9 Brains Rules for Education

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Talk by Marja Brandon at Microsoft, December 2004

An amazing talk by an amazing woman.  If only more schools could/would adopt these methods for teaching. This talk was originally posted direct to the library and has been moved to the blog. The following are notes taken from her talk given at Microsoft in December 2004.

Marja founded a school in Seattle – Seattle Girls School – because she decided the school system was failing girls and making it difficult for them to graduate in science and maths subjects.  Too many distractions led to missing crucial phases of learning – mid School years (5th – 8th grade, equivalent to junior/primary school in the UK).  By the time many get to college, their maths simply isn’t strong enough to do science.

Designed a completely original curriculum – no text books!  Based around teaching 4 core skills:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Problem posing and solving
  • Bold thinking – don’t think outside the box, live outside the box
  • Community connectedness – connect everything they do to the real world

Step 1: Potential

Right from the start, the girls are told that the school’s mission is to build the next generation of world leaders.  The kids sit up straight – you light up their ambition and instantly they can start to vision it.  Everyone’s scores go through the roof compared to their ‘expected’ start points.  They don’t just sit back and wait for education to flow over their heads, they participate.  They start to hold each other to that potential.  (Not talking about ‘gifted’ kids, this applies to all <– for related note, see ‘Art of Possibilities‘ where Benjamin Zander starts the by giving his students an ‘A’ grade and the year is up to them to decide how they deserve it.)

Step 2: Anti-bias mission

The school encourages as much diversity as possible (race, religion, family unit structure, abilities etc.) – when you get different kids bumping into each other, each one of those bumps is a learning opportunity.

Step 3: Apply what we now know about the brain

We have learnt more about neuro-science in the last 10 years than in the rest of our history.  There is now a giant gap between neuro-science and education.  What are we waiting for?  Traditional class day ends at 3pm – it was designed for the agriculture calendar: run home and do the chores.  Methods were based on schools for boys – right back to the Greek system when it was 4 boys to 1 teacher.  Class sizes are 30 and growing, and they’re not just boys any more.

Marja included a big disclaimer at this point: No empirical back up to support what was about to be said.  Don’t have lots of lovely research to be shown.  Seen the evidence in play – wanted to try it, apply it and see if it works… and it does!  Marja desperately wants to take this model and apply it at a public school.

The 9 Brain Rules

Marja took 9 brain rules from what we’ve learnt in neuro-science, and built the curriculum using them.  These rules are based on studies from evolutionary biology – if you don’t believe in evolution (i.e. you’re an intelligent design purist), you won’t believe this stuff…

Rule #1: Meaning before detail

If you are on the plains of the Serengeti and a giant lion is hurtling towards you, you don’t stop and count the teeth.  You think it’s going to eat you, you run first!  Lesson: figure out the bigger meaning before the detail.  This is applied to each year:

5th grade – ‘all creatures great and small’ – study what is life. Includes biodiversity, animals, organisms (hint: 5th graders + animals = good thing!)  They have chickens at the school – project ‘Chicks in the hood’.

6th grade – ‘incredible machine’ – study the individual.  They look at themselves, start looking at simple things, tools, machines, how they work… they do the body, then they do the machine, then they do the intersection between machine and body, study biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, ethics…

7th grade – ‘Seattle from the ground up’ – study the community.  Examine the whole area that is Seattle, cover geography, geology, tectonics (Seattle is in earthquake territory), forces that shape the earth, forces that shape the community.  They study governance law, constitutional law.  One of their projects is to do a mock trial at the court house down town.  Finally, they look into the future.  Their final year assignment is ‘One month to change the world’ and what they propose has to last beyond the assignment.

8th grade – ‘The world and beyond’ – the sub-theme is to prepare them for graduation to high school.  They start with an aviation theme.  Applying ‘meaning before detail’ means they start with ground school, weather school and flight school.  Every 8th grader does 2 flights in a 4-seater plane – one as co-pilot (get to do take-off, missed approach, and landing), and one as a cartographer in preparation for their mapping project.  When they get back to school, one of the labs has been built as a hangar and they build a full size kit plane (the kit was donated).  They do everything – the flight systems, physics, all the algebra that’s required for avionics, and they end up with a full size plane hanging out in the 8th grade lab.  Amazing!

Back to meaning before detail – they flew first and then they came back into the lab to study, and it all made sense.  What they were studying connected to what they were doing because they had experienced what it means to fly.  Now that’s real-world application of what you’ve learnt.

Rule #2: Every brain is different

There are lots of kids who are told they are ‘learning-disabled’.  Marja challenges that diagnosis.  Every brain is different.  Sure there are some ‘syndromes’ that can be identified, but a dyslexic child gets told they are different to ‘everyone else’ – these kids get the impression that their brain is broken.  It affects their perception about what they can achieve.

