Tag Archives: innovation

“The Dark Arts of Innovation” – Or Not?

After excellent sessions on play and improvisation, I suppose I was only setting myself up for disappointment with the third of the series of talks at the ScienceFestival that I accidentally curated for myself: “the Dark Arts of Innovation. The talk’s title hints at secret recipes or innovation-magick, but whilst interesting and engaging, on that count it didn’t deliver. There were no secret tricks or short cuts, no quick fixes – though a fair bit of common sense.

I think this in part reflects the nature of the institutions represented by the three speakers: a university, a research institute and a private sector (and privately owned) company.

Light Bulb
Image from Olga Reznik on flickr.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

As Alan Miller, deputy principal (and responsibile for knowledge transfer) at Heriot Watt, pointed out, universities are steeped in tradition and conservative in nature; not necessarily the most innovative of institutions. Still, the Watt in Heriot Watt refers to James Watt, who whilst he didn’t invent the steam engine (that was Thomas Savery, apparently – I thought it was Newcomen, which proves that one really can learn stuff from the internet!), came up with an innovative design made greatly improved its efficiency and reduced its size, and enabled others to deploy it in many new ways – the power behind the industrial revolution.

Of course, once more the question of semantics came up. What exactly is innovation? Miller reckoned it was seeing the practical benefits of research – taking original research and creating products from it: exploiting experimental research and commercialising novelty. (As far as I recall, during my MBA the working definition of innovation we used was along the lines of seeing the potential products of new research, methods or processes, and then actually getting the product to market. Others define innovation as the generation of wealth from ideas.)

Either way, researchers are not necessarily the best innovators, and nor are universities the best at exploiting and commercialising their research. It has long been said that Britain is great at research but poor at exploiting it. Miller reckoned that Scottish universities are actually on a par with the US counterparts (a view which is consistent with this research into UK manufacturing from Southampton University). The UK parliament investigated the translation of research into commercial products last year, and produced a second report just last month. Others reckon the UK has no coherent policy on innovation. Part of the problem, I think, is whether a government can actually promote innovation specifically – they can make the economy as attractive for entrepreneurs and innovators (fat lot of success they’ve had there – though I guess they might argue the recent cut of the top rate of income tax is an effort to improve the incentives for entrepreneurs) – but I can’t help feeling that there is little governments can do to stimulate the process of innovation itself.

Heriot Watt tries to do this in various ways, though mostly by spinning off possible commercial outcomes from research into independent companies. The university doesn’t expect to to profit (though it hopes it will in the long term), but removing the removing the ties of bureaucracy and adding the profit motive seem to be beneficial.

The missing gap for me seemed to be how to identify those who were good at innvoation – clearly, not necessarily the same as those undertaking the initial research. My guess would be that most academics are motivated to a great extent by profit, but if one removes the results of their research and passes to someone else – even another (spin off) body – to commercialise, how does one recognise and reward to original researchers? Do they also profit from it?

Working out which bits of research actually have the potential also seems problematic: are there university committees assessing which bits of research might yield commercial results? Miller pointed out that the fruits of research may come a long time after the research itself – the development of transistors after WW2 relied on esoteric research into quantum mechanics decades earlier, for instance.

Fundamentally, though, Miller saw innovation as being all about people: they need to be stimulated to innovate. Unfortunately, how to actually do that doesn’t seem clear.

Lee Innes from the Moredun Institute gave some excellent examples of the way they have innovated. Firstly, they are very close to their ultimate costumers – farmers: indeed, they were established by the agricultural industry and are managed, in part, by farmers; they are aware of the issues facing farmers, and work with them on technological solutions. The profits of their innovation are channelled back into further research projects.

The institute also sifts ideas using evaluation criteria before product development and implementation – a long, and, she reckoned, potentially cruel process: you need to be willing to dump good, workable ideas if they might not come to fruition or would drain resources. “Killing the babies”, she called it.

