Friday thought: do books matter?

Over the past month, I’ve listened to Baroness Susan Greenfield three times. First, reading an article in The Sunday Times. Second, in the audience at one of her talks. Third, hearing an interview on the radio. The same topic came up at all three events (not surprising, since she has a new book to promote) – the effect new technology is having on learning. Or, rather, the disastrous effect new technology is having on learning.

And I have to say, I disagree with her argument and pessimism. Now she is a professor, at Oxford no less. And I am a mere mortal without so much as Bachelors degree to my name. But her belief seems to be that books are absolutely essential to educational development and learning. If you don’t read books, you’ll never progress beyond the mentality of a young child. It’s a wonder how we ever invented books in the first place…

Central to the argument is that children are now flitting between multiple different information mediums, nibbling lots of content but never chewing it properly before swallowing. And those pesky computer games are distorting our perception of reality. (I’d argue that, if anything, it has the opposite effect – making reality so depressingly clear that people prefer to live in the virtual.)

I agree that lots of nibbling is no substitute for a good book, if you want to dive into the theory and history of a subject. Just as books and computer games are no substitute for real-world experience. But I’m not sure the future being painted is quite as apocalyptic as the baroness believes. Computer simulations introduce all sorts of possibilities and new ways of learning. Imagine if we were living in the time when writing was just invented. The theory then would have probably been along the lines: “Writing words down will destroy the art of story-telling. It will ruin our ability to bond and form emotional connections with one another, to learn first-hand from our elders, transforming our identity of who and what we are.”

Agree, disagree? Here’s a link to one of her interviews – iD: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield (The Sunday Times, May 08)

Introducing new habits


Two different but related posts got me thinking over the weekend. Jack Vinson writing Necessary but not sufficient, 2nd pass revisited the theory of constraints (a concept he introduced me to a couple of years ago – thanks Jack!). And the New York Times ran an article – Can you become a creature of new habits – about how our brains resist change.

The theory of constraints (ToC) assumes that, in order to improve, you must remove a constraint that limits performance relative to a goal. Often, the constraints are methods that are no longer effective. Four simple questions can identify the problem and what you need to do about ‘it’:

  1. What is the power of the technology?
  2. What limitation is being overcome?
  3. What old rules were followed because of (or are now causing) the limitation?
  4. What new rules need to be created?

A few SharePoint projects would benefit from this approach, along with ideas involving a 2.0 label 🙂 Here are the 4 questions again, using a (simple) example of adopting social media tools – wikis, blogs, social networking and news feeds:

1. What is the power of the technology?

Discover and benefit from expertise within (and beyond) the organisation; Become more responsive to feedback from customers, suppliers, partners and employees; Engage a community and create better products

2. What limitation is being overcome?

Our organisation chart does not reflect our expertise; Our customers use Internet tools that have enabled them to become more informed about our market and business than our employees; We are slow to respond to feedback and our last product missed market expectations

3. What old rules were followed because of (or are now causing) the limitation?

Rigid management hierarchy for product planning; Controls limiting access to the Internet (preventing access to news feeds and social networking sites); Approval required before publishing content or responding to web queries

4. What new rules need to be created?

Flatter organisation structure for decision-making; Encourage honest feedback; Open access to Internet tools to track customer, market and competitor intelligence; Policy for writing and responding to blogs and other social media

When I talk with organizations about the benefits of social media tools, questions 3 and 4 are either ignored (even actively avoided – “Not our problem, we’re just doing the IT bit”) or embraced a little too literally – nuke the old ways and force people to work completely differently. Both approaches will likely create problems.

And that leads on the the New York Times article. According to brain researchers, once we’ve developed habits, they are permanently ingrained in our heads. (It’s easy to forgive, hard to forget.) Trying to kill them off is pointless. Instead, we develop new habits that simply work with and/or bypass the old ways. Perhaps a similar approach needs to be taken when introducing new ways of working with information, given people are usually still involved somewhere in the process.

To demonstrate, here’s another (simple) example: Using SharePoint to replace traditional file shares. Popular with organisations who need to implement some form of information life cycle management (e.g. version controls, metadata to classify content). This can’t be done on file shares but it can with SharePoint. The implementation plan often involves banning people from saving documents on file shares and forcing them to use SharePoint instead. It’s a painful and disruptive process, first impressions usually go along the lines ‘I hate SharePoint’. Not a great start for a new system. And it doesn’t have to be that way. The most successful switch from file shares to SharePoint I have witnessed was from inside Microsoft. Because there never was any official switch. People discovered it was easier to manage and share stuff in SharePoint and naturally gravitated – the new habits didn’t kill the old ways over night, they worked in parallel with and bypassed them to the point the old ways became ineffective, redundant and no longer needed.

Back to our social media example. I’ve used this reference before, taken from the New York Times (free subscription required to access) – Here’s an idea: Let everyone have ideas. Rite-Solutions introduced an internal stock market that allows all employees to submit and vote on new ideas. The limitation they recognized:

“At most companies, especially technology companies, the most brilliant insights tend to come from people other than senior management. So we created a marketplace to harvest collective genius.”

