This afternoon I’m giving a presentation to the Virginia Emergency Management Association. My topic is the strategic capacity of supply chains in potentially catastrophic events. A Virginian heard me give a similar presentation on the West coast and asked for an update.
In mid-December I was pushed onto a stage in front of a bunch of scientists. From the (lack of ) questions and the open-mouth stares encountered, I must have lapsed into glossolalia… their reaction perhaps being similar to your reaction to my use of glossolalia. In any case, they were paying attention, but I failed to make a relevant connection.
I prefer open-mouth stares to dropped-dead heads working on their texts. This is my principal recollection of a session with “senior leadership” of an important organization. The only person actually making eye-contact with me was the Big Guy. Later he and I had an interesting conversation. When I sought out the executive responsible for the core of my presentation she mostly wanted to talk about the weather.
Dead-heads are increasingly common, despite a colleague’s description of my presentation style as being “as much dancing as talking.” The senior guy who put me on the agenda was sure the audience was listening. “We’re expert multi-taskers,” he explained. Maybe. I perceived a strong intellectual force-field seeking to exclude anything that might pierce the current consensus. I left plenty of time for questions, there were none.
This afternoon I’ve been given 60 minutes. I intend to present some supply chain findings specific to Virginia. In rehearsal I’ve been able to do this in 17 to 20 minutes. I think there are some provocative findings. Then I plan to give the rest of the time to questions and answers. I would prefer to focus on issues that are relevant to the audience.
Related to relevance: I hope a conversation might begin. Supply chain is not — yet — a typical EM issue. I would like to hear some local supply chain stories and respond with stories of my own. I would like to hear some catastrophe stories and ask some questions of the audience. I would like to hear some questions I have not previously considered. Conversation is derived from root words meaning “to turn”. In a conversation we are turning a topic upside-down, right-side-up, and every which way, thinking together about all the different angles. Questions are the keys to the kingdom of new knowledge and potential wisdom.
There is too much information (at least too much for me). There is an amazing amount of knowledge (information-in-context). There is too little wisdom (ability to apply knowledge), which I perceive is one of the outcomes of too little conversation.
We gather information, analyze, report, present, argue. We defend hypotheses and theories. We marshal arguments and propose solutions. There are times and places for all these.
But without a parallel process of conversation — including the casual give-and-take of uncertainties and unknowns — the analytical process leaves us with little more than separate pieces and divided lives.
Conversation is, I perceive (argue?), especially important to homeland security. If there is any value-added to homeland security it is as an integrative, questioning, creative influence on disciplines related to the field. Disciplines seem naturally — and rather helpfully — inclined to reductionism. What works? What’s the best formula for success? Define, train, exercise, and deploy it. In other words, be disciplined.
And even in the most hard-core disciplines, conversations are a regular part of life in the firehouse, police precinct, and at other grass-roots. But these are usually discipline-specific (or community-specific) conversations. The homeland security conversation, if it happens at all, is mostly the outcome of inter-disciplinary conferences; where we have often adopted an anti-conversational approach.
About two-thirds of the presentations I have heard over the last 120 days might accurately be entitled: “Let me introduce myself/my workplace/work assignment/tribe/INSERT”. Even when their work clearly had merit, the presentations often communicated navel-gazing self-absorption (and defensiveness). In several cases I know the presenters were specifically invited to present on topics other than their organization, were coached through mini-presentations to emphasize the other purposes, but once they were given the stage they defaulted to the cult of self-aggrandizement. Not a very effective conversation-starter.
After one recent conference a female colleague commented, “None of these guys seem to know the way to get attention is to pay attention to what the other person considers important.” I had a sense she might have been making a broader critique.
At one recent multi-disciplinary conference there were no breaks scheduled, so as not to interfere with the “transfer of information.” Stop with the inert and self-referential information! Give me an opportunity to engage, question, and play with your knowledge. Schedule more coffee-breaks, not fewer. Have more small groups and fewer keynote speeches. TED talks have their place. But I would rather talk with Ted.
Mark Twain offered, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
I’ll let you know how it goes this afternoon.