Category Archives: Academic

When words are not enough

This is a simple plea for mixed teams and visual tools.

I once asked a friend if he dreamed in colour or black and white, and he said ‘neither, I dream in concepts’.   By contrast with both of us, many post-modernists  seem to believe that thought can only be verbal, but that way madness lies: The only validity of 1+1=2 is as a representation of words, and ‘one plus one equals two’ is a social construct.  Oh dear.

I challenge this doctrine that the Word is god.  When I want to work out how things relate to each other I find words are completely useless. They are are ok for communicating concepts (sometimes) but often I find them bad for uncovering concepts, and they are next to useless for working out how things relate to each other.

Years ago I learned a consultancy or counselling exercise whereby you or the client list(s) all the factors on 3x5s and the client organises them in groups on a table.  It is great for aggregating things together.

The house is a mess, the dog has fleas, the kids are in trouble for losing their home-work, and you’re broke because you’ve been buying lunch at work all month.

Write ’em on cards and put them all on the table along with everything else, and suddenly there’s the Eureka moment: the common thread is being short on time.  Deal with that and the other problems melt away.

But until you get the chance to move them around and play them off against each other, you think you’ve got dozens of impossible little problems, instead of one or two larger  ones.

There are many variations on this, and it’s used formally in a lot of project planning workshops for grouping activities into work-streams and blocking them out in time.

The pure gold in this approach is its value in working out the relationships between things.  You can do  on whiteboards, you can do it with cards, you can do it with post-its.  These days I am lazy, so I do it in PowerPoint or Visio. The point is that it’s a process, you won’t arrive at the finished diagram in five minutes, but the very activity of moving things around, like blobs in a lava lamp, will enable your thoughts to coalesce and clarify.

This isn’t just a post about tools, though. It’s saying that there are some conclusions you will never arrive at if you stick to words.  It helps to understand how your team think.  NLP divides thinkers up between the auditory, the visual and the kinesthetic.  I am increasingly doubtful about this, and find it more useful to place them within a venn diagram with circles for the numerate, the verbal and the visual.

Get one of each on your analysis team and so long as there’s no explosion, you will really be cooking with gas.  And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you get stuck on a problem, change  your tool.

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How will the corporation subvert Web 2.0?

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

It’s an exciting idea, the way that Web 2.0 will transform the world of work, making collaboration the norm by providing wikis, bosses opening up dialogues by posting blogs that are open for comments, replacing meetings with discussion boards.

But before we get to that nirvana, we will have to live with the worrying answers to the question ‘how will the corporation subvert Web 2.0’

In the long term the Luddites always lose. In the long term the organisations which embrace Web 2.o will over-take those which resist it, just as Amazon has flooded out the bookshops and iTunes and Spotify have all but destroyed the the record companies.

What worries me, is the nature of that embrace.

Web 2.0, briefly, comprises the tools and attitudes that enable me to blog and enable you to rate my post and comment on it.  It’s FaceBook and Twitter and citizen journalism and mash-ups and crowd-sourcing and ‘Here comes everybody’.  It’s MySpace instead of A&R  It’s Wikipedia instead of the Brittanica. It’s Twitter instead of… well… instead of no Twitter. Web 2.0, so we all thought, is a force for democracy and good.  It cuts out the parasitical middle-person, it empowers individuals and enables them to form groups and enables those groups to face down corporations and governments.  It puts artists directly in touch with their audience. It enables me to publish this and you to read it with no more cost than our time. It turns base metal into gold and chocolate into a slimming aid.

There are, it seems, two current views of what happens when Web 2.0 meets the Enterprise.  In the first view, Web 2.0 brings about innovative, hierarchically flat organisations where knowledge is freely shared, where anyone who comes up with a bright idea can get it aired and taken up, where discussion boards pwn meetings and where gatekeepers and barriers to innovation are no more.  Google is reported to be just such a place.  The other view is that Web 2.0 and the enterprise are oil and water:  executives and managers will resist Web 2.0 either because they don’t get it, because they think it is a distraction, or because they are just plain running scared.

