Robert S. Becker : An interview by Bob Morris

Robert S. Becker PhD founded Becker Multimedia, simulations and serious games — to enhance job competencies and performance. He advises clients on learning strategy, leads the implementation of instructional technology and produces engaging interactive multimedia content. He also helps propagate organizational mission and vision by applying his expertise in employer branding, customer experience management and internal marketing communications. With regard to involvement with professional associations, he is Education Chair for the Chicago Great Lakes Chapter of the Explorers Club. Also, he holds board positions with Chicago chapters of ASTD and ISPI. He also leads the Serious Games SIGs for IGDA and GDDA.

In another area of professional involvement, Bob is now at work on an online curriculum of continuing medical education (CME) accredited by a prominent school of medicine in Massachusetts, designing blended learning for a logistics company serving the railroad and trucking industries, designing web-based interactive marketing for a German manufacturer, and designing inaugural mobile learning for a widely dispersed retail company. Past engagements have spanned diverse industries from utilities to banking. He earned his BA and MA at New York University and his PhD from the University of Reading in England. Before founding his company, he was a professor of English and funded research scholar. He lives and works in Oak Park, Illinois.

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Morris: Which person has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.

Becker: The Child is father of the Man. My children have had the greatest influence on my personal growth. After my years of questing they helped me realize that I am not the most interesting per- son on the planet. They changed my dream world into a life of devotion.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Becker: If professional development evokes gifts in addition to competencies, stature in addition to rank, wisdom and goodness in addition to power, then Sir Rupert Hart-Davis has had the greatest impact on my professional development. He was my friend and mentor.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow?

Becker: That would be my denial of academic tenure. It coincided the inception of instructional technology, self-paced training, personal computing and online information. I was already fascinated with instructional systems design, so I jumped through this shiny new looking glass.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far in the business world?

Becker: My formal education is both a handicap and a blessing. A handicap because the study of literature and history looks back, whereas business relentlessly scans the horizon. A blessing because my scholarship provided core discipline and resilience, which are much needed in business.

Morris: What do you now know about the business world that you wish you knew when you first went to work full-time?

Becker: I admire the intellect and skills of business people. However their ethics can be patchy. I try to treat myself, my colleagues and clients as professionals, but many business people are unprofessional by choice as well as training. I’m frequently reminded.

Morris: Of all the changes that have occurred in the business world since then, what do you consider to be most significant? Why?

Becker: Digitization of content. It vastly increases the speed and quality of work and enables even ordinary people to achieve a measure of greatness. Digitization unleashes a lot of stupidity too, but a rising tide lifts all boats so we must be patient.

Morris: You and your associates at Becker Multimedia have devised one of the most interesting websites I have yet encountered and I am also very impressed by the blog at which a wealth and diversity of superior content is provided. Please explain the process by which (a) the website was designed and then launched, (b) the specific objectives were set for the blog originally, and (c) the extent to which subsequent modifications have been made.

Becker: rose from the critical feedback of gifted colleagues in an AIGA Mastermind Group. They looked at my previous website and hated it. So I started over, writing and designing everything myself but with the goal of pleasing tough critics. It worked out pretty well. They gave me a passing grade.

The purpose of the Blended Learner blog has always been the same: to decode my professional attitudes and values. These both inspire and limit my work, often without me realizing it. I try to blog what I believe so that I can understand my work better.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “blended learner”?

Becker: The Blended Learner blog is a kind of oracle. I write the way a Delphic priest would moan or rant in another era: focusing on what I know and believe, being brief, varied and spontaneous, trying to produce truthful insights. The thoughts I bring to the Blended Learner are quickly formed, but they take longer to write because I sweat the expression. Prime examples of Blended Learner style is my five recent posts, Zen and the Art of E-Learning Design followed by the Four Qualities of E-Learning (quality in the sense that Robert Pirsig uses the word). These essays surprised me as I wrote them and that may mean they are good.

Morris: You and I hold in high regard recently published books on business design, notably Roger Martin’s The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, Tim Brown’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tom Lockwood’s Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value, and Roberto Verganti’s Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean.

Here’s my question: How do you explain the recent and increasingly substantial interest in such books and what they discuss?

Becker: Two words: Steve Jobs. Well, let me rephrase that. The design genius of Steve Jobs that is channeled by Apple. For 30 years Steve brought the ineluctable force of design to industry and commerce, and with great success. It’s rare and people want more of that.

Morris: Now I wish to ask several questions that follow no discernible order, I realize, but offer you an opportunity to tee off on some issues worthy of discussion. First, which 2-3 films do you think most effectively dramatize important business lessons?

Becker: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has important lessons for our time, though we cannot seem to learn them. It shows how talent can be twisted and soiled as it becomes both less vigilant and more compliant and servile.

Morris: Of all the literary works (i.e. epic poems, plays, and novels) that you have read over the years, which 2-3 offer the most valuable insights concerning important business subjects, such as leadership?

Becker: George Moore’s novel The Brook Kerith is an imaginative biography of Jesus Christ. In documenting events up to the failed crucifixion and Christ’s “real life” afterward, Moore traced the phases of modern leadership development in rational, secular and humanist terms.

