Writing for the CIA, or for Me

Good writing is important. I tell my students that. When I find senior people in prominent organizations delivering the same message, I am pleased. I don’t need convincing or reminding about the importance of good writing, but I think that some of my students do. So I find this quote useful and pleasing.

The information [our organization] gathers, and the analysis it produces, mean little if we cannot convey them effectively… [Our organization has always] been home… to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, the organization is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Had the post title not given it away, you might have guessed that the organization was in the business of market research, or of consulting.

The quote is from the Foreword to a document that I’ll call the CIA Style Manual (follow the link for a PDF of the document, including its full title). The Foreword, written by CIA Director of Intelligence Fran Moore, is refreshingly concise, comprising just four short paragraphs.

Based on what I’ve read, or seen quoted elsewhere, the Manual provides some very good advice on informative and analytical writing. Here are a few more quotes.

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers.

Given that it recommends that language be “crisp” and “frugal”, the CIA Style Manual seems rather long: it runs to 190 pages. A glance at the Contents shows that many of those pages provide guidance on things that most of us never have to be concerned about, such as capitalization while writing about “Top Officials of First-Order Subnational Administrative Divisions”.

Many other pages of the Manual provide rhetorical rules. Here is just one particular persuasive tactic: regime “has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to governments friendly to the United States.” Open Culture deploys opposing rhetoric, describing the CIA as “fiendishly good at manipulating language.”

The emphasis on rhetoric provides an additional reason to study the Manual. This reason may be even stronger for those who disapprove of the CIA’s activities than it is for those who approve. Whatever the argument, whatever side we are on, we should all seek to understand and anticipate the rhetorical devices used by the opposing side(s).

The students to whom I referred in the first paragraph are in a highly-rated MBA program. (Hello, students, and no you don’t get extra credit for having read this far.) They are, in my courses, students of communication (as well as of Strategic Management, or Organizational Behavior, of Business Ethics, or…). Here are my guidelines for written assignments the current semester; the assignments tend to be short (about three single-spaced pages), since I encourage conciseness.

We should all be lifelong students of communication, including writing. We can learn a lot–about clarity, about rhetoric, and about other aspects of writing–from the CIA Style Manual.

Hokie Evening MBA, Hurray!

“We’re #16!” I wrote that on the board in class yesterday evening, under the heading “Good News”. I teach in Virginia Tech’s Evening MBA program, which was just ranked 16th among part-time MBAs by US News and World Report.

To put that ranking in perspective:

  • It puts the program, not only in the top 20 (obviously), but also on the first page of ranked programs, making it particularly salient to prospective students using the rankings.
  • So the program is on the same page as its counterparts at: Berkeley, Chicago, Northwestern, NYU, UCLA, Michigan, Georgetown,…
  • It is tied with Rice, U of S Carolina, and UMass Amherst (which is where I got my PhD, so it must be good).
  • It is ahead of Georgia Tech, U of Maryland (College Park), and over 200 other part-time MBA programs.

Congratulations to all concerned. I’m grateful to, and for, to the students. They belong in graduate school at a good university, and that is something I do not say lightly. They are ready for class after long days at demanding jobs. Their contributions to class discussions aid the learning of their fellow students, and of their professors.

Exit Blackboard, Followed By Scholar

Virginia Tech currently uses the Scholar Learning Management System (LMS). I summarize my opinion of Scholar as follows: less annoying than Blackboard.

Scholar replaced Blackboard at Virginia Tech, and will soon itself be replaced, according to Collegiate Times editor Maura Mazurowski. Scholar is based on an LMS platform called Sakai, which was developed by a consortium including Virgina Tech. Other consortium members are ceasing development and use of the platform.

The most popular post-Scholar LMS, and most likely next LMS for Virginia Tech, seems to be Canvas. I posted about Canvas around the time of its launch. The Canvas website is impressive, and includes a comparison of features between Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMSs. The Canvas mobile apps may well make a difference, both in adoption of Canvas, and in use after adoption.

Personally, I find CoursePress the most interesting LMS, but that’s because I also had the idea of building an LMS on the WordPress platform. But Virginia Tech won’t and shouldn’t adopt that young LMS simply because someone who teaches there finds it interesting.

I welcome your comments on LMSs in general, specific LMSs, LMS transition, or anything related.

An English Quiz

Edit, the morning after, mainly to include link to answers. Changes are in italics.

My kids’ school has an International Night on Thursday (March 12). I was asked to represent England. I will do so in three main ways: staff England table; provide English food; set English quiz. The food will include Apple Crumble, using the recipe from the BBC site, made with the help of my daughter, and accompanied by custard.

If you are interested in quizzes or in England, please take a look at my English Quiz. Most of the questions are for elementary school (grades K-5, so up to age 11) kids; that doesn’t mean that they are all easy. Anyway, give them a try before you look at the answers.