But I am not convinced by either.  Web 2.0, combined with an internal search engine, are powerful surveillance tools.  Any well-governed Wiki will tell you exactly who made which changes when, and far more neatly than you can track the changes in Word.   You can capture Instant Messenger logs and run searches on them in a way which you cannot tape and search conversations by the water cooler.  Nobody minutes meetings any more, but a discussion forum can be there for as long and the server farm lasts and longer.

Web 2.0 facilitates networks and interactions, but it also makes them more visible, and therefore easier to track.  We already know that the web is destroying privacy.  These days it takes diligence, vigilance and consistency to hide in cyberspace.  It is hard not have your name published by other people when school mates tag you on photos in FaceBook.

So it is surprising that hierarchical organisations don’t espouse Web 2.0 tools more actively, and this supports the theory that this is because execs and managers just don’t get it.

As something of a Web 2.0 evangelist, that places me on the horns of a dilemma.  A trilemma, actually. Do I:

  1. promote Web 2.o tools because they empower people and democratise knowledge
  2. stop promoting Web 2.0 tools because they expose people by turning situations which they are used to considering private into permanent searchable records or
  3. use the argument that they can improve audit and accountability in order to get them into an organisation because they are just so flippin’ COOOL?

For some of the thinking that led me to this impasse see:
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom – Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta


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Did Web 2.0 bankrupt Iceland?

Not by itself, no.  But Web 2.0, in particular the data-mashups on the comparison websites, the blogosphere and the consumer discussion boards, made the banking crisis broader and deeper than it would otherwise have been.  Or so I have just concluded, though I’ve not heard anyone else saying this.

‘How so?’ you ask.

Every now and again you come across a piece of research so startling that you have to get up at 6 in the morning and blog about it.  OK, I appreciate it is slightly odd to be reading a Deutsche Bank Research paper in bed at 05:45 am but I find I study best in the mornings, ok?

So here it is.

In 3 years the percentage of people who shopped around for financial products went up from 15% to 55%.

Consumer Empowerment 2002-2005

Consumer Empowerment 2002-2005

This is good, yes?  We get better value for money and it’s an end to the miss-selling scandals of the 1980s and 1990s.  The consumer wins and Martin Lewis rules, right?

Right?

Ri-ight.  And I certainly do use comparison web-sites to shop around for financial services and utilities. But…

But presumably if you flip this around it means that during the middle three years of this decade the banks found they could no longer rely on inertia to sell 85% of their products for them.  And that, my chickadees, is an astonishing upheaval.  And I believe that the graph above  goes a long way towards telling us why the credit crunch (the consequences of which will outlast the lifespan of my pension) was so deep and so disturbingly global.

You see, this swing in consumer habits is astonishing. It is a tectonic shift in the financial services industry in its own right.  It’s huge.  And it tells us a lot about the pressures that the retail banks were under during the period leading up to the crisis last  year to create comparison-site winners.  No bloody wonder that when Northern Rock created that pernicous 125% mortgage the Coventry and HBOS followed suit.  They had to, or lose business.  And no wonder that a niche and specialist product – the self certified mortgage – ended up comprising almost half the mortgage market. The market over-heated when information became friction-free, the regulators didn’t stop the bankers and the bankers couldn’t stop themselves.

I won’t say that Martin Lewis made them do it, but I will say that bad business drives out good.  Putting it simply, the banks cut margins to the point where they couldn’t afford the products they sold us.   The chart above just puts numbers on the pressures they were under: in 2002 a bank or insurance company could, it seems, rely on 85% of its customers not to shop around for the best deal.  So it was relatively easy for it to sell us sustainable products that were not artificially competitive. And, yes, it could also miss-sell us inappropriate products; the force has a light side and a dark side after all.  But in three short years, by 2005, it seems that only 45% of it’s customers would buy the first product they’re offered.  As I said, I would love to know what that figure is now.

For a while, this unsustainable business put artificial pressure on the sustainable businesses. Look at the period from 2003 to 2006 in the chart below.  HBOS’s lending products were super-competitive, it was increasingly successful, and it left Lloyds TSB standing. But as we can see, early in 2007 the chickens tumbled home to roost.

LLoyds vs HBOS share movements 2002-2009

LLoyds vs HBOS share movements 2002-2009

(Unfortunately the Telegraph’s excellent free charting service does not let me plot a specific stock against its sector but HBOS tracked the sector and Lloyds didn’t).

