More on networks vs hierarchies


Creating a hierarchy based on total scores and overall ‘influence’ risks lowering the value of a social network because total contributions do not mean every individual contribution is a good one

An example to follow on from a recent post: Social networks do not need a hierarchy.

A lot of social networking tools are focusing on the use of scores, badges and ‘gamification’ to encourage participation and highlight the key players, the ‘influencers’. Personally, I’m not a fan. I’m all for awards representing a significant achievement. But becoming mayor of the local train station simply by ‘checking in’ more times than anyone else is not on my list of priorities. However I have to accept the evidence. Simple games and badges work in certain scenarios – they increase participation compared to similar systems without them. But as Steve Jobs once said:

Incentive structures work so be careful what you incentivise people to do. Because it can create all sorts of unintended consequences.

The following picture shows the points and status for two people who have responded to a question on a Microsoft technology forum. At first blush, who is likely to be the authoritative source?


Yes, the one on the left is me. Or rather, my SharePoint clone. I haven’t participated regularly on a tech forum since the 90s. If I had taken the screenshot a few minutes sooner, I had a far more impressive null point (say it in a fake French accent and think of Eurovision). It seems I’ve been awarded 5 points for answering a question. On the right is another Microsoft partner who is also an MVP – that’s a Microsoft Most Valued Professional, an award given for contributions within the Microsoft community. And he has a tub-thumping 5,645 points.

So who’s answer would you trust the most based on this information? It’s OK, I’m not offended. I wouldn’t pick me either on this basis. Naturally, that’s the point of this post…

The question being answered was to do with enterprise search. I answered the question in its entirety. 7 steps that could be easily followed. The other partner added a general comment and a link to his blog post related to the topic but not answering the specific question. It provided no extra information but will have given him some more points and link love for his web site to boot. And why wouldn’t he, that’s what people are being incentivised to do. (Side note: I’ve greyed out the identity because the person involved is very knowledgeable about SharePoint and his MVP status is well deserved.)

I have a strong technical background in enterprise search and SharePoint. But that was quite some time ago. Even if I’d been given a big badge for it at the time, it wouldn’t matter now. Because the search functionality has changed dramatically over the various version releases and plenty of others have since caught up with my knowledge and surpassed it. The only reason I decided to answer a question in a technical forum for the first time in over a decade is because the person’s question had turned up in a search result. I was checking some information, saw the question was nearly identical to what I was checking and that it had gone unanswered for over a week. So I decided to respond. Likelihood of answering another one in the near future? Not high. And the world will (hopefully) keep orbiting the sun.

All a social network needs is a mechanism for connecting people with knowledge to people with questions. In short, it just needs a damn good search engine. This is why Flickr is such a brilliant example. You don’t search through photographs based on the points awarded to people based on their contributions. Not unless you are a fan following a celebrity photographer. Search and tags help you find the type of picture you are looking for. We are insanely good at judging whether or not what we are looking at is what we need. If not, move on.

Will that stop us from using badges and points in social networks and communities? Of course not. People are naturally competitive (whether we admit it or not) and crave recognition. Some are more easily satiated than others through simple rewards and manipulation. And when the network is owned by an organisation, there is value in discovering who are the most frequent contributors. Microsoft’s MVP programme is well run and those rewarded deserve the credit given for their ongoing commitment to Microsoft technologies. They donate a lot of time to help others. But displaying high scores on individual questions risks lowering the value of a network by focusing on the hierarchy of badges rather than the content. The better solutions are those that allow thumbs-up/down on an individual item basis. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a grand total of 405,421 ‘thumbs-up’. What might matter is that you’ve got 10 thumbs-up for the question I need answering compared to no more than 2 thumbs-up for everyone else who answered it.

The power and beauty of a social network is that each individual connection between two nodes can be as valuable as the next one. Introducing a hierarchy risks losing that equality and weakens the system.

Related blog posts

Flickr image: Badge collection by Drew McLellan. As with the original post, kindly shared and no badges or hierarchy required to discover it

Being human trumps technology

Human - Robot

One prediction that divides opinion is the coming technology ‘Singularity’ – the point where computing intelligence is predicted to surpass human intelligence. I’m not a fan of the prediction. Not least because we still don’t fully understand how the organic brain works. To compare with manufactured technology based on raw processing power, speed and storage capacity feels fundamentally flawed.