Think of the brain as like a roadmap – we all have the same high ways and major junctions, but those little side roads, they are all different… All the stuff about learning styles – kinaesthetic, visual, linear-sequential etc. – it’s not about style, it’s simply how your brain routes information, what works for you.

When you have 30 children in a classroom, you have 30 different brains with 30 different routing preferences, and then there’s the teacher’s brain as well.  As the teacher, you have to be working on a lot of different levels, and teaching in a lot of different modalities to engage all of those brains, and every one of those brains has something to offer.

Classic example:  A girl comes home from maths class and she is really frustrated ‘I just don’t get it, forget it, I hate it, I’m so dumb, I’m never doing maths again’… and they become a humanities person.  Girls have a habit of eradicating an entire subject based on one bad experience in the class room.  Boy comes home from maths class ‘Aargh! I’m so frustrated, I hate this subject’.  Now, interestingly, they don’t eliminate the subject from their curriculum, what do they do? ‘That teacher is so dumb he can’t teach his way out of a paper bag…’  It’s not as extreme as the girl’s reaction, but neither responses are healthy.

What causes these clashes?  Usually the teacher is using a modality that doesn’t work for these children.  A teacher who teaches by writing notes on the board – ‘you write this too, and then I’ll test you on what we wrote’ – won’t help someone who’s kinaesthetic (easy to spot – will fidget a lot, take things to pieces and put them back together to understand them).

One of the meta-goals for the school is teaching children to identify how they learn, what works for them and what doesn’t, and how to speak up when the method the teacher uses doesn’t work for them.

Rule #3: People are natural explorers

We did not develop, evolutionary, to sit back and be lectured at.  Back on that Serengeti plain, you explored, tested, tasted, watched, observed.  Seeing a snake with black/yellow stripes bite someone, and watching that person die, causes a mental note – avoid snakes with black/yellow stripes.  You didn’t read the book on snakes, you explored, learned and acted.

So, we didn’t develop to sit and listen all day, yet that is exactly what we expect children to do today.  And their attention span just can’t do it.  We know from brain chemistry that your brain is more alert if you are moving – just getting up and stretching will create a more focused attention state.  Research suggests we need to get the blood going every 9 minutes.  When we sit down, our body assumes sleep cycle ‘OK, rest time…’  (note: traditional school uniform in the UK is not conducive to motion or getting dirty).  This school is a project-oriented school.  Children are in groups of 9, 12, 18.  Teachers teach in grade-level teams – sometimes 1 teacher, 2 teachers… the children are constantly in motion, no lecture format (hence no text books).

Children don’t want to be told, they want to do, they want to learn for themselves.  Compare the difference: ‘I’m going to tell you how things get blown up’ versus ‘I’m going to show you how things get blown up, and then you’re going blow some things up to’.  Compare ‘We’re going to learn about planes’ versus ‘We’re going to build a plane’.

Rule #4: Sleep is important to the learning process

When you suffer from lack of sleep, it literally slows down your processing time, your attention to detail, and your recall.  This is as true for children as it is for adults.  From biology, what we now know is that children in adolescence (9th through 12th grade) go through a phase when their sleep cycle goes upside down.  They are wide-awake at 10 at night.  They can’t help it.  Telling them to just go to bed won’t make any difference.  As a result, their sleep cycle hits somewhere between 7 and 9 in the morning… the point when they are supposed to be off to school for the day…  In addition, the mid-point between sleep cycles is the worst time of day.  12 hours from the mid-point of your last sleep phase you will hit a sleep cycle again – and that usually occurs around 2pm in the afternoon.  This is the time to get up, take a walk, rest – it’s dead time for you.
Children have the exact same thing.  But we aren’t letting them rest.  They do school, they do after-school activities, they do homework, they go to bed, they get up and it starts all over.  We aren’t letting them get enough sleep.

Rule #5: Repetition is critical for memory

You need to hear it again and again and again, but within distinct cycles – just repeating something over and over again is not meaningful repetition, it has to be in critical cycles. The school’s curriculum is completely integrated.  You can’t build an

airplane without the physics and maths required.  Once they’ve built the plane, they then get to build to full-size shuttle simulators.  Their culminating event involves groups being locked in a simulator from 4pm until midnight.  Their project has been to design a complete mission to mars, and they then carry out the mission in the simulator. They’ve got it all figured out, all the tools they need, they know what’s going to happen, they’ve studied everything (clue: that requires the same maths and physics as building the airplane.)  But the teachers than throw in some problems, they’ve got a ‘red-alert’ button that can be activated, Star Trek style.  The children have one line to mission control, and when things go wrong they can’t leave. They’ve got to figure out what to do, and still complete their mission to Mars. They’ve got to apply everything they’ve learned… oh, and quadratic equations are perfect for aviation.    There comes the same maths again… that’s the kind of repetition that works.

