28 August 2006

Thoughts on Workplace Sustainability

My sister-in-law is involved in a project to help her company become a sustainable workplace. This seems to be the new trend in the business world: the concept that a working environment should encourage good environmental practices; should support employees so that their talents can be valuable to a company for a long time; and should solicit ideas from employees to maintain a more efficient and comfortable environment where they can be more productive and more satisfied. We talked about her project over lunch and I gave her my two-cents on why I think workplace sustainability is a good thing.

As a historian, I take the long view on the sustainability concept. In agriculture-centered societies (ones in the past, such as pre-industrial Europe and also ones in some developing countries today), it is often necessary for community survival and success for everyone in the community work in sustainable ways. Of course some agrarian communities aren't sustainable, but for the ones that are it makes sense that having a high turn-over rate of workers or depleting local resources is very poor policy if you desire the long-term stability.

I found one article on the workplace stability concept on the website of American Institute of Architects. I once worked in a building that had a high degree of people getting cancer due to poor ventilation. The building was overhauled while I was there, but it was alarming to hear stories about all of the past employees who had died of cancer and the current cancer rate was high. I was actually a representative on the committee that was lobbying the management for correcting the "sick building" issue. Even if a building's environment is not that bad, there are still many offices that have poor environmental systems or run through vast amount of waste in a year.

A quick Google search on the topic revealed that Australia seems very progressive about workplace sustainability. But given Australia's isolated location and finite resources it doesn't surprise me that they are ahead of the U.S. They seem to have university programs centered around the concept. Some of the E.U. countries seem also very keen on the idea to a lesser degree. I'm encouraged to learn that the international company where my sister-in-law works [I leave out the name intentionally] is actually exploring the sustainability concept. I have been avoiding the corporate sector in my choice of career and choice of lifestyle, but inevitably in a large consumer culture like mine the culture of corporations has a huge impact on my life--on everyone's life, too, unless they go off and live in cave somewhere.

Do you have any experience with or thoughts on workplace sustainability? Leave a comment.

18 August 2006

Mind Maps and Collages of Thoughts

I'm taking a correspondence course and the current exercise involves creating a mind map of a particular topic, my thoughts about "the earth." Mind-mapping is a method of focused brainstorming that appeals to my right-brained, intuitive brand of logic. It's my way of getting beyond the ease of thinking in a linear fashion. Mind-mapping allows my mind to meander in directions I probably wouldn't go if I was just making a list. The technique makes me realize there are powerful connections which interlace my thoughts.

I learned the term "brainstorming" from the teachers who conducted a gifted and talented class for third- through sixth-graders in my public school system. As a third-grader I thought of brainstorming as a peculiar metaphor. The idea that storm is going on inside your head (at a time in my life when I had few responsibilities or hardships) seemed amusing. I played with the concept and honed my skills to the point where I hardly do any project these days without using some form of brainstorming. It has become second nature to make lists of ideas, to compose rough outlines for an article, or to ask a group to call out ideas before making decisions about the project at hand. I am employing this bag of tricks even before I realize consciously that I'm brainstorming.

Some of the brainstorming techniques I learned back in elementary school tend to emphasize linear patterns of thought. Linear thinking is not all bad, but more recently I've needed a method to push the limits of my mental box when confronting a problem. When you make a list, it's easy to discount "weird" ideas that don't seem to belong with the other concepts or judge them unfairly. Mind-mapping, on the other hand, allows for more possibilities and multiple pathways to connect individual thoughts.

There seems to be a host of mind-mapping software on the market, but I have never seen or used any of these products. For me, colored pencils or markers and the physical act of drawing out the connections makes the most sense to me. Yet, words are not the only way to make a mind map.

Some of the very first mind maps I created were made as collages--pasted bits of newsprint or magazine pictures laid out and then glued to a page. I remember doing a very powerful mind-map about my personality for an assignment in 9th grade psychology class. I know it surprised (alarmed?!) my teacher with the sophistication of its themes--very unlike what most of the girls in my class did with their pictures of clothing, hairdressing appliances, favorite bands and movie stars. I wanted to ask my teacher, "What do you expect? I grew up in a household of artists!" My "personality" collage had landscapes. Images of fire and of ice stood beside exotic foreign countries I read about and wanted to visit. And, yes, a picture of my favorite band, too. It really stood out when taped up on the blackboard beside all of the others.

I have used collage to make other mind maps over the years, to the point where the combination of language and image speak in complex metaphors to me. Collage is a medium which many people find easy to learn. I've taught collage to a number of different age groups and found that people take to it because they are well-versed at assigning meaning to images, perhaps more than with words. In the western world's culture of over-stimulated vision, the images of our printed media are icons of consumerism. People find the images that make sense for them instinctively, like when they find something they want in a store at the mall. It's fascinating to see what images draw and speak to us through random collage.

I wonder if any of the authors on mind-mapping have ever considered collage as a technique akin to their own. I suspect that the Cubist artists of the 1900s and Pop artists of the 1960s would have likely seen their works as "mind maps" if such a term was known to them. Perhaps, the Surrealists of the 1920s would have appreciated such an approach even more. Many of the Surrealists held that no thought could be an accident. That the mind always understood the interconnectivity of thought at some primordial level.