The critical steps – necessary, even – seemed to be working in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, and for those teams to be small and flexible. She gave an example of a brainstorming session between the institute’s researchers and engineers from (I think) Heriot Watt where the engineers had picked up on a problem the researchers had thought of as insoluble – and a rapid diagnostic for toxoplasma is now in development. Being open to new ideas from unlikely sources seems to be beneficial – and I like the idea of innovation rising from random conversations! Spinning out potential products allows the innovators to work in flexible, dynamic, high performance teams to get the product to market – like any start up, perhaps. They are also open to unintended consequences – and exploit the novel application of them.

Promoting that sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in a high performing environment seems crucial to W L Gore. I have heard people from Gore speak before, and it has always seemed both an inspirational organisation – and completely down to earth. Gore’s Gerry Mulligan added to the passion for ideas I have seen from the firm before. It does sound like a truly innovative organisation, with a novel culture that has innovation at its core. (The first thing you see on their website is “A Commitment to Innovation Shapes Everything We Do” – quite a statement.) It eschews hierarchy and works with a minimum of bureacracy – no time sheets, for instance. Its teams are self-organising and wholly empowered; the only leaders are those who get followers (someone once said that Gore doesn’t do leadership training – they do followership training instead – though Mulligan did describe the leadership training those in senior positions get – clearly there is some recognition of hierarchy). Peers are involved in the annual review process – and are responsible for setting remuneration, too. Everyone gets 10% of time to work – or “dabble” – on their own projects.

This could also make it a harsh place to work, too – it may not be the best environment for introverts, perhaps. (I may be completely wrong, of course: if you are judged on your contribution to results by your peers, regardless of how loud you shout and how sociable you are, it could be that introverts may fly!)

It was, Mulligan said, all about the culture – and the people: without bureaucracy, hierarchy and “command and control”, innovation was able to flourish within small, flexible – and cross-disciplinary – teams based around relationships. Informal networks are key to sharing knowledge and enabling the teams to coalesce. All those conversations again…

There was long discussion about the nature of intellectual property, and who benefits from it. Gore uses patents a lot, and – in some jurisdictions – are bound to share the profits of IP with its developers (not in the UK). Mulligan described some bad experiences the firm had working with others and sharing IP, which had to be resolved in court, and felt it best to keep working relationships in house.

The speakers also felt that Scotland and the UK more generally had become risk averse: failure is a dirty word. Instead, they thought we ought to celebrate failure. At Gore, when a project closes because it fails, they have a party to celebrate. Of course, we can learn from failure – but to really learn, we need to share the knowledge of the failure. Researchers don’t publish details of experiments that fail, only those that succeed.

Condensing down what was said into that all elusive recipe for innovation, then…

  • small…
  • open…
  • collaborative…
  • flexible…
  • cross-disciplinary…
  • high performing…
  • empowered…
  • self managed teams
  • minimal bureaucracy
  • unafraid to fail
    And know when to stop!

But you still need to instill all that into your culture – and work with people who are creative innovators. Whoever they are.

Post Script. Whilst I have been writing this, my mind has kept returning to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, which I used to visit frequently when I was in London. C4CC acted (and, I presume, still acts!) a space promoting many of the themes of innovation that the speakers at this talk covered – particularly the open discussion and conversation. C4CC was set up in partnership with several of London’s higher education institutions, but is largely independent of them. Perhaps could be a model – only one many possible, mind – for incubation of innovation.

BarCampBank: Reinventing Finance?

Ten years ago or so, I did a university course on finance and banking; as a final flourish to my presentation, I held up my mobile phone and predicted that in the future we’d be using our phones as electronic wallets. The other day, Barclay’s launched a smart phone app that can be used to transfer money from one person’s account to another. It has taken a decade, but that future seems to be moving closer…

A couple of weeks ago, I went to BarCampBank London (#5, I think), which was full of such talk: how could banks and banking be re-engineered? What is the future of banking? Most of all, what IS a bank?

