Category Archives: Collaboration

It’s the Pace, Stupid!

Digitial Capital Week (#dcweek) is well underway in Washington and yesterday I attended a half day of sessions on the new media. During the morning panel on social networks and the new media with representatives of National Geographic, USATODAY, NPR, and Aviation Week (just too cool that Orville Wright was an original subscriber to the magazine),  the NPR rep noted how difficult it was for NPR’s small operation to keep up with the speed of change in technology. He cited specifically mobile apps and how NPR has chosen to support a limited range of apps because it simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up with all the technologies, particularly if they’re going to have to be updated several times a year.

OK, I thought, NPR seems to be assuming there is a certain pace to human events that is natural and well-ordered. Well who made NPR or any other company for that matter the judge of the best pace for human society, I snorted? (Politely, to myself.) No one of course; NPR was simply hoping for the continuation of a pace convenient to its structure. At that moment it became clear to me at least that the pace of normal human life, with digital and internet innovation as its new metronome, now overwhelms the structure of the great majority of organizations.

(I know I have a few readers outside the US, so I guess I should note that NPR stands for National Public Radio, although the NPR official at the panel said they now refer to themselves just as NPR to reflect the growing range of their activities, such as on the internet.  After listening to their news broadcasts and shows, I’m persuaded the acronym actually stands for National Pessimists Radio, but I digress…)

It’s commonplace to speak of the rate of change as being too fast for organizations but the phenomenon attains a different quality when we realize that it is the pace of normal life that now exceeds organizational capacity. Mobile apps are a great example of this. Many of these apps are being tweaked by gifted amateurs. (At the panel, NPR noted its first iPhone app was created by one of its avid listeners.) These individuals don’t think of these adjustments as change initiatives, the way industry or government would. Adjusting a feature often is not that much more significant for them than deciding to have lunch at 130 pm vice noon. WordPress, which hosts my blog–thank you, announces changes to its platform so frequently I hardly notice.

Legacy, 20th century organizations are designed for quite a different rhythm of life.  Any change in software code must be tested against the entire cascade of code lest some catastrophic consequences ensue. (For the person living to digital rhythm, you simply tackle these anomalies as they present themselves.) The assumption that implementation must wait until the system is completely tested dictates an operational rhythm with many, looong pauses. And of course, hierarchical and/or authoritative management philosophies always assume the process can be safely stopped for the management intervention that theoretically improves quality. For legacy organizations, pace and quality are to a certain degree in opposition to each other. In digital life, pace and quality are paired; quality occurs as a result of keeping up the pace.

I often saw this dynamic in my government career. Every change effort was attacked by the “first tell me how will the whole new system work” question.  And when we finally set off on a new change effort (Cue Angels and Trumpets), it took so long that by the implementation date we were already behind at least three technology cycles, even if we had been cutting edge at the decision point ten years earlier. The structure of government is particularly ill-suited to keeping up the pace. Just think of lengthy Congressional hearings and the marathon journey of legislation.

Organizations did not always lag the pace of normal human life. During the Industrial Revolution, factories powered by the new machines so accelerated the pace of life that many feared the human physiology would collapse under the pressure. As the British history section on the BBC website notes:

The Victorians had become addicted to speed and, like all speed crazy kids, they wanted to go ever faster. Time was money and efficiency became increasingly important…With greater speed came a greater need for industries and businesses to make more and make it quicker. Steam made this possible and changed working life forever. Gone were the days when work was dictated by natural forces: steam engines were servant to neither season nor sunshine.

An example of this I bet we’re all familiar with is this great scene from I Love Lucy, which is by the way the first I Love Lucy clip that pops up on YouTube. (For years I had a tshirt that read “Forget Lucy, I love Ethel” I loved that shirt so much I wore it to death, but I digress…)

But now the dynamic is completely reversed. Organizations hold the keys to very old machines and processes. But for most individuals under the age of 40, the digital pace is the natural pace. (Seems to me that the internet makes us dumb arguments of Nicholas Carr also have at their heart this unease with the new pace. Before I can take any of these arguments seriously, someone has to prove to me that there is some inherently desirable pace for human activity. Until then, I accept what is.)