Then there are five questions aimed at parents, or kids of any age. Some of the parent questions are stated as if the victim quiz-taker is able to talk to me in person. Here are alternate forms of some of those questions for you, my online friends.

  • PQ2 (Parent Question 2), addition to the question: what will I be wearing? Hint: I was wearing a long scarf with horizontal stripes.
  • PQ4: if you tell me you’re singing and/or dancing, I’ll believe you. Hint: The song is actually more associated with Philadelphia than with anywhere in England.
  • PQ5: this question is difficult, unfair, and over-specialized. If you can’t cope with that, I recommend you avoid modern life. I included hints for this question among the answers.

I’ll post answers over the weekend after the International Night. I’ll do so in the comments below. In the meantime, please feel free to post your own comments.

Wikipedia and Class Papers

“Can I use Wikipedia as a source for my paper?” I’ve been asked that question, or some variation on it, many times over the years. My short answer is: it’s fine to use Wikipedia, if you do so with caution, and if you don’t confess to it. I’ll expand on each of the three parts of that answer, from last to first.

Don’t confess to using Wikipedia. I’ll support that advice with a quote from the Wikipedia article on Academic Use: “citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.” In more pragmatic terms: many professors disapprove of student use of Wikipedia.

If you use Wikipedia, do so with caution. The quality of Wikipedia articles varies. A great many are good, and many are better than good. A good Wikipedia article provides (at least) two things: a clear and accurate summary of its subject; and relevant references.

If you are thinking of using a Wikipedia article, test its value for you and for your paper. What aspects of the subject are most important to you and to your paper? Which of the article’s references are most relevant to those aspects? Do the referenced works say what the Wikipedia article says they say? If so, put the appropriate points in your paper, and use the references you got from Wikipedia. Don’t reference Wikipedia itself.

It’s fine to use Wikipedia. To be more specific, it’s fine to use Wikipedia articles that meet criteria such as those in the previous paragraph. If an article doesn’t meet those criteria, then don’t use that article. If an article does meet those criteria, them use it, but don’t admit use by including the article among your references.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you, and I’m interested in your reaction, be you student, professor, Wikipedia contributor, or whatever. So please feel free to comment.

CoursePress: An LMS Plugin For WordPress

“WordPress is web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog”: this according to WordPress.org, a site that surely ought to know. WordPress was originally for blogs. Then it was for blogs and, if you wanted, other websites. Now it is for websites, including, but certainly not limited to, blogs.

When WordPress 3.0 came out, back in 2010, I realized that a Learning Management System (LMS) could be built on the WordPress platform. I thought about building one myself, but decided against it: the LMS market was crowded; it contained a huge competitor in the form of Blackboard; I didn’t see how I could get a first foothold in the market; and so on.

2014 saw the release, not only of WordPress 4.0, but also of CoursePress: a WordPress-based LMS from Edublogs. While it didn’t make sense for me to build a WPLMS in 2010, it makes a lot of sense for Edublogs to do so now. The LMS market is still crowded, but Blackboard is less dominant. More important, Edublogs already has a foothold in many educational organizations: those for which it manages blogs.

So how is CoursePress implemented? In WordPress terms, it is a plugin. You can download it at no charge. So what is it in business terms, and how does it make money for Edublogs? There are two answers: it is a feature of the CampusPress service; and it has a Pro version, for which there is a charge.

I consider CoursePress interesting, and in with a chance. How about you?

Back To Firefox From Chrome

After my daughter’s school started using Chrome, it seemed that the browser wasn’t big enough for the both of us. So I switched back to Firefox.

In a way, my switch away from Chrome was prompted by the success of Google for Education, and of Chromebooks. At school, my daughter Maddie uses one of the over 50,000 Chromebooks purchased by Montgomery County, Maryland, for use in K-12 schools.

Maddie has to sign in to her school Chrome account to do some of her homework. She does so on the office computer, otherwise known as dad’s laptop. When she started doing this, strange things happened to my browser, to the extent that Chrome no longer seemed like home to me. At first I thought about coexisting in Chrome, and set up a Chrome account for myself.



Then I considered switching to a different browser, and came up with multiple reasons for switching back to Firefox. It would be simpler to use a different browser from the one Maddie uses. I’m still a little annoyed at Google for discontinuing Google Reader. I was curious about what had happened in Firefox while I was away. Some recent browser comparisons favor Firefox over Chrome and other browsers.

Firefox this time round? So far, not bad.

Business Book Recommendations

Some rather hardy MBA students recently asked me for book recommendations, on top of the book I’d just recommended to them, which in turn was on top of the books and other materials I’d assigned for the course. This post provides those recommendations, and shares them with you, even if you are not one of the students who made the request. (It also provides an Amazon affiliate link to each of the books, but I’ll be pleased if you just consider some of these books, and there are lots of other ways to obtain them.) The book I recommended is:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. I recommend it for reasons including the following. It’s about an important and interesting topic: how people influence each other. It is founded in research (including Cialdini’s own research), but it is approachable and applicable. It is well-structured, with each of the six central chapters focusing on a different “weapon of influence” (e.g., Liking, Authority). Each of these chapters includes a section on self-defense, that is, on resisting assaults using this particular weapon. So the book is for, not just influencers, but also potential influencees.