The technology to do this is easy enough to implement. But it only works if you address questions 3 and 4 from ToC. In this example, Rite-Solutions didn’t nuke their management hierarchy and create a free-for-all. Somebody still needed to make the decision. The difference was that management had to learn to accept the evidence supporting a product idea, even if they themselves did not believe in its potential:

One of the earliest stocks (ticker symbol: VIEW) was a proposal to apply three-dimensional visualization technology, akin to video games, to help sailors and domestic-security personnel practice making decisions in emergency situations. Initially, [CEO] Mr. Marino was unenthusiastic about the idea — “I’m not a joystick jockey” — but support among employees was overwhelming. Today, that product line, called Rite-View, accounts for 30 percent of total sales.

It takes a lot of humility for management to acknowledge they are not always right (and no longer have to be). In this example, the old ways remain – there is still a management hierarchy – but it now bases its decisions on evidence gathered in new, far more democratic, ways.

Open versus closed disasters

The news coming in about the cyclone in Burma is terrible, with reports that the number of lives lost is likely to exceed 100,000. BBC News has coverage and links. David Weinberger has posted that donations may get to those who need them quicker if sent through International Burmese Monks Organization. See Donate to Burma.

What’s weird from an information and context perspective is how remote this disaster feels, compared to other events such as the Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina and Sept 11th. (A similar effect happend with the earthquake in Pakistan.) Is that because Burma is such a closed society, meaning there are very few first-hand on-the-spot-as-it-happens pictures and videos? Research has proven that people connect more when shown a specific story rather than massive (no matter how scary) statistics. The tsunami also occured in a region with strict controls. Perhaps having a tourist spot complete with Westerners and their camcorders helped.

If one good thing comes out of this disaster, maybe it can show the benefits of having open rather than closed societies. Let’s hope the Burmese military and government relax their grip and allow outsiders to help. Sad to write, the reports are not optimistic.

Zillionics change perspective


Interesting article – ‘Zillionics‘ by Kevin Kelly. Well worth a read if you are interested in long tails, social networks and wondering where digital information technology is leading us to. Here’s a soundbite:

More is different.

When you reach the giga, peta, and exa orders of quantities, strange new powers emerge. You can do things at these scales that would have been impossible before… At the same time, the skills needed to manage zillionics are daunting…

Zillionics is a new realm, and our new home. The scale of so many moving parts require new tools, new mathematics, new mind shifts.

It’s a short and thought provoking article.

And on the same subject, a longer article from Wired: ‘The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete‘ by Chris Anderson. Hmmm…. we’ll see about that 😉

Header image: World in dots (iStockphoto, not for re-use)

Author Naivety

It’s not just management who make false assumptions about emerging trends (see previous post: Web Naivety). The latest gem comes from the Chair of the Society of Authors – Internet book piracy will drive authors to stop writing (source: The Times, London)

Book piracy on the internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales

There is at least one fair point made. Authors of cookery books are suffering because people now get recipes over the Internet and don’t buy cookery books unless promoted by celebrities (Gordon Ramsey, Nigella and co are doing fine with their book sales). It’s a fair point but tough. We don’t have as many farriers working today since the car replaced the horse. We do have car mechanics…

Will authors stop writing? I don’t think so. Thanks to blogs, wikis and self-publishing web sites, more books are being published and purchased than ever. Including books where the entire content is available online for free. Some books start out life on the Internet, such as The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. There is plenty of opportunity for good authors who write original content. Back to the article in The Times:

“It’s hitting hardest the writers who write books that you dip in and out of: poetry, cookbooks, travel guides, short stories – books where you don’t have to read the whole thing.¨

That’s because that content is being created (often better) and published for free online. I’d disagree about the travel guides. Having one in your pocket still comes more in handy than relying on the battery life of your mobile phone or PDA. If your work involves doing something that is either no longer needed or can easily be done better and cheaper somewhere else, find a new job. Farriers don’t get compensated because there are fewer horses to shoe.

Reading through the comments on TechCrunch, somebody made a far more relevant point:

¨the only concern i have is true intellectual theft…that is, someone stealing my script or novels and calling it their own then selling it for their own gain.¨

Now that’s a valid concern. There are a bunch of web sites that duplicate content from blogs and not all of them include links or even references to the original source. The sooner you make your content available with your name stamped all over it, the harder it is for someone else to copy it and claim it as their own. My only blogging regret so far is not watermarking the image I created for an early post – What does Web 2.0 mean? That image has since been re-used all over the Internet, and even published in print magazines, rarely with any mention of its source. I love the fact that it is being copied, I just wish I’d got my web site URL embedded in it.

A Vision of Students Today

The title is that of a YouTube video shown during a session at the Microsoft SharePoint conference last week. It caused some amusement in the audience (you’ll understand why if you watch it). Perhaps the best quote:

¨When I graduate I will probably get a job that doesn’t exist today¨

I don’t agree with all the sentiments within the video but it does a great job of demonstrating just how out of sync our education processes are with the changes going on in the world, both in business and society. The writing is, literally, on the wall.

