Category Archives: internet

Fashion 2.0

I have just spent far, Far, FAR too much time footling around designing dresses at http://www.styleshake.com. It’s a site where you can design a dress, choose the fabric, and have it made up to your exact measurements give or take a centimeter. And all for ludicrously reasonable prices and delivery in 10 days1.

Style Shake

Style Shake

Let’s get the business-related observations done with before we lose the people who don’t like the eau de œstrogen wafting around this post.

First of all, what a bloody genius use of the internet; the perfect example of something that simply could not be done without the web. Even better: the site works well, which is more than can be said for most design-your-own-whatsit sites.  I do hope business model pays: I’m a bit of a seamstress myself and it’s hard to see how they could get the things cut and sewn for UK wages. I really want to see their production line. (I am such a process geek). I’m also intrigued by their design software which presumably drives their pattern-cutting software in a reverse of the wire-frame-to-rendering process used by the computer graphics and special effects industry.

I am fascinated by just how varied the end results can be given a limited range of design elements (fabric colour, shape of the neckline, length of the skirt, etc).

Style Shake: Bold Bodycon Style Shake: Darling Daywear Style Shake: Office Edge Style Shake: Star Sensation Style Shake: Style Noir Style Shake: 1940s Allure Style Shake: Three in One

I guess it’s like lego, the real limit is your skill and imagination.  And boy have people done some interesting things with their limited pallet, as you can see from scrolling through their photographs and favourite designs.  Be careful though, there’s  some eye-watering fugliness in there too.

I guess it only goes to prove that StyleShake’s rather awesome software doesn’t make you Christian Dior any more than MS Project makes you a Project Manager or PowerPoint makes you good at communicating.

Have a go – you know you want to.


1 – Mind you, I’ve not had the chance to use the site yet – my first instinct was to blog, but come next payday … Back to post

What are Twitter thinking? #Twitter #stupid #phishing

I am SERIOUSLY unimpressed by Twitter.

I guess a lot of us have been sending out Direct Messages about having more satisfying sex for longer, and those of us with half a brain have been changing our passwords.

But this email from Twitter is unforgivable:

Twits at Twitter

Moronic email from Twitter

The text reads:

Hey there.

Due to concern that your account may have been compromised in a phishing attack that took place off-Twitter, your password was reset. Please create a new password by opening this link in your browser:
http://twitter.com/account/password_reset?email=etc,etc

This will reset your password.

This is stupid because it encourages people to trust unsolicited emails which ask them to click on a link.  Phishing emails in fact.  Yes, let’s train people to trust links in unsolicited emails which aren’t addressed to them personally. That would be cool.

Not.

This is in fact so blindingly moronic that I cannot bring myself to explain how blindingly moronic it is.  I don’t want to ruin my entire weekend with the rage I’d generate in myself.

Of course if I really want to get my point out there, I should tweet it.

Twisting in the hand

Watching Aleks Krotoski ‘s excellent programme about the Internet last night, I was struck by the one thing she didn’t say:

We make our technology, as we make our gods, in our own image.

She considered the use of social networking for good and for ill and the nuances there are summed up most neatly in the irregular verb:

  • I am an activist
  • You are a freedom fighter
  • He is a terrorist

Every technology extends the reach of the individual and the most chilling part of last night’s episode was her interview with an arrogant little shit who claimed to have generated the denial of service attacks which effectively closed Estonia in 2007.  So the real question about the internet is not ‘is it a force for good or ill?’  The question we should be asking is ‘are we grown up enough as a supposedly intelligent species to be trusted with it?’  When we look at the devastation we’ve caused with every other technology we’ve devised, the answer quite clearly is ‘no’. (Says me. In my blog. Which I will announce via Twitter. And repost on Facebook. Before turning up the central heating because it’s cold here today).