This issue of pace also has implications for the John Hagel/John Seely Brown insight concerning how individuals and organizations today must learn to interact with knowledge flows rather than managing knowledge stocks. I believe organizations, just like Lucy and Ethel in the video, underestimate the pace at which the flow of knowledge will come at them. For sure they overestimate the ability of their existing structures to keep pace with that flow. And unlike Lucy and Ethel, it does you no good to eat the knowledge. I believe many of them will learn over time that the only way to keep pace will be to break down their organization walls and rely instead on their community of supporters. The NPR representative chuckled at the idea of someone outside the organization creating their first iPhone app but I think NPR would be able to support many more mobile apps if it embraced and developed this phenomenon into a new business model. Successful organizations of the future will share leadership responsibilities with their community of trusted supporters.)

(One last aside. While researching some references to the Industrial Revolution I ran across this very lovely piece about the pace of life in industrial countries on the BNET website. (It appears to have originally been published in the journal American Demographics.) The research looks to be about 15 years old but the piece has some great data and is also great fun to read. I think it would be a useful research project to update this work in light of the new digital culture.)

A Commercial Break

I’m going to be speaking at the Gov 2.0 Expo in D.C. at the end of May. My talk is the afternoon of 26 May. If any of you are interested in attending and haven’t registered yet, I’ve been given a code that purportedly provides you all a 40% discount on registration. Here it is:  gxp10sbx      In addition, early registration closes 5 May, this Wednesday. The message I received from the coordinator of the speakers doesn’t make clear whether the code applies on top of the early registration discount, but I guess no harm in trying.

My talk takes the principles of social networks and applies it to the work of high reliability/high risk organizations–you know, the ones who usually say their work is too difficult or too important to entrust to collaborative work practices. Like the one I used to work for. Of course, the argument is completely the reverse. Such silliness.

Twelve Stupid Things People Say about the Internet

I remember when I was a kid people  would always say that to find life elsewhere in the universe, we had to look for carbon, because life was carbon-based. And I remember thinking, probably as a 10-year old, well who says that all life has to be carbon-based? Can’t we imagine a different kind of life? And people would say, no, that’s wrong, except now it isn’t so wrong to think that way. And I thought the same thing about the chances of finding life in the deep, deep ocean. I bet we will find weird life down there, I thought to myself, because these arguments that life can’t survive the lack of light and the intense pressure, they’re based on our very limited experiential base. After all, in terms of how life works, our N = 1. It can’t be right to be so sure.

So when I read critiques of the new culture we may be creating using all this internet stuff and mobile devices and Twitter and all the other things certain people like to make fun of, my ear is always listening for these unproven and unjustified assumptions. For example, almost all these critics assume that the good is self-evident and that the internet is displacing a wonderful tradition of knowledge, wisdom. and contemplation, offering very little of substance in return.  Hmmm…I’m just not so sure about that, and I offer the following list of shaky assumptions that we should question fiercely and for which we should demand either evidential or logical proof

