Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Consequences of Denial

Book Review: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iverson

Author Kristen Iverson seems to be telling us two vastly different stories in Full Body Burden. The first is her own story of growing up in Arvada, Colorado - normal stuff about family and friends and pets and school.

The second story is the tale of the Rocky Flats Plant: its secretive workings, its impact on the environment and the citizens of the Denver Metro area, and the investigations into one of the most radioactively contaminated places on this planet. What brings these two seemingly disparate tales together?

The common thread is the ultimate cost of continual denial. The author refers repeatedly to the closed conversations within her family. There were some things you just didn't talk about; whether they were true or not was irrelevant. Her father's alcoholism symbolizes her family's emotional distance from reality. The gradual slide becomes a slippery slope and half-truths become untruths. As her parents' marriage goes into meltdown they desperately try to fill the cracks in the facade and refuse to deal with the problems around them.

The federal agencies charged with regulating Rocky Flats tried first to deny there was an issue at all; defining 'healthy' limits of radioactive exposure when there was no research to base those numbers on. As the leakage of radioactivity and information continued, the DOE tried to do a patch job, throwing the stone wall of "National Security" around the crumbling infrastructure, facts be damned.

Even today, the truth regarding Rocky Flats (now a National Wildlife Refuge) is not fully known: "The final contamination levels of Rocky Flats itself as measured by the U.S. government after the Superfund cleanup, and those reported to an impanelled grand jury, are sealed records and have not been reported to the public." [Wikipedia] The denial continues.

While Ms. Iverson does an excellent job pulling the threads of her twin stories together, there were a few points in the narrative where I felt a little confused about the timeline of events, and a little lost in the turmoil of her family. I imagine she felt the same. A solid four stars with those qualifications, and a huge "Thank you" to the author for bringing us this work. (Note: This reviewer lived and worked in the Denver Metro area for twenty years.)

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 edited by Robert Ubell

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 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 a question 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 into 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.