John Cutler posted an interesting table this week of twelve company archetypes, based on their levels of alignment, diversity, empowerment and creativity. It put me in mind of a distinction I’ve always loved: the difference between competence and literacy.

We often encourage literacy (as in “we must improve children’s computer literacy”). But literacy is fundamentally a passive act; it’s about consumption rather than creation. In Cutler’s terms, it’s low on empowerment, diversity, openness to change, and creativity. How do we instead foster competence? That’s what this week’s article is about.

This week’s article

Build competence, not literacy

How do you build a culture that emphasises solving problems rather than adhering to processes?

Taiwan’s Digital Minister, the fascinating Audrey Tang, explained last year the ways in which Taiwan had used technology to handle the coronavirus pandemic as effectively as it did. One of the core principles of the Taiwanese approach was to decentralise as much as possible, and involve civic society in every step of the process.

For example, when masks were in short supply, a rationing system was introduced whereby all citizens could collect a package of masks each day, one per person. Rather than trying to predict where demand would be and generally centrally control the process, though, the government released data about mask availability over a publicly-accessible API that allowed anyone to build an app or a website that built upon that data. The public then got to work:

“[C]ivic-minded hackers… [built] more than 140 apps, including maps showing which pharmacies still had supplies, visualizations of how many masks had been distributed and where, and voice assistants for the visually impaired.

“Tang says the insights allowed the government to see more vividly how it was failing some of its citizens, namely those in rural areas who didn’t have easy access to the pharmacies. So the government revised the strategy, introducing preordering at convenience stores to fill in the gaps.”

Tang refers to this approach as building competence, not literacy. Literacy is about familiarity: the ease with which you can navigate a world, how au fait you are with its codes and conventions, its implicit expectations. But literacy is fundamentally passive: “literacy kind of assumes that you’re the reader or viewer of images,” Tang says. “Competence means you’re the producer.” Competence involves solving real-world problems and navigating uncertainty yourself, taking in and synthesising different points of view; literacy often means solving artificial problems put in place by bureaucracies and corporate structures that demand conformity to a single view of reality.

We might summarise the differences as:

Competence Literacy
Active vs. Passive
Creating producers vs. Creating consumers
Solving real-world problems vs. Solving artificial problems
Self-directed vs. Directed from above
Intrinsic motivation vs. Extrinsic motivation
Multiple views of reality vs. Single view of reality
Bottom-up vs. Top-down
Outcomes vs. Processes

It strikes me that businesses often foster – demand, even – literacy in their employees far more than they do competence. That’s partly natural: companies inevitably create structures and processes as part of the work that they do, and it’s straightforwardly desirable to do things in consistent and repeatable ways, rather than reinventing the wheel every time. Having definite processes and cultures, and demanding that employees develop the literacy to navigate them, is not obviously a bad thing.

But the drawbacks of creating only literacy, rather than competence, are obvious. If literacy is about familiarity with a script, what happens when that script changes? The merely literate are lost for words; the competent are able to improvise. Organisations that build only literacy are fragile when times are bad, and fail to innovate when times are good.

How do we build competence rather than – or at least on top of – literacy, then? The answer is not by abandoning process for anarchy, but lies instead in the culture we choose to build from the top. Cultures that build competence, rather than merely literacy, are ones that prioritise:

  1. The destination, not the journey. They measure success through outcomes, rather than by people’s correctness in adhering to a process.

  2. Co-learning, not exam-setting. They don’t grow leaders who see themselves as examiners, holders of the right answers whose job it is to judge whether employees are right or wrong. Instead, employees take charge, and leaders facilitate a collaborative process of discovery.

  3. Bottom-up iteration and evolution. They don’t set processes in stone, but instead continually evolve them – and allow those on the ground to drive that evolution, rather than imposing changes from above.

This process can be scary. It involves ceding control, and inevitably means that mistakes will be made that might have been avoided by rigid adherence to a process. But that diffusion of control is what creates resilience, and those mistakes are signs that people are thinking for themselves – and therefore avoiding countless mistakes that were impossible to foresee.

Click here to read the article »

This week’s four interesting links

The age of average

Alex Murrell perfectly joins the dots on so many threads of modern culture, and why they’re all so… samey.

“So, there you have it. The interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants all look the same. The buildings where we live and work all look the same. The cars we drive, their colours and their logos all look the same. The way we look and the way we dress all looks the same. Our movies, books and video games all look the same. And the brands we buy, their adverts, identities and taglines all look the same.”

Murrell’s argument is that, in an increasingly homogeneous world, there’s a greater opportunity than ever to do something different – greater returns to distinctiveness, if you will. But I wonder whether that’s really the case. The bland world Murrell describes is one of our own making: algorithms serve us content, and we engage with the blandest bits; market research firms ask us our opinions, and they turn out to be pretty bland too; Airbnb offers us the world and we choose to stay in identikit apartments. Does the world really cry out for distinctiveness and diversity? Or is that only the predilection of art directors and aesthetes? #

Replacing my best friends with an LLM trained on 500,000 group chat messages

Izzy Miller trained a large language model – similar to GPT – on the entire history of his friends’ group chats, which had been running for years. He then hosted an interactive version of it for his friends, so they could all chat with the AI versions of themselves. It worked surprisingly well:

“This has genuinely provided more hours of deep enjoyment for me and my friends than I could have imagined. Something about the training process optimized for outrageous behavior, and seeing your conversations from a third-person perspective casts into stark relief how ridiculous and hilarious they can be.”

The post contains lots of technical details, if you have the urge to do something similar yourself. #

The mystery of Morocco’s missing king

Morocco’s king has become increasingly absent over the past few years, to the frustration of the nation’s bureaucrats. A potential cause? His friendship with three Moroccan-German kickboxing brothers. Nicolas Pelham tells the bizzare story in The Economist; it’s illustrative not just of Morocco’s fraught post-colonial history but of its place in the Arab world, too.

“Five years ago, an unusual image appeared on Instagram. It showed Mohammed VI, the 54-year-old king of Morocco, sitting on a sofa next to a muscular man in sportswear. The two men were pressed up next to each other with matching grins like a pair of kids at summer camp. Moroccans were more accustomed to seeing their king alone on a gilded throne.

‘The story behind the picture was even stranger. Abu Azaitar, the 32-year-old man sitting next to the king, is a veteran of the German prison system as well as a mixed-martial-arts (MMA) champion. Since he moved to Morocco in 2018 his bling-filled Instagram feed has caused the country’s conservative elite to shudder. It’s not just the flashy cars, it’s the strikingly informal tone in which he addresses the monarch: ‘Our dear King,’ he wrote next to one photo of the two of them together. ‘I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done for us.’”


The Influencer Industry

Emily Hund’s new book examines the organic origins of influencer culture: the world of blogging that emerged in the late noughties.

“Before there were Instagram likes, Twitter hashtags, or TikTok trends, there were bloggers who seemed to have the passion and authenticity that traditional media lacked. The Influencer Industry tells the story of how early digital creators scrambling for work amid the Great Recession gave rise to the multibillion-dollar industry that has fundamentally reshaped culture, the flow of information, and the way we relate to ourselves and each other.”