Category Archives: Articles

Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.



² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015


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The Millennial Challenge

Research Points to Three Keys for Effective Communication

If you believe what you read, Millennials create no small amount of angst for managers. Much of what is written focuses on intergenerational differences in attitudes towards work-life balance, career advancement, organizational loyalty, etc. While understanding these issues is important, this type of thinking doesn’t always give us practical advice for how to communicate with this important part of our workforce.

In this short article, I’ll share a few insights that researchers have uncovered about Millennials’ expectations surrounding communication that should help managers and leaders connect with them. The aim is simple: create messages and materials that engage and persuade this important and growing segment of the workplace.

Born Digital

The advent of the personal computer is the key to understanding Millennials’ communication preferences. On one side of this seminal moment is Generation X and Baby Boomers; on the other side are the Millennials. Why is this important?

Consider some of the changes personal computers have brought to how we communicate:

  • Multi-Media. Documents contain text, sound, images and video.
  • HypertextualityDocuments can be supported with web-based                                                          information and applications through the hyperlink.
  • Virtual Editing. Documents can be shared and edited without                                                          restrictions of place, time or even language.
  • Open Source. Public editing, critiquing and sharing of content.
  • Mobility. Anywhere, anytime personal communication.

Millennials were born into a world where reading and writing was learned on computers. They are digitally literate. Their first steps into communicating included playing, learning, socializing and working with computers. They are Digital Natives (Prenksy, 2001).

Baby Boomers and Generation X are certainly digitally competent; after all, they invented these technologies. But they became literate in a world of printed texts, face-to-face interaction and unidirectional broadcast media. These are Digital Immigrants. For them, multi-media communication is a second language.

As Digital Natives Millennials have different basic expectations. Effectively reaching them requires communicators to both understand and maximize their use of communication technologies. For some, this might include rethinking their entire communication approach. Researchers point to three specific insights into what Millennials expect from communication campaigns. Keeping these in mind will help employers reach this key part of the workforce.

Quality is a Must

Fair or not, your communication materials and methods are judged against every other communication touch point in this audience’s life.

Today anyone can build a beautiful, responsive website with a full array of features like video, built-in blogs, audio, full social media integration and more. And they can build it themselves for free. Technology has become easy and relatively inexpensive. It looks great and it works across multiple platforms. Can you say the same for all of your organizational collateral? The first rule of quality is seamless integration of great content with easy-to-use platforms.

Everyone enjoys beautiful design when they see it. Stunning photographs, the right font and a great layout can give someone a reason to engage with your materials. Spending the effort to design great communication collateral has always paid dividends. But it hasn’t always been necessary. What is different about dealing with Millennials is that they don’t distinguish the textual content from the visual content.

Research has shown that Millennials add to or detract from a message based upon production values. Where previous generations might enjoy the beautiful website or document, they really were “reading” a document for the information embedded in the text. Millennials are more likely to take in a document as a whole experience. This results in bad information being given more credibility by great design. And the reverse is also true: great information will not be recognized if it is surrounded by bad design.

Thus, employers must make certain print and digital collateral is of the highest quality. At a minimum, organizations make sure their communications meet the minimal threshold of common social media, commercial websites and other sources of information.

Go Anywhere

Maybe you’ve seen the ad where a man is watching a football game that seamlessly follows him from TV to TV to smartphone to laptop as he moves through his house, to his car and to his office. He never missed a minute of the game.

Many of us enjoy sharing articles, photos and videos with our friends. On any given day, I’ll access the same content on a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a 60” television. To me this is a wonder. But, like high-quality production values, this kind of platform and content flexibility is a given for Millennials.

They use mobile computing devices, like smartphones and tablets, at far greater rates than other generations. The Pew Research Institute tracked smart phone usage in 2014. Adoption was nearly 90% by Millennials in the United States, versus 58% for all Americans, and 49% for those over age 50.

And the way they use their devices is different. Millennials use mobile technology to gratify a myriad of personal uses that can often be very intimate to their selves. These uses include social connection, health monitoring, personal companionship, personal finance, information gathering, romantic connections and entertainment (Pearson, et al.).

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they don’t leave these expectations at the workplace door. Millennials equate mobility with one of their key values — work-life balance. They expect the workplace to take advantage of computers’ ability to remove geographical and temporal barriers through telework and virtual organizational platforms that make their work lives better (Meyers & Sadaghiani).

Marketers have been tackling the problem of mobility as they try to reach audiences that can be anywhere at anytime. They use a strategy called Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) to reach Millennials in a fragmented media landscape (Smith). Emails, social media, websites and traditional ads work together but also separately to reach this audience in various situations. Messages are optimized to work on each platform but coordinated to drive the desired action.

Important workplace messages would benefit from an IMC approach to reaching Millennials (Owen). Fortunately, the access to affordable, easily configured technologies like social media, video, podcasts and apps has never been greater.

