Posts filed under “Strategy”

Paris Under Attack: Digital Culture in Times of Crisis

This post explores some of my thoughts around concepts of Digital Culture.  You can find the other related entries HERE. 

The Paris Attacks demonstrate the influence and impact of digital tools during a time of crisis and identify clear ways that technology is changing our responses, reactions, and behaviors.

Over the years, I have identified five stages of digital culture that take place during a crisis as a part of my broader research on how we can use technology to improve our responses during these tragic events.

This post will outline each of the five stages and explore how different stakeholders (Government, Citizens, Media, and Technology Companies) act during each phase.

Sketch done on Paper iPad app

1) First Awareness: “Is something going on in Paris?”

The first phase in the digital crisis curve is the shortest, it represents the initial realization that something out of the ordinary is taking place.

The hyper-fluidity of information is reflected in a rapidly evolving set of hashtags that capture our attempts to piece together an understanding of the situation from a diverse set of sources.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, the hashtag #parisshootings was one of the original tags that originated and was quickly replaced by #parisattacks as more details about scope of the attack emerged.

Early hashtag describing incident as shootings.

For citizens using digital media tools, this early phase is characterized by information-seeking posts of a questioning nature. (“I’m hearing sirens around République, does anyone know what’s up?”) By now, media outlets have been alerted to an active situation and will dispatch reporters to the scene and set up event live blogs.

The significance of this phase lies in our behavior as information consumers to turn to social media as a first point of interaction with the crisis. In many cases, tweets are the digital first responders, and the platform becomes the source of raw, real-time information. We are drawn to the drama, and are willing to trade unverified information in exchange for up to the minute updates.

The role of hashtags also highlight our appetite for broad, real-time coverage. Searching for trending terms allow us to easily go beyond our feed to follow the conversation wherever it might be happening. Twitter is built on the notion of content curation from a trusted network, and hashtags enable us to temporarily break free from these social constraints and find people based on their relationship to the relevant information. It’s an agile type of temporary informational connectivity that becomes incredibly useful during a crisis. Twitter’s moments feature also demonstrated a good way to filter information.

2) Informational Maelstrom : “There is something happening in Paris!”

Critical mass of awareness of the event is reached when hashtags become trending on popular sites, social media posts begin to go viral, and an the mainstream media begins coverage. We are in full blown crisis mode.

This phase tends to be the most intense and chaotic, as it’s characterized by an abundance of information (sometimes conflicting, often unverified) as people scramble to understand and share information.

In many cases, this phase happens as the crisis is still occurring, and the sharing of facts and figures that can change in an instant creates confusion, panic, and fear. The hashtags for the event are well defined and used by the majority of individuals, media outlets and governments (#parisattacks, #attentatsparis). We also see a surge of new information as the focus of covering the crisis expands to include logistics and personal appeals.

Once the locations of the attacks in Paris became public, people from around the world scrambled to track down family members and friends. On Twitter, #rechercheParis was widely used by those seeking the whereabouts of loved ones.

As the city went on full alert, public transportation closures and venue evacuations left many people in the affected areas stranded and unable to get home. #portesouvertes emerged as a quick, citizen-led response to connect those with apartments nearby to those who needed shelter. At it’s peak the tag was mentioned in nearly 7,000 tweets per second.

Airbnb sent out an email to all of their French members saying it would waive hosting fees and launched a disaster response page to help people in urgent need of accommodation, and Parisians kindly offered strangers their hospitality.

Airbnb Disaster Response Page

Content showing some of the first eye-witness accounts of photos and video clips (such as this viral video showing victims as they ran to escape from the Bataclan) gained wide traction and traditional media coverage, including a high volume of retweets and shares.

One of the biggest wins for technology during the attacks was Facebook’s“Safety Check” feature. Originally intended as a response for natural disasters, the feature enabled those who were in the affected area (determined by geolocation or current city setting) to quickly mark themselves as safe. It was like a digital attendance-taking, much to the relief of family and friends. In the first 24 hours of activation, 4.1 million Facebook users marked themselves as safe, reaching over 360 million people.

