Who wants to be in the middle?


In just about every scenario imaginable, success is usually found at the edges rather than the middle. Being in the middle is normal, comfortable, average, bland, OK, alright, doing fine…. feels safe but usually isn’t. Be big or small, not medium sized. Be loved or hated but never just OK. Be the hero or the villain, who wants to be the victim. Be thoughtful and considered or crazy and passionate, but have an opinion and don’t sit on the fence. Being at the edge creates a reaction, something happens. But there’s more to it. Being at one edge makes it easier to take on the other side, to compete. Being in the middle means sharing some traits from both sides but not enough to matter to, or be, either.

MIT Sloan Management Review has a detailed research article on Social Business: What are companies really doing?  Lots of case studies and examples about what works and what doesn’t. And yet again, the challenge for those in the middle. One of the key findings was that size matters:

To back their social business activities, both small companies (those with fewer than 1,000 employees) and large companies (those with more than 100,000 employees) tend to have stronger management support for social business initiatives than do midsize companies.

With social tools, small companies are demonstrating that they can appear larger than their actual size; large companies can appear less like corporate behemoths. Midsize companies see the advantages of social tools but, in general, do not see themselves exploiting these advantages for another few years.

It makes sense. Small companies usually have more flexibility to innovate and experiment, there is less bureaucracy. There is often also the urgency to do something, anything, to grow.  Large companies can be big enough to allow for experiments – so much bureaucracy, ideas can fly under the radar, what harm can they do? There are usually enough funds to take the odd risk and see where it goes. But for medium-sized companies, change comes much harder. Big enough to feel there is too much to risk losing. Not big enough to have a war chest to fund crazy ideas.

The competition is between the very small and the very large. And that competition eats away at the market for those in the middle. And all the while, those in the middle are waiting to see what happens. Feeling safe… and far from it.

An Imperfect Business

An imperfect road

Three weeks ago I attended the third Social Media for Business DellB2B event, this time held at Google’s offices in London. Then I was supposed to attend Dachis Group’s Social Business Summit, also in London, but ended up watching the Twitter feed instead. Whilst both events included some great sessions, they shared a frustration: utopian quotes that sound great in theory but can be hard to put in to practice. Here’s a sample:

  • By saying nothing, you are saying everything
No. The impact of participating or not in social media is not equal for all businesses or industries.
  • We’re 20 years into the web and most business web sites still suck
Yes, but so do most retail stores, call centres, middle management etc.
  • The future of business isn’t created, it’s co-created
Tell Apple that!

Many organisations could benefit from adopting social media. But it is too often pitched as the new utopia all businesses should aspire too. Businesses have plenty of flaws, not listening too or conversing with customers is just one of them.


I’ve seen oodles of research and presentations proving that performance appraisals damage moral, lower producitivy and encourage poor behavoiur. For one example, see Crashing with the nose up (2001). Yet still they are a staple of business life and Dilbert cartoons.

For businesses seeking to benefit from trends and technologies such as social media, it can help to understand, if not overcome, some of the barriers that prevent adoption. And O’Reilly Radar has a great post to help identify them: 5 reasons why we still don’t have invisibility cloaks.

Here are the soundbites: As always, it’s well worth reading the full article.

1. Cost

Decision-makers have many choices when investing scarce dollars on IT projects. Many great ideas fall by the wayside and never make the light of day in favor of more pressing enterprise needs. Social media may not cost much, but it is never free.

2. Complexity

Today, fewer and fewer solutions remain islands. There are often so many inter-dependencies that even a small change has downstream impacts that must be considered. Social media often starts out as an island. Can it justify staying that way?

3. Resistance

Every CIO needs to understand, for his or her organization, the pace at which new capabilities can be deployed. It’s probably a lot slower than we all think.  Social media rarely provides instant hits, think marathon rather than sprint. That does not help speed up internal adoption.

4. Legacy

We are wedded to the past. We like the things we know more than things that are new and unknown. There’s a reason we go back to that tried and tested Excel formula when we know we have the same capability in the latest ERP system. People don’t change their habits over night. And social media is all about changing habits.

5. Politics

Reconciling organizational and individual interests is a messy business. And it’s highly complex. I imagine many of us can tell our own stories of how we observed decisions being made that had little basis in reasonable logic. We’d like to pretend it isn’t a factor, but all too often it is.  And pretending won’t help your social media project.

Five points applicable to all new systems, social media is just one.  Enjoy the memorable quotes at your next conference but never forget, the devil is always in the details.

References/Further Reading

When culture doesn’t matter


One of the explanations for why change in the workplace can fail, particularly the introduction of systems built on new technology, is ‘culture’, as in the culture of the organisation is not ready for the new technology or the solution (e.g. sharing knowledge) doesn’t fit with the culture of the organisation.

That isn’t an explanation. It’s an excuse.

Time and again on the Internet, conventional wisdom about what people will and won’t do is challenged by evidence that begs to differ. Grandparents are supposed to be technology-averse and not understand the Internet. That soon changes if their children move abroad and webcams and Facebook are the easiest way to keep in touch and watch the grandchildren grow up. The old argument that nobody bothers to classify information fell flat when Flickr and photo tagging came along.