Opinions Matter

Unless you’ve attended college in the last decade you’re likely unaware of a website called It functions just like is sounds. Students “review” their professors based on a number of criteria including perceived fairness, difficulty and even “hotness”. The reviews on are highly subjective and even can be vindictive, but many students use the site to decide which classes to take. is a product of our time, where democratic, bottom-up, open source and uncensored opinion is a part of journalism, politics, business and our personal lives. This is social media.

The age of social media has coincided with the arrival of Millennials into the workforce. They are early adopters and avid users of all things social. They expect an opportunity for their opinion to be voiced (and want it to be heard). If such an opportunity doesn’t exist they’ll create one. Consider the implications of a

Both their own opinions and the opinions of their peers matter a lot to Millennials. In fact, Millennials often refrain from forming opinions unless they see those opinions validated by others via social media (Kim). Millennials both want their voices to be heard and are open to persuasion and social buy-in. This is a key to success for those organizations that use social media strategies to build consensus (Bradley & McDonald).

Social media is the most challenging aspect of Millennials’ communication expectations. It’s much more a management challenge than a technical one. Most organizations use a hierarchical, top-down management system that often insulates decision makers from those who implement their directions. Millennials are often resistant to this structure.

Instead, they are comfortable with open, often public communication because they are conditioned by social media to enjoy interaction between themselves and large brands, political leaders and opinion leaders in an open forum (Meyers). While many, if not most, organizations are uncomfortable with an open approach to communication and find the suggestion of providing a platform for employees to freely voice their opinions and concerns very disturbing.

Still, the upside for employee attraction, innovation, engagement and retention might soon push more employers to adopt internal social media strategies around various initiatives. For example, Smith’s consultants have seen dramatic benefits arising when clients have integrated focused social media into wellness programs.

Tomorrow Today

The challenges organizations face when engaging Millennials today are producing the standards for employee outreach and education tomorrow. High production values, flexible delivery platforms and open engagement will continue to be touchstones of great communication both inside and outside of the workplace in the coming years.


Bradley, A. J. & McDonald, M.P. (2011) The Social Organization: how to use social media to tap the collective genius of your customers and employees. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press

Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2014–  2019

Kim, Ji Won. (2014, February). Scan and Click: The uses and gratifications of social             recommendation systems. Computers in Human Behavior. 33, 184-191. 

Myers, Karen & Sadaghiani, Kamyab. (2010, March). Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance. Journal ofBusiness Psychology. 25, 225-238.

Owen, R. & Humphrey, P. (2009, July). The Structure of Online Marketing Communication Channels. Journal of Management & Marketing Research, 2,  54-62.

Pearson, Judy C., et al.(2010). Motives for Communication: Why the Millennial Generation uses Electronic Devices. Journal of the Communication,  Speech and Theatre Association of North Dakota. 2, 45-56.

Pew Research Center. (2014). Mobile Technology Fact Sheet.

Prensky, Marc. (October 2001). “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. On the Horizon 9 (5): 1–6.

Smith, Katherine. (2012). Longitudinal study of digital marketing strategies targeting Millennials. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 29.22, 86–92.


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Fewer Words,
More Visuals

Infographics to the Rescue

A number of years ago, a new client of mine was interested in introducing a new HR program at her company using an infographic.

“When you say infographics, what do you mean?” I asked.

My client had heard of infographics. She believed infographics were in vogue. She wanted to create one. But she and her colleagues weren’t quite sure what one was. They only knew it was more pictures than words.

Fair enough. At the time, to be honest, I didn’t have a working definition for “infographic” myself.

My next question: Why an infographic? On this point, they were completely certain. “Because we don’t think people are reading our communications,” they said.

Sound familiar?

Data Visualization

Edward Tufte is known as a pioneer in the field of data visualization. His book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is considered a seminal source on statistical graphics, charts and tables.

According to Tufte, a statistician at heart, “data graphics visually display measured quantities by means of the combined use of points, lines, a coordinate system, numbers, symbols, words, shading, and color.” I would consider this a strict – almost scientific – definition of an infographic. It hinges on the notion that one is attempting to communicate quantifiable data. Tufte puts it another way: infographics require “the use of abstract, non-representational pictures to show numbers.”

Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.09.03 AM

(Created by Stanford Kay, Newsweek’s International Edition)

But let’s be honest. We’re not always trying to communicate quantifiable data. Most of the time we just want to get our message across in the least boring way possible. Can infographics help do that?

In his book, The Power of Infographics, Mark Smiciklas provides a broader characterization of an infographic. He says “infographics are a type of picture that blends data with design, helping individuals and organizations concisely communicate messages to their audience.”


In fact, we see these kinds of infographics everywhere, from subway maps to Ikea furniture assembly instructions to road signs.