I was however intrigued by the implications of how the internet is changing the dynamics of political power.  20thC democracy is clearly a busted flush. In the UK no-one can be bothered to vote because individuals feel disenfranchised and powerless.  (Was Thatcher’s emasculation of the unions in the 1980s co-incidence, or did it cause this de-politicisation of the workers, I wonder).  And we’ve all come to realise the truth of the old anarchist saying ‘no matter who you vote for, the government will get in’. Now it’s been clearly shown that that means a bunch of trough-snorting, house-flipping, expenses-fiddling, family-funding, John-Lewis-shopping scheisters who seek to use parliamentary privilege to evade the short arm of the law.  No wonder no-one votes.  (Me, I’m composing the limerick with which I’ll spoil my paper in June).  In the US, the stakes and therefore the turnout were higher and Obama clearly gets the internet and used it successfully to reach the voters other media don’t reach.  Even so, the corruption and ritualised posturing of the American political process make the only possible reaction one of disgust.

… and breathe…

I ought to delete that little rant because Krotoski did not mention party politics or the entrenched political processes at all, and it’s irrelevant to this post.  Instead Krotoski looked at the shapes that are coalescing to form the new political power-bases.  I am genuinely interested in concepts like ‘the virtual homeland’ and ‘self-radicalisation’ and I find it intriguing that this language is only used in negative contexts.

The way that the Internet enables individuals to engage with the world around them and the power-structures above them is certainly subversive, but when we consider the scum that has risen to the top of the 20thC political processes (see above) is it actually bad that individuals are becoming more engaged and more informed?

Interesting times, eh.

Right.  Time for packing more books into boxes.  When I sell the house I am going to buy a Kindle. Or an iPad.  Or both.

Logical advice about wrestling pigs

The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said

Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.

This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way.  The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic.  Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks.  The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:

Logic is highly structured, it follows rules.  It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it.  The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1

When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.

Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.

These arguments are un-winnable.  If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are  not going to accept the validity of a logical argument.  And vice versa.

What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action.  At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais).  He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him.  Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.

Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:

The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.

No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic.  If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time.  Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.

As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.


1:  I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available.  It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way.  The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.

Back to post.

Web 2.0 – if you don’t join in are you really missing out?

Years ago there was a television programme on the BBC called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead? (I always took the hint, so I have no idea if it was any good). But the same is often said of the Internet.  For years I thought that the web was the coolest thing ever and would happily spend entire evenings schlepping around online, while non-internetty people said ‘you have too much time on your hands’ and ‘get a life’.  I took the view that there was loads of really interesting stuff you could only online and besides, I met a whole swathe of clever and talented people via the creative writing sites I hung out on.

Recently I’ve been considering the space between those views – is Web 2.0 life-transforming, or a zero sum game, or (whisper who dares) would we be better just switching off our PCs so we can do something less boring instead?  If you don’t join in, do you actually miss out?

Zero sum

Socially, I am no longer convinced we gain that much from social media. Here’s why.

Making friends

I’ve made a lot of  real flesh-and-blood, go-to-the-pub, dance-at-their-wedding friends on line (gain) but some of my previous friendships have lagged a bit because so much of my social life is brokered electronically (loss) so I don’t necessarily have more friends or better friends, just different friends.

Zero sum, for me anyway.

A window on the world

The web gives us access to places and people which is not limited by cost or mediated by the media:

I get a first hand global account of life in other parts of the world. It is unlikely that I will travel to small town America for instance. I get to hear the sort of trivial day to day stuff that I find fascinating.

Similarly:

Blogs tell me what it is like to be a bookish woman living in Idaho, or to live on a dairy farm in the mid-west, or to be raising a child in south London, or to be a mormon battling crippling burns, or to be a sex-worker.

While this is clearly a rewarding use of time, is it more rewarding than spending the same time reading books or being with friends?

Probably not.

Zero sum. People-watchers only.

Net Gains for niches

It clearly is possible to get real benefits from social media, but most of these are for people in niche circumstances.  For example:

Dealing with illness and taboos

Access to others in similar circumstances is a clear gain: no matter how obscure your illness or unusual your fetish you can find information and fellow travellers which you couldn’t get in any other way.