  1. Heavy internet users have short attention spans and lack mental discipline. This is just plain silly, if you ask me. When I get deep into researching a topic on the internet, I have a very long attention span. And if I am traveling across many different topics, how is that proof of anything other than a curious disposition?
  2. Digital life is shallow. Says who? By what standard? Compared to what? Going to the movies? Watching old I Love Lucy reruns? Reading a thick economic treatise? And in any case, digital life itself is neutral. It’s the person who is shallow or not, if indeed we want to use this rather elitist formulation.  Even in the old analog culture, I never bought the line that going to the symphony is somehow culturally more significant than catching Bonnie Raitt at Wolf Trap. (I have to say I’ve even been to a Donnie Osmond concert in my lifetime….or was it the Osmond Brothers…the synapses misfire.)
  3. Slow is better than fast. You often hear the digital culture beaten up for its quick answers or its provision of instant gratification. But independent of all other values, such as accuracy, fairness, completeness, etc, there is nothing inherently bad about fast. In fact, fast will always, all other things being equal, be more efficient.
  4. Always “on” is bad. Prove it. As our societies and economies have become more complex, there are significant costs to periods of non-sentience. We may want to go back to an era of slower pace and tempo, but we can’t wish our way there. My experience as a manager is that organizations work best when they sustain momentum; there’s a favorite saying among managers: if you want something to get done, assign it to the busiest person on your team. And I actually believe that for many crackberry addicts, being constantly aware of the status of projects or other activities is actually less stressful than not knowing what is going on.
  5. Work based on reflection is better than immediate reactions. This is actually the ultimate argument of individuals who criticize the internet culture for being too fast or too persistent. And I think you have to admit that reflection has many advantages. Let’s unpack them. Reflection usually contributes to completeness and, in most cases, to accuracy. But reflection is at best neutral in terms of creativity; many argue for example that the best way to be creative is to generate as many ideas as possible without stopping to be judgmental. And there are certainly opportunity costs associated with reflection. As a CIA manager, I was always aware that one never had a monopoly on good ideas.  The longer you wait to propose a new way of looking at a problem, the greater the chance that some other entity will beat you to it. (Whether knowledge work should be competitive in the first place–now that’s another question.)
  6. Formal work is better than casual work. By formal, people usually mean work that has gone through some recognized quality control or expert process. Writing in a hurry is just not as elegant and good, goes the argument, as a carefully constructed essay. The arguments used in discussing reflection apply here as well. There are certain situations where formal work is obviously appropriate, but they are not as numerous as the critics would have you believe. And informality has many advantages in addition to immediacy. For example authenticity, directness, and, often, honesty.
  7. Correct spelling and grammar is essential for communication and is an indication of careful expression. Now I have sympathy for this position because I would tell people whose work I was editing that the worst thing that could happen was for me to gain the impression that I as the editor was paying more attention to their piece than they ever did. Finding obvious typos was one of the events that would create that impression. But that said, I also reviewed many pieces that were impeccable in terms of spelling and grammar but deplorable when it came to logic or original thinking. So sometimes correct spelling and grammar indicates nothing more than that.  The argument that spelling and grammar are essential for communication cannot be disputed. But special communication methods, such as the telegram for example, have always developed spelling and grammatical shortcuts that quickly became well understood. Twitter is just following in that tradition.
  8. It is more serious to do things by yourself than to do them in collaboration with others. Oh, for heaven’s sake!! This can only be accepted as gospel by individuals enamored of the great person theory of knowledge work.
  9. The internet is destroying literature. You’ve heard this. Nobody reads serious fiction any longer. Although I do believe classic forms of literature are threatened, I don’t buy the theory that it is the internet’s fault. Actually, it is probably more the fault of movies, television, DVDs, and video games. And in my view the real issue is that, compared to other, newer media for storytelling, the advantages of the novel just aren’t that apparent any longer.
  10. People who are playing Farmville on Facebook would otherwise be writing the great American novel or reading Proust. Please…(the game I like to play is Typing Maniac.)
  11. Most people don’t have anything interesting to say. This point is made peevishly in reaction to the fact that anyone now can blog or tweet. Again, I’ll concede that good writers of 500-word essays are not that common; but my experience, and I bet the experience of many others, is that lots of people actually do have something worthwhile to offer in the short form.  Twitter and Facebook –and let’s not forget YouTube–are great democratizers of the public space and, if anything, are giving many the confidence to share their views with others. I’m darned if I can figure out why that is bad for a democracy. Now in your average dictatorship…
  12. Our current culture, which has taken millenia to develop, is better than any culture we could develop over the next ten years. At face value, that sounds pretty reasonable, but given the explosion of information, connectivity and transparency, I’m not so sure we should  concede even this point. Knowledge is doubling in many fields at a faster rate than the education cycle for those disciplines. I don’t know about you but I’m putting my money on the future.

Who Are You Calling Old and Selfish?