Rule #6: We are visual learners

No matter what anyone says, 90% of the information we get is visual. Teachers have to incorporate this.  Standing and lecturing doesn’t work, you’ve got to capture the children.  When you say take out a book and open it, actually pick up the book and open it to demonstrate.  Connect with those routing modalities.

Rule #7: Focused attention states facilitate learning

You cannot maintain the same level of focus for 40 minutes.  Studies suggest that your brain can focus for 7 to 8 minutes on something, but then you need to do something different – get up and do an activity.  It’s basic brain stuff.

Rule #8: Exercise aids learning

Already been demonstrated – if you’ve been reading this for a few minutes, get up and wave your arms about.  Sit down, and you will find it easier to focus on the text…

Rule #9: Stressed brains don’t learn well

When your stress level is high, your processing and problem-solving abilities slow down, as does your memory. If you are suffering from chronic stress – serious illness, divorce etc. – those effects will debilitate your immune system.  You’ll get sick more often, your sleep cycles will be affected.  This stuff is true for children as well.   Some children are coming from places where they don’t know if they will get any sleep, food, dad just lost his job, parents divorcing, whatever… these are chronic stress events for kids.

Quote “There’s a million miles from a kid’s neuron to the blackboard’.  Children are bringing all that stuff to school and you are telling them to pay attention.  It’s a pretty loaded statement – they can’t just leave all that stuff at the door.

The 10th Brain Rule: Anti-bias

So they are the 9 brain rules.  There are also differences for boys and girls.  Different areas of the brain develop in different sequences, which is why a lot of times you’ll hear that girls are better at language development and boys are better at structure and physical stuff. What typically happens?  Each gender is encouraged to do what they are good at.  What should happen?  Don’t just play to those early strengths – give boys more opportunity to work on language and writing, give girls more opportunity to play with structure.

Sociologically we tend to follow what the brain does first and not try to influence it to develop more.  Kids get put into the boxes – girls, go sit at the art table, boys go to the building blocks area.  From a very early age, girls will be complimented for how they look, boys will be complimented for what they do.  This stuff gets fixed very early in life and introduces bias that will continue straight through school, college, work and life.  People don’t realise how embedded it is. (Side note: go watch your favourite TV show, watch the adverts – notice the gender stereotypes they are creating, targeting, confirming…)

Marja’s 10th brain rule: you have to learn anti-bias work at a very young age.  By high-school, you can still influence some but most are already set.  Middle-school is the most flexible age.  If you can build up self-esteem at that age and give children the words and confidence to not be stereo-typed, it will save them when they get to high school.  And this is just as important for boys as girls – boys who don’t fit their traditional stereotype face just the same challenges – they’ll get eaten up in the playground and risk never achieving their true individual potential.  This applies to ALL biases <– related note: try Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W. Fuller

Internships

Every Wednesday afternoon is dedicated to the internship programme.  Internships are run as 6 week programmes – some taught on campus, off campus in the summer.  The aim is to broaden the girls’ horizons. They get to participate in craft skills, mock trials, HTML programming, code breaking, any subject where a successful person or business will participate and show the girls what it’s like to pursue a passion and succeed.  An advertising company participated and shut down their office on Wednesdays for 6 weeks – taught the children about the world of advertising, and gave them an account to work on for the project.  They had to do a storyboard and come up with a pitch in 6 weeks.  These are not mini-courses, they are intensive sessions and they breakdown those biased perceptions about what children ‘should’ do when
they grow up based on their initial ‘standing’ in life…

The Keys to better education

#1: It’s got to be connected learning.  In a typical school if, in September, you ask the 6 year olds what they are learning in Sociology, they will answer ‘we’re studying the Mayans’.  When you ask why?  ‘Because it’s chapter 1 in the book’  That’s why you hear that children lose 80% of what they learn over the Summer.  There is no connection between learning and life.  They are just studying to pass tests but they don’t know why they are studying ‘this stuff’.

#2: Applied learning:  Learning by doing.  If you watch a video showing you how to change a tyre on the car, will you really know how to do it when the time comes, 5 years later, parked up on a busy road with a flat tyre?

Everything at this school is about connected and applied learning.  The children still have to take written tests, but they also have to do the practical to.  For example, in 6th grade, the children have to answer questions on maths ratios.  Then they have to go into the lab and build a 5:1 wheel ratio.

The national anthem for middle school ‘when are we ever going to use this stuff’ never happens at this school.  They know when they are going to use what they’ve learnt – tomorrow, in the lab, building something practical from the real world…  (Marja is currently looking for someone to donate a helicopter…)

…this system has yet to be tested in state education.  Only the independent schools are allowed to do it because they can deviate from what the government dictates should be on the national curriculum (side note: the UK suffers this too).  What does that mean?  The usual trap of ‘the rich get richer…’ because many of the top independent schools provide this richer learning environment.  Marja founded this school purely through donations.  But we need to see this type of learning on a (inter)national scale, available to everyone.

