Boiling Frogs & Building Brands: P&G’s Partnership With Strive

This is a follow up to my previous post about Strive Together’s plans for “cradle to career” collective impact. Pursuing this work is a curious experience. Most times I can’t tell what, if any, progress I’m making. Yet I continue to forge ahead and regularly stumble across guideposts that seem to affirm I’m doing the work I’m supposed to do. So, I sit back down at the kitchen table and keep going, as my friend Chris says, a Jeremiah warning of the coming Babylonians.

A recent sign for me had to do with Strive (and Knowledgeworks) being based in Cincinnati. It’s not a city most people think much about, but it holds a prominent place in my childhood memories. You see, my dad was a career executive at Procter and Gamble (P&G), which is headquartered there. His job, selling Folgers coffee, was our family’s ticket to a comfortable suburban life, far different from his own unstable childhood as the son of an often under-employed mason and cashier. It seems somehow fitting that I step up now to call this company out on its efforts to set up an infrastructure of cybernetic biocapitalism.

Strive worked closely with executives at P&G in setting up its “collective” impact roadmap as seen in the following excerpt from the report, “Putting Collective Impact in Context,” prepared for the Wallace Foundation by Teachers College, Columbia University in 2015. The cradle to career pipeline is being constructed with specific metrics that will underpin speculative investment markets in human capital. Everyone was given marching orders. Comply with the established metrics or you’re out of the club.

Jeff Edmonson who, with Nancy Zimpher, helped set up this framework, is now managing director of the Ballmer Group, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s investment company. Steve’s wife Connie serves on Strive’s board along with Edmonson. With the pipelines hooked up to schools, abundant capital is ready to flow. Just this week Kansas City schools announced their plan to use Social Solutions software to share student data with local non-profits. Ballmer put $59 million into the company last year. While Kansas City is not part of the Strive Network, its “Turn The Page” literacy initiative is part of FSG’s “collective impact” program.

“Striving Together,” a book written by project lead and former president of the University of Cincinnati, Nancy Zimpher, notes Nancy Swanson of P&G chaired the partnership’s executive committee. Swanson reported directly to P&G’s CEO and also served on the board of the Cincinnati Foundation. Her LinkedIn touts expertise in efficiencies, staffing reductions, data-driven decision-making, and digital marketing-an outlook well suited to creating a “just-in-time” workforce pipeline catering to corporate interests.

Strive’s focus on social-emotional competencies should then come as no surprise, since the goal appears to be a compliant labor pool ready to be re-skilled as needed, engineered to precise specifications and sold at the lowest price possible. I envision a mash-up of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management principles with Ithiel de Sola Pool’s goal for machine-human symbiosis, all operating under conditions of peak neoliberalism.

I dread the prospect of cybernetic libertarianism and can only recommend folks get Yasha Levine’s new book Surveillance Valley. Read chapter two “Command, Control and Counterinsurgency” for a deeper dive. It’s important. I cannot do it justice here, but the quote below gives you a sense of where we are headed. In fact we may already be there.

“Pool saw computers as more than just apparatuses that could speed up social research. His work was infused with a utopian belief in the power of cybernetic systems to manage societies. He was among a group of Cold War technocrats who envisioned computer technology and networked systems deployed in a way that directly intervened in people’s live, creating a kind of safety net that spanned the world and helped run societies in a harmonious manner, managing strive and conflict out of existence. This system wouldn’t be messy or wish-washy or open to interpretation; nor would it involve socialist economic theories. In fact, it wouldn’t involve polities at all but would be an applied science based on math, “a kind of engineering.” Surveillance Valley, page 67

If Frederick Taylor were still alive, I’m sure he’d be giddy over machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT) labor tracking, and xAPI data capture. Turns out Taylor refined his efficiency program in Nicetown at the Midvale Steel Works. Another guidepost-what’s left of the factory is just a stone’s throw from where I live. If the collective impact crew intends to track human capital and competencies as a global knowledge supply chain, IoT, screen based learning, and wearable tech will be key.

We know Silicon Valley’s oligarchs including Bezos and Zuckerberg are busy patenting technologies to track the movement of workers. Going forward it seems clear that digital learning will start to adopt such “innovations,” transitioning from screen-based learning to immersive digital environments designed to practice work-based skills. The images below show what a VR (virtual reality) / AR (augmented reality) training scenario for a young student could look like and the taxonomy of data they intend to capture.