Could the time and effort spent on the internet give you equivalent benefits off-line? – Almost certainly not.

Net gain, if you are in a relatively rare situation.

Dealing with physical isolation

If you are housebound or physically isolated the internet’s a sanity-saver. And there are other forms of isolation:

For me, it’s communicating in English, amongst other things. This is something I can’t do where I live.

Could you use the time spent hanging around on-line communities to break down these sorts of isolation in any other way? Clearly not.

Net gain, depending on circumstances.

Being creative

Almost everyone likes to have their voice heard, and the internet gives everyone a platform.

It’s a curious bran tub full of frustrated artists, musicians, agit-prop bloggers and the like but it does seem that a lot of talent is being elevated by 2.0 into spheres they’d never have a chance with outside of it.

Could the time spent being creative on-line produce the same satisfaction if it was spent any other way? Well, you can join an writers’ club or do a creative writing course, but only You Tube is You Tube. So that’s a qualified no.

Net gain. Mainly for narcissists and hobbyists.

Feeding a news habit

The web gives you access to foreign, specialist and alternative news media:

People I know who rely on the MSM [Mainstream Media] and don’t use web 2.0 have a very different view of the world than I do. It’s scary, because I don’t think people realise how specific the MSM is in what it presents and how.

Can you keep as well informed with mainstream media? Well, maybe: I had a friend who did so using Teletext and TV news and the very occasional newspaper, but it is clearly quicker and easier online.

Before the internet I had to go to the library and borrow ‘alternative’ magazines, or read counter culture publications and newsletters to get a broader view of news. Or go to meetings and gatherings and talk to people directly more.

And of course now there is Twitter.

Net gain. News-junkies only.

Net gains in the mainstream

There are some situations where social media does make a difference in the mainstream.  But these are not life-transforming differences:

Keeping in touch

My guess is that more people in their 40s have dragged themselves online to keep an eye on what their kids are doing on Facebook than for any other single reason.  And it works the other way round:

I resisted Facebook for a long time, but joined as my family want to keep an eye on me and now I have a window into lots of other families’ lives, the stuff you couldn’t discover from tourist holidays.

This is the contentious one. Is socialising on Facebook better or worse or just different?  I suspect the answer is ‘all three’.

I succumbed to joining Facebook a couple of days ago BECAUSE my not-into-computers friends were using it to display all the photos / video of their newborn baby son. As they don’t use check or use email regularly I was feeling ostracised!

There’s also the alluring prospect that Facebook and Twitter’s frequent updates will make the Christmas Round Robin superfluous.

Net gain, but not necessarily a big one. Mainstream.

Summary

So there you have it.  I really should turn off my PC and do something more interesting instead.

Er…

Fancy going to the pub, then?


Thanks due to B’elana, Bright Blue Shorts, Christopher, coelacanth, Kea, lanzababy, and Mrs Zen for the quotations.

Interactive Mapping – too cool a tool?

Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why.  (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus

Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at spicynodes.org.

What am I talking about?  Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’.  But seductive though it is, it’s  not always the best way to present information.

The Good

This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject.  This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below.   It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.

A good example of the tool, used as a catalogue

This catalogue works well

It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame.  If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.

Solar System

Providing information on a familiar subject

The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:

Poetry Site

A poetic journey

It’s also been used with reasonable success to  deliver Haiku

I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.

The Bad

I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.

Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation.  This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything.  SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.

Spicy Nodes Home Page

Spicy Nodes own home page

Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do.  Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:

Migrating Sales Online

A bulleted list would be better

Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.

A-Z of Nations

A-Z But is this the best use of the space?

And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site.  It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.

Site Navigation

Site Navigation - high on gimmick and short on benefit

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way).  It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.

Study Notes

Teaching Aid

So where does that leave us?

Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.

Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.

And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.

I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.

Vilanelle - Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas's Villanelle - Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.


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The Business Analyst: Facilitator or Designer?

Craig challenged me on the role of the BA recently.  I said that Web 2.0 is something you can only understand in practice and he posted:

Having said that what do you say to the role of the professional Business analyst; the person who doesn’t use the system but makes many of the key decisions about what goes into it?