Here’s an example of an infographic that’s not so data-driven:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.09.59 AM

(Created by Anna Vital)

But let’s go back to why my client wanted to employ an infographic in the first place. The company was prompted by a frustration I hear from clients all the time: “We deliver communications to our employees in lots of different ways – they just don’t read it.”

The fact is employers are constantly searching for ways to compel their employees to sit up and say, “Yes, I’ll pay attention to that!” The most common approach is more or different technology – videos, websites, apps, texting, social media. But what about fundamentally changing the way we communicate in certain situations? Fewer words, more visuals. Sometimes the answer is in simplifying the complex.

USA Today

If you’re still not sure, let’s ask it another way: What’s the one thing on the front page of USA Today you are sure to read?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.10.27 AM

(Created by Anne R. Carey and Gwen Saunders, USA Today)

Started in 1982, USA Today strived to present news information in a simpler, more visual way. While often criticized for oversimplifying the delivery of news, the newspaper’s success can’t be disputed.
USA Today has never tried to be the Wall Street Journal. And, in your employee communications, you probably aren’t either. For my entire consulting career, I’ve heard the following from at least one client every year: “We want our communications to have a more USA Today-feel.” Translation: fewer words, more visuals.

Your employees probably want this, too. Above all, they want simple, clear, easy. The easier the better, they will tell you. We can all take a lesson from USA Today.

Smiciklas argues that infographics work in business for three reasons:

  • They are easy to digest. In an age when we skim more than we read, infographics grab our attention more effectively than sentences and paragraphs.
  • They are shareable. If we like something, we will share it with others. (Just look at how many people over-share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook these days.) But to share an article or blog post means one must first read it. The threshold for sharing an infographic is much lower.
  • The Cool Factor. Competition for the attention of your employees is greater than ever. As Smiciklas writes, the person you’re trying to connect to with your communication probably spends only a few seconds on your content before deciding whether to move on. Infographics are unique; they help you stand out among the competition. They are…cool.

So, if this is true, why do we still have 30-page benefit guides and complex medical plan comparison grids? Why don’t we use infographics more?

Well, most of us would agree that in some circumstances detailed information can only be delivered in long booklets and complicated charts. However, in other instances, the right answer evokes the famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

This certainly applies to infographics. Infographics rely on sharp creativity and economy of ideas. For example, let’s compare the table and infographic below.

The Cost of Housecleaning

Following are estimated costs of selected household cleaning services provided by professional household cleaning services in the United States. Costs might be higher for fragile or valuable furnishings, or for large houses, and may vary by region.

Service Scope Cost
Draperies and Curtains N/A $2/horizontal foot
Gutter Cleaning Average size house App. $50 or 40 cents/gutter foot
Window Washing Standard sizes inside and out $5-8/window
Carpet Shampoo 9×12 feet

12×15 feet



Upholstery Cleaning Full-size sofa with cushions $90-130
Fireplace and Chimneys N/A $60-125
General Housecleaning Includes kitchen and bathroom cleanup, laundry, and household tidying $5-15/hour
Furnace and Duct Cleaning For an average-size house $50/furnace

$50 for all ducts

Self-Navigating, Robotic Vacuum Cleaner Cleans bare floors and carpets, recognizes walls and other obstacles $25,000
(CYBERVAC, by CyberWorks, Orillia, Ontario)


Converting this complex information takes real time, thought and talent.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.11.57 AM

(Created by Megan Jaegerman, The New York Times)

Admittedly, the larger chart provides the reader more detail but is less visually engaging. Clearly, both presentations have a role in your communication.

The reality is that infographics are hard to do, and even harder to do well. One might contend that they are the ultimate marriage of great design and clear content. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Begin simply. Fewer words, more visuals. Think USA Today. And then challenge your communication professionals – whether internal resources or external consultants – to do what my client did years ago with me. Demand an infographic. You already know why – because you want your employees to sit up and take notice.


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Hacking Healthcare

It's Time to Help Employees Do Benefits Better

Hack (hak) v., a clever tip or solution for getting something done

When it comes to employee health care benefits in the United States, employers are finally getting some relief. Healthcare spending increases are historically low1, and employee satisfaction with workplace benefits is historically high2. But, if employers don’t take steps to level up their employees’ benefit skills and knowledge, these gains may be at risk.

Will Healthcare Consumerism Stick?