A slideshare from JCA Solutions, a company based in Orlando, which also happens to be the home of the military division of Advanced Distributed Learning, describes how xAPI data can be captured from simulations to assess targeted competencies. Once successfully demonstrated, those skills get uploaded as badges or micro-credentials to learning lockers using specifications set by IMS Global (more here). Yet Analytics based in Baltimore is partnering on xAPI and human capital analytics now in conjunction with HP, Khan Academy, and the Learning Accelerator. With xAPI, all “learning” must be reduced to simple noun-verb-object statements. You can see how this works in this 90-second video “we can track it.”

The tag line at the end of the video, “Learning Happens Everywhere,” is timely since the state of New Hampshire is rolling out an initiative by the exact same name. Under the Learn Everywhere banner, students receive credit towards graduation when they attend out of school activities, like a music class offered by the Boys and Girls Club. A FAQ attempts to head off anticipated criticism around lack of requirements for credentialed instructors and inequitable treatment of families based on income, since many opportunities are fee based. The New Hampshire Department of Education website touts the program as an unbundled opportunity for budding entrepreneurs offering flexibility while downplaying lack of regulation and potential for abuse.

What is not being said is that while real-life community-based projects may be the first wave of “learn everywhere” initiatives, digital simulations will be waiting in the wings. Hedge funds and social entrepreneurs plan to bet on “impact,” and “success” will likely be defined in terms of the number of stackable credentials earned rather than the more difficult (impossible?) metric of living wage jobs attained. The skilling and reskilling of people is what will keep global capital flowing in the coming years, even as rising automation means few workers ever attain stable employment.

Our value as “human capital” will be successfully demonstrating competencies (cognitive and non-cognitive), whether or not they are ever productively utilized. As a result, those charged with providing “evidence-based” training funded by social entrepreneurs must develop inexpensive ways to deliver the multitude of badges that will be required by the financial markets. Mass digital learning is the way they intend to accomplish this task. As seen in the screenshot below, simulations will be far cheaper, even than disreputable MOOCs. They are counting on taking their profit from that cost savings.

The JCA Solutions slideshare describes a simulation that assesses the sample task of learning to pet an unknown dog safely. Using augmented and virtual reality, data is captured via a laptop, headset, motion sensors, controllers, and a heart rate monitor. In the simulated setting, the computer determines if the individual demonstrates the competency. Did they complete the steps in the right order? Were they nervous? Where is the student looking? Which dogs do they ask to pet? Do they refuse to approach any dogs? Do they pet the dog too long? Do they not correctly position their hand? Do they never complete the task? All of this data is logged and captured and added to the student’s digital profile. Of course this seems somewhat ridiculous now, but consider the image of the student the yellow vest and VR goggles in the warehouse above. This is the planned future if we don’t begin to contest it now. We must refuse digital education, social-emotional data collection, and career pathway profiling. To pretend it’s not happening will seal the fate of future generations.

This type of virtual “learning” relies on Internet of Things technology. It is the sensors that transmit the data that is captured for the learning lockers. It turns out that P&G played a pivotal role in the development of IoT, bankrolling a proposal pitched by Oil of Olay product manager Kevin Ashton who sought to use RFID technology (radio frequency identification) for inventory management. Ashton had noticed that a particular brand of lipstick was chronically out of stock when he made his sales calls and envisioned embedding information in micro-chipped tags to improve global supply chains. They evolved into versions you can find today, sewn into clothing, embedded in credit cards and the hands of Swedes who seem keen on using them to unlock doors at the office or hold payment information.

P&G loaned Ashton to the Auto-ID Center based at the MIT Media Lab in Boston. There, he continued to refine RFID technology, which became the foundation of the Internet of Things, ubiquitous computing environments consisting of networks of sensors that electronically transmit real time data. Auto-ID Lab grew to a network of seven other facilities over twenty years. There are now additional nodes working on globalized supply chain management in the UK, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Korea, and China. In recent years research has focused on behavior-tracking apps, Blockchain data storage, and digital payment systems. This 2016 paper out of the St. Galen lab describes IoT and Augmented Reality in considerable detail. See a complete list of publications here.

