border while most of his NLD party members were in prison near Rangoon, Burma. What was I, this one little person, supposed to do with that knowledge?

By the grace of God (for my sanity, and for doable next steps) I came to the conclusion that the minimum I must do is act justly, and seek justice, where I am, in my immediate sphere of influence. If I’m not treating people around me with justice, then what kind of hypocrisy is it to campaign for justice elsewhere? And by people I mean family, friends, business owners, musicians, artists; everyone.

This is isn’t a matter of order – it’s not to say one must fix ones own back yard first – but a matter of integrity.

The closer we get to people, the harder it is to act unjustly, or the more the injustice is exposed for what it is. But if we want to change the world, we have to start where we are. I hope, I pray, that at the very least that’s what I’m doing.

For a story of how a mega-church did that in a declining neighborhood of Indianapolis, read “Before ‘Transforming’ Your Neighborhood, Talk to your neighbors“.


Posted in Directness, RelationalProximity | 3 Comments »

2012: Make more stuff. Watch less. Read less. Do.

Posted by Simon on January 3, 2012

The full text of  Scott Hanselman’s productivity tip is:

Spend 10% of your time consuming and 90% of your time producing. Make more stuff. Watch less. Read less*. Do.

That’s how I want to to live & work in 2012.

This won’t be easy for me. I have ingrained habits of information consumption. And there’s barely a topic in all of reality that doesn’t interest me, so focus is a … oooh! what’s that?!.

But “there’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (Eccl. 3:1-8). And I’m made in the image of my Creator – and so are you. So I believe, for me, now is the time to build, the time to speak, the time to create, the time to do.

Posted in Productivity | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

My Top Ten Productivity Apps

Posted by Simon on June 23, 2011

These are my top ten productivity apps and why I use them.

I’ve hit the groove with all these (except twitter which I’m struggling to use well right now) and the “why” for me is mostly because: they’re easy to use, the data is accessible from multiple devices, they almost all allow sharing, and they’re all free for a substantial range of features and capacity :

1. Google calendar – a) can view personal and work calendars on same page (google calendar can sync with outlook), b) can share with others c) syncs with for meeting planning, d) available on all mobile devices

2. Dropbox file manager – a) keeps/syncs copy of file in the cloud and every connected device b) can create public link to share large files with others, c) easy mobile access, d) first 2GB free

3. Toodledo task manager – a) based on Getting Things Done philosophy, b) great user interface, c) great Android app (GotToDo), d) can share tasks with others (Pro account only) & track changes.

4. Evernote note keeper – a) easy to use & organize (with notebooks and tags), b) easy to share a note with others, c) great desktop app (includes screenshot clipper, and outlook plug-in to convert emails to notes to keep). d) available on all mobile devices, e) allows upload of mobile photos – e.g. flipchart, the text of which is scannable!

5. Google docs doc/ppt/spreadsheet- a) live synchronous collaboration, b) live synchronous collaboration! c) can download/upload as Microsoft document, d) no more version issues! e) mobile accessible (limited) f) live synchronous collaboration!!

6. Diigo bookmarking – a) easy bookmarking, caching, tagging of websites, articles etc. b) can highlight & annotate sections of page c) private/public sharing options, d) very handy browser plugin (one click bookmarking), e) syncs with Delicious

7. Jing (by Techsmith) screen still & video capture – a) create and share instant narrated tutorials/powerpoints/presentations, b) capture partial or full screenshots (similar feature to evernote)

8. Skype – a) free computer-to-computer, b) cheap international calls, c) easy conference calling of both landline/mobile phone & computer users, d) screen & file sharing, e) multiple video calling (Premium only)

9. Yammer/Twitter micro-blog – a) informal, serendipitous, non-interruptive (i.e. not email) sharing and connection with others, b) simultaneous yammer and twitter post via #yam hashtag  c) mobile access

10. Hootsuite social media aggregator a) updates twitter/facebook/linkedin simultaneously (if needed), b) available on mobile devices (though I use Tweetdeck in Chrome on my desktop)

Posted in Productivity | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Imperatives of Connectivism: Connected Specialization & ‘Bridging’ Social Capital

Posted by Simon on January 24, 2011

Connectivism is a new learning theory that supersedes – doesn’t completely replace – traditional theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. The claim is that it is more suited to the increasingly fast, complex, informationally explosive and digitally wired world we live in. Seems a good enough reason for a new learning theory!

Keith Hamon, in the second live session of CCK11 last Friday wrote in the chat: “I think the growth of specialized expertise has increased the need for a theory of connectivism if society is to avoid devolving into discrete silos of “blind knowledge,” disconnected from the environment that needs and uses that knowledge.”

I completely agree with him and think it’s an important aspect of Connectivism to keep probing. I sense that Connectivism proposes an imperative that people and groups stay connected with different people and groups. It’s an imperative, not an inevitability. I hear a lot of idealists say that if we’re connected, if physical or technological barriers are broken down, then this wonderful global community will appear. Well of course that ain’t gonna happen while actual human beings are involved. Silos of “blind knowledge”, or groupthink ironically have more potential to arise as access to networks enables people choose their one source of news and information and are fed and led via engines to their own preferences.