And Iceland? Could Iceland’s banks have grown their foreign business in the way that’s charted below without individuals and organisations overseas shopping around on-line?

Growth of Icelandic Financial Services 2001-2008

Growth of Icelandic Financial Services 2001-2008

I don’t know the answer to that question. It could be co-incidence; I have to admit that the paper I got the chart from argues against interventionism, but I needed to reference Iceland again to justify a cheap headline.  However, the chart above indicates that Iceland’s foreign assets and liabilities appear to have gone up six- or eight-fold between 2002 and 2005, and it seems implausible to me that Iceland could have got so much consumer business in that time without consumers responding to online reviews and advertising.

So – is this yet another case of my only love springing from my only hate?

Web 2.0 is immensely liberating.  It is amazing that we have so much access to so much competitive information.  It is great for us as individuals that we can protect ourselves from being ripped off by banks and utilities.  But there’s no two ways about it – Web 2.0 changed consumers’ financial services buying patterns in a way that amplified the competitive pressures on the retail banks, and that is the untold story of the credit crunch.

As my grandmother used to warn me: too much ice-cream is bad for you.


References:

Philip Bagus and David Howden (2009)
Iceland’s Banking Crisis: The Meltdown of an Interventionist Financial System

Stefan Heng, Thomas Meyer, Antje Stobbe (2007)
Implications of Web 2.0 for Financial Institutions: Be a Driver, Not a Passenger


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Book Review – Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

This very readable book has impeccable academic credentials:  Fraser and Dutta are on the faculty at INSEAD but they wear their scholarship lightly. They consider the effects of Web 2.0 on business and society, and their case studies include FaceBook’s patchy relationship with its users and their employers, the destruction of the music business by the internet, and the 2008 US presidential election. It’s comprehensive and accessible and has a superb bibliography, what more can you want?

Occasionally I disagreed with Fraser and Dutta’s arguments.  They use examples from medieval France and the Knights Templar to illustrate the fracturing of hierarchical power structures.  Now colour me cynical, but would they have done that if it weren’t for Dan Brown?

More seriously, they are naive about the height of the barriers of entry to online fame and pin a lot of the first section of the book on the unsupportable assumption that online fame is open to all. They talk breathlessly (well, breathlessly for academics) about Joe Nobody from Nowhere obtaining online fame. But that doesn’t mean it’s replicable: the fact that they cannot see how it happened doesn’t mean that there weren’t reasons for it happening.  I mean, haven’t they read Outliers?  Online fame doesn’t come for wishing as Sandi Thom’s publicists discovered.  Exactly the same astonishment was expressed about the working class rock heros of the 60s, but for every Lennon and McCartney there were …. well there weren’t any other Lennons and McCartneys.  Which is my point.

They are balanced in their reporting of Web 2.0 evangelists and Web 2.0 apostates. This makes a refreshing change.  In fact, they aren’t just balanced on the subject, they delve deeply into why and how corporate and governmental organisations resist Web 2.0.  This is the nub of the book, and no-one else is saying just these things in quite this way.  But even so, they are reluctant to admit that there are some serious Orwellian implications for all our futures.

So I am not sure why I’m not raving about it.  Perhaps because I like books that give me epiphanies.  This one was rich and informative but didn’t shift any of my paradigms. They close their arguments down in a rather authoritarian way, which doesn’t set the brain fizzing with ideas. It may just be that their usual ‘voice’ is  the de-personalised style of academia.  Don’t be dis-heartened by my faint praise: it is much better than I make it sound.

Definitely a must-read, though possibly in paperback, for anyone considering the role of Web 2.0 in any kind of organisation, or who has an interest in the recent history of the internet or in how technology affects individuals and society.   Worth it for the case studies and the bibliography alone – everything else is a bonus.

PS – I thought I’d reviewed Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – turns out I hadn’t. That’s easily remedied.


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Ask a silly question

Friendship WheelAsk a silly question’, my father used to say  ‘and you get a silly answer’.  I have one dataset at the moment which I am using for two different reports: the first is  an internal strategy report, and the second is the dissertation for my MSc. This not only demonstrates once again the power of the question to drive the discussion, it also demonstrates the different concerns of business and academia.