Interactive map of Auto-ID Lab here.

A second prominent P&G member of the Strive team was Jim Bechtold, a marketing executive who, with his wife another P&G staffer, leveraged their branding expertise to grow Crossroads into a regional mega-church franchise.

Mya Frazier’s eye-opening piece, “What Would Jesus Disrupt?” describes the church’s forays into venture capital efforts backing faith-based tech start ups through an accelerator called Ocean. While at P&G, Bechtold developed media partnerships with Walmart and went on to manage the Alliance for Family Entertainment, an arm of the Association of National Advertisers comprised of a coalition of 500 national brands. In the coming era of “anywhere” (online) playlist “edu-tainment,” it’s not hard to imagine a mode of teaching and learning largely disconnected from physical schools and human instructors, where consumer brands (and possibly religious doctrine) brazenly dominate knowledge acquisition.

Interactive map of Procter and Gamble / Bechthold family here.

Globalized trade was the backdrop of my childhood, but I’ll admit that until recently, I’d never stopped to reflect on where Folgers’ coffee beans came from or how the expectation of a properly caffeinated morning shaped brutal US economic and foreign policies in Latin America. It’s not the type of thing you’re expected to think about growing up in a corporate enclave on a quarter acre plot laid out over fallow farm fields. I’ve been thinking a lot about supply chains lately, because my research indicates an economic shift is underway, one where labor and productivity will be reimagined as an ongoing process of digital brand curation. Moving forward, unless we choose otherwise, we will be the commodities of the “knowledge economy;” we will be the coffee beans, but our value will not be caffeine and aroma but badges and micro-credentials.

In this brave new world, financial speculators, multi-national corporations, media outlets and social welfare programs aim to channel our daily activities onto virtual assembly lines where vast quantities of data will be aggregated, machine read, and used to fraudulently predict our futures. This process, writ large, will inform vast predatory impact investment markets pursued even over encrypted data using MIT’s Enigma software. We’re told to welcome this opportunity to “own” and sell access to our data through self-sovereign digital identity systems. While I’m not anti-privacy, somehow reducing my life to a digital brand for sale to the highest bidder holds no appeal. I don’t want to be paid in Blockchain tokens for my social media activity or attention, not for meditating or improving myself as promoted by the Highvibe Network (see screenshot). While many feel secure digital identities are a great answer, I must say Tim Berners Lee’s pitch for PODs (personal online data stores) leaves me cold. Will we all be reduced to the contents of our PODs? Sounds rather grim.

Surely there must be another option that isn’t advancing the interests of tech-oligarchs. I’m fifty years old. My “brand” has evolved over time. I’m a very different person from the high school kid earning pocket money folding polo shirts at the mall. My worldview continues to evolve. I’m not even the same person I was three years ago. But will my child get the chance to change of her own free will? Or will the digital corporate “mindset” assembly lines that are systematically being swapped out for authentic social engagement reinforce brands of youthful selves before they can be challenged by broader worldviews and experiences that could change us in fundamental ways?

Will generations be caught in feedback loops, harnessed to foster consumption, fragmentation, obfuscation, and surveillance? Will there be economic options other than to sell our digitized selves? The time to ask these questions and refine alternatives is now, and if you want to get in the right frame of mind to consider the question, I suggest grabbing a copy of MT Anderson’s Feed. Spoiler-one of the main characters, a homeschool student, actively confuses her branding by intentionally shopping for and trying out random, unrelated items. When she faces a health crisis towards the end of the book, no one will invest in her health; she has become uninsurable because she doesn’t have a clear brand. This is echoed in the image below, a slide taken from a 2017 talk by Vinay Gupta on Blockchain Identity. “In this new world, as long as someone will insure you, you exist.”

Procter and Gamble has long been a leader in supply chain management, industrial efficiencies, branding and the construction of consumer markets. They’ve cultivated partnerships with government researchers at Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs to refine production capabilities. I recently found out from Yasha Levine’s important new book “Surveillance Valley” that Eisenhower’s first Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy, had been president of Procter and Gamble at the time. In 1958 McElroy, a very good salesman, initiated ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) which evolved into DARPA, which of course spawned the Internet.