It’s a good question and one I’ve been mulling over since he asked it. For the sake of brevity I’m going to park the generic question ‘what is the role of the Business Analyst’ and the vexed issue of whether or not the user should be the primary arbiter of what goes into a system.

Users do know about user experience.  One of the things I like about Lean Interventions is that you go to the people enmeshed in using the process and get them to re-design it.  If a BA has a role in this, it’s as an educator about Lean principles and as a facilitator. The BA does not design the process, the people using the process do that.  I should probably also mention focus groups as a way of involving users in the design phase, but I can’t really comment since I’ve never worked in that way.

But users are rarely available. In my career to date the actual end user has rarely had a seat at the table because with web stuff the user is quite often outside the organisation.   The Business is frequently the proxy for the user, and the Business is sometimes the team sponsoring the system, but it can also be a programme team whose expertise is in change not the system they are changing.  Either way they are representing the user, which brings us back to the underlying question:

‘is it possible for the user to be represented by anyone else?’

After thinking about it for some days and toying with this post for several hours, I think the short answer to that one is: Not always, but that is what use cases 1 are for.’

So what to do about it?

I’ve mentioned focus groups, though I’ve not run any myself.  But let’s hear a shout out for prototypes and pilot studies here. Oh, the difference when you prototype a user journey! It’s like having a mystery shopper before the shop has opened. The great joy of a prototype is that the thing comes to life and suddenly everyone involved can have a go at being a user, and pilot implementations tell you where the weak spots are. This is closely linked to O’Reilly’s perpetual beta of course, and is also why Anything 2.0 is better than Anything 1.0.

Craig didn’t ask whether the BA could represent the user, he actually asked:

What do you say to the role of the professional Business Analyst?

I think my answer is that the BA should be a facilitator not a designer.  The facilitator enables the Business to produce a design that IT can use whereas a designer does that for them.  (Other operating models are available). It’s the BA’s job to use tools like use cases and prototypes to help the Business represent the user. That doesn’t mean the Business will do a good job of representing the user, but it’s a step closer than if the BA tries to do it. And even so, it’s a tad idealistic. At times the Business Analyst who’s a facilitator has to make calls that affect the design, but I think that’s something that we shouldn’t do by default.

As  you can see, Craig’s question gave me pause for a considerable amount of thought, a lot of it typed directly into this post and most of it cut straight  out again.  To pull it all together:

  • Organisations deliver user-aggressive or ineffective systems for a myriad of reasons which include
    • organisational culture during the design stage resulting in a lack of user representation
    • pressures of time and cost
      which frequently result in
    • methodologies which lack rigour, in particular sloppy requirements definition and sign-off
  • Good design requires holistic systems thinking (that’s one for the buzzword bingo) which incorporates the user’s point of view
  • Only users are users, but tools like use cases, user journeys, prototyping and testing get you closer
  • Ideally, the BA’s role is as a facilitator rather than a designer
  • The local challenge is whether you
    • go directly to the user (eg a Lean Intervention)
    • allow the Business to act as a proxy (so much of my life to date)
    • use a prototype, or focus group or pilot study (love those)

I’m quite surprised Web 2.0 evangelists aren’t yet hypothesising Open Source Organisation Design which would be well wiki’d.

(Boom boom).

O’Reilly says ‘Users must be treated as co-developers’ which takes open source software build on into open source software design. If he or anyone else has taken this idea into the realms of open source organisation design and I’ve missed it, please drop a link in the comments.


1 – a Use Case is – for want of a better term – a scenario: ‘A white horse walks into a bar’; ‘A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre’; ‘Writing a blog, (what’s that all about)’. A use case can be large: ‘Government bails out banks’ or small ‘Customer buys a bottle of milk’.  If you want a less flippant definition, here’s the one from Wikipedia. But much better to go back to post


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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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Separated by a common language

We are used to language and geography indicating cultural differences, and it’s easy to forget that cultural differences exist just fine even when linguistic and geographical boundaries are removed.  There’s a shock of surprise when people whose entirely understandable words are only a click away turn out to have different assumptions, different beliefs, different attitudes and different cultural references.

