There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
Michel de Montaigne
There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
Michel de Montaigne
You need to cancel something on someone but you do not know how? Well, there are for example the …
To my personal opinion, the best way in any case is being open, transparent and honest and letting people not wait for your decision longer than necessary.
If something is going beyond your capabilities … clarify it. If you are fully loaded … say it. If you need time to think about … request it. If you have an even better idea … suggest it. If you have an ethical or fundamental issue … put it on the table.
But do not delay your “no” because you are afraid. Fear is a bad advisor. And in case you are concerned about the possibility of negative consequences of a “no”, promptly document your decision and the underlying justification with a brief mail (optionally with CC to your line manager and/or the project manager).
Be clear with your “no” and be clear with your “yes” without dancing around the cake. And most people will appreciate. Those who do not anyhow don’t care about your opinion. But this is a different story.
So, the new boss arranges a “townhall”, which is .. how should I say … a mix of collective self-congratulation, motivational speaker show, and blatant puffery. Actually, the intended purpose is to reduce need for the new boss to deal with each subordinate individually but rather polish off all at once.
Making a digression. Back to the topic …
Well, said new division head stands in front of the audience, perhaps something between 300 and 400 subordinates, and talks about his plans. He mentions that in the past quite a few things had been done quite well already, and that he appreciates those efforts and the great expertise of the teams and people … but that there certainly is room for improvement and optimization. He presents his new master plan, laid out for 5-6 years, at last solving all issues of the division, and which will be the ultimate solution for a prospering future of the enterprise. Goes without saying that the plan crucially includes a reorganisation.
There is just one problem: he (or she) is the 3rd new division head in 5 years already. And the majority of colleagues sitting in the audience have repeatedly heard exactly the same speech. This is still very much present, it hasn’t even reached long-term memory yet. And those colleagues sit on their chairs, listen to the presentation, and think: “What a speechifier! In 2 years max you will been gone again. And then the next one jumps in, and retells the same, that he now knows how it really works. And your master plan is going to be history like all the other big master plans before.”
Summary: Actually the new division head just now makes a fool of himself.
Is that really necessary? Why did nobody appropriately prepare and brief him? Who the heck coaches middle managers such amateurishly? It almost appears as would someone simply follow a checklist … a rather goony one by the way.
An honest and down-to-earth announcement gaining respect and appreciation by associates rather would sound like this …
“Hi everybody! I am the new boss, and I also cannot turn water to wine! We are going to spend the next 2 years together, perhaps even a bit less. Let’s make the best out of it! So that at the end all of us are able to show some smaller or bigger but nice achievements and progresses, without any unneeded collateral damages.”
Then after a while the term “knowledge management” was occupied, misused and spammed by a wide range of software vendors. Even elevator control systems claimed to manage knowledge. BTW, quite similar to what still happens to “business intelligence”, … or did you observe a BI-software-related increase in intelligence related to business during the last years? If at all? (but this is another story to be continued somewhere down the blog)
Journalists are mediators. And they are translators. Take me as an example. It is my job as a scientific journalist to translate scientific contents to the public so that people can understand what things like “cloning” and “genetic engineering” are. And, well, I am trying my best and it truly is an advantage for me to be an educated molecular biologist. I do understand scientific subjects as well as the technical terminology of the biosciences.
But what’s about my non-scientific colleagues? If a standard magazine journalists is in duty to write about – let’s say – Dolly the sheep, does he really have a chance to produce something meaningful? It is even hard for him to understand the details … and we expect a founded judgement. This colleague however is a translator to the public. Like a Chinese-English translator who never learned any Asian language and is working with a 1970 edition of a common dictionary (and avoid asking him for the Chinese signs). Taking this into account, can we really be surprised that the public opinion about biotechnology and gene technology is such bad in Europe.
This also had been a major point at the “Biotech in Europe” session of the recent BIOTECHICA BUSINESS FORUM 2002 in Hanover, Germany. Speakers included Crispin Kirkman (BioIndustry Association, UK), Claude Hennion (France Biotech), Christian Suter (BioValley Basel, Switzerland), Rob Janssen (Netherlands’ Biotech Industry Association) and Hugo Schepens (EuropaBio).
During the discussions Christian Suter mentioned that we are missing true science mediators in Europe. He quantified fruitful cooperations between journalists and scientists as lucky exceptions. And others added that there is a completely different communication culture in North America where scientists don’t worry about sitting in a TV shown and propagating their views to the public.