Procter and Gamble deals in data. A 2011 report prepared by McKinsey states, that in their corporate relationships they use data as a currency. Their goal is to be the most digitally enabled company in the world, and they are a mammoth company touching over four billion consumers daily. They are working with Strive in Cincinnati, which is also, interestingly, home to Hobsons. Hobsons is a HUGE source of data. It owns Navaiance, the data-gathering platform that elicits strengths surveys from middle schoolers and offers college “guidance” to high school students, as well as Starfish, a platform that manages retention in higher ed. Hobsons in turn is owned by The Daily Mail and Telegraph in the UK, who has investments in Innovation Edge.

Innovation Edge helped to launch the Amply pre-k identity app in Cape Town, which is the proof of concept for social impact investing on Blockchain. Procter and Gamble is working with Consensys on Blockchain social impact initiatives. Cincinnati seems to be a massive net of advertising, sales, branding, tech, Blockchain, social services, and Big Data. Collective Shift is also active in Columbus with an LRNG pilot and Global Scholars Diploma, a Competency Based Education initiative sponsored by regional industry backers. LRNG’s new partnership with Southern New Hampshire University makes it appear likely that as early childhood investments are being made on the cradle end, impact capital will be headed towards the career end of the pipeline as well. The map below lays it out these interconnections as well as links between Hobsons, SIIA, and Project Unicorn, the interoperable database that will create the data lakes to enable the cost offsets.

Interactive map of Strive and P&G here.

It’s late, and so I will bring this to a close. In case this all seems a bit far-fetched, I’ll just say that people are starting to pay a more attention to my Jerimiads lately. It may have to do with the media attention Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard has been recieving for her book “Surveillance Capitalism.” I really loved her long read in the Franfurter Allgemeine from 2016, which you can read here, but have cooled somewhat after watching her participation in Wharton professor and Blockchain and gamification expert Kevin Werbach’s conference “After the Digital Tornado” in the fall of 2017. It felt like she was set up to be the “good cop” in that production. Obviously she’s a Harvard professor with a literal seat at the table. So, how much of a dissident can she be?

Nevertheless, she has bolstered my credibility, and I appreciate that. I’ll finish with a transcribed statement Joseph Turow, a Penn Annennberg Professor of Communications, delivered following Zuboff’s presentation at that 2017 Digital Tornado Conference. It confirms what I have laid out regarding IoT, branding, and the ways government policies and human capital management are being inappropriately influenced by powerful corporate interests. Why are we all not shouting this from the rooftops? What exactly are we waiting for?

After the Tornado 12 – Humanity 2

Joseph Turow, Annenberg School of Communication

Video clip here.

“They both reminded me of two industry experiences I had directly relating to this that will lead to a comment about the nature of policy. I was at an industry conference about a year and a half ago, two years ago maybe, and people were talking. It was a conference on the use of the Internet of Things in business, particularly in retailing. And one of the people at the conference who was an executive at the WPP, one of the major advertising holding companies, said: “We have to treat people like a frog in boiling water. We have to figure out a way to make them slowly get used to the idea of what we’re doing, because otherwise they’ll resist.” There’s this myth, I think it’s a myth, that if you put a frog in water that’s boiling it will jump out. If you put it in the water and it slowly boils, it will get used to it. He didn’t want to kill his audiences, but he wanted people to get used to the ideas that they were formulating.

Not too long after he spoke, a researcher for one of the big advertising holding companies got up and showed slides with trend lines that by 2024 half of Americans are going to have a chip in their arm, so when they walk down a supermarket aisle, the supermarket will know that they feel nervous when they lift a product up, and they might be able to get rid of that nervousness by lowering the price directly for that thing, and thereby know how to sell that product. He then added that he thought by 2050 everybody in the United States would have this chip. The first guy, I felt bad for him, I didn’t put his name in the book. The second person, because it was online I figured it was fair game. Apparently, they’ve taken that slide off.

But the larger point that I am trying to make here is that there are industrial logics that are taking place that really relate to a kind of policy that we’ve been, that has been underplayed in the last couple of days. It’s been implicit, but I still think I’d like to foreground it, which is corporate marketing and commercial policy. Companies have ideas about where they’re going. And it’s networked systems of companies, particularly in the marketing arena, that are shaping the kinds of things we’ve been talking about in the last couple of days. They also shape government policy in very strong ways, and I think it’s terribly important to realize how these things interconnect with one another.

