Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Evolving Art of Virtual Teamwork

Book Review: Virtual Teamwork: Mastering the Art and Practice of Online Learning and Corporate Collaboration

Despite the glut of books on social networking (or perhaps because of it) there is a scarcity of peer-reviewed source material on virtual teams. "Virtual Teamwork" [Robert Ubell, editor] takes an important step toward bridging that gap.

Distance learning and virtual collaboration are here to stay. Team projects are now the norm in most organizations, often across geographical boundaries. In the past ten years I have been involved in three virtual teams for three different employers, as well as being involved in several distance learning efforts. The results have been mixed, but this is an indication of how this sector is evolving, not of its validity.

As many organizations are discovering, it is not just about the technology. "Cute cat" tools like Facebook or Twitter are obviously not a solution for corporate or educational communication. The fact that millions of people use social media does not give it value - millions of people also watch "reality" TV shows. Wall Street made it clear that Facebook was over-valued. But just installing Lync or some other flavor of the month messaging tool in the corporate software pool isn't the answer either if no one uses it.

The essays that editor Robert Ubell has gathered covers many of the hurdles that one encounters in virtual teams. Although they are often couched from the perspective of one discipline, the insights can be applied across the spectrum. For instance, the problems that occur in team projects in a university class are not any different than one sees in a corporate environment, and the solutions bear equal weight as well.

While there may not be enough detail for organizational leaders looking for a blueprint ("use software X, it will solve all your problems"), Ubell and his contributors have given us a research based framework to build on. As such, I find "Virtual Teamwork" an invaluable resource that promotes 'out of the box' thinking towards managing virtual teams and collaborative groups.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: "The Night Sky" by Maria Sutton

If one were to believe the television advertisements, tracing your family history is as simple as logging in to a website and clicking on a picture of a leaf. Archives will miraculously open to reveal that your great-grandmother the private detective lived next door to Henry Ford and invented the limited-slip differential. Who forgot to mention THAT?

Sadly, as Maria Sutton (and this author) can attest, genealogy is not that simple, even in the digital age. As she details in The Night Sky: A Journey From Dachau to Denver and Back, Ms. Sutton's journey to find the father she never knew is a more accurate reflection of what a family history researcher actually goes through. "The Night Sky" is required reading for any would-be genealogist.

The first obstacle facing the would-be family historian is the reluctance of relatives. Every family has skeletons in the closet - or at least they believe they do. Even if those skeletons have decayed into dust, there are members of your family who will try to divert you from finding out "the truth about Uncle Joe", whose sin was too deep and dark to reveal. They mean well, they just don't want you to embarrass the family in your efforts to "dredge up" the past.

The second hurdle is the inaccuracy and unavailability of records. A tree full of leaves notwithstanding, not everything you see can be taken at face value. The index you are searching online is a transcription of a blurry and possibly misspelled handwritten record. Check and double-check your sources; don't mistake the tree for the leaves.

And finally, as Maria Sutton herself learned, the toughest roadblock to the truth is your own mindset. While you may want to believe your forefather (or mother) was a a local hero, for most of us it simply is not true. Just because they were alive while important events were happening does not mean they were involved in them; it's hard to be objective when it comes to your own ancestry.

The moral of "The Night Sky" is that no matter what you may have thought of them, and no matter how far from that perception they landed, your ancestors DID play an important part in life -- they made YOU possible. Maria Sutton's journey to find her family may not be the stuff TV commercials are made of, but it was worth the trip.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Internet has been Closed for your Protection

Today many Websites have blacked out all or part of their content to protest legislation being considered in Congress that would effectively enable censorship of the Internet, in the name of stopping copyright theft.

KnC Books joins our larger and more visible Internet brotherhood in decrying the SOPA/PIPA bills currently in Congress. As a reader and retailer of the printed word it is alarming to me that a collection of well-vested special interests are allowed to promote their commercial agenda ahead of the rights of the people.

If you want to read more about this legislation and its intentions, follow these links:
Electronic Frontier Foundation

And in case you aren't worried about what a "little" censorship can do, I leave you with these immortal words:

Ken Sawade
Owner, KnC Books

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not Your Usual Steinbeck

This review is from: A Cup of Gold (Popular Library #216)

John Steinbeck's first novel, "A Cup of Gold" is definitely not the Steinbeck of Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath ... and maybe that is exactly what is likable about it.

"Cup of Gold" follows the adventures of the pirate Henry Morgan as he pillages his way across the Caribbean (and then some) in search of the elusive Cup of Gold, which is neither gold, nor a cup. In this, his first novel, author John Steinbeck gives us his view of an older period of history before he positioned his writing in a more modern era. Evidently he decided that historical fiction was not his strong suit, and as the body of his work shows, it seems he was right.

Yet despite the differences in subject and setting, "Cup of Gold" is most assuredly Steinbeck, with all of his descriptive powers, character development, and razor sharp dialog.

Add to the mix a flock of bloodthirsty pirates, seafaring jargon, and treasure aplenty and you have a great story that presages Cannery Row in its earthiness and unflinching humanity. Heroes and villains become interchangeable as greed works its way through the soul, and even gold loses its luster in the quest for more, more, more. When Morgan at last finds his Cup it is bitterness that he tastes, not victory.

Steinbeck may not have yet hit his stride, but he most certainly was on his feet in A Cup of Gold.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

This review is from: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

"Do you really think you're the only human being alive who is unforgivably flawed? Who's been hurt almost to the point of breaking?"