One of the things that’s still cool about the web is that it gives us un-mediated access to other people.  Quite literally so.  It lets us find other people’s words without filtering them through TV or Film or News or any other medium.  Simply clicking around WordPress here gives me access to all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of beliefs. But because they write in English, it’s all to easy for me to assume that we have far more in common than in fact we do.  It’s only when I read what they have say that I realise that one of us is barking. The apparent transparency of the internet shows us just how culturally fractured the English-speaking world actually is, but we have to be paying attention to notice it.

The Son of Roj Blake commented on how easy it is for cultural references to just whizz past in his remarks about the opening credits of The Watchmen:

how many 18 year olds (or anyone, for that matter) would recognise or be able to explain the significance of (in order):
– the Enola Gay at 0:51
– the subversion of an iconic photo from Times Square at 1:11 (in our universe, that nurse was kissed by a sailor, and the photo made the cover of Time magazine. You can see the sailor in the background…)
– would they know who the guy shaking Dr. Manhattan’s hand at 2:28 is? Would they recognise his wife on the left?…

He’s right: those references are accessible and inaccessible at the same time. They are accessible because it is a globally released English-language film and they are inaccessible because they are culturally specific to one nation and one generation. I finally understand the point that George Bernard Shaw was making when he said: ‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’.

This separation is invidious because we don’t expect it.  We try harder when there are linguistic barriers because we actively expect differences in attitudes and beliefs and cultural references and we cut some slack accordingly or make an effort to bridge the gap.  As Obelix says so often in the Asterix books:

These Germans / British / Spanish / Romans are crazy…

Take those linguistic barriers away and all sorts of odd things happen.  We can miss cultural references without even knowing we are missing them as SoRB observed with the Watchmen trailer. But we assume a greater similarity than there is, which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin seemed unreal to Britons, like some kind of bizzare caricature.  She was almost impossible for us to understand: we had no concrete cultural references for her. If her foreignness had been signalled by a foreign language we might have recognised the cultural differences for what they were.  We would have realised that she was real and not some engineered cross between Barbie and Lara Croft.

As with so many things, Douglas Adams put his finger deftly on it when he described that instantaneous and universal translator the Babel fish:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

I’m still thinking this whole thing through, but the long and the short of it is that the world is a whole lot more multi-faceted and culturally fractured than we think.  The internet appears to break down barriers and boundaries, but in fact as any comments thread on YouTube shows us those barriers and boundaries are alive and well.


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Selling collaboration services within an organisation

Selling collaboration services and development services within an organization? – Art Gelwicks recently posted this as a question in the SharePoint Users Group on LinkedIn, and I found myself writing more than would fit in a discussion forum. So here it is.

Are you selling ‘bottom up’ by putting SharePoint out there and letting people use it spontaneously, or are you selling ‘top down’ by finding a sponsor with a requirement and using SharePoint to fulfil it?

There are pros and cons to both. The keys to working out these pros and cons for your organisation are

  • culture
  • use cases and
  • champions

Culture

How your organisation takes to SharePoint depends in part on the culture. Some cultures are enthusiastic about collaboration tools like Instant Messaging, Live Meeting and SharePoint, and others see these sorts of tools as time-wasters. Here’s how to work out which one yours is.

Goffee and Jones do a great 2×2 for the culture of an organisation. They say that the glue that enables a team (department, company) to work together is either sociability or solidarity; organisations with high sociability scores are ‘networked’ and organisations with high solidarity scores are ‘mercenary’. There’s more to it than that, their book is very readable and includes diagnostic tools.

I have seen people in departments where the glue has been sociability take well to the collaborative features of SharePoint like discussion forums, alerts, review workflows and MySites. I’ve not tested this, but if your organisation is networked (and read Goffee and Jones to decide if it is) then a bottom up approach would probably work well. Look out to see whether the people are already comfortable with tools like Instant Messaging and LiveMeeting, whether they are active on Twitter, LinkedIn and FaceBook, and whether Monday mornings start with a chat about the weekend. This isn’t about people who are early adopters of technology, it’s about people who like technology because it is a social and work enabler.