Two of the books I did assign for the course belong here. Each is similar to Influence in that it is approachable, applicable, founded in research, and relevant to “behavior in organizations”*.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Dan Pink is not an academic researcher, but he does make sure that he understands research relevant to his topic. In this, my favorite of his books, his topic is motivation, especially intrinsic motivation. Driven blends clear explanations of research with strong examples from practice, and suggests ways in which readers can better harness their motivations.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential social scientists of the last hundred years. He is a psychologist best known for his work, with Amos Tversky, on judgment and decision making. He won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Why did research in psychology earn the economics prize? Because it showed how human judgment and decision making depart from rationality, and it did so convincingly, extensively, and influentially. This book makes Kahneman’s thinking about human thinking very accessible. While it might be more academic than Influence or (especially) Drive, it is also more personal: it is dedicated to Tversky’s memory.

I wrote something similar to this post for Business Week about eight years ago. BW asked a bunch of business school profs for book recommendations: mine are still online. The first recommendation from 2006 certainly belongs here.

Co-Opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. I wrote in BW that:

This is my favorite book on business strategy. The combination of competition and cooperation has become if anything more important in the decade or so since Co-Opetition was first published. It delivers solid content while avoiding heavy writing.

The only change I’d make to is to note that it’s now almost two decades since Co-Opetition was published, and it continues to wear extremely well. In fact, looking back to BW, but without looking back into all the books, I would still make most of those previous recommendations (although if you want a view from two veterans of The Economist magazine on how the world is changing, you might go with their recently-published The Fourth Revolution, rather than A Future Perfect).

Although the title of this post refers specifically to business books, I see that my BW piece concluded with recommendations for fiction, including some fantasy. I do still enjoy novels set in other worlds, such as:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. If you follow the link, you’ll be able to look inside the book and read the first few pages. (See, these Amazon links can be useful to you.) If you enjoy those early pages, chances are you’ll enjoy the rest of the book. If you enjoy the book, chances are you’ll enjoy the second and third in the series.

That’s enough from me for now. Please feel free to leave your comments, whether they be remarks on the books recommended, recommendations of your own,… Thank you for reading this far, and thank you to the students who prompted this post.

* What I term here behavior in organizations is more often, but less logically, called organizational behavior (OB). It is related to organizational psychology and to a bunch of other more or less impressive-sounding terms.

Teaching and the Tools Thereof

I’m teaching in a strategic management class, starting next Monday. It’s the capstone strategy class in the MBA program at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). I’ll be teaching a “hybrid” section, which mean that it’ll be mostly e-learning, but with a few in-class meetings.

The learning management system (LMS) is WebTycho, which is well-established at UMUC, used at a few other institutions, but isn’t a generally-available or widely-used LMS. Having just completed an orientation course in WebTycho, I can give an opinion: it’s solid, and not often annoying.

Teaching at UMUC also involves using Microsoft Outlook, which is both widely-used and annoying.

That said, I’m excited about the 10-week strategy course that’s about to start.

Yet Another LMS: Canvas, From Instructure

The Learning Management System (LMS) market is a crowded one, but that isn’t deterring entry. Michael Arrington considers the launch of Canvas to be post-worthy. Its worthiness seems to stem from two aspects of Canvas: the founder, Josh Coates; and the video, which features a flamethrower.

Canvas is in some ways similar to Totara, which I covered about a month ago. The code is free/open source, and the intention is make profit from services, including hosting and support. In the case of Canvas, the for-profit organization is Instructure.

Canvas differs from Totara in that it’s for the academy, while Totara is for the enterprise. As you’ll know if you watched the video, Canvas has a very specific target. That would be (as Mike puts it) “the entrenched player in the University LMS space, Blackboard, and… its $377 million or so in revenue.”

As an entrant to the academic segment of the LMS market, Canvas resembles Schoology. So I’ll examine Canvas in terms of the challenges I identified in an earlier post about Schoology.

One set of challenges arises from the difficulty of being an entrant into a segment that includes a large gorilla, as well as other incumbents. Canvas/Instructure has certainly made a bold, aggressive, and well-funded entry.

Another set of challenges relates to that fact of student life, social media. A quick look at Canvas suggests that it provides integration with Facebook (to name a social gorilla) rather than building social networking into the Canvas LMS itself. If so, I think that’s the way to go.

I tried to start using the Canvas in the early hours of this (Tuesday) morning. I submitted a support request shortly after signing up. I’ll post again, or update this post, when I’ve received a response to my support ticket and/or signup.