Such predictions show a tendency to diminish the importance and value of human traits. Do emotions have no role to play? What sort of world would that create?

This was highlighted in an article yesterday – Why new technologies could never replace great teaching:

I cannot think of one single occasion when someone has stopped me to recall fondly about an inspirational and influential piece of computer software. And yet I get letters from former students eulogising over a teacher who changed the direction of their lives and without whom they would not be in the position they are today. That is the result of trust, about a relationship between the teacher and the child.

Nearly 10 years ago, I attended an analyst conference where the following comment was made:

A well implemented Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can help increase sales by 6%. An experienced salesperson will outsell a novice by 40%. Ask a salesperson what features they want in a CRM and they will say, ‘help me sell more stuff’. Ask a manager, and they will come up with a long list of requirements to improve reporting. End result: less customer-facing time and fewer sales…

And yet still organisations will invest untold amounts of money to come up with a system to eliminate the need for people. Why the desire to devalue human abilities? Is it because some people are uncomfortable with the messy chaotic state that is human nature? Or a fear that perhaps luck plays a far bigger part in outcomes than we’d like to admit?

Whatever the reasons, the unpredictability of human emotions define what it is to be alive. Before trying to replicate the human brain, perhaps more technologists should first ask: why do we have a brain?

Back in 2005, I attended a lecture at the Royal Society titled ‘The Puppet Master: How the brain controls the body’, delivered by Professor Daniel Wolpert. The talk was focused on the following:

In the world of organic matter, what differentiates animals and plants? The ones with brains can move.

If the whole point of having a brain is to give us movement, is the predicted technological singularity missing the point? Because the focus seems not to be on making machines move. If anything, it’s to allow us to continue to exist without moving at all. Some progress.

The Puppet Master talk explored the role of our senses in helping make optimal decisions:

Movement is surrounded by uncertainty, noise, that affects and influences our senses. The criteria for making the best decision is not always obvious.

If noise influences and interrupts our senses, and our brains have to adapt to it in order to make optimal decisions about movement, why don’t our senses do a better job of filtering and reducing noise? It is probably because there are times when we need noise… Without it, parents probably wouldn’t wake up when the baby starts crying.

I love digital technology. It has democratised access to knowledge and helped flatten the world. As someone who does not have a trace of blue blood in their heritage, I consider that to be a wholly postive outcome. But it is important to also still appreciate what it is to be human. That there is value way beyond being able to process data.


Related post

Flickr image: ‘Human / Robot’ kindly shared by Emilie Ogez

Sounds to boost productivity

Background noise in open-plan offices can reduce productivity by as much as 66%!

Late last year, I delivered a talk for Ovum Group on Imagining the future Intranet. Looking at how interactions with Internet sites have changed thanks to social media and emerging trends such as touch and speech-enabled interfaces.

One of the closing observations was a look at physical issues that affect productivity. Specifically, the noise and interruptions of open-plan offices. I played a snippet from a TED Talk by Julian Treasure who noted that the noise in open-plan offices can reduce productivity by as much as 66%! And that the simplest trick to offset this loss was to put on a pair of headphones and play sounds from nature.

Fast-forward to last month and a visit to my GP who had a digital radio on his desk playing sounds from nature. I asked him about it and he was trying an experiment, to create a more relaxing consultation environment. He mentioned that it was a YouTube video, a one hour recording. And here it is. Sooo, having a stressful day? Noisy open-plan environment to cope with? Put on the headphones and press play…

[ba-youtubeflex videoid=”9CL77xgPyKM”]

Growing thicker skins

Shut Up!

At the start of the month came the news that a teacher was suspended over comments made on Facebook:

in which she said she felt like a “warden” overseeing “future criminals.”

Now, if you were the parent of a child attending her school, you might not be impressed with the comment. But before storming the school gates, perhaps pause for thought first. Did it warrant a suspension versus a warning about talking shop on Facebook and looking into what caused the comment?

Organisations continue to struggle with social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, whether it is using them as part of work or coping with their use outside of work.