If I lived in Seattle and had a daughter, I know which school I’d be fighting to get her into.

References:

Delicious tags: education | brain | talks

Fierce Conversations

One of my weak spots has always been how to handle difficult conversations. Whilst at Microsoft, there was a great talk titled ‘Fierce Conversations’ that I found to be a real help. It was delivered by Susan Scott and based on her book of the same name. Here’s a short summary of that talk.

3 big ideas:

  • Our lives succeed, or fail, one conversation at a time
  • The conversation is the relationship
  • All conversations are with, and sometimes they involve, other people

When people say ‘don’t take this personally’ what do they really mean? Of course we are going to take it personally, otherwise what’s the point? If you need to have a difficult conversation, (e.g. one that makes you worried enough to start with ‘don’t take this personally’) the first 60 seconds are crucial.

  1. Name the issue (and keep it to one! Shame on you if there’s more than one issue been left too long to fix)
  2. Give one specific example to illustrate the issue
  3. Confess your emotion – shows that you are involved/affected by this issue and hence need to resolve it
  4. Say what you feel is at stake – honestly, no matter how difficult. It gets attention
  5. Confess what part has your DNA on it – what you contributed (or didn’t) to create this issue
  6. Say “I want to resolve this with you/we need to resolve this” – shows you want to move forward together, not point fingers of blame
  7. Invite the person to give their take on the situation – and shut up! Don’t defend or argue, just listen.

Tips on what not to do…

  • Avoid the ‘sugar coated spit ball’ approach where you are supposed to start with something nice before delivering the bad news. People will start putting on the armour whenever you start a conversation with something nice… Nice things should be part of every day conversations, not saved up for when you need to deliver some bad news! Are you paying a sincere compliment, or doing textbook ‘good news – bad news’?
  • Don’t put pillows around the message to avoid hurting feelings (including your own). You can’t avoid emotions so keep them open and the conversation honest
  • And the opposite to the pillows – don’t walk into a room, pull the pin, throw the grenade and exit without pausing to witness the carnage caused. Take responsibility for the emotional wake you leave. (Emotional wake is covered in much more detail in the book, this talk focused on the first 60 seconds)

“Fierce conversations take us to a place where we are moved to act.”

Reference:

Filed in the library under: Talks

Nlab Social Networks conference

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending the Nlab Social Networks conference, held at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. Big congratulations to Sue Thomas and all involved with organising the event. What was particularly great about this conference was the level of networking that took place between sessions. Arguably, we could have done with double the time allowed for coffee and lunch. Unheard of at your average conference…

All the sessions were great but three stood out for me (a.k.a. I took some notes). Here you go:

The Future of Work: Amplified Individuals, Amplified Organisation – Andrea Saveri, The Institute for the Future

Andrea introduced a new term (for me, at least) entering the workplace: Amplified Individuals (perhaps a flavour of AI that will really happen…) Amplified Individuals are highly collaborative, highly improvisational and highly augmented.

Highly Collaborative: Able to tap in to and contribute to the intelligence of crowds. Act as social filters for massive amounts of information (demonstrated in the use of tools such as del.icio.us, Flickr, Diff, Friendfeed etc.) Enable the use of prediction markets (see related blog post: More on idea markets)

Highly Improvisational: Create ad-hoc resources and infrastructures, as and when needed to achieve a specific goal. Have the motivation and know-how to bypass traditional constraints and form new relationships within and across organisational walls. Serena Software are a great example of this, what started with ‘Facebook Friday’ (see related blog post: Web Wisdom) became their new intranet (see recent news: How one CEO Facebooked his company, Fortune)

Highly Augmented: Employ systems, tools and hacks to enhance cognitive abilities and coordination skills (the drug Provigil, aka Modafinil, crops up again).

Amplified Individuals possess Superhero powers for business, including:

  • Mob-ability – ability to work in large groups, a talent for organising and collaborating with many people simultaneously
  • Influencing – able to be persuasive in multiple social contexts and media spaces
  • Ping Quotient – your responsiveness to requests from other people for engagement
  • Protovation – fearless innovation in rapid, iterative cycles (i.e. prototype first, discuss requirements later…)
  • Multi-capitalism – fluency in working in different capitals: social (reputation), financial, intellectual, natural (green)
  • Signal/Noise management – able to filter meaningful information
  • Co-operative radar – able to sense, almost intuitively, who would make the best team for a particular task (across employees, partners, customers, etc.)

Bioteams: What we can learn about nature’s social networks – Ken Thompson, Swarmteams Ltd

It’s difficult to describe Ken’s session, because it mostly involved an experiment requiring audience participation. And my inability to use my mobile phone (ruins my Ping Quotient) at anything more than a snail’s pace interrupted note-taking. You can try it for yourself at the Swarmteams web site. It’s an interesting concept. You create a group on a web site. People can then join the group by sending a text message from their mobile with the line ‘join group username’ (e.g. ‘join nlabs joiningdots’). The web site sends out a question, and everyone in the group receives it on their phone and can send a response back, all via text messaging service. (Great, given I have 3 billion unused text messages on my phone contract.) And the web site gathers all the messages together in a single folder. It’s a little like Twitter. And is a great way of organising groups on the fly for a niche event, or to gather feedback on a given subject (i.e. a perfect tool for those Amplified Individuals).