The effectiveness of this widely praised technology is a reflection of our extensive and digitally connected social circles, especially those nuanced weaker connections. My immediate family and close friends reached out to me via Facetime, SMS, phone or instant messaging apps. Extended family and friends, colleagues, and those hard to define acquaintances that cover the spectrum from people I went to grade 3 with and that guy I met at a conference once- all reached out via Facebook making the safety feature the perfect way to share the most relevant piece of information at that time: I am ok. I am safe.

It was a great relief to me to see those little green checkmarks as well. Living close to the affected area, I immediately started my own round of outreach and being able to see who was already marked as safe was a great comfort during a period of anxious uncertainty.

At this point in time, media coverage becomes short, frequently updated posts that serve as a frontline for verifying and confirming information amidst the chaos, an essential task that leverages an institutions credibility to create a narrative to make sense of what’s going on. Before the ease of digital publishing we would have had to wait for the next day’s newspaper, but thanks to a constant news coverage, we were able get a clearer picture of the events as they unfolded.

During the Paris attacks we knew there were several different sites that were hit, an emerging hostage situation and that many people had been killed. Information is still changing as journalists have to contend with changing facts, for example the death toll fluctuated between 40 and 200 people over the course of Friday night.

Further highlighting the influence of digital media during times of crisis, government and police stepped in quickly to ask the public to refrain from live-sharing the movements of police forces, especially during on-going operations as it could not only alert suspects but could jeopardize the safety of hostages and the general public. Users on Twitter, Facebook, and Redditwere instructed to not post or share this type of information, a reflection of our connected information ecosystem and the instantaneous nature of social networks.

Governments also turned to social media to circulate important information such as the numbers for embassies in Paris for tourists, airport shutdowns, public transportation disruptions, border closures, and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Hollande. The French Government also introduced a website where people could give tips about suspects.

3) The Narrative Peak?—?“The Paris Attacks have killed 132 People. Responsibility was claimed by Da’esh.”

The Narrative Peak occurs once the event has maximum digital exposure and the active crisis has passed.

By Saturday morning, the main facts of the attacks were widely known including officially confirmed details such as the number of attackers, number of victims, etc. Media coverage shifts from breaking news to analysis and in-depth coverage.

4) Digital Solidarity and Shared Grief?—?“This is how I feel about what happened.”

The Narrative Peak is followed by shows of solidarity and emotional reactions to the events that have transpired. On Twitter, #prayforparis quickly became a leading term for sending condolences from around the world across a variety of mediums. Other tags included #memepaspeur (not even scared) and #jesuisparis (I am Paris.)

Nuanced representations by several communities evolved as well, adding their own unique commentaries. #Iammuslim was a popular tag where members of the Muslim community condemned the attacks and distanced themselves from the radical extremists, revealing the unease and fear in the potential blowback and retaliation for these events (like this. Or this.) Interestingly, #jesuisjuif also emerged from the Jewish community to draw parallels between the Paris attacks and similar attacks in Israel. Finally, many people adding #beirut to tweets about the attacks, making the point that they felt the recent attacks in Beirut (Over 4o people killed) did not receive the same type of media attention and global outpouring of support.

One image of the Eiffel Tower as a part of a peace sign by French artist, Jean Jullien become one of the most recognized symbols of the Paris Attacks and has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

User-generated media such as this video of French Exchange students singing their country’s National Anthem in New York, show a deeply personal and intimate view of how different people paid their respects.These elements create socially connected movements devoid of proximity, and show the unity of a global digital population. The twitter account@parisvictims , shares information about each of the victims. It’s a powerful way to forge a connection about the people who have died, beyond just the numbers.

Media stories now reflect personal accounts and human interest pieces (you can listen to my story on CBC’s MetroMorning here.)

The images and videos provide a powerful show of support without words: famous monuments lit up in France’s colors, snapshots of vigils from around the world, tweets and posts as people share their own memories?—?all unite people through technology in their grief.

The hacker collective Anonymous, have also declared war on Daesh, in retaliation for the attacks and has already taken down the accounts of5,500 twitter handles with links to the extremist group.

Technology companies also showed their support. The Uber app showed all available cars with the colors of the French Flag. Google showed a black ribbon on their home page, and offered free calls to France from Hangouts. Facebook provided another nifty feature to show solidarity by enabling users to add a French Flag overlay to their profile picture, complete with expiry date.

Cynics might sneer at the seemingly superficial gesture of changing a profile picture or adding a hashtag to a tweet, but as someone who is still reeling with shock, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the images of support from around the world.