And so do individuals. We are all going to have to develop thicker skins as our lives become increasingly transparent to others and our foibles get exposed to a much bigger audience than ever happened in the past.  But it goes both ways. More fool the HR department that bins a candidate because they did something stupid and posted it online in their youth. They should worry more about those with an opaque history.


The risk in eliminating risk


— Update: July 2013 —

Earlier this month there was a news article covering the deaths of two teenagers in a car accident. The cause? It is believed that they were driving dangerously fast in order to get home before a curfew. Missing the deadline would have led to a £100 fine. A lot of money for most students. The car had been fitted (optionally) with a tracking device intended to encourage safer driving. An ill-conceived idea leading to tragic unintended consequences: Insurance curfew blamed for fatal teenage car crash.

Whilst the theory was sound, life can be messy. Would anybody prefer a teenage driver to risk speeding to beat a curfew or risk staying put in a vulnerable location to avoid a fine or driving ban? Legislation to eliminate one risk created another, possibly worse, in its place.

— Original post: September 2010 —

Heard on the radio this morning and currently one of the headlines on the BBC News web site: New driver restrictions would save lives:

Newly qualified young drivers should be banned from night-time motoring and carrying passengers of a similar age, Cardiff University researchers say… “graduated driver licensing” for those aged 17-24 could save more than 200 lives and result in 1,700 fewer serious injuries each year.

The research in question is road accident data from 2000 to 2007 that suggests one in five new drivers crashes within the first six months. So the plan is to try and eliminate the range of conditions that led to the accidents? That’s just delaying taking responsibility for your actions.

Rather than attempting to ban youngsters from certain driving conditions, which would be both expensive and impossible to police, I’ve a better suggestion – advise parents to not pay for driving lessons or buy cars for their children. From my own informal observations, people who have to earn and save money to pay for their own driving lessons and to buy their own car (and then save for another six months to afford the insurance) will treat it with a lot more respect and will therefore be less likely to crash (the insurance premium alone will be a sufficient deterrent for most).

Trying to eliminate risk through legislation is, at best, an inefficient approach. And at worst, can make matters worse – the law of unintended consequences is particularly active in systems involving people. Cue link to information systems 🙂

When deploying intranets and collaborative web sites, the issue of security and permissions is always a challenge. Many organisations want to lock down access to everything, i.e. you can only access documents you have explicit permission to use. It’s a risk avoidance strategy. Research could probably justify it by showing you that one in five new employees leak data during their first six months… The more effective solution for that scenario would be to improve your recruitment process.

Whilst some information does need to be tightly controlled – particularly anything of a legal and/or sensitive nature involving personal information – it is usually a small percentage of an information system. Manage that percentage as an exception rather than the rule and don’t apply rigid security by default. In attempting to eliminate the risk of someone seeing something they shouldn’t you risk making it difficult for everyone to see everything they need. That is not a good outcome for a system that is supposed to improve productivity and collaboration.

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.

On being human and overreacting

One of the headlines on the BBC News web site this Sunday was “Foreign Office apologises for Pope ‘condom’ memo“.

It appears that a department within the Foreign Office held a brainstorming session to gather ideas for themes to promote during the papal visit due to take place in September this year. Evidently quite a few of the ideas were less than appropriate. But it wouldn’t have been much of a brainstorming session if all the ideas put on the table were sensible and obvious.

According to the BBC news web site, Foreign Secretary David Milliband ‘is said to have been “appalled” by the incident.’ I would have been more impressed if he had simply said he was disappointed with the people involved for being inappropriate, insensitive, insulting or just plain stupid. The junior civil servant responsible for the document has received an oral and written warning and ‘been put on other duties’. Was anything more than a few sharp words necessary?

Thanks to social media, we have more opportunities than ever before to witness stupidity in action. It’s called being human and is a theme Euan Semple shared in his talk ‘Being Human at Social Business Edge‘. It’s a great talk from start to end, but particularly relevant to this post is Euan sharing his own experiences of becoming a manager and the behaviour that emerged:

The reaction to a stupid brainstorming session shows how inhuman so many of our organisations are still trying to be.


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