What was most interesting was Ken’s reasoning behind this idea. The use of short instant messages to communicate (or, rather, synchronise) is common place in nature – the bee’s waggle, fireflies flash, ants waft pheromones. Be it motion, or emitting light, sound or smell, most animals have the need and method for instant short-term communication. Humans do too, but few organisations recognise, acknowledge or take advantage of the tools freely available…

If you’re interested in the connection between nature and business, here’s some books I have enjoyed on this subject:

Social Networking beyond the Dogma: Let’s Make Some Money – Jim Benson, Modus Cooperandi

Wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the title of this session. But Jim delivered some grounded comments about why businesses should be using social networking tools. His use of concept maps, rather than traditional slides, to convey his message was very effective. I’m planning to try something similar when I get the chance (it reminded me of a comment Euan Semple made a couple of years ago, about how the software interface for collecting knowledge should be like walking through a village…) Here’s a sample of what was said:

  • Small businesses do not need more stuff to do… but they do need advice, peers, customers and partners, all of which comes from communities
  • Communities create value through participation, which takes time
  • Time is expensive therefore invest it wisely
    • Understand intangibles, which include more clients, future services and business partners
    • Employ judgment – in the use of social tools like networking sites and review sites
  • Learn – your community, your limit, your market – by experimenting
  • Start now – small and directed, what fits immediate needs and your personality

Finally, Steve Clayton did a great kick-off presentation about how Microsoft has approached blogging and social networking. My non-amplified self sulks at giving him links when I’m wallowing in the lower ranks of Technorati 🙂 but his presentation is available online. Multiple hat tips to all the speakers. They delivered some great content and I have captured a mere sound bite of it here. And thank you to everyone I met on the day and have chatted to since on Twitter, some great conversations all around.

References:

And hat tip as always to Wikipedia for assisting with references. (Even if I did have to navigate past the band Fire Flies to locate one of the pages.)

Related Blog Posts:

Filed in Library under: Social Networks

Technorati tags: Social Networks | Social Computing | Collective Intelligence | Smart Mobs

SPC2008 – BillG Keynote

Having sat in on Bill G’s keynote at the Office DevCon 3 weeks ago, it was interesting to see what would be in the SharePoint conference keynote… Has to be said, the content had a bit more zing. Yes, the ‘last day at the office’ video was played. And as always, the Q&A threw up some great quotes.

Usual disclaimers. These are my scribbles taken live at the event. They are not a transcript, no guarantees regarding accuracy, etc. Enjoy.

Technology Trends

Same mega trends highlighted as at the Office DevCon. Talking about BI benefitting from chip improvements. Lowering storage costs enabling recording/indexing of media content. Natural user interfaces such as touch, pen and speech will transform apps. See MS Surface being integrated into meeting tables, white boards. Building up to the online services announcement:

“Historically, software was tied to a specific piece of hardware. Now software is becoming much more abstract, distributed across resources.”

Business Productivity focus areas:

  • Unified communications
  • Social computing
  • Enterprise search
  • Business intelligence

Comparing SharePoint Pie to Office suite 15 years ago. Previously, people had separate client applications for word processing, number crunching, presenting. Packaging the tools into a suite and lowering the cost made it easy to assume that everyone had the required tools to open and work with relevant content. Today, SharePoint is taking the same approach with server applications. Currently, many organisations have separate tools for business intelligence, search, web content management, CRM etc. SharePoint is tying them all together. Not necessarily about winning in each category, but creating a broad infrastructure that makes it easier to get stuff done. Simple scenario – rich new visualisations created within Excel 2007 that you can publish up to a web site hosted on SharePoint.

Software + Services Platform

Running software on-premise versus subscribing to a hosted service ‘in the cloud’. There are trade-offs in terms of ownership, resource management etc. It means that some elements will stay in-house (at least for a while), but other elements are straightforward enough to be hosted elsewhere. Expecting many organisations to have a hybrid scenario, a mix of installed software and subscriptions to hosted software in the cloud.

Announcing SharePoint Online and Exchange Online: Microsoft Online Services

Opening up the beta (previously, was private beta for customers with more than 5,000 seats). Aiming for general availability by end of year, regardless of organisation size. At the high-end, working with Coca Cola Enterprises, taking all their SharePoint work and putting it into an online environment. The new environment is a strong fit for the kind of work they are doing.

