Category Archives: Tools

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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Include me out

It’s not always obvious how our tools can distort our methods.

A colleague who was co-ordinating a social event recently sent out an email asking us to say what kind of food we’d prefer by using the voting buttons in our reply.  The choices were Indian, Chinese, Italian, No Preference.   “Cool use of the tool” I thought.

It was only a few days later that another colleague said how disappointed she was that the most popular option was Indian, because she really doesn’t like Indian food.  (How can anyone not like Indian food? – But that’s another bemusement for another day).

It was then that I realised that what was needed was not voting buttons, but vetoing buttons, with the option for vetoing more than one choice.

I’d have made the same mistake, and it’s an interesting one.

Unexpectedly Delicious

Ok, I’m feeling naive now, because  I hadn’t realised what a great portal Delicious is and how easily it helps you tap into the NetGeist.  I am annoyed with myself about this, because I’ve used Delicious for over a year now.

So – what is Delicious?  It’s a site that makes it easy to manage your bookmarks and favourites so you are never more than a couple of clicks from any link that you might want to go back to.  Suddenly moving from PC to PC doesn’t matter because your bookmarks are always there, even if you are a hot desker at by day or an internet cafe user by night or just a browser tart like me.

What’s new for me is just how good Delicious is as a portal into the web. For the last 18 months or so my start page has been Google News, so no wonder my surfing’s been dreary:  I’ve read more of the Daily Mail than is good for anyone.  (How do they get to be the main link for a story so often?)  Delicious is a much cooler way to tap into the NetGeist.  My favourite Favourite is Fresh Bookmarks, but there are others.  Fresh Bookmarks shows you what’s been bookmarked recently and by how many people.  And this is part of the power of Delicious:  it’s an automatic ranking system based on self-interest rather than altruism, so it works.

You use tags to sort out your bookmarks, and the collective tagging within Delicious forms what is sometimes called a Folksonomy.  For a while I found it hard to find links which had been tagged using the tags I use for my own bookmarks, but in fact that’s easily done using the Subscriptions feature, which gives you more control than an automated feature would.

The other thing that I hadn’t realised is how easy it is to discover who’s got a specific page or site bookmarked, like this blog for instance. (And a special Shout Out to Simon, here.  Hey! Simon! I said it was cool!).  I keep track of myself on Google and Technorati of course, and I’ve found at least 4 other Ben Warsops on Facebook, but it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone thinks I’m Delicious.

I do give myself credit for realising that Delicous lets other people take a look at what you’ve bookmarked.  Feel free to take a look at my bookmarks: you’ll find them rather serious, because I mark recipes and shoes and pages about SatNavs private, but that’s because my account is in my own name.

In summary: Delicious – so much cooler than I thought.

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Make your passwords memorable but secure

This is apparently National ID Fraud Prevention Week, so my name is Bill Bartmann and welcome to my blog.

This is timely.  The recent publication of email passwords online has set many people busily changing passwords. But how often do we create passwords like October09 or BenWarsop1 even though we know we shouldn’t? And we compound the problem by using the same password everywhere, leaving all our accounts wide open whenever a website emails us a forgotten password in plain text with the subject line ‘password’.

I’ve been mulling over how to create passwords which you, but only you, can reverse engineer. The suggestions here aren’t best practice (I am not sure what is, these days) and an additonal option is to use a password manager. But you might find some of these approaches easy to use and more secure than what you are doing now.

We all know that passwords should be in a mix of upper and lower case with numbers and special characters, but too many people just tag a number on the end. A slightly more sophisticated alternative is to type in Leet. Leet (pronounced ‘elite’) looks like txtspk but 1s 1n f@ct ju5t sw@pp1ng letter5 with num6er5 in @ w@y th@t m0re or le55 keep5 th1ng5 legi6le. UK personal number plates tend to be in Leet.