In short, culture is used as an excuse when the real reason for failure to adopt new systems is because the target audience doesn’t see any value in what they are being asked to do versus what they have been doing in the past. And so they either don’t change or do reluctantly, which can have worse outcomes than not doing anything at all.

Culture matters in the interpretation of how people use systems, how they communicate. But the differences are regional, not organisational. In some countries, talking up your success is perceived negatively as boasting. In others, modesty is misinterpreted as lacking ambition. People in some societies say ‘Yes’ to every question regardless of what the question is asking, sometimes before you’ve even finished asking the qeustion. In others, the default response is ‘No’. Some societies expect permission to be asked before doing something, others admire those who try and ask forgiveness if the outcome doesn’t go to plan. These differences will affect how people communicate and the words they choose to use, verbally and in written form.

If you need to make a judgement based on what people say and do, interpreting information to compensate for cultural differences will improve your chances of making the right decision. But culture does not prevent people from adapting and using new systems.

Systems fail because they are poorly designed and don’t offer benefits to the people expected to use them. It reminds me of a quote from a Gartner conference, that went along the lines:

Ask a sales person what they need from a new system and it’s one requirement – make it easier for me to sell more stuff. Ask a sales manager and you’ll get 400 requirements on how to report, analyse and manage what gets sold.

The latter gets built and its failure will have nothing to do with culture (or technology for that matter) and everything to do with creating a system that takes longer to sell anything at all.

Social media can protect systems


Three recent posts have shared a common theme: systems failure.

In The Inevitable Collapse of Systems, failure comes about from adding increasing layers of complexity. To begin with, introducing more advanced capabilities can lead to dramatic improvements in a system. But those advanced capabilities then enable you to do more… and more… and more. And then you start stretching the system beyond its natural limits. Any financial organisation – be it a bank or a government – that spends more than it receives on the basis of predicted future earnings are increasing their risk of collapse. When the predictions are made on top of other predictions, the risk rises exponentially.

In Institutions will always resist change, failure comes from trying to prevent a system from changing.The media industry is the current most obvious example. Few people have the luxury of being paid a recurring license for their work. The carpenter is not entitled to a fee every time someone sits on the chair, let alone when they resell it on eBay. For a moment in time, it was possible to control distribution of popular music. An industry arose and profited well from those conditions. Now the conditions have changed.

In The best person in the job? people are beginning to question whether or not we need more diversity at the top of systems, where the decisions get made. The UK government is facing an election. Just before parliament was dissolved to begin the election process, a bunch of new legislations were rushed through and approved, without proper debate and many of the 300 MPs – the people doing the voting on behalf of 60 million people who will be affected by the legislation – saying they don’t understand the content of what they are voting on. That is not a good sign.

Systems collapse when you either try to stretch them beyond their natural boundaries, or you try to create artificial boundaries to contain them and bend them to your will. History shows either strategy carries a high risk of catastrophic failure. History also shows it tends to be a small group of people making the decisions that affect so many others.

Enter social media.

…it’s astonishing that the Twitter data is so basic but powerful compared to the teeming complexity of the HSX prediction market; there, bettors typically rely on lots of variables, such as Hollywood’s voluminous exit polls and focus group results, and intuitions about past performance, which the market then aggregates.

That quote is from a recent article on www.fastcompany.com about how simply tracking the words thousands of people are using on Twitter can help predict the success of a film as accurately as a complicated algorithm developed a few experts.

…you don’t need a hit to survive.  There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.

That quote is from Kevin Kelly’s 1’000 True Fans. Whilst it focuses on The Long Tail economic model that applies to most forms of media, it talks about the dirty little secret the Music Publishing Industry doesn’t want to discuss. That artists can make a good enough living if they are good at what they are do, just like everyone else, without needing a recording deal. (Hat tip to Ian Blyth for tipping me off about this statistic whilst sharing a fine bottle of wine 🙂 )

Anyone can propose a particular bill or piece of legislation. If enough signatories are gathered, it is automatically put to an online vote, and if carried, parliament is compelled to discuss it. There is no obligation for MPs to vote for or against the motion, but they are compelled to discuss and vote on the subject, guaranteeing that an issue that is popular cannot be ignored.

That quote is from the January edition of Wired UK – Let’s Reboot Britain – which discussed various suggestions for improving the country’s prospects. The quote is from an article by Jamie Murray Wells who proposed four ideas for making government a little more democratic, as opposed to just being democratically elected.

All three quotes are from ideas involving social media.

The power of social media is that people are finding their voices, regardless of status. That diverse range of thought and opinion can be connected and tapped into in ways that were inconceivable barely a decade ago. Systems that learn how to leverage social media when making fundamental decisions will be far better protected from failure than those that don’t.