Demo of MS Online Services – John Betz: Login to MS data center – Microsoft Online. An administrator will get an admin view, e.g. add users, set roles, enable account and assign licenses for services to be made available for account. Can sync internal applications with online services (e.g. enterprise email synced with online mail). A sync tool for connecting to internal resources, including AD. Means you can external accounts to the GAL. (Assuming they act as external recipients)

For end users, the sign-in client looks similar to logging into an instant messaging service. The first time the user logs in, will have option to connect online service with user’s Outlook profile to auto-sync email. The quote from John Betz:

“the promise of enterprise class software being delivered as subscription services”

Search

Microsoft has three levels of search:

  • Entry level = Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express
  • Standard = Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007
  • Specialised = FAST

Announcing availability of Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express today

Search Demo – Richard Riley: Showed Search Server delivering federated search results, including integration with Symantec Enterprise Vault. Presenting a customised results page, with images presented alongside structured results (similar to the example in To click or not to click). Demo’d FAST, showing a preview pane within the web page built on Silverlight. Very nice demo. (Looks a lot like the Album preview you get in iTunes.)

Back to Bill:

Talking about business data connectors letting you get to information of all types. Search is great when it gets you to documents but becomes more powerful when you can also get to structured data sources.

Looking ahead, people shouldn’t have to worry about where the information comes from. The software takes care of connecting to the backend information stores. The SharePoint environment will enable new ways of interacting with data. Modelling is an important focus area – simulating what’s going on in the enterprise. This approach should reduce dramatically the amount of code that needs to be written. Currently at the early stages but it will make the value of information even more impactful. (He’s talking about declarative programming – see the Office DevCon Keynote Q&A for more information.)

Q & A

Q – Data access and data storage – concept of universal data access still isn’t there. Is it going to change in Office 14? And what about the Exchange storage engine?

A – Storage unification is a big deal at MS. A big opportunity to simplify the programming and admin model and ability to do integration. In SharePoint, you’ve got these lists that are better than tables in some way, but in SQL you’ve got the flexibility and scale that goes beyond what you have in lists. What’s the answer? Want to have the capabilities within SQL as a native capability within SharePoint. In the next version of SharePoint, we’re taking a big step in terms of putting a table from SQL into SharePoint and enabling those richer capabilities. The direction is straightforward – we want list semantics to be in the database engine itself, without giving up the reasons we invented lists – the approachability and ease of use. On to storage unification. (Side note: Bill said that SharePoint has always been built on SQL… Er, no. He must have forgotten about the first version being on the Exchange web store.) AD had its own way of doing distribitued info replication. Now moving more to a metadirectory – will be based in SQL and then do replication out to the stores that do distributed login capabilities. Exchange has its own store, SQL doesn’t do the hierarchy stuff that Exchange needs. To model that hierarchy, we need SQL to cope with tables within tables. Tnat will simplify the underlying store. But no timelines.

Q – When do you plan to go relational with data store: allow nested tables, relational dropdowns within SharePoint?

A – Lists today are pretty powerful, were built for the kinds of things people do in SharePoint. The idea of tables within tables – we’re taking a big step towards that goal in SQL 2008.

Q – What’s MS plan in being ahead of competition, i.e. Google Sites and Team Edition

A – SharePoint is about end users and being able to get their work done. Hilarious – Bill said “the day they announce the product is it’s best day… I may be biased…” It’s great that people have choices. The breadth of work required to build the likes of SharePoint is very high…

Q – MS-Yahoo?

A – We are very serious about competing in consumer search. We’ve learned alot about how to build up the data center in terms of hundreds of thousands of serv
ers. Needed as we host Exchange and SharePoint. But also need to develop what we can offer in terms of software management that can also help customer data centers. Shouldn’t have to have people on call 24 hours a day (i.e. software needs to be self-healing). That’s what we are working on in our data centers. The boundary between desktop search, SharePoint and web search is blurring – we are going to see more solutions drawing on all these different areas. It shows our bullishness about search and software regardless of whether or not MS-Yahoo happens – that is speculation at the moment.

[Update: 04 Mar 08] See the comments for a link to a YouTube video covering Bill’s comment about Google. You can view video of the keynote, and find the official viewpoint over on Microsoft’s web site – SharePoint Conference 2008 Virtual Press Room

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Technorati tag: SPC 2008

Office DevCon – BillG Keynote

Bill Gates delivered the keynote speech to kick off the Office Developer conference in San Jose. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Last day at the office’ video was played. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s quite a good chuckle:

(The YouTube version isn’t complete but you get the picture)

The content of Bill’s speech wasn’t hugely exciting. Probably because Office 14 is still being kept under wraps publicly. The following are some brief notes. The Q&A at the end is where it gets interesting…

It was curious to see the Server Platform referenced as being SharePoint Server, Exchange Server and Office Communications Server. No sign of Groove… Bill made lots of references to data connections between client, server and online services. The Business Data Catalog (BDC) is a new feature in SharePoint Server 2007. I think it is a safe bet to assume that this feature will be maturing rapidly over the next couple of product releases.