But the challenge is more about mnemonics – devising an approach which you can remember but which is hard for others to predict. I have been playing with systems based on the name of the site or service. An example of such a system would be to assign the numbers 1-12 to the months of the year, and then count the number of letters in the site’s name. WordPress has 9 letters in it so the password would be September. There are several ways to write that in Leet, such as S3ptember. Better not to put the capital at the beginning: s3ptemBer. But what to do if the name has more than 12 letters in it? Simply do the numerologist’s trick and add the digits together so 14 becomes 5, or May.

If you don’t like months (and I don’t because I’ve just blogged about it) then other months are available. Counting rhymes are a good source of number systems. The 12 days of Christmas give us gives us nine ladies dancing, so WordPress would be ladies, or l@dIes if you write it in leet and capitalise the 3rd letter from the end. There are any number of counting rhymes like ‘One for Sorrow‘ or ‘Yan Tan Tetherer‘. There are other options: Use the 1966 England squad if you know it by heart. It’s all a matter of what you can remember without looking up.  But try to make the group not very obviously a group, which is why it is better to avoid things like the  signs of the zodiac. It is harder to spot the pattern in earnest and serve than it is to spot it in earth and saturn, so better to use one of the mnemonics for the planets and not the planets themseves.

Ten or twelve passwords isn’t that many, working with the letters in the site name gives you 26 potential passwords, for example by using the international call-sign alphabet. If you choose the first letter, WordPress would be Whisky or wh1Sky. But that’s a little obvious; if I know your WordPress password is wh1Sky it would be easy enough to guess your Yahoo one was y@nKee. It would be better to consistently choose a letter that’s not the first letter, say the third one, rendering WordPress as roM3o.

It is poor practice to have just one word in your password, so it’s better to combine the two approaches: r0M3os2ptemBer. Of course, some site somewhere will be n0vemBern0vemBer but hey.

As you can guess, I am not a fan of using the international call sign alphabet because it is so recognisable. If you have any other alphabets in your head, from reading books to your children perhaps, then better to go with them:

  • A was an apple pie
  • B bit it
  • C cut it
  • D dealt it
  • E eat (ate) it
  • F fought for it
  • G got it
  • H had it
  • I inspected it
  • J jumped for it
  • K kept it
  • L longed for it
  • M mourned for it
  • N nodded at it
  • O opened it
  • P peeped in it
  • Q quartered it
  • R ran for it
  • S stole it
  • T took it
  • U upset it
  • V viewed it
  • W wanted it
  • X, Y, Z, and ampersand
  • All wished for a piece in hand

Combining this with the 12 days of Christmas would give me ranladies for WordPress, or r@nl@dIes in leet with an internal capital.

Again, other alphabets are available.  For example, the cockney alphabet which goes ‘A fer ‘orses, B fer lamb, C for th’ighlanders’. It doesn’t need to be an alphabet, any long list will do if you count A for the first place, B for the second and so on. Are you a chemist? Use the periodic table. Do you know the Modern Major General off by heart? Or the Shipping Forecast? If you struggle mnemonics for letters then Derren Brown describes several mnemonics for letters and numbers.

The thing is to devise an approach and stick to it, so that the letter that you match is always the third letter of the site’s name, you always use the international call-signs. Or whatever. Then you can reverse engineer your password any time you need to.

The problem with this is that you should change your passwords frequently, but I am rather stumped for an approach to that. You could of course just retire the 12 days of Christmas at the end of the year and replace it with Green Grow the Rushes-O or anything else that is stuck in your mind and won’t go away.

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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:


When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail

To what extent do the tools we use shape how we think? If we habitually use a certain set of tools, do they prevent us thinking outside their very own box? For example, if I use PowerPoint or Word in Outline mode I can really only think in bullet points. So if I want to move concepts around and see how they relate to each other, then I need Visio or the drawing options in PowerPoint, or even post-its and a whiteboard.

Anyone who is paid to think should worry that the tools they use impose boundaries and blindspots on how they think.