Morris: The business narrative has become very popular, especially since Spencer Johnson misplaced his cheese. In your opinion, why do so many authors such as Eliyahu Goldratt and Patrick Lencioni rely on storytelling basics (setting, characters, conflict, tension, plot developments, etc.) to share their insights about the business world?

Becker: Myth and metaphor have unrivaled powers to inform and influence people. Joseph Campbell, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff explain how they work. Great stories are carriers of myth and metaphor. We think we are reading for what or how, but we learn from why.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, which do you consider to be the most effective [begin italics] communicator [end italics]? Please explain your selection.

Becker: As a leader of empire, an inspiring orator and master of prose narrative, Winston Churchill may be the more effective communicator of all great leaders. I’m a little reluctant to name him because his colonial values are obnoxious, but that doesn’t enter into this question.

Morris: Given the proliferation of social networks, electronic devices, and other multimedia resources, do you think people are communicating more effectively, less effectively, or about the same today than or as they did (let’s say) 7-10 years ago? Please explain.

Becker: Younger people are communicating far more effectively than anybody did a decade ago. At its best their content is richer, more immediate, meaningful and active. Of course there’s a lot of noise or drivel in the ether, but that’s fairly easy to ignore.

Morris: I have several of what I characterize as “sources of nutrition.” They include listening to classical music (my favorites include Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Copland), roaming a fine arts museum (especially when it hosts an exhibition of one of my favorite painters), re-reading Shakespeare’s mature tragedies and Russian novels, and playing golf. Which are yours?

Becker: My sources of renewal are not cerebral or cultural. I go outdoors. Activities that force me to stop thinking about anything beyond the next precarious step are the best. They are like sleep in a way, because I return from them with an ability to think more clearly, fairly and deeply.

Morris: Let’s pretend you are hosting a private dinner to which you can invite any five (5) people from throughout human history. After cocktails, there would be an elegant dinner, and then several hours of lively conversation. Whom would you invite? Please explain each selection.

Becker: I would invite nobody. I say this because I once dined at the high table with eminent dons at an Oxford University college, Afterward we sat around an ancient table passing digestives and discussing everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. I felt like a specimen of the latter.

Morris: In your opinion, which single aspect or area of public school education in the United States is in greatest need of immediate improvement?

Becker: Facilities. Oscar Wilde was correct when he wrote more than 100 years ago that ugly schools are the problem with education. Remake them into beautiful academies and you will find that they produce great teachers and pupils. Sounds facetious, but it’s true.

Morris: What specifically do you recommend?

Becker: I would follow the lead of Ron Clark and begin in the ghetto. Tear down the monstrous schools that do little more than waste young talent and lives. Replace them with architectural marvels that not only educate, but center entire communities on their talent and aspirations.

Morris: In your opinion, is it more difficult, less difficult, or about the same now to launch a new company than it was (let’s say) 3-5 years ago? Please explain.

Becker: Ours is the era of the startup in which good and not so good ideas capture capital with ease. This is unprecedented in my lifetime. My experience of startup in the 1990s was bootstrap- ping. Bootstrapping is to mining what the today’s startup is to alchemy.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest business opportunity that has been created by the current Recession, Depression, Great Reset, Great Disruption, or whatever else you wish to call it?

Becker: Civilization today is a chrysalis. Our wormlike progress in the past 50 years has been an orgy of consumption. We lived to waste. The iterative decline you mention is symptomatic of metamorphosis. Businesses that will prosper are those that can transcend apocalypse.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: How best to take full advantage of this opportunity?

Becker: I don’t think there is a way to take full advantage of a civilization in ruins. I hope I don’t sound prophetic, but the world truly is spinning out of control. To not see this is to be blind. The best response may be “adaptive.” Do not pretend to foresee or predict, but prepare to adapt.

Morris: As you may know, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege during the past 20 years to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies. That is, companies with annual sales of $20-million or less. Given the fact that they tend to have limited re- sources, please explain how can they best utilize a multimedia approach to follow the advice of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis: “Reach what you cannot!”

Becker: Kazantzakis received this instruction from his grandfather in Report To Greco. I wish more of his fellow Greeks would follow the same instruction instead of obeying apparatchiks. The command is essentially to exceed your limitations and achieve the epic.

Can companies use multimedia to reach what they cannot? No, that’s not possible. They can only use their minds and hearts and souls to obey the instruction. The ”reach” is their aspiration. Multimedia designed by Becker is not the reach, it is the manifestation and in some cases the fulfillment of that reach. I say to clients, have the courage to ponder and go beyond your limitations. I am just one of the Sherpas on your journey.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Becker: Here’s a question I knew you would never ask so I will: “Why do you like Bob Morris as much or more than anybody you’ve met in 25 years in business?”

And my response: “Morris is a rare epitome of Emersonian wisdom. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a transcendentalist, which I believe Morris is as well though he has never told me that. Morris has the robust authorial voice of Walt Whitman, the rugged authenticity of Henry David Thoreau. More than anything he exemplifies Emerson’s distinction between ‘Thinker’ and ‘Man Thinking.’ In my work as an academic and corporate educator I have met oodles of thinkers – some very impressive in their fashion. But I have met very, very few Men Thinking. Morris is one of them. He’s kind of a national treasure.

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Bob cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website:

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