Technorati tags: Education and Technology

What comes next?

If I had to attempt foresight, my guess is that the ultimate change this time around will be a shift from local to global politics. Whilst the Internet has created a flattened world in many respects, politics is still a local affair. But there are issues on everyone’s agenda that pay no respect to national borders  Read More

How to lose your brand

Blogging is a bit thin at the moment due to other commitments taking priority, but just read a post that has to be passed on – Companies Without Conversation.

When Hasbro/Mattel hit the news a couple of days ago for trying to kill a Facebook application that mimics the well known game Scrabble, I rolled my eyes in despair. Whilst I understand they have to be seen to protect a brand else risk losing it, you’d think there’s got to be at least one bright bunny in there who would have thought twice before using the traditional route.

Companies Without Conversation is a brilliant blog post describing what Hasbro/Mattel did wrong and what they should have done, along with a couple of other good examples too. Well worth reading. And the post manages to throw in my current favourite metaphor – Meatball Sundae.

Filed under: Changing Systems – Marketing

Same But Different

[Update: 28th Dec] Link updated as the author has moved the post.

Google has been in the news over the past couple of days, introducing a feature that has upset a few people by opening up their ‘shared’ news items to everyone in their contacts list (as opposed to them notifying selected users to view their shared items). Check out the following link for a quick overview (bit of an extreme and inaccurate title, but hey ho) – Google Reader shares private data, ruins Christmas. One of the comments highlighted within the post is interesting from a different perspective:

¨Please fix this and let us OPT IN to who we want to share with… Don’t make me leave my Google apps¨

If you are using Google services, you get the same set of applications regardless of whether its for personal or business use. Chances are, you will use those applications in different ways depending on context. But it easy to forget what context you are in when everything looks the same. This has happened before…

Back in the early 90s, I was a local area networking (LAN) newbie, starting out with Novell NetWare 2.2. At the time, my lucky users had Windows 3.1 on their desktops. (If you remember GPFs, you’ll know just how lucky they were.) The network server sat in the office and nobody ever dared touch it. It was different. Physically, it looked the same (because it was, from a hardware perspective – aside from a whopping double the RAM at 8Mb). But the monitor displayed gobbledygook that looked nothing like the software on their desktop PCs.

After a couple of years, a mandate from above and beyond (ours was a small satellite office, HQ was in a land far far away) resulted in a network migration to Windows NT. When I first started to learn about NT, I hated it. For one simple reason. It looked just like Windows on the desktop. I could no longer risk leaving the server in the office. If someone was stuck with a GPF on their own computer, they might go and try using the network server, not realising it wasn’t just another desktop PC. If there was a problem with the network and I wasn’t around, the more ambitious users would have a go at fixing it. It looked similar to their desktop PC – the icons looked familiar – and they often figured the same trick of doing a reboot ought to sort it out… Thank goodness nobody had mobile phones back then, I could carry on at college blissfully unaware and sort out the mess the next morning. When the Finance Dept had enough of not being able to access accounts because somebody had crashed the network again, we converted a kitchen area over the weekend and, from that day forward, servers have been kept locked up in server rooms.

The Google-gate that has occurred over Christmas (and ditto for Beacon-gate that Facebook caused earlier this month) is history repeating itself. The challenge this time around is that business is being mixed with pleasure, providing plenty of opportunities for trouble and strife.

Google introduced a new feature to its Google Reader service – connecting Google Reader with Gmail. Anybody who had chosen to share items in Google Reader discovered that the items were now being shared with everyone in their Gmail contacts list. People have been upset because their Gmail contacts list contains a mix of contacts – friends, family, business, occasional communications etc. They are the same, but different. People didn’t consider ‘share’ to mean ‘share with everyone’.

Any software company that produces tools to be used in different contexts needs to be sensitive to the differences. And we. as users of those tools, need to be equally sensitive to the similarities. When you decide to ‘share’ something, it is no longer private. Yes, you ought to be able to opt in/out of new features when they are introduced. But web-based services make beta testers out of us all. Like it or not, you can’t choose to wait for service pack 3 to avoid unexpected outcomes. And if you use the same tool for both business and pleasure, be prepared for the two to mix…

*GPF = General Protection Fault, a regular occurrence in Windows 3.1 that would freeze the machine (this was back when there was no multi-tasking – if your computer was printing, you couldn’t even play Solitaire whilst you waited)

On castles and copyright

A completely unrelated follow-up to Copyright Castles and Creative Tactics. (Read that post if you want on-topic, this one is strictly off-topic.)

I just found out that one of my local castles (Kenilworth) was given by Elizabeth I to Robert Dudley. I knew he was the Earl of Leicester, didn’t realise he lurked about Warwickshire. I wonder what the inhabitants of Warwick (the other local castle) thought at the time. You live and learn…

…oh the joys of Wikipedia. Just found out he’s even buried here. Might go and have a mooch at the church.

….and turns out his brother was the Earl of Warwick… guess that kept neighbourly disputes in the family.

A sign of the times. I wonder what would happen if Liz mk II started giving away castles today… try declaring that on your tax return 🙂