So there’s an imperative for deep specialization – that comes tight focus in one field – to apply itself to the wider context of the world in which it exists.

Since we’re still dealing with human beings here (I hope!), it may be instructive to look at the research into social capital, and the distinctives of ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ social capital. Those concepts may help us assess the health of those ‘siloed’ groups of connected individuals, and also the health of the wider network of groups. “Health” will have to be defined in some ways, of course, and that may already be a departure from Connectivism which seems happy just with the mere existence of connectedness and says nothing about the quality of that connectedness.

Posted in CCK11, Connectivism | 6 Comments »

Implications of Connectivism in the Workplace

Posted by Simon on January 21, 2011

One of my interests in Connectivism is rooted in my work – researching, creating and supporting the kind of workplace learning that leads to better performance (however defined).

In George Siemens’ authoritative overview of “Connectivism – A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”, while acknowledging that Connectivism has implications for all of life he identifies these implications specifically:

  • Management and leadership. The management and marshalling of resources to achieve desired outcomes is a significant challenge. Realizing that complete knowledge cannot exist in the mind of one person requires a different approach to creating an overview of the situation. Diverse teams of varying viewpoints are a critical structure for completely exploring ideas. Innovation is also an additional challenge. Most of the revolutionary ideas of today at one time existed as a fringe element. An organizations ability to foster, nurture, and synthesize the impacts of varying views of information is critical to knowledge economy survival. Speed of “idea to implementation” is also improved in a systems view of learning.
  • Media, news, information. This trend is well under way. Mainstream media organizations are being challenged by the open, real-time, two-way information flow of blogging.
  • Personal knowledge management in relation to organizational knowledge management
  • Design of learning environments

The traditional locus for ‘learning’ in corporations has been the L&D (Learning – or Training – and Development) department within Human Resources. When most people in a corporation think of ‘learning’ or if they have a skill deficit, they think of L&D as the first place to go. Everyone does it; L&D people themselves, line leaders & individual contributors, everyone.

If it is true that “Chaos is a new reality for knowledge workers” and that “Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge.” (quoting Karen Stephenson) – then it is imperative that corporations change how they think of and enable workplace learning.

I’ll be intensely scrutinizing Connectivism over the next few weeks, and testing the implications for workplace learning. It seems revolutionary, not evolutionary, so it seems to bring chaos. My challenge will to see find ways to help corporations change without the violence of revolution and without the naturally-selected death of evolution!

Posted in CCK11, Connectivism | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Connectivism and Connected Knowledge 2011

Posted by Simon on January 18, 2011

I’m about to launch into a 12-week MOOC – a Massive Online Open Course – called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge”, run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.

I had the privilege of speaking with George Siemens about Connectivism last year while doing some research for at work on “Principles of Workplace Learning”. I also wrote a post on the topic in the broader context of relationships.

The course promises to wonderfully nourish my work (workplace learning, performance improvement), my interest in technology, my personal focus on relational thinking, and my general pondering on questions of epistemology, power and authority. I’m very interested in the process, especially as we consider at work how to enable a way of learning that’s necessary for 21st Century corporations to thrive. I’m also very keen to observe to what degree the course itself is an example of Connectivism and to what degree traditional modes and philosophies of learning are necessary for ‘learning’ to have occurred over the 12 weeks.

I’ll be joining several hundred other people (it really is Massive) from all around the world. I can’t wait! And here’s hoping I can keep up! For more details, check out here, and follow on twitter using #CCK11. And why not join in? Here’s what the course will cover.

Week 1: Connectivism?
Week 2: Patterns
Week 3: Knowledge
Week 4: Unique?
Week 5: Groups, Networks
Week 6: PLENK
Week 7: Adaptive Systems
Week 8: Power & Authority
Week 9: Openness
Week 10: Net Pedagogy
Week 11: Research & Analytics
Week 12: Changing views

Posted in CCK11, Connectivism, Learning | Leave a Comment »

Light Green Change. Oh, really?

Posted by Simon on December 4, 2010

The last post (September coz I’m a blogging slacker) showed the video we created at work to introduce the “Green Games”, a two-week competition to encourage our company to develop better environment awareness and practice.

After a successful two weeks it seemed appropriate to see how the stars of that video had faired:

Our man in accounting, Bob, won the competition with the most points gained by his environmental actions and ideas and for submitting his annual carbon footprint. His prize was that we paid for carbon offsets for his carbon footprint. To pay for the carbon offsets we used cash we’d earned by selling excess office furniture on Craig’s List. So we found ways to recycle and re-use in lots of ways. All it all it was actually fun and quite effective, with several people telling us what they’re doing and thinking differently now.