It’s like one of those irregular verbs:

  • I want to  know how my colleagues have used Web 2.0 tools over the past 18 months or so.
  • My boss wants to know if they’ve been used responsibly or if it has turned into a cross between FaceBook and the comment threads in You Tube.
  • My dissertation supervisor thinks I should explore the way that network groups cut across formal power structures outlined in organisational charts.

I’ll freely accept that my question is just too vague.  Answering my boss’s question has been simple but time consuming: select a sample and then click and look.  Repeat.  (Incidentally, it turns out that the tools have been used entirely responsibly, which shouldn’t really be a surprise.)

The interesting question of course, is the one that my dissertation supervisor is steering me towards: this is the one about how the spider’s web of contacts and favours works within organisations and how (or whether) Web 2.0 tools has supported them.  That will require some delicate questioning, and I’m not sure how to approach it.

So just now I am drowning in data, but until I’ve decided on my questions, I have no idea how to slice it and dice it or what answers I’ll find.

 

Handling the feed that bites you

These feeds that feed feeds that feed feeds are a dratted nuisance when you type something into one by mistake.

In one of the screen layouts you get with Plaxo, the update status field looks just like a search tool.  Ok, it says ‘update’ on the button, but who reads buttons?

Plaxo Screenshot

Plaxo Screenshot

The other morning I entered the acronym of a company name to find people I know who’ve worked there, and within a minute or so it updated Twitter, and from there it updated this blog and FaceBook where it picked up 4 comments in 5 minutes.

Now the thing is, that I know you cannot ever actually delete anything you tweet, and that Facebook keeps your 1s and 0s forever and beyond. I know how my feed-chain works because I set it up.  I’m doing my dissertation on the use of professional and social networking tools in the corporate environment and I am reading and thinking a lot about the the Mastercard style venn diagram which is the overlap between most people’s public and private spaces …

… and I STILL did it.

Lessons learned?

  1. Don’t click anything before the first cup of tea of the day
  2. FaceBook friends like surreal and cryptic posts

Salvadore Dali summed it up best I think, when he said:

Fish.

Shock news: Post-modernist says something interesting

George Orwell's 1984If communication is the key to knowledge work, then why do people communicate like this:

We present immaterial labour 2.0 as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

I had to stop and translate it word for word. Let’s assume that ‘immaterial labour 2.0’ means something: let’s call it ‘working with web 2.0 tools’. Ok, I’ve translated jargon into other jargon, but I do at least understand the second lot. So:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production … etc

I’m going to assume that ‘ambivalent modality’ means ‘a form that’s hard to pin down’. It may not, but let’s go with that for now:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both biopower and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down… etc

But what is ‘biopower’? Or ‘biopolitical production’?  It’s no surprise that a quick google uncovers Foucault. Wikipedia, bless it, says this:

Biopower was a term originally coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the practice of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

Ok… leaving aside that it’s defined as the increase in techniques and not the techniques themselves, we now have:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both the explosion of techniques for controlling people and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down, and … etc

The first and simplest definition of ‘biopolitical’ in Wikipedia is ‘the style of government that regulates populations through biopower (the application and impact of political power on all aspects of human life)’.

So this gives us:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control and subjugation of people by governments and other bodies that is hard to pin down, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

Actually that’s interesting!. Web 2.0 tools aren’t nice and friendly; they are the very stuff of Orwellian supervision? Mmmm.  Much the conclusion of Wiki vs Word (my previous post): the main differences is the audit trail which is the very stuff of accountability.  But why use the word ‘exemplar’ when you could say ‘example’?

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control that is hard to pin down, and as an example of the sea change in how we use popular culture, media, and information and communication technology and how they affect us.

In other words: Big Brother is LinkedIn

No kidding. This is moderately interesting, expecially in the context of the work-place.  It has also taken me 45  minutes to translate a single paragraph and, of course, other meanings can be constructed.

Am I going to read the whole thing? Maybe I will, now I know what it’s about. But why write like that? It’s off-putting and it hides stuff which, on this occasion at any rate, is really interesting.

Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth:

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0:
MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

PS – I still have no idea what the verb ‘to immaterial’ means.


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