Institutions will always resist change

This is a follow on to the previous post: The Inevitable Collapse of Systems. Clay Shirky recently quoted (posted by Kevin Kelly but without a link, naughty Kevin!):

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

This is along the same lines as the great quote by Nicholas Machiavelli back in the 16th Century:

There is nothing more perilous to conduct, more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things, because the innovator will have for enemies all who have done well under the old conditions, and only lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

The trouble with challenging institutions is the power they wield to help protect and maintain their position, and the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) they will generate about anything new that threatens their comfortable existence. As being ably demonstrated by the music publishing industry. Those who profited from the old conditions would have everyone believe music creativity is dying because of new conditions created by the Internet (i.e. illegal downloads). Watching the recent music awards on TV (US and UK), there are no such signs. People were creating and performing music long before publishing industry came along and will continue to do so no matter what the financial rewards. It is not creativity that is dying, it is the ability to generate money that is being challenged. And here we are in the UK, facing a hastily written Digital Economy bill aimed at protecting an industry’s distorted revenue model.

It is not the fittest or the strongest of species that survive but the one most adaptable to change. – Darwin

When institutions are able to persuade governments to try and protect their status at any cost, they are using their strength to delay the need to adapt. And that presents a huge risk for everyone, because creating legislation or spending tax to prevent change shows all the signs of an economic system heading towards collapse.

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. – W. Edwards Deming

Why do we need music albums? We don’t and we never did. They were invented by the music publishing industry because it is easier to make profits from selling albums than singles. That was possible under the old conditions. It isn’t so easy under the new. But with change brings opportunity. If you are selling albums, you only need to support a few performers and are only interested in the ones that generate easy album sales. Now that I buy mostly singles, I purchase from a far more diverse range of performers, often discovered from hearing or watching them online. Well done iTunes, Spotify and YouTube! No surprise that none were the invention of a music publishing company.

Illegal music downloads are wrong. But focusing on piracy and trying to claim it is damaging creativity when what it is really damaging is abnormal wealth that was only possible under the old conditions is FUD that diverts attention away from the industry’s resistance to change.

[Update: 08 Apr 10] Too funny to not include as an update. Just days after rushing through the Digital Economy Bill without proper debate, the two main political parties are both accused of copyright infringement for not asking permission before using images from a TV series as part of their election posters: Labour and Conservative parties accused of copyright infringement


Related blog posts

You cannot walk in another’s shoes

There’s an abundance of great new talks up on the TED web site, following the most recent conference in February 2010. One gem was delivered by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in behavioural economics.

The riddle of experience vs memory

Early in the talk, an example is given to demonstrate the difference between what we experience and what we choose to remember:

A man described how he had been listening to a glorious symphony. At the very end, there was a dreadful screeching sound – “It ruined the whole experience”. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined was the memory of the experience.

The talk centres on the difference between what we remember and what we actually experienced, and it’s impact on our happiness. Six years ago, Dan Gilbert, author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ delivered a very similar talk. His approach came from the other side – what we expect to experience versus what we actually do experience. He challenged the the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want or things don’t go as planned.

Why are we happy?

A powerful example from this talk:

Given a choice between winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic within the next 12 months, which would make you happy? When we simulate this, the choice seems obvious. The reality, taken from real-world data, is that both lottery winners and paraplegics are happy. Winning or losing in any situation have far less impact than people expect them to have…

Whilst both talks focus on self, our flawed assumptions about happiness can have worse consequences when we apply our assumptions to somebody else. We think we can imagine life in another’s shoes. Both talks above demonstrate that we cannot.

Hidden Project Requirements…

Back in 2003 I was presenting to the SharePoint product group, providing customer feedback from beta testing of what was to become SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS 2003). The first version of SharePoint (SPS 2001) had plenty of shortcomings that led to a massive re-write. But re-writing involved eliminating a number of features completely and they were parked for later release (some have still yet to reappear…) One of my slides went along the following lines:

“Last year, customers were complaining how bad the workflow is in SPS 2001  …Now that you’ve removed it, they’re saying it’s great and want it back”

People didn’t hate workflow, they loved the idea of it (the simulation) and hated how it worked (the actual experience) to the point nobody had a good word to say about it. But removing the feature completely caused all sorts of headaches at the time (the memory was suddenly a lot rosier).

The type of projects I work on usually involve introducing technology that will change the way people work. But change goes in both directions. People’s behaviour will influence how effective (or not) the technology is. Hence the interest in behavioural economics. At the start of a project I’ll often hear comments like: ‘Users will never use this feature’, ‘They won’t work that way’ or ‘They don’t need to know…’ But we never know for certain what will happen until people actually start using the technology. It’s why I prefer to get organisations to prototype ideas before going for full-scale project implementations. After the initial statements about what users do and don’t do and will and won’t like, projects often head down the road of ‘Now that I see it, it isn’t what I want’ or ‘Didn’t know it could do that…’ or ‘Never thought that would be useful…’ Prototypes offer a glimpse into the actual experience – you wear the shoes instead of remembering the worn out pair or trying to imagine what a different pair would feel like to walk in.