While some of the slowdown in healthcare inflation can be attributed to the recession and a slow economic recovery, healthcare consumerism has helped. Enrollment in employer-sponsored, high-deductible healthcare plans has increased from 4 to 20 percent over the last five years.4 At a record number of employers — more than one-fourth — the plan with the highest enrollment is a high-deductible plan.3

According to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, employers offering high-deductible plans have enjoyed an average cost savings of 5 percent compared with results at companies that didn’t offer them. That fact stands regardless of whether or not all workers at a given employer took a high-deductible option.4 With results like these, healthcare consumerism is gaining more corporate converts. More than half of employers are moving toward healthcare strategies that require employees to take a more active role.5

The cost savings achieved by those high-deductible plans have stuck so far — for three years post-launch, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. But the sustainability of those savings is in no way certain. If growing consumer savvy has eliminated waste, then the promise of healthcare consumerism is being realized. But past studies have shown that increased cost sharing caused patients to reduce both necessary and unnecessary care.4 If the recent bend in the healthcare trend is coming by way of cash-strapped, sticker-shocked employees skipping the care they need, then a tidal wave of costs and sick workers could be on its way.

Help Employees Crack the Code

You probably know someone, maybe a parent, who finally went out and bought his first smartphone. He has the latest and greatest, but he can barely get it unlocked to make a call; never mind sending a group text or downloading an app.

Without information, education, and decision support, a high-deductible plan in the hands of an employee is a lot like that underutilized smartphone in the hands of your grandfather.

To most employees, a healthcare plan is an uncrackable code. More than half of employees agree that they need more help understanding how their benefits work and meet their needs. This is especially the case with younger workers. But employees are not giving up. They are willing to take on greater costs and play a bigger role in healthcare decisions, but they are asking for help.2

5 Ways to Build Better Healthcare Consumers

To the sown seeds of healthcare consumerism, education is life-giving rain. While the right communication strategy and tactics will depend on an organization’s demographics, goals, and circumstances, here are five ways an organization can help its employees hack health care and do their benefits better.

1. Make your content useful.

A recent California study showed that many high-deductible plan members don’t have a grasp of plan basics. Most didn’t know that preventive screenings, office visits, and other important care required little or no out-of-pocket payment.6 That’s useful information, and employees want it. If we can become foodies, mixologists, and do-it-yourselfers, we can become benefits connoisseurs, ninjas, and mavens. Pierce the impenetrable code of confusing lingo. Focus your communications on the decisions employees will make and the actions they will take. Help employees become confident healthcare consumers by giving them simple but highly useful tips for getting the most from their benefits day-to-day.

2. Make your content accessible.

Your company’s firewall exists to keep people out. That includes your employees when they’re not at work and the dependents your plans cover around the clock. That’s great news for your company’s intellectual property, but it’s terrible news for a frustrated parent who’s trying to plan a doctor’s visit for a sick child. Create a benefits website outside your company’s firewall. This will give employees and their dependents access to important information according to their needs and schedule.

3. Create a better benefits experience.

The experience many employees have with their benefits is like the experience they have trying to assemble a piece of furniture. It’s an unfamiliar process accompanied with horrible instructions in tiny print. It’s no surprise they’re asking for help. Once you’ve made your benefits communication more useful and accessible, strive to create a better overall experience. Recognize that your communications exist to serve your employees, and not just ERISA. Give all your benefits touch points a familiar and consistent look and feel. Don’t settle for mere accuracy and compliance. Be of service. Make it easy. Make it attractive. Make it enjoyable. A better experience can defuse frustration, produce better results, and build the confidence employees crave.

4. Keep it going year round.

Imagine if buying a car was allowed only during an annual purchasing period and all the information — prices, reviews, descriptions, and options — was made available for only about three weeks each fall. If you don’t purchase a car by the deadline, you’re out of luck for another year (unless you experience a “qualifying automotive event”). How could someone make such a big, complex buying decision in that short amount of time? Enrolling in benefits can be just as expensive and complex. Educate employees year-round. Help them use their spending account balances before the year is up. Remind them to take advantage of those free preventive care services. Have an ongoing presence in your company newsletter, the intranet, and your employees’ home mailboxes. Give employees something useful, even when they’re not expecting it. 

5. Personalize where possible.

We expect personalization from just about everything these days. Try to personalize your benefits communication where possible, too. Benefits confirmation statements are popular. Using case studies of recognizable personas can help employees tailor their choices to their own needs. Showing your employees why your company’s health plan is best suited to your workforce will reinforce their confidence and trust.


1 Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker: Measuring the Performance of the U.S. Health System

2 MetLife’s 12th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study

3 PwC Health Research Institute, Medical cost trend: Behind the numbers 2015, June 2014, based on PwC 2014 Touchstone Survey

4 National Bureau of Economic Research, Do “Consumer-Directed” Health Plans Bend the Cost Curve Over Time?

5 Views on Employment-Based Health Benefits: Findings from the 2014 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey, by Paul Fronstin, Ph.D., Employee Benefit Research Institute, and Ruth Helman, Greenwald & Associates

6 In consumer-directed health plans, a majority of patients were unaware of free or low-cost preventive care.

Reed ME1, Graetz I, Fung V, Newhouse JP, Hsu J.


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