I do agree. We are really missing true translators and mediators of our contents. Where are the colleagues that are able to help journalists to understand? Dear scientists, journalists desperately need you! Help them to translate. Go out, be present and be the bridges crossing the river between scientific knowledge and the society. In my view many American scientists are highly sensitized regarding their role and duty for public understanding that is the base of public opinion. European scientists are much more afraid of being in the limelight of the media. But – honestly spoken – to my opinion it is part of their (publicly financed) job.
Why do so many European scientists avoid the public? Well, they never learned it. Being a public translator for scientific knowledge is not part of scientific education. Many researchers are just not able to translate.
It is a matter of terms … and a matter of relevance. Let me explain what I do mean with the “matter of relevance”. A true scientist talking about the developments in research will never make an absolute statement, like “Newton’s apple will definitely never go upwards”. He is always qualifying and seeing things in relative terms, even when there is just a hypothetical 0.0001% chance for an alternative event. Perhaps, one day, Newton’s apple may go upwards. It does not matter if this is relevant or not, it always will be a possibility. This basic kind of thinking is a result of the scientific knowledge finding process’ structure, that is driven by thesis and antithesis.
But for the average man or woman this “may be” is a sign of uncertainty, in the worst case interpreted as “there is something in it”. The 0.0001%-event has become a true and relevant option. Now, he is awaiting Newton’s apple to shoot up to the stratosphere, exploding there and finally destroying earth’s ozone shield.
As a conclusion, scientists have to learn to reduce, to focus and to rate various options for relevance. People want clear answers, simple explanations and meaningful statements.
Now, let’s talk about the “matter of terms”. Scientists and non-scientists are often using the same words but do speak different languages. Many scientific terms have a different meaning or an additional interpretation for average persons they have not for a scientist. The result is that both are speaking to each other but there is no true communication.
Take the word “sex” as an example. If a scientist is using the word “sex” he usually is thinking about the gender of the organism he is working with – but most non-scientists at first are thinking about something completely different. Another good example would be the word “glauben” that in the German language is used for “to my opinion” as well as for “to believe”. So if biotech managers “glauben” that gene technology is safe, is it their opinion or is it their believe? But let us focus even more towards “genetic engineering” and “gene technology”. For me the German translation “Gentechnik” has no weight. In my understanding the word stands for a scientific method, a lab application. It is not good or bad, it just is. But for an average German citizen “Gentechnik” has an expanded content, it has a negative meaning, it is a bad word, it is used like talking about devil’s kiss. Now imagine a molecular biologist and a politician having a discussion about gene technology. They are talking together … but finally there is no communication. You can observe it on any programme running on an European TV station.
Where are all these communication and public relation agencies serving the Life Science industries? What have they done during the past years? Well, at least they have lost an important battle. They lost the battle for sovereignty over words. And I suppose that they lost because many of them did not really understand the things they were fighting for.
If you want your public relations work being successful within the fields of Life Science and biotechnology it is much more important compared to any other branch of business that you have an in-depth-knowledge about the contents. Biotechnology and gene technology cannot be treated like others. You really have to understand the technologies you are trying to promote. You really have to know the key words and their true meaning as well as their interpretation by interest groups. And never forget that these words and expressions can have various meanings depending on who is using them!
But where is the way out of the dilemma? Very simple: strike back! Use the words in their true meaning. Use them ‘normalized’. And do not use them only on podium discussions but in your daily live. Speak about biotechnology with your family. Speak about biotechnology with your friends. Speak about biotechnology with your colleagues and business partners. Speak about biotechnology with your children and with their teachers. Speak about biotechnology at your breakfast table and at your barber. Speak about biotechnology with your doctor and with his nurse. Speak about biotechnology as it would be the most normal thing in the world. One day it will be. Win back the sovereignty over words! Now!
Revised version of the article “Let’s talk about Sex”, originally published in December 2002 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.
Two weeks ago I participated in a strategy workshop organized by Arthur D. Little and the German Ministry for Education and Science (BMBF). As part of our talks we discussed the value of scientific information as well as the existing scientific information distribution and access structures. As two major problems we identified that scientists are not really aware of a variety of information resources they could access, and that publication and valuation processes will intensively change within the next years.
To provide you with the corresponding background: the BMBF commissioned the management consultant Arthur D. Little and the ‘Gesellschaft für Innovationsforschung und Beratung’ to analyse the German WTI system (“wissenschaftlich-technische Information”) and to develop a strategy concept for the future of scientific and technical information. This study will be the basis of the future German federal government policy regarding specialist information. In a first step the consultants did a survey targeting 10.000 scientists working at universities or non-academic research institutions as well as 10.000 industry and service companies with an extensive use of information. In a second step the results and early recommendations are discussed by industry insiders and checked for their practicability. I myself was invited for one of this second level workshops that also included the directors of the three German special information centres, several representatives of university libraries, scientists, and others, overall a group of about 15 information specialists with a focus on scientific information.