FedEx provided a demonstration of integrating their online services into Office applications. They also announced their intent to build web parts that will integrate natively into SharePoint. This could be particularly interesting in context of Office Live Small Business (see later). Resources are being posted at www.fedex.com/developer. It looks like FedEx has twigged to the benefits Amazon has realised from enabling people to hook into their online services and data storage…

Bill outlined programmability across clients and servers, integrating into online services.

For the client:

  • Presentation = Fluent UI (aka the ‘ribbon’) + Task Panes
  • Logic = Object model
  • Data = OpenXML file formats

The ribbon is seen as a big success in changing and improving the client UI. It is planned to expand it into other applications.

Examples given: AdSage – specialist ribbon within Excel for analysing the performance of advertising key words (integration with AdCenter); Mindjet MindManager is using the ribbon (makes you wonder if MS will one day buy a mind mapping tool…) and Xobni (‘inbox’ spelt backwards) that has created a task pane within Outlook to display email trends and social networks.

For the server:

  • Presentation = Higher level services (don’t ask) + web parts, pages and
    templates (aka SharePoint)
  • Logic = workflow
  • Data = business data connections (yup, referencing the BDC again…)

Web services span all three, from data through to presentation

Examples given: MSW (Microsoft’s internal intranet built on SharePoint) integration with Siebel to increase productivity and improve usability (anyone who has used the Siebel client will understand that philosophy); PNMSoft (MS partner in Israel) has built a business process management (BPM) solution using SharePoint and Office to connect processes across back-end applications and visualise them (nice).

Visual Studio 2008 is being launched and the Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) are now built-in.

Office Live Small Business Winter 2008 Release

Well that’s what was on the slide – looks like the product/service names are getting longer again… let’s just call it OLSBW08R 🙂

OLSBW08R is basically hosted SharePoint with some tweaks. It includes a web-based tool called Office Live Site Designer (let’s call it OLSD… no ‘funny’ comments please.) OLSD isn’t to be confused with SharePoint Designer or Office, but it actually looks like a hybrid of the two. You get a built-in ribbon and the page is broken into components that can have web parts added to them… imagine that, web parts. Like, I don’t know, you wanted to track parcels. Wouldn’t it be useful if a delivery service like FedEx agreed to build web parts to integrate into SharePoint… 😉

OLSBW08R, despite being in dire need of a better name, looks to have some interesting features that I’ll likely cover in a separate blog post (I’ve had a half-written ‘Google Apps vs Office Live’ waiting to be finished since before Xmas). The demo in the keynote showed how you can quickly integrate images and make connections to services such as Virtual Earth. I’ve got a non-techie friend who I set up with an Office Live account last September. It took him about 30 minutes to find Virtual Earth and drop it into his web site. That’s quite impressive. And a useful application of Web 2.0

More about OLSBW08R can be found at dev.http://dev.officelive.com/

To close the keynote, there was nearly 30 minutes of open Q&A with Bill. This was a great treat that made you realise just how far apart Bill is from other senior folk at MS. He was able to answer questions on any subject with a reasoned opinion, even if it was a topic he wasn’t that close to. Other execs seem to lack that passion or intensity (Balmer not included).

The following is not a word-perfect transcript. It’s just the typing scribbles I made during the Q&A session, anything in brackets are my own comments added. No guarantees about accuracy blah blah blah (I’d put ‘without prejudice’ but that’s just taking blog writing far too seriously…)

Q – What’s with Yahoo?

A – Yahoo has done great work. They have great engineers but the question has always been should they become pure media or keep a mix of engineering and media. Using an ad model, you need scale. Only one company has that scale (yup, it’s not just Balmer who avoids the ‘G’ word). How do you combine engineering R&D with scale? There is a strategy of giving up engineering and just doing media, and give up engineering to somebody else. We don’t believe in that approach and plan to keep engineering core to the business

Q – What’s the next killer app?

A – Not sure we are going to have one killer app that takes over everything. In a sense, SharePoint is becoming central – the potential to replace email attachment culture with attaching to a web site instead. Excel will continue to be very important for BI (business intelligence). The fastest growing module in Office is OneNote. It is way behind the others right now but I see it joining the others as an equal in the future. It is great for gathering disparate data together from a variety of different applications

Q – What’s with Unified Communications?

A – Unified communications (UC) is a big deal. The desktop telephone has always been a separate entity, why can’t it be software driven? Once it is, you can automatically transfer calls to the mobile, to the PC, create interactive applications, set up behaviour rules to determine calls you will and won’t answer depending on context. This all becomes possible when software drives the hardware. Things like presence information becomes ubiquitous. This can save time and money – reduces the cost of telecomms and saves costs through better interaction. (Bill became very animated about this – big clue that UC is important to Microsoft going forward)

Q – MS vs Open Source

A – (Bill now a lot less animated). (Didn’t capture the response in words but he didn’t make the distinction between free software and open source software. Instead just focused the response on not paying for software, how MS has always had free elements of software, that other types of free software typically have a cost associated such as a support contract.)