That question was debated a lot – I think it cropped up in every session – and there wasn’t really a satisfactory answer. Maybe a bank is simply an organisation with a banking licence – or one that the banking regulators deem to be worthy of regulation. (It sounds like the regulators are somewhat more active now than they were six or seven years ago…)

An unconference – albeit one that had a bit more structure than most I have attended – BarCampBank had multiple sessions running concurrently. Some concentrated on technical issues; I attended those that dealt with behavioural and human side of the industry.

The first session I attended was provocatively titled “Is Banking A Human Right?” Whilst possibly quickly consigned to the category of “QTWTAIN”, the discussion was engaging, focussing on customers and their needs rather than the institutions that serve them. “Banking” provides access to many more services than just banking: the unbanked of the world can suffer injustice that those more privileged – that’ll be me – find it hard to conceive. (There are between 600,000 and 1.2 million households without access to the banking system in the UK alone [pdf] figures for 2009.)

The basic bank account promoted by the last Labour government in the UK has done little to plug the gap. (The government likes people to use bank accounts because it may help reduce fraud.) In India, the inability of people to identify themselves has denied them access to banking – one of the drivers for the Indian ID scheme. (An anathema to many BarCampers who can be fierce privacy advocates…)

The next session had a similarly provocative title, “Do social media change anything or everything in finance?” – this time answered with a resounding YES. And, erm, NO.

Banking is clearly social – we use banks to make payments to each other, in all sorts of combinations. (I would maintain that actually any business is social, but that is a different post…) Social networks can be thriving economies – Second Life apparently has a huge economy mediated by “Linden dollars”; eBay a larger one using real dollars exchanged by PayPal; and Facebook credits are the social network’s currency. Dutch law recognises virtual assets within World of Warcraft as real as far as property rights are concerned.

But do social media change anything or are they just a new channel or platform for existing services or organisations providing them? The ease with which some people who have grown up with the service place their trust in Facebook – probably greater than their trust is stolid institutions like banks which they have just seen come crashing to the ground – suggest there might be an opening. But why would Facebook – or Twitter, or Google, or … – want to become a bank? Maybe to use a multi-billion dollar cash pile, though a similar argument was used in the 1990s to predict that Microsoft might become the first virtual bank, which it failed to do. (Observers still discuss the possibility.) Regulators may well determine this – Microsoft had enough problems with regulators without involving more of them, and Google and Facebook look like they may be facing similar regulatory issues in the future.

The need to transfer money cheaply around the world – meeting the needs of the increasing, and increasingly connected, diaspora – may be one driver: a social media bank that could build on existing trust and reputation relationships to leverage scale might succeed.

Similarly, banks are becoming more aware of online trust and reputation. MovenBank is specifically using applicants’ social graph as one of their criteria in lending decisions. Existing online services such as Zopa (who I believe were represented at BarCampBank), Kiva, PayPal and Wonga perform near-banking functions, and some at least have a social aspect to them. Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo (which were also covered by sessions I didn’t attend – next time, I must remember to take my clone…) could morph into banks.

The session “How Could the Finance Sector Work Differently?” was perhaps the least satisfactory – if only because we were instructed to think positively! Bankers of course come in many different types; those manning the local branches of retail banks probably don’t need an injunction to “be humble” and “engage with your community” – because they are deep within it already; those who still believe they are the masters of the universe and wish the rest of us would go away and let them celebrate their riches may however benefit from considering their role in society.

The idea of personalisation of products cropped up, but I am not sure this is necessarily positive – at least from the customers’ point of view. One of the reasons banks were created was the pooling of risk – I could lend money directly to an enterprise, but if I lend it to an intermediary – a bank – who lends to many enterprises, the risk of any one failing to repay my loan is greatly reduced. Excessive personalisation may reduce this – particularly with insurance products: if insurance companies personalise their products to a great degree, those who need insurance may become uninsurable, and those who don’t – well, they don’t need insurance!