After 18 years in the foster care system, Victoria believes that yes, she is the only one. And as a consequence, friendship, love, and redemption seem the stuff of fairy tales, of other people's lives.

In her debut novel, "The Language of Flowers", author Vanessa Diffenbaugh takes us into a world that very few of us really know: the life of children (and the adults they touch) in foster care. In doing so she manages to steer a careful course between the opposing shoals of sermonizing and romanticizing, and guides us straight into the life of Victoria, a young woman caught up in the current.

As many of us do, Victoria tries to find the balance between swimming against the tide and simply trying to stay afloat. Neither course is entirely successful, nor is it an absolute failure. Hampered by her inability to share her feelings verbally, Victoria falls back on her second language; the symbology of flowers. Through her almost instinctive ability to see the message in her floral medium, she finds a way to reach out to a handful of fellow travelers, a lifeline out of her self-inflicted solitude. But each time she throws the rope away, knowing in her heart she does not deserve to be saved, afraid to be tied to anyone or anything.

There comes a point in your life that you find that what prevents you from moving forward is not what is in front of you - it is what is behind you. The overwhelming weight of your past can anchor you in place, and rob you of your future. Often, a series of events will bring you right back to that point you started from, and you must confront the flood of your fears all over again.

"The Language of Flowers" is the story of anyone that has made that journey back into the light, back into the stream of life. Sometimes you may sympathize with Victoria, at others you just want to shake some sense into her, but you can never be ambivalent about her. By title and subject "Flowers" may give off the scent of being "chick-lit", but there is nothing perfumed about life here - there are plenty of falls and sharp edges and thorns among the roses.

I don't judge books by their covers, but rather by how eager I am to pick them back up and reluctant to put them down. By all my marks, Vanessa Diffenbaugh speaks a language that I understand.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: "My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner" by Meir Shalev

Grandma's Dirty Little Secret

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner
This is how it is: author Meir Shalev has taken the threads of family history and woven them into a tale that drapes as easily as a babushka over the head of the family, in this case Grandma Tonia. Every family has a skeleton or two in the closet; Grandma has a sweeper in the bathroom. Or does she? The story doesn't have to have a point -- the story IS the point.

As the title My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner implies, this is in no small part a tale of the clash of cultures (and cultural values). Americans have long been upheld as the personification of luxury and comfort, and reviled for those very same qualities at the same time. 'Luxury' implies laziness, 'comfort' equals complacence. It is not simply a case of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', but goes deeper into values and ideals.

And when your ideal is cleanliness, the value of a vacuum cleaner would be priceless, or so one would think. Like magic the dirt disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. It is a miracle of modern science, as long as we ignore the law of conservation of mass. And then at last the weighty dilemma occurs - who sweeps the sweeper?

Shalev manages the diversity of cultural history and values with sure hands - the story of My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner could happen anywhere, and in any time. In fact, I am sure it has. While not everyone has a Grandma Tonia or an Uncle Yitzhak, we have all had people like them in our lives and in our own families. The idiosyncrasies that make us individuals are the very things we have in common.

An enjoyable read, filled with humorous insight into obsessive-compulsive behavior as well as the Freudian aspects of a manicure, My Russian Grandmother is part James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, part my own uncle Dave reminiscing about life on the farm in the Depression, if my family had been Jewish and Israel was Minnesota. If you don't have stories like this in YOUR family, you should make some up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: "In A Dog's Heart" by Jennifer Arnold

In a Dog's Heart: What Our Dogs Need, Want, and Deserve--and the Gifts We Can Expect in Return by Jennifer Arnold

There are at least as many books on raising dogs as there are on raising children, and undoubtedly as many points of view. There are scores of television shows and Internet sites professing to have the "secret" of success in teaching Fido what to do, and more importantly, what NOT to do.

So what makes In A Dog's Heart any different? What makes companion animal trainer and dog rescuer Jennifer Arnold the voice we should listen to?

She starts with one simple premise: treat "man's best friend" like a friend. Dogs have evolved and grown alongside mankind for thousands of years. Their wants and needs are parallel to our own - to be physically well, to be safe, to know friendship and love, and to be content in their lives. And as dogs help us find these things for ourselves, as friends we should help them do the same.

Arnold points out that much is made in current dog training of the "pack mentality" of the dog's wolf ancestors. The theory is that our dogs must be taught their place, with we their owners as the "alpha" canines. Arnold shows (and research supports) that dogs are not wolves, and even if they were, a pack is not a group of unassociated animals fighting for dominance. A pack is a family unit; the alpha pair are the parents, and the pack works together to supply its needs. Think about it - a group of animals continually fighting each other for dominance would not last as a unit for long in the wild. And they won't last long in the home either.

Arnold gives us helpful pointers for understanding our dog's behaviors from the dog's perspective. He just wants to be well, and safe, and loved, and happy. He simply lacks the vocal ability to tell us how that can happen. He acts out his worries and fears (like many of us humans do as well). We need to learn to read the signs, not browbeat our friends into silence.

And no that doesn't mean we let our dogs run wild. Arnold also teaches how to deal with problem behaviors, from chewing furniture to jumping up to biting. Dogs have spent millennium learning to get along with us; we need to spend a few hours returning the favor.

As a lifetime dog owner (I have three right now) I found In a Dog's Heart to be a humane, insightful, and knowledgeable approach to selecting, raising, and enjoying a healthy loving dog. Five Stars!