Are Civil Servants Too Old and Selfish for Gov 2.0? That’s the title of an interesting blog post and discussion on Generation Shift. When I saw the tweet about the post well, of course, I took it personally. I’m 55, I’ve been tweeting for almost two years and I can’t really remember when I started Facebook it’s been so long. Not only did I adopt these practices personally, but I promoted them as best as I could at CIA, including being a senior sponsor early on of the Intellipedia effort. I must admit however that all of these activities made me “a person of interest” at CIA–that‘s meant to be funny. (I’m reminded of a conversation I had once with a colleague, during which no doubt I was lamenting the slow pace of change and the general reluctance of government to engage with the new. He looked at me wisely and wryly and observed: ” being for change in a government bureaucracy is not unlike being a mobile home in the path of a tornado.”)
So of course I agree with the principle that government is slow to change, but I don’t think it’s because we are too old and selfish. Yes we are old and no doubt selfish, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing other things that clearly were better for us. In our lifetimes we’ve stopped smoking, started walking long circuits in our neighborhoods most evenings, and learned to recycle plastic and paper products…….so we’re not like dense.
But clearly there is a problem. Why have so many in my generation, particularly in government, decided to draw the line against transparent collaboration (except, of course, they don’t use those terms–the terms I’ve heard are “waste of time” or “lonely hearts clubs.”) Some factors that I think are more credible than the cheap shots of  old and selfish are:
  • Insulation. This applies particularly to government civil servants in managerial slots. Once they reach a position of authority their days become so programmed (with both necessary and Alice-in-Wonderland events) that it becomes impossible for most outside factors to penetrate their consciousness, at least not without serious lag. It takes a real act of will to step outside “the cone of importance“ to look at what is actually going on in the world. This is not necessarily related to age or selfishness.
  • This brings me to a second point, related to insulation, but worth calling out separately. Let‘s call it  Government Exceptionalism. Not unlike the view that America holds an exceptional place in the world and a special role, government exceptionalism argues that the role of government is somehow different from other functions in human and civil society. I don’t know that this position is often explicitly expressed but I would argue that it is implicitly accepted by almost everyone. Those outside government even espouse this view, except they often argue that government is exceptionally inefficient. The function of government itself is inherently broken, they say. But within government, the exceptional argument goes more like this: what we do is very hard, very critical, very special and we just can’t accept any new method that comes down the pike. (I actually don’t believe that most of what government does is exceptional. Most of what government does is actually transactional or knowledge work, which makes it very eligible for the introduction of transparent, collaborative practices.)
  • The final factor I’d offer is Existential Fear. I admit this is probably rather rare, but I do believe there are those in government who understand that Gov 2.0 implementation would eventually lead to a different, and I believe necessarily smaller, footprint for government. Often government is simply the mechanism by which one group of citizens connects to another for necessary interest or mutual advantage and through which the norms of behavior in that transaction are stipulated and enforced. These are exactly the types of activities that mature social networks can do automatically. In the same way that the internet paradigm has destroyed the middleman role in many economic and social activities, social networking has the potential to do the equivalent for government.
(I’m reminded of a visit to my local Post Office almost fifteen years ago. If you remember AOL installation CD’s were everywhere then. It was raining AOL CD’s. This particular year the Post Office had a stack of AOL CD’s available for perusal as you stood in line. When I got to the counter, the postal worker, whom I thought eccentric at the time but now realize was prescient, said “I can’t believe we have these AOL CD’s here. Don’t people realize they will drive us out of business?”)

Is this Social Networking Contagious or Something?

Here it is after 530 pm on the East Coast, and I have hardly tweeted today and I haven’t facebooked and I haven’t checked into FourSquare anywhere and I certainly haven’t blogged, and I actually get this physical sensation of incompleteness, like a hunger, but not a hunger to eat but a hunger to share.  And I’m struck with how powerful the imperative to share becomes once you’ve switched your mental model–from hoarding information for yourself to telling everyone everything you think you know. It’s like geometry or algebra–it’s exponential. In the first model, you take many instances of knowledge and reduce them to a factor of 1. In the second model, every unit of information is multiplied by the  factor of infinity. Now I ask you, which is likely to be the more productive model?

Jonah Lehrer who writes on cognitive issues in his great blog The Frontal Cortex touches on the multiplying aspects of generosity in his piece from yesterday. Also check out this great piece from Signal Magazine about the Air Force’s emphasis on collaboration. They cite many reasons but of interest is the importance of collaboration to deal with the projected shortage of skilled labor in the decades ahead.

Oh and what was I doing today that kept me from being part of the great collaborative flow? Breaking in my new laptop. Transferring all the data. Figuring out what programs I’ll have to repurchase. GRRRRRRR…