This lead onto debate about mutuality. In the wake of the credit crunch and the “global financial crisis” (or GFC as it is known to its friends), mutuality seems to be making a comeback. Apparently, credit unions are more popular, and people feel safer with building societies than banks. This may just be anecdotal, but these institutions feel more local – more community-centric. Surprising since the community – all of in the UK – now own two banks and have a significant interest in others.

There was also a discussion about increased portability – being able to switch providers more easily. But should banks be concentrating on this rather than providing sufficiently good service that we don’t feel the need to move? It is said (though I can’t find any stats to support the assetion!) that we are more likely to get divorced than change our bank: maybe we just want banks to be more committed…

The final session I sat in on was perhaps the most creative: the group was asked to create a narrative for the future of finance – to pitch the movie “Banking 2.0”, if you like. At least, that was how we interpreted the task. The blind leading the visually impaired, we probably came up with as many narratives as there were contributors, despite some sterling facilitation. We tried to come up with a scenario in which banking was re-invented after a future financial crash: what would it look like?

Some envisaged mobile phone companies stepping into the breach left by the collapse of banking – they’d facilitate the transfers of cash between consenting handsets. Others saw bartering as an option. My take was much more apocalyptic, I’m afraid: in the wake of a catastrophic banking collapse – not just Lehman going, but the whole lot – I’m afraid I just saw a disaster movie. Phone companies wouldn’t provide credit, since they’d have no trust in us to pay (and vice versa) – indeed, they’d cancel our accounts when we couldn’t pay. With all our money tied up in failing banks, we couldn’t even buy energy to keep our phones charged. And with the financial system in meltdown, the oil-rich nations wouldn’t sell us the fossil fuel we need to keep the power stations running, so they’d be no electricity anyway.

What interests me is that it wasn’t a phone company which has innovated a banking app, but a bank. There may yet be life in these seemingly moribund institutions… (Though perhaps we should have conceived the movie as a zombie epic, the banks refusing to die…! And Umair Haque has written about the zombie economy.)

[Aden Davies has posted about his views of BarCampBank London 5, including information on some of the more technical aspects discussed.]

Creativity and Collaboration: exploring C4CC

Friday Mornings . Tuttle at Centre for Creative Collaboration

Photo by Tony Hall, on flickr

I once had a conversation with Brian Condon, one of the people behind the Centre for Creative Collaboration, where I asked (more or less) “what do you mean by ‘creative’? What do you mean by ‘collaboration’?” [I must have felt I knew what ‘centre’ meant…] Brian neatly sidestepped my question by telling how he’d had a similar conversation with someone who had been trying to build such a space for several years; they were still stuck on their definitions, refining the semantics but being neither creative nor collaborative. It is better to start something and see where it gets to rather than get tied up in what it actually is, Brian said.

I remembered our conversation when I was at C4CC last week to take part in a discussion led by James Wilson about what people actually involved in the C4CC thought it was and what it did. James, a former inmate resident of C4CC, had carried out a piece of research by asking other projects what the C4CC did and how it worked. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking presentation. Brian and his colleagues have clearly made something quite special at the C4CC – a space for seed-projects to work, experiment and collaborate.

James’ respondents had similar semantic difficulties to me in defining ‘collaboration’: they couldn’t! It was all about the context – the serendipitous conversations that cross disciplines without specified goals. It is different from teamwork. There was talk about “real collaboration” and “true collaboration”.

Whatever it is, they felt the C4CC helped it happen: setting up different projects in close proximity in a neutral venue helped promote the serendipity; people working on the projects believed that their openness, trust and willingness to communicate helped create the right mindset to overcome barriers to collaboration. An openness to unpredictability within an unstructured context – allowing for improvisation contingent on the situation and need. It was all about the context – and highly social. For some this was due to a change in the power dynamics, part of creating new structures and ways of organising with shared values – an openness to experiment. Some described C4CC as an ecosystem.

They were a surprisingly positive set of people: there was little about the C4CC that they wanted to change, though having more communication between projects – through more formal presentations, for instance, or specific “problem solving” sessions – seemed to be desired. This was interesting given the views that the unstructured, serendipitous approach to collaboration was beneficial.