Posted in Environment | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Light Green Change

Posted by Simon on September 16, 2010

I lead a small global cross-functional team that is tasked with helping our company learn about, and change our behaviors regarding, the environment. Trouble is I have a cynical tendency and talking about “care for the environment” can seem so turgid sometimes it makes me want to leave lights on everywhere, drive the car when I could walk, and basically do everything I’m not supposed to do. That’s what happens, in our distorted humanity, when faced with moralistic rules but no grace and love. And avid Greeners do seem to take themselves a little too seriously, even if the apocalypse IS coming.

Anyway, the team decided to lighten up a bit by creating this movie ahead of a ‘green competition’ we ran in conjunction with a corporation-wide Green Week initiative. We had a laugh making it at least. And it really seems to have had an effect on people’s behavior, amazingly enough.

[Note: Shot on a Canon HD110 and (not very well) edited with Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9.0]

Posted in Environment | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Where’s home?

Posted by Simon on August 3, 2010

I’ve been away for the last five weeks (and silly busy in the weeks before that, hence the blog silence) but within two weeks I wanted to come ‘home’. The weird thing about that feeling is that ‘home’ used to be, and in some ways still is, England. I’ve only lived in the US for 7 of my 43 years, but I wanted to be back here.

Actually, it’s not the US that feels like home, but the street I currently live on. I never before such a sense of belonging somewhere. So even though I was ‘away’ seeing my mom and siblings and wonderful friends I’ve known for decades, I needed a physical location to feel ‘home’. I mean a location, not just a house, that’s associated with people and relationships and a shared history (albeit fairly short).

I don’t know anyone now who lives in the town in which I spent the first 23 years of my life, and I don’t know anyone in the town where my parents retired to in the early ’90s. My sisters are scattered between across England, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand, and my friends are likewise scattered. So the only place I have a day to day continuity of relationship is where I currently live.

If I could gather my friends and family in England together in one place, where I could ‘pop in’ or where I’d bump into them serendipitously in the course of days and weeks, then for sure that would be home. But I can’t, so it isn’t. At least for now, this is.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Neuroscience and “belief”, “faith”

Posted by Simon on June 8, 2010

The way the brain works is mindbogglingly fascinating and complex, in the same way that genetics is. The interrelationships between the various parts, hormones, neurons and then how they all relate to how humans actually live … well it’s just amazing.

I briefly discussed ‘mirror neurons’ in my 30-day blogfest on relationships. Mirror neurons fire when we see ‘intentional action’ in someone else (as opposed to random action like flitting about aimlessly). Interestingly these neurons appear to be the same those that fire when we actually take the action ourselves; so that’s how we know how to interpret the intention. But we seem to know it’s someone else taking the action so our brains basic threat/reward response kicks in based on the intention. Scary looking, wide-eyed, grimacing stranger approaching = threat = run away!

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work was speaking tonight at a local event put on by the Int’l Coach Federation of New England (as in leadership, not sports). I’d read his book so for me it was a recap. One major theme he helped me remember regarding the social brain was the power of this threat response – it’s quicker, stronger, more lasting than the reward response. We have about one second after detecting the threat to squish it before it just addles our pre-frontal cortex to the extent that can’t think straight.

He put forward three techniques to handle it:
1. Focus on ‘direct experience‘ such as breathing, a cold beer, warm sun, ingrown toenail. Your brain has two neural maps to process experience but it can’t do both at once. So it can’t process ‘narrative experience’, such as matching scary-wide-eyed-man to past memories of scariness and pain, while it processes ‘direct experience’. This is why focusing on taking deep breaths calms you down when you’re nervous.

2. For low to medium threats, simply ‘label’ the feeling, rather than suppress it. This actually reduces the feeling (but dwelling on it increases the feeling, so don’t turn the label into dialog!). Nervous about meeting someone? Try saying to yourself, “I’m nervous, yes I am!” Procrastinating? “This phone call I have to make scares me”.

3. For bigger threats, you need to “reappraise” (reframe) the threat. Reinterpret: Scary man was actually annoyed and running for train, maybe?; Normalize: all people look like that; Re-evaluate: I’m twice his size and I have a gun; Re-assess perspective/values: I’m willing to die to protect this child, I don’t care what this scary man does to me.

So to the point of this post, “reappraisal”: it’s extraordinary, this ability to think different thoughts and so change your neurobiological reaction to something, your emotions, and then actually change your thinking again so you change your actions. “Thoughts” in this context are ideas, beliefs, interpretations and sense-making about the world and people and life … and God.

That is, “God”, on a simple level, is just part of the entire realm of things and people and people’s characteristics that shape how we neurobiologically feel and think and act. The only thing that varies among us is WHAT and WHO we believe and why. “Belief” itself is not a preserve of religious people, it’s a fact of all human existence. What and who and why we believe isn’t necessarily proved or denied just because we’re neuro-biologically wired for it. But the fact is those ‘beliefs’ do change how we think, feel and act, for the religious and non-religious person alike.

Posted in Faith, neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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