Recently I’ve been using SharePoint a lot, and one of the features is the ability to create categories or assign property to your information. You probably use properties instinctively already. For example, if you want to find an email from a specific person you click on the top of the ‘From’ column and the senders’ names show in alphabetical order. Know it came last week? Date is another property: sort by date. SharePoint lets you do the same thing, but you can create your own columns (categories, properties … whatever).

I use SharePoint a lot and I help people define columns a lot. It’s got to the point where I spot categorised columns in places where SharePoint has never been:

Meat / Sauce / Carbs

Meat / Sauce / Carbs

Categorising information in this orderly way is now a habit. It is also something I am good at, since I am blessed with the ability to spot a category error at 60 feet.

Coffee Flats Cottages

I'll have a tall skinny loft apartment with roses above the door

But what worries me is whether this habit of defining top level categories imposes its own blind-spots. If everything I eat is “Meat / Sauce / Carbs” then how can I have ice-cream for desert?

These blind-spots don’t matter as much if you can get enough eyes to look at the problem. But you know and I know that you can spend all day in a workshop and come out with nothing but a biscuit-rush and a headache.

A good, nit-picking, sceptical colleague who’ll give your final documents a really good going-over is invaluable.

We also underestimate the value of sleeping on it: model it visually on Friday and then on Monday write it up in words.

Now I’ve written this post, and now that you are reading it, this all seems rather obvious. But when you’re under pressure to deliver it’s quicker to do the same-old same-old than it is to think outside the toolbox. And that’s ok if fast really is more important than right, which sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t.

So when was the last time you used a different tool and looked at a problem in a slightly different way?

Wiki vs Word

I had a colleague who banged on and on and ON about wiki-documentation. His point, and it’s a valid one, was that all IT systems documents should be wiki and anyone entitled to read a systems document should be entitled to update it.

He’s right of course, culture and software permitting:  it wasn’t revolutionary when he propounded it 4 years ago and it’s even more obvious now.

In fact we did this for years without the need for Web 2.0 platforms. Almost all corporate documentation is multi-authored and multi-layered.  Click File>Properties on any word document from your corporate intranet (the expenses claim form, the new starter’s induction pack, whatever), and you’ll find out when and where it was first written.  These documents are are like DNA code, with sentences left over from the Paleocene switched off and invisible but still tucked away in Track Changes, and with other bits added in fresh and shiny and new today.  I use a timesheet first put together in 1998, it’s fit for purpose, so it’s survived.

Two recent examples brought this into focus for me:

I’ve been working on help files which have been through three incarnations that I know of since they were written in 2006, and some of them were copied and pasted from elsewhere before we got hold of them. A phrase here from 2006, some bullets added in 2008, a shiny new screenshot now, and here you go.

Likewise the training material I’ve been reviewing today has edits from numerous other people and the properties file shows it originated outside both the company I work for and the company we bought it from, and a lot of the wording reads like sales brochures for the product in question – not hard to work out why.   (I should say here that I know the purchasing path, and this material has been re-used and changed entirely legally).

So the benefit of Wiki software is not that it allows us to steal and plagiarise (I mean ‘allows us to re-use existing intellectual capital’ of course).  We do that already without special tools.

No, the benefit of Wiki software is that it lets us track who’s added what.  It is certainly a benefit: it would be nice to know what fool messed up the formatting and lost me 5 hours of my life sorting it out.  But to some extent that’s just prurience: I’m as interested as anyone in checking back through the Wikipedia articles I’ve edited to see how they’ve developed since.  (You mean you don’t do that? You should!  It’s fascinating, in a bin-searching stalkery kind of way.)

Once the prurience is over, the only real benefits of actual wiki software are the ability to revert to a previous version at the touch of a button, and to hold people to account. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve served enough time in governance and business controls functions to know that these are real benefits.  But people have been stealing each others’ stuff – er – working collaboratively over time – for years already without Web 2.0 tools to help them.