Making C4CC more sustainable was one thing those working on projects desired: “making sure it’s still here!” C4CC is funded by several London-based academic institutions; finding a business model that would promote rather than stifle the collaborative environment is difficult, and in times of austerity, funding may be at risk.

Measuring the outputs from somewhere like C4CC is difficult. How would one define success? The space clearly works, and the positivity of people involved – perhaps self-selecting – was apparent. (I wonder if positive, open and communicative people are by their nature more collaborative? Hermits need not apply…) C4CC clearly evokes strong, positive reactions.

We discussed whether it were possible to recreate C4CC – the extent to which there is a recipe for such a venture. There are clearly some things which are necessary – a suitable space, a bit of management and selection of projects – but I believe much of what Brian and his partners have built down to the social mix of the projects – the people that work in the centre itself.

#c4cc after another #tuttle

Photo by Lloyd Davies, on flickr

(You can see James’ presentation here.)

Innovation through Conversation

For the ConnectingHR Unconference last week (though it seems ages away!), I led a discussion which I called “Innovation through Conversation”. I had prepared a mindmap, since I reckoned a little bit of preparation made sense (mindmaps are my favourite way of preparing for something like this – indeed, I prepared a couple of other topics, too, which will probably find their way into blogs because they were about things I think are important; but I didn’t want to spend the whole unconference talking!). One of the great things about the ConnectingHR was that, aside from the pecha kucha sessions, there weren’t any prepared presentations – it all felt more or less spontaneous, with no whizzy graphics, bullet point hell or hard sell.

Innovation through conversation described for me the kind of things that go on at Tuttle Club and, in particular, the process we used with Tuttle Consulting. The whole thing about Tuttle Club, for me, is the conversation: it is all about interesting conversations with interesting people. Or maybe the other way around… And out of the conversations, ideas form; and from that, products have been created. Which is innovation, to some extent.

Conversation is the product from Tuttle. But I think that can be a bit of a problem, because conversations are hard to sell. Pitching for a project, if one says to a CEO “we’ll help your people have conversations…”, we’d probably swiftly be shown the door: everyone has conversations the whole time – about what they did last night, what they’re doing for their holiday – sometimes even about work. How is what we do different, and why?

People, though, rarely have a chance to kick about new ideas in an open conversation, without preconceptions coming into play. I think this is what Tuttle Club does, and what we have recreated with clients, comes down to creating structures in which conversations can happen freely, openly, without judgement. Because those on the projects bring their experiences of making conversations in the Tuttle Club, a space based around conversation, we are quite happy having conversations with – well, complete strangers. By giving permission to people to have conversations, by opening up organisations to the power of deep conversation, those involved feel able to do so. Seeding conversations like this can cause them to spread through the organisation.

What happens in these conversations is a lot of improvisation and making connections between ideas – creating new meaning. Making it up as we go along. There is not necessarily a product, because the conversation itself is the product. The client takes a very active role – Tuttle might facilitate, but the conversations belong to the client.

That’s more or less what I scribbled down on my mindmap; but the discussion at ConnectingHR took it a lot wider as the other participants brought their own views and opinions, because ConnectingHR was all about the conversation, too.

Conversations can be very powerful. Introducing open conversations between different parts of an organisation allow new social – and product – connections to be made, across business silos. Bringing together new people and new ideas creates new thinking; it doesn’t stop with a single conversation, and can leave seeds, nuggets, waiting to develop. It leads to new learning, and a sharing of experiences and ideas; the outputs can be very rich.

Enabling people in organisations to talk to each other is engaging and empowering: it enables people to think in new and different ways. It can change organisations in permanent ways.

Someone emphasised the benefits of using appreciative enquiry, focussing on the positive aspects of processes and organisations – building on what works rather than trying to correct what doesn’t. I haven’t a lot of experience in appreciative enquiry, but it can be a powerful tool – very often, people in organisations use a lot of time and energy griping about what is wrong; using that time and energy to build on the positive aspects of what they do.