By contrast I have seen people in ‘mercenary’ organisations who are so busily focussed on deliver-deliver-deliver that they don’t have time to ‘waste’ learning how to use a new tool like SharePoint. In an organisation that’s mercenary (again read Goffee and Jones – they mean it in a particular way) you need a sponsor and a project. Work out what your sponsor’s driver is and fulfil it. They may want to cut down storage costs, or improve a specific set of working practices, or control the published versions of training material.

Find a sponsor with a specific need and fulfil that need.

Rinse and repeat.

This brings us on to:

Use Cases

One of the problems with SharePoint is that it’s a swiss army knife of a tool – useful for such a large number of things that it’s hard to stay focused on just one or two. In a ‘mercenary’ organisation the problem is handled for you – your sponsor has a specific task and you focus on that. The challenge is in the ‘networked’ organisations where everyone who comes across SharePoint wants to play with it all, now, as soon as possible, shiny, shiny, new, cool.

Rolling out the whole of SharePoint across the whole of the organisation is a distraction for them and a management nightmare for you. You need to identify a single use-case, but it is much harder because there isn’t a single obvious business requirement and there may not be a single sponsor. Worse, you may have a sponsor who has a vague vision like ‘collaboration’ or an unrealistic one like ‘getting everyone to use their My Site like an internal FaceBook profile’.

If you are going bottom-up you need to roll out solutions to one or a maximum of two use-cases at a time. To find out which one, put together a survey and ask what stops people collaborating well right now. Word it terms of how they work, not in terms of the SharePoint features so:

  • full mail-boxes – not – emailing urls
  • ‘shared’ drives you can’t share – not –local control of permissions
  • documents you don’t know are out of date – not – control over the full document life-cycle
  • keeping track of document sign-offs – not – workflows

Pick one of the popular ones, create a simple solution, and run with it.

Let’s read that again.

Pick one. Not a couple because they’re similar. Not three or four because Internal Communications want them (that’s your sponsor-and-project scenario and a very nice place it is to be too). Not two or three variants to cover all the bases. Just one.

Create a simple solution. Yes, there are half a dozen different ways to build and display a discussion forum in SharePoint. If you can’t tell which one works best, then put together one that works well and stick to it.

Then run with it. Get it out there. Get it used. Get comments and feedback. Improve it.

Only then move on to the next one. Bite size chunks. Could be as close to a month apart, but bite size chunks for you and your users.

The subtext here is simplicity. Turn off the ability to make subsites, remove most of the templates, switch off the themes. Lock it down. Shut it down. SharePoint is a casket of magical delights. You can always open a lid you’ve kept shut, but it is much harder to shut down a lid on something you’ve left open. SharePoint baffles new users and new organisations with choice. Lead them step by step through those choices.

And finally:

Champions

People like SharePoint. They really like SharePoint. Not everyone, but enough.

These people who like SharePoint are your friends. They are natural evangelists, experimenters and testers. They’ll pester you for the features that you’ve turned off, and they’ll come up with workarounds that’ll have you blessing and cursing them by turns. But they’ll promote it and provide free consultancy to their co-workers and come up with solutions to problems you didn’t know existed.

Really work your champions. Create a user forum and refuse to answer questions unless they are posted there. You’ll feel very prissy, but your Champions will gravitate there and get to know each other and do half your support work for you. Invite them to do in-house webinars on cool things in SharePoint, (20 minutes demo, 10 minutes Q&A). Create a SharePoint community of pratice with these people at its core. Take their advice on how to move your service forward.

So, how to sell collaboration services?

They key is asking the right question; in this case not ‘how do you roll-out SharePoint’ but ‘what does your organisation want to use SharePoint for?’

Oh, and bite size chunks.

Always bite size chunks.


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