People from Mumbai send their love

5) Ramp Down. “Let’s move forward.”

The ramp down hasn’t fully happened yet. It normally takes place after the first official ceremonial acknowledgement of the event that has taken place. In Paris, it will most likely be later this week as people gather in public spaces to mourn and grieve for the victims.

This phase signifies a shift from mourning to moving forward. Profile pictures return to normal, hashtags no longer trending, and people’s posts turn to the next media story. This will depend on the location, as in France one can expect this phase to last a lot longer than in other countries.

In Paris, #openbistro has been one of the earliest tags to pop up encouraging people to support local businesses despite the feelings of fear and uncertainty that linger. The media will cover more stories about the victims and longer-form essays will be published to look at the broader implications of this attack on politics, policy, and general sentiment.

Together We Stand

This last week in Paris has been horrible. I am devastated by the loss of life and am struggling to emotionally make sense of it all?—?though I doubt I’ll ever understand what drives a person to such a level of hatred. I am also saddened by the anti-refugee rhetoric that I’ve seen pop up on social media.

Let’s all remember that these people are fleeing the evils of Daesh too. Syrians have been experiencing this level of atrocity for the past four years. If you don’t believe me, check out this recent report from the WHO that estimates there are over 25,000 newly injured Syrians EACH MONTH. It breaks my heart to think of the horrors one must face before risking their lives and leaving everything they’ve known becomes the better alternative.

Technology has connected us to each other at an unprecedented scale. My research focuses on the emergence of the first Global Digital Culture and how we are experiencing events collectively within this new connected ecosystem.

Yes, there are some who will use this technology to spread hate and lies, but it’s brought me tremendous comfort to know that there are others like me who are out there?—?who want to use these tools to help and support each other.

Every time I find myself feeling sad about what happened, I turn to the Internet and know that somewhere out there someone is sending us love and hope. For now, that’s enough.

Technical Literacy and Budget: 2 Hurdles for Big Data? [Amsterdam]


Thalys Train

This post is a part of my thinking around the concepts I wrote about in my latest book, “THE DECODED COMPANY: KNOW YOUR TALENT BETTER THAN YOU KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS.”  You can see some of my other thoughts about big data, organizational culture and talent management HERE

I’m currently writing this from the Thalys train that is speeding from Amsterdam back to Paris. I am marvelling at the wonders of the modern age: traveling between two countries (three if you count our stop in Brussels) is seamless and I am comfortable and happy thanks to roomy seats and free wifi. One of the main benefits of living in Europe has been access to these amazing trains systems. I always prefer trains to the security hassle of removing shoes and putting liquids in tiny plastic bags. 

I was in Amsterdam keynoting  an event, and the conversations I had with some of the attendees afterwards got me thinking. Data literacy and budget constraints are the two hurdles I hear about most frequently that are standing in the way of organizations interested in embracing the Decoded Model.


1. The Decoded Model is a Philosophy

The great thing about the Decoded Model is that it encompasses a unifying philosophy to integrate analytics, not just a tactical response. This means that you can have 10 companies who are using the Decoded Model in 10 very different ways. This isn’t a solution  you pull off a shelf and plug into your organization. It’s a very powerful resource that helps bridge strategic vision,  cultural objectives and analytics together in a cohesive and coordinated way. So if you’re a small team or a huge multinational, our thinking around people, technology, and culture can be successfully implemented.


2. Being Decoded is not binary: It’s a spectrum

For some reason, there is this weird, persistent belief that implementing Big Data initiatives is an all or nothing approach. This is not true! Being Decoded falls on a broad spectrum. A small team who is looking to implement Technology as a Coach to create customized learning is going to have a different budget and scale than a company with 30,000 employees seeking to do the same. They are both applying the principle but in very different ways. This is good news: it means that no matter what your constraints are there is a spot for you to become Decoded in a way that makes sense for you and your team. This goes double for your technical competency: you don’t have to know how to code or be familiar with databases and algorithms to get started. In writing the book, we made sure to include experiments and easy to complete tasks that addressed a variety of skill levels.