Social media – Twitter, Facebook, and so on – can also provide space for conversations. They give people permission to communicate and to connect. Someone at ConnectingHR said that when an office cleaner and the CEO connect through social media discussing (for instance!) the latest episode of Spooks, it’ll change the way they relate to each other.

I reckon that use of social media in organisations will have a flattening effect on organisation structure, opening up communications and free up people to have conversations. There are fears that with people spending time on social media at work, productivity will fall – apparently unwarranted, since someone pointed out that research had shown no decrease in productivity following the implementation of social media tools (I didn’t get a reference for this – if anyone can point me in the direction of this research, I’d be grateful!).

Someone else pointed out that people would use social media as they used to use cigarettes, and that instead of allowing people a “fag-break”, organisations could allow people “Twitter-breaks”, time between tasks when it’s ok to surf or tweet. Whether online or off, if organisations want people to talk, they need policies. I have been amused – and amazed – at hearing several times from different people in the last few weeks that internal communications departments are so worried about Twitter that some of them require anyone tweeting to have their tweets signed off. I think it was Bill Boorman who pointed out that it didn’t matter what the medium was – you need have a policy for communication, not for specific media.

I think organisations should free people to communicate with each other, whatever the medium – online and off. Because through conversation, people make new connections, spark off each other – and innovate.

Organisation Yoga or Operational Ninja?

I have tried to explain the experience of working on consulting projects with people from Tuttle and what was created through the work here before, but with our continuing discussions and the launch of the Tuttle Consulting posterous site, too, I thought I’d delve a bit deeper. (This may well be cross-posted this over there, too.)

Over the past few weeks, we have tried to capture what it is we do – to cut out the consultancy crap, as <a href="Lloyd so correctly put it yesterday; because I for one have found it hard to actually describe. I needed to distil it down into workable, understandable concepts.

The words we came up with to describe our approach were "organisation yoga and operational ninja". This is what they mean to me!

The "organisation yoga" is the use of conversation to explore an organisation, its issues and their solutions: through conversation, to help people in the organisation come up with creative, collaborative and innovative ideas that they can take control of and run with – giving people the licence to think and create. That's why it's "yoga": it is a thoughtful, explorative process.

But it isn't just navel gazing: things have to happen. And that’s where the “operational ninja” come in. There are lots of tools out there – whole realms of new media bits and pieces waiting to be stitched together – to help weave the projects together, to generate a coherent, creative outcome.

For me it is all about change and learning: that’s where I’m coming from. Others have their own perspectives, of course: one of the truly valuable things of Tuttle Consulting is that there are people with all sorts of experience and understanding, coming with different outlooks, that we can draw on.

This means we have a very rich, deep offering.

This is of course a work-in-progress; I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this over the next few weeks!

Mindmaps and Me

I like using mindmaps: it is my preferred method for taking notes and playing around with ideas. When sitting in conferences, people often look over my shoulder and start talking – not about the conference speaker, but how pretty my mindmaps are… It was one such conversation that made me think I should post about mindmaps and how and why I use them.


Mindmaps are a way of making connections between ideas and thoughts; I use them to take notes, to plan for meetings and to write presentations; whenever, in fact, I need to order my thoughts and ideas. They are more flowing than conventional – linear – notes, and (for me) less detailed: mindmaps work at a high level.

It didn’t come easily. I was first pointed in the direction of mindmapping by a former boss, and I thought I would try it out. So I got hold of Tony Buzan’s book on mindmaps (creatively entitled “Mind Maps”, as far as I recall), and read it, and experimented with mindmapping.

This was far from a success. Buzan, who first came up with the idea of mindmapping (and who has, I believe, trademarked the phrase “Mind Map”), was quite dogmatic about how one should mindmap. You have to use large sheets of paper – A3 or larger; you have to use lots of different coloured pens; and you have to use pictures, not words, to convey your meaning.