A year after the Tornado piece came out (1998), Procter and Gamble had a conference called FAST, and it was in Cincinnati in their headquarters and it stands for “Future of Advertising Stakeholders,” and I was at that conference. And they invited their competitors. Unilever was there, which is pretty amazing, and a whole lot of people from ad agencies and media buying companies and stuff like that. The goal of the conference was to get the Internet workable for Procter and Gamble. They didn’t think that the Internet was acceptable to them at the time. It was too slow. It wasn’t viable for commercials. They didn’t know what the metrics were, and they wanted to set up a way to set that up.

They invited Steve Case to give a talk, Steve Case the head of AOL, at lunch. He freaked a lot of people out, because during the talk he said Americans do not want broadband. P&G wanted broadband, see, to show the commercials. He said Americans don’t want broadband, and they don’t care about broadband, because AOL, and he didn’t say this, because AOL was really dependent on the idea of dial-up. But from that time on P&G, which had already started the interactive advertising, it was then called the Internet Advertising Bureau, really decided together with other companies to set the policies that a lot of people the past couple of sessions have been talking about. The notions of personal assistants, the notion of AI, the notion of how advertising messages are going to be conversational-what I would call “conversational advertising,” based on who we are. The industrial constructions of audiences is not just an issue of government policy, it is an issue of interconnection of government policy with the logics and desires of the industries that relate to them.”

November 2017

Kevin Werbach, After The Digital Tornado Conference

After the Tornado 12 – Humanity 2

Discussant: Joseph Turow, Annenberg School of Communication

Presenters: Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard, and Brett Frischmann, Villanova

5 thoughts on “Boiling Frogs & Building Brands: P&G’s Partnership With Strive

  1. Linda says:

    I thought it odd that the head of Peninsula Boys and Girls Club would advocate for charter schools at SSIR. I thought it odd that United Way in Utah would be on the side of Goldman Sach’s SIB’s.
    After reading this article, the pieces begin to fit together.
    The most dangerous word in Silicon Valley right now is “scaling up”.
    Thanks to the author for the very important work she is doing.

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      Thank you Linda. The United Way is a key play in the “collective impact” program-they help put together the deals. The Boys and Girls Clubs will be the badge providers. You can look it up. They already have a whole system of badges you can earn. They are working with HP and Comcast on STEM education and I believe they’ve also teamed up with Disney around Black Panther and “science.” Here’s a leader board of badges:

      People just have no idea.

  2. Jane says:

    Hi Allison,
    Thank you so much for your work. I’m from Cincinnati, and I remember at one of my first jobs after college, I felt some serious red flags with the way the CEO was so adamant about all employees donating to United Way. When the United Way fundraising lady came to give a talk, all work was stopped and all employees were called into the break room for her presentation. Then I found it so bizarre that after her presentation, the CEO and her spent an hour or so in the lobby huddled up secretively, discussing something seemingly very important. I was the receptionist at the time so I guess they didn’t care if I saw. If she was just there to raise some money for charity, why would the CEO be so interested? I have had this question on my mind ever since. I later looked her up online and saw that she has a PhD from an east coast ivy league school. It made no sense to me why someone with her extensive background would be involved in this field. Couldn’t they have just found some random volunteers to go around and give this presentation at companies?

    Interestingly, this CEO comes from a family of CEOs, where it seems like all his father and brothers do is hop around CEOing from one unrelated company to the next. How do they all get to this tier? I dun get it… The brother of my previous employer’s CEO is also a CEO of a children’s hospital, and when I researched him a bit- lo and behold- I found out that he was previously a CEO of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. I saw a comment you posted somewhere about these going hand in hand. He also produced a ‘thanksgiving message’ I saw on Youtube thanking his employees for donating to the United Way. Why are they so obsessed with their employees donating to United Way to the point that the employees even feel pressured? And what is with the connections to the Chamber of Commerce and Port Authority? And how is it that these guys jump into their CEO seats and immediately start launching their ‘strategic plans for local partnerships’ and ‘investments to drive community development,’ and then racking up ‘community influencer’ awards? Are they more involved in leading their companies or in ‘developing the community’? I don’t know, it all stinks to me.

    I admit I just started reading through your blog, so apologies if you have explained all this elsewhere. I hope I will get to it. I love your work!

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