Coordinated Management of Meaning

A musical ensemble works best when it presents a unified voice to the audience. Choirs may be as small as a few members to thousands. The number of voices and the size of the performance space shape the listener’s experience. Whatever the venue or the number of performers, coordination is a critical factor.

The size of the group and the proximity of members influence how the choir is managed as well as how the work of preparing for and giving performances is handled. Above one to two hundred singers, the most effective way to empower learning and the development of a unified performance is by joining separately rehearsed choirs together in a “mass choir” ensemble.

You can’t just throw a bunch of independently managed choruses into a huge concert hall and hope for the best. The coordination that goes into bringing anywhere from two to eight or more sections, each with their own part in the score, together with accompanists and soloists under a single concertmaster for a choral performance needs to get taken up a notch. It’s like running a large business with a common mission and a unified experience for both staff and customers.

Unless you’re doing something funky with real time communication and coordination at concert time, the mass choir has a single, highly visible leader that everyone looks to for direction. That leader works with a senior management team: the music directors for every unit in the group. The leadership team shares a common vision and a unified interpretation of the strategic plan (the scores of every piece in the program): an interpretation they’ve been bringing to life in their own choirs for months before bringing everyone together for one or a few final rehearsals and the performance(s). Every aspect of the mood, intonation, phrasing, breath is common to each group. Diction is crisp. Silences are profound. No individual or group stands out among the rest.

If you work in an organization with several departments, perhaps spread over multiple offices, would your job feel different if senior management, middle management, and individual supervisors across areas and functions were all coordinated in helping everyone achieve a common goal? Not just at the Vision, Mission, Values level, but consistently shaping workplace culture, sharing good ideas from one notable experience to the rest of the organization. For many of us, it sounds like an impossible dream: the individualism of some senior leader, failure to maintain consistent communication in all directions, and the perceived need to interpret policies for local conditions are just a few of the possible failings.

Ten thousand voices can give a stellar performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with precision and emotion, every chorister working at their peak when it counts. Companies with thousands of employees can and do commit to and achieve the same kind of unified, empowering environment.

Over the coming week I will focus, with my peers from across the country, on working across my organization to understand how we can more consistently manage meaning and coordinate our work.


Beulah Louise Henry, entrepreneur

Before this week, I had never heard of Beulah Louise Henry.

One of our technology advisors was wearing a Hallowe’en costume on October 31st: an outfit about a century out of date. She told anyone willing to listen about Lady Edison, an inventor who had 49 US patents in her own name and had made a comfortable living manufacturing, selling, and licensing her work. Henry was not related to the more famous Edison a generation or two ahead of her. The breadth, volume, and success of her work earned her the nickname comparing her to an inventor whose name remains in the global consciousness today.

Henry, who fiercely guarded her independence and meticulously chose her research and development team, was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Some sources note she was believed to have synesthesia, a mapping of stimuli to multiple senses that is anecdotally associated with high intelligence, strong spatial reasoning, and creativity.

One of the more complete online biographies of Henry notes she was encouraged by her parents (an artist and an art authority descended from US statesman Patrick Henry) in creative pursuits. Though she was not formally educated in either engineering or business, her catalogue of patents demonstrates solid design knowledge and her financial success was exceptional for a woman of her era.

Why had I not heard of Lady Edison earlier? Henry’s work focused heavily on daily use items and improvements to tools used primarily by women. Her later work involved developing intellectual property for companies that did not include her name on patent applications. She was not active in computing, the field in which I have studied and spent much of my career to date. It’s not unusual for people outside an area of expertise to know little of the successes of women in that profession.

I encourage you to learn more about the successes of people who don’t fit the standard of leaders. Whether they are long dead or currently active, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, their stories have shaped our world. It would be a shame to let their works fall to silence.

Participate in democracy: vote

I will be serving as an officer in the coming municipal election. Although voter suppression is not unheard of in Canada, my country’s electoral systems are generally set up to make it easy to get on the list of electors and to vote. People who have a record of fraud and those in prison during the election are about the only citizens who cannot vote in Canada. Non-citizen residents are profoundly affected by governments, but Canada is one of the many countries that does not extend suffrage to non-citizens even if they are permanent residents and property owners.

This isn’t my first election. I enjoy helping people vote, especially members of low-turnout demographics. A 2014 study provides evidence that immigration status and racialization affect voter turnout. First Nation voters, who were long denied voting rights, are showing up at the polls in increasing numbers. We know from other studies that age and housing security also affect people’s propensity to vote. I love to see people of colour, younger voters, and street people at the polls, regardless of how they mark their ballots.

I have strong feelings, backed by evidence and thoughtful review of policies and platforms, about who would work most effectively in elected roles, but I don’t promote specific candidates. That’s the hardest part about being an election official: maintaining a public face of neutrality when I care deeply about the issues and the candidates. I talk about voting, the importance of making an informed choice, and ways to influence government between elections when the opportunity arises.

At the federal and provincial levels, getting on the voters list and keeping your information up to date can be as simple as checking two boxes on your annual tax return. At the municipal level in Ontario, the corporation that handles property assessment tracks property owners and tenants to keep the list of electors up to date. It’s less inclusive than Canada Revenue’s arrangements with Elections Canada. I don’t know why municipal rolls can’t be seeded from the same list: it may be related to regulations at the city and county level about who is eligible to vote. Supporting systems at all levels (federal, provincial, municipal) allow people to check and update their voter registration online. Public facilities with computers and generally available internet access (yay, libraries!) make checking the list of electors possible for members of the communities they serve.

When advance polls and election day come around, election workers provide access to secure voting with a paper trail in physically accessible locations. Some of us travel to locations where there are people who cannot visit a polling station, helping them vote from their residence or bed.

Voter identification is checked at all polls, as is the list of electors. You can be added to the voters list on election day, or have your registration amended, as long as you’re eligible to vote and show up at the right poll with sufficient identification to prove you’re a member of the community. Voter identification in municipal elections doesn’t necessarily include a photograph, proof of citizenship, or a signature. It’s more important to give the transgender person, the new citizen, the student, the bedridden a voice on election day than to prevent legitimate votes from being cast and counted due to fear of what’s more a series of ill-founded anecdotes than actual election fraud.

Voting is baby steps in the marathon of contributing to our society. If you’re eligible to vote in an election near you soon, I encourage you to do so. If you remain in touch with your government representatives between elections as well, thank you a thousand times: that is what democracy looks like.