3. Money isn’t the issue.

The other big issue that gets mentioned quite often is always about money. Isn’t data expensive? Clients tell me that they don’t have the budget to invest in customized analytical solutions. Once again, budget is a constraint that falls on a spectrum. A small company with limited budget shouldn’t have to invest hundreds of thousands (or millions) into a customized platform. It doesn’t make sense! Instead, when looking at the Decoded Model know that there are many inexpensive or free tools that can help you get started without a large capital investment.

I should note that while there are a multitude of ways to implement data and analytics inexpensively, doing so will always require a significant investment of time: it will take awhile to familiarize yourself with the new and available tools and  to deeply examine your own systems and processes to spot areas where you can apply the Model. I wrote a few months ago about some easy ways for companies to track their productivity, that you can use to help you get started right away.


Don’t Psych Yourself Out!

The biggest hurdle is often a mental one: letting go our beliefs or assumptions about what we think big data and how we can use it to make better decisions. Remember, if you have a piece of paper and a pen – you can be Decoded. Know how to use an excel spreadsheet? You can be Decoded. Have a budget of $0? You can be Decoded.

Interested in applying the Decoded Model to your team? Check out my MasterClass.



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[Data] Decoded: How Much Time Is Your Company Wasting?

This post is a part of my thinking around the concepts I wrote about in my latest book, “The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers.”  You can see other thoughts about big data, organizational culture and talent management here

I spotted a recent HBR blog post last month that underscored our need for better data systems inside organizations. Entitled Quantify How Much Time Your Company Wastes, author Ryan Fuller, laments the wasted, untracked time that goes down the drain at the end of each business day. The numbers he quotes are frightening: one Vice President in the technology sector reported spending an average 44 hours a week on meetings, under 22 hours on emails alone.

“There are so many initiatives, goals, peoples, customers, and vendors competing for our time that it’s extraordinarily challenging to just simply focus,” he writes. “This is changing, however – just think about how many companies are utilizing sophisticated social intelligence algorithms to create a deeper understanding of their customers’ patterns and behavior.”

It’s Fuller’s next piece of advice that really caught my eye, and I think you’ll quickly see why:


The next step is turning these analytics inward – harnessing the massive amount of e-mail, calendar, and messaging data a company already has – to diagnose surprising inefficiencies that exist at an organizational level.


What’s that Ryan? Organizations should know their talent as well as they know their customers?  I totally agree! Though I might be a little biased. The Decoded model is built on understanding that attracting the best talent is now a survival imperative for companies facing today’s economic climate. Attracting those people is only half the battle: the real work is in making sure they are happy, empowered and motivated. That’s where data can come in to help create better training practices, introduce flexible policies and engineer the types of behaviours that create the best cultures.

The article lists three tips for organizations including: identifying expensive errors, monitoring partner relationships and personalizing feedback loops (which we focus on in depth in one of the chapters.)

I wanted to offer my own suggestion:

Measure your baseline time expenditure. 

Humans tend to be naturally optimistic when it comes to estimating the time of work it takes to get something done. We are more likely to under-estimate the actual time. We also are prone to losing small chunks of time that can add up. Plus, the human memory is a falliable thing that is often prone to rewriting experiences to fit our own narratives. This means that many of us think we have an idea of how many times we get interrupted in a day or how long it takes us to complete a task, but without data to back that up, we could be totally wrong.

Here are three ways to experiment with this:

  • Try a service like Rescue Time which runs in the background of your computer and tallies the websites you visit and the tasks you work on. You might be surprised (as I was) that you think you’re only “glancing at twitter every now and then” when you’re actually spending four hours a week on the social media platform.
  • For those that want a more analogue experiment here is a very easy one from the book. Take a pad of paper and a pencil. At the beginning of the work day write down your best estimate for the number of times that you’ll be interrupted between 9am and lunchtime. Then, every time you get interrupted from a task, be it a cheery colleague stopping by or an email that requires your attention, make a tally mark. At lunch time compare the number of marks to your theoretical number.
  • Ask your team to rate the usefulness of the meetings they attend on a scale of 1-10 for one month. They can do this in a shared spreadsheet or you can even ask them to anonymously submit scores on post-its at the end of a meeting, whatever works best for you. At the end of this period, take a look at your numbers. Most people we’ve worked with who have conducted this experiment have discovered that there were a few meetings (or more) that no one found useful. By eliminating these meetings they were able to increase morale and productivity!