Q – Why is the SharePoint documentation not so good

A – SharePoint is playing catchup to the client. SharePoint has caught us by surprise. We always knew it would become a mainstram tool but it has really accelerated in the last 18 months. Please give you us your feedback during th
e conference about what you specifically want to see, this is an area we are working on. (SharePoint is certainly getting the most attention, despite this being the Office DevCon and a separate SharePoint conference coming up next month.)

Q – What’s with the new declarative ‘D’ language

A – Most code that is written today is procedural code. It has always been the holy grail of development that you shouldn’t have to write so much procedural code, you ought to be able to do it on a declarative basis. In the past, data models were too weak. But we now have stronger data models, such as XML schemas. They are much richer and, in that environment, a lot of business logic can be done in declarative form. Don’t know just how much can be done today, we are doing a lot of research in this area. But we believe that declarative modelling should take the requirement for procedural code down to 10% of what it is today. This is something that will change software development but more likely in a 5 – 8 year timeframe than overnight. (Bill was clearly very passionate about this subject – add it to the ‘hot topic’ list to track.) (Side note: I often get asked about why so much of SharePoint’s UI customisations are done as XML – here’s your answer. It’s not a perfect solution today, but it’s a starting point for reducing the amount of compiled code required to customise the product.). This question and answer cropped up on Techmeme straight after the keynote – Infoworld: Gates talks up declarative language – I’m assuming it was the reporter who asked the question, ‘else spotted its importance)

Q – Office for Mac and the Fluent UI

A – (it appears that the latest release of Office for Apple PCs does not include the ribbon UI) Mac Office is somewhat diverged from traditional Office, to take full advantage of the Apple hardware and their system direction. It’s forked code. Some elements of extensibility do cross over, such as OpenXML formats. Some features do not translate. The aim is to make Office for Mac as Mac-ish as possible. Not all features translate.

Q – Google Office works everywhere. How can we avoid VPN with MS stuff

A – There are several answers to that one. SharePoint needs to be able to render a broader set of documents into rich HTML. We are also working on things that are equivalent to OWA – that’s what to keep in mind. We want the equivalent of OWA for Office, won’t be full functionality but should be able to do the common tasks. This is part of the O14 dev plan. (Bill became quite passionate again about this one.)

Q – Customising MOSS is sometimes harder to do vs just build from scratch on ASP.NET

A – There is a huge thing that I am very keen on driving is that our richest data store by far is SQL Server. Big theme in the next version of SharePoint is to let you manipulate actual SQL tables as lists (insert fanfare audio), you don’t give up the ability to have lightweight lists like today but these will be ‘super’ lists. A big theme is how much split there is between .NET and SharePoint – how much is stored within SharePoint versus SharePoint being the user interface (UI) for incredibly rich data structures that exist natively underneath. (Bill became quite animated again – it’s them data connections…)

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Filed under: Microsoft

When IT doesn’t matter

I’m currently reading ‘The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems‘ by Claudio Ciborra. I haven’t gotten very far through the book yet, it is written in an academic tone which always slows me down. But early on, I stumbled across a very interesting point of view.

IT architecture is popular topic right now. You can get enterprise architects, software architects, infrastructure architects, information architects… the list goes on. One of the focus areas for architecture is the adoption of standards and consist methods for the design, development and deployment of IT systems. All sounds very sensible and measurable.

But Claudio makes a simple observation that suggests such architecture doesn’t matter, in that it does not help an organisation to become successful. Instead, architecture is a simple necessity of doing business digitally. This argument concurs with Nicholas Carr’s controversial article (and subsequent book) ‘IT doesn’t matter

A sample from the book: (note – SIS refers to strategic information systems)

“…market analysis of and the identification of SIS applications are research and consultancy services that can be purchased. They are carried out according to common frameworks, use standard data sources, and, if performed professionally, will reach similar results and recommend similar applications to similar firms.”

So what do you need to do to become an innovative company? Claudio suggests:

“…To avoid easy imitation, the quest for a strategic application must be based on such intangible, and even opaque, areas as organisational culture. The investigation and enactment of unique sources of practice, know-how, and culture at firm and industry level can be a source of sustained advantage…

See, I have been telling those techie-oriented IT folk for years, collaboration and knowledge sharing are far more important than your boring transaction-based systems 🙂

…Developing an SIS is much closer to prototyping and the deployment of end-user’s ingenuity than has so far been appreciated: most strategic applications have merged out of plain hacking. The capacity to integrate unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level turns out to be more important than the adoption of structured approaches to systems development…”

Sounds like an argument in favour of mash-ups and wikis to me. See also: Let’s make SharePoint dirty