Giving you a very personal impression, to my opinion the information providers do not really know their client: the scientist working at the bench. During my time as ‘lab rat’ we did not really miss anything as regards information. We had a nice library, we had the internet, and the first internet databases for literature, sequences, ect. started these days. Additionally there has always been the possibility to ‘clone by phone’ or to get information via direct contacts in labs working at the same questions. Nobody told us about STN and other special information providers. And I think we would not have used it for two reasons: the costs (in the lab you have a regular budget for enzymes and pipette tips . but usually you have no true budget for information) and the missing knowledge regarding the retrieval languages (what student is educated in command languages like messenger, e.g.?).
I am sure that this situation will change. I cannot tell you if this will happen within the next 5 years or within the next 15 years, but societies will learn that information itself has a value. Someone once even said that information is the gold of the 21st century. We already have a development within the western societies that people that have a privileged access to – for example – business information and are able to process it do have an advantage over their competitors. This is also valid for scientific information. But . the overall amount of scientific information is increasing logarithmically and the scientist needs more and more pre-selected information regarding his topics and questions. You cannot read all articles in all journals of your discipline AND do successful bench work. You only have 24 hours a day. And you do not really have the place for the growing stacks of publication copies on your desk (wouldn’t it fit your needs to have access to digitalized copies?!). So far there is public structure that supports the bench scientist with these problems. So, we really have to think about improved information infrastructures for the scientific community.
And we have to find a solution of the bivalent situation that on the one hand the public pays for science (and by this for the resulting scientific information), and on the other hand scientists have to pay for scientific information – respectively they or their libraries already do by their journal subscriptions. Perhaps we have to understand that not only the information but also information processing is worth to be paid, for example if you think about information pre-selection, journalistic ‘digestion’, services that help to be more focussed, and publication providers.
Revised version of the article “The value of information”, originally published in October 2001 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.
… huge amounts of NaCl have been found in 98% of all seawater samples taken in the English Channel two days ago. Environmental activists claimed that this should be no surprise. ‘We observe the growing NaCl-contamination of nearly all seashores worldwide now till 1951. We warned politicians and industry, but they ignored our warnings,’ Mrs. Whynot Hideme from the Natural Seawater Fund said. The Ministry of the Environment announced that a NaCl-task-force has been formed to develop strategies to ban the catastrophe. NaCl is known to kill people in high doses. ‘Nobody survived drinking 2 liters a day of concentrated NaCl solution for more than two weeks,’ Dr. Almost Drunken, Ministry of Health explained.”
STOP! What a stupid story?! NaCl, major compound of sea water as well as potato chips, … a toxin? Well, to my opinion this story is pretty close to reality … but in another meaning than you are aware of.
Measuring systems are getting more and more sensible for their target molecules. Today we are able to detect chemical and biological substances present in smallest amounts. The German business magazine “Capital” had an article in his latest issue entitled “Inspectors without control”. It was talking about the uncontrolled information coming from a variety of food laboratories resulting in panic and unserious political decisions. Nearly everybody can set up a laboratory in his cellar doing “environmental research” today. Without control, without verification, without someone critically asking for the sense. We observe quite the reverse: journalists as well as politicians are desperately looking for lab results that fill columns or that fit to a political ideology.
What we observe with BSE, environmental toxins and other dangerous substances within these days is disproportion and panic. Please do not understand me wrong. I am aware of the danger for human health originating from BSE. But I insist that detecting beef in food is not of the same value as detecting BSE in beef, e.g..
I may talk about Germany, my home country. Labs do detect substances that origin from cows in sweets, pork sausage, spices, and even milk [sic]! Nobody is asking where the cow components of for example spices and dried herbs are coming from. And most people do not know that dried herbs are covered with a thin layer of cow fat to keep their flavor.
So, what happens when a butcher is adding dried herb to his pork or chicken sausage? Bingo! Coming back to our main story, a lab detects the cow molecules by an antibody test, a bored journalist is getting the results in his hands, the journalists newspaper is doing the best cover till 1979, and the local politicians close the butchers facilities. Honestly, the farmer that originally sold the cow can be glad if his whole herd is not burned. Joking? Everything is possible within these days!
Lets always keep in mind that for nature the major ecological disaster is man. And man is also the major disaster for himself.
Originally published on March 9, 2001 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255