Consider the following questions:

  • Were you surprised by the results?
  • Were your estimations of time expenditures accurate?
  • What is the major insight about how you spend your time?
  • Is there something that can be changed?


The best tool you have is knowledge, a true understanding where your time is going. It’s only by understanding your baseline that you can start to make constructive changes, and identify underlying issues – like too many meetings or Kevin from accounting who always drops by for chats that last for 20 minutes.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can apply The Decoded Model within your own organization, feel free to email me as I often (time permitting) take on a few clients to help implement our principles. You can contact me here.


If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and general cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletters and get my best stuff first. Subscribe!                      

The Decoded Company in the Ivey Business Journal

Ivey Business Journal | Improving the practice of management

I’ve been delighted with the response and excitement from people wanting to know more about The Decoded Company and what it could mean for their organization. After speaking at the Ivey Ideas Series in February, I was invited to contribute a piece that encapsulates our thinking about how organizations can deploy big data to recruit and retain talent.

You can read the piece here.



Oct ’11: The Banff Forum – Privacy & Citizen Engagement 2.0

I had the honor of being invited to participate in the Banff Forum this year to share some thoughts around citizen engagement and how technology is impacting democracy. Banff is one of my favorite places, it is just so stunningly beautiful.

Fireside Chat about Privacy

I hosted a fireside chat (there was an actual fire, it was hot, lol) and discussed some of the implications of living an increasingly online life. I had a really great time during this session because it was informal and intimate with about 20-35 people coming in an out as the discussion progressed. We spoke about the future of privacy and what it would mean to live in a world where most of your actions are being analyzed, tracked and recorded.

Personally, I believe that in order to understand how some of these technological changes are going to affect us we really need to understand how our perceptions of our online identity are evolving and changing. You can read some of my initial thoughts on the evolution of web personas here. Whenever a new social network or service comes out I always find myself returning to the anchor of online identity to evaluate how it’s going to impact our lives.


Panel on Citizen Engagement:

I also participated on a panel the next afternoon about citizen engagement. Here’s the session description from the programme:
The inaugural Banff Forum had a strong focus on citizen engagement. While several Forum participants went on to more prominent roles in the public arena, for the past decade, most indicators of civic engagement in Canada have been moving sideways at best. Increasingly, politicians and civic groups have looked to social media as a means for mobilizing the electorate around  issues and political action. This trend has produced a variety of results and raised a number of important questions. Within a pluralist democracy such as Canada, what are a citizen’s responsibilities and obligations? How can these best be fulfilled? What is the role of emerging technology in our public life? Is voter participation the ultimate test, or simply one of many ways, to measure civic engagement?


Scott BUTLER Director, Policy and Research, Ontario Good Roads Association


  • Rahaf HARFOUSH, Digital Strategist and Author, Red Thread Inc.
  • Mark KINGWELL, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto
  • Tony LEIGHTON, President, Fix Inc.Précis

Tony had such an inspirational story about how he rallied his local community to oust some city councillors who were not respecting his town’s historical heritage. It always comes back to local change. Local change needs to take place as a pre-cursor to any global shift in thinking.

Mark, was brilliant as usual. I’m such a fan of his work and it was so great to meet him in person. It’s always refreshing to meet someone who is so down to earth and laid-back despite being tremendously accomplished. Scott, our moderator was just amazing, we hit it off instantly and he kept me laughing for the entire duration of the Forum.


@Nenshi = Awesome

I had the chance to meet Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi, North America’s first Muslim Mayor! I thought it was pretty ironic that conservative Calgary elects a minority mayor, and liberal Toronto elects…Rob Ford.  Mayor Nenshi spoke at length about how important it was to build open dialogues with members of the community and how he believed that most people want to participate in making their city a better place. It was so great to hear his various initiatives to bring increased transparency and accountability to municipal government. I hope we get more political leaders like him!  Met the incredibly inspiring @nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary. #banffforum

All in all it was a fantastic trip and the icing on the cake was visiting the local Banff Hot Springs which were just amazing (pictured below). There is nothing like sitting in a giant outdoor pool full of steaming water, surrounded by snow topped mountains and forests. I think next year we should have all of the sessions inside the springs. 😉


ps: We also visited the Oil Sands up at Fort McMurray, but that’s an entirely separate post that I will put up once I get some of Jesse’s awesome pictures!