None of this worked for me at all. Whilst I have a quite well developed visual sense, I don’t think in terms of pictures. (When in meetings designed to stretch one’s creativity I am instructed to draw a picture to describe how I feel about something, I have two stock pictures to call on: either a tree or a river. I have never come across a corporate issue that cannot be conveyed by one of these images!)

I don’t carry bundles of coloured pens around with me, nor pads of A3 paper.

And I really don’t like being told what to do. Buzan’s prescriptive method seemed to be the opposite of creative and innovative – what he said he was trying to promote.

So I parked mindmapping as an idea that wouldn’t really work for me.

This changed when I was studying for my MBA. I take a lot of notes in lectures – writing helps me remember things, even if I never look at the notes I might have taken. But my linear, well structured notes were hard to revise from; they didn’t facilitate connections. I wanted to summarise whole lecture series on one page, and I wanted to develop essay plans for my exams that I could remember.

I turned again to mindmaps.

This time, though, I was in control. I dumped the rules that Buzan had set up – no pictures, no coloured pens, and whatever paper I wanted – and headed out into the blue.

Very quickly, mindmaps became my prime method of note-taking and planning. Working with them the way I wanted to work made them feel very natural. The free flowing, high level structure allows big thoughts; the tree-like, organic structure allows one to build a picture of related topics. The patterns on the page, the branches of ideas, were easy to remember.

Although I use mindmaps for most of my notetaking, it isn’t without reservations. Sometimes I think that my mindmaps are only a circular representation of linear notes (especially as when I took more conventional, linear notes, I developed complex, nested structures which allowed a similar grouping of ideas); sometime, my mindmaps morph into linear lists as well (as the picture – a mindmap I made at a very interesting discussion on citizen power at the RSA – shows; made, I hasten to point out, on a pocket A5 pad…).

There are lots of pieces of software available to help one make mindmaps on computers – none of which work for me in the slightest. (They might work for you; just search for mind maps and see what you get.) For me, the act of writing – using a pen nestling in my hand, the connection between the paper and my brain – is essential; electronic mindmapping seems no different from writing a list in a word processor.

Mindmaps have become very engrained in the way I work – maybe even the way I think; not perfect (but neither is the way I think!) but very, very useful.

Very like a whale: Charles Leadbeater on “Cloud Culture”

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ Mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet, scene ii

Last Monday saw the launch by Counterpoint of Charles Leadbeater‘s pamphlet (manifesto? declaration?) on “Cloud Culture”. I was meaning to blog about the launch – there was an interesting panel discussion – but I’ve now read the pamphlet, too, and it seemed to make morre sense to blog about that first.

The pamphlet is very interesting; but it is frustrating, too. Leadbetter’s view of the cloud is pretty – well, nebulous. It is lost in a fog of multiple meanings, an incessant drizzle of data [Enough meteorological metaphors… Ed]. And I think that is really part of the problem: I think Leadbetter is in love with his metaphor, the all-encompassing cloud. This confuses rather than clarifies, since Leadbetter’s cloud is many different things: a camel, a weasel, a whale…

To most people, in the context of the internet, the cloud comprises

huge data centres housing vast storage systems and hundreds of thousands of servers, the powerful machines that dish up data over the internet. Web-based e-mail, social networking and online games are all examples of what are increasingly called cloud services, and are accessible through browsers, smart-phones or other “client” devices.

(the Economist, 15 October 2009).

Or, as Wikipedia puts it,

The term cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the cloud drawing used to depict the Internet in computer network diagrams as an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it represents. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online which are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers.

For most people, the cloud IS the internet: it is all those interactive services that we access through web browsers – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, iTunes, Flickr, our blogs… – It is “web 2.0” (apologies – I hate that phrase, too). It is where we exist online.

It is these things for Leadbetter, too; but it is so much more.

It is

  • a dense cloud of information (p21)
  • clouds of cultural activity… a mushroom cloud of culture (p23)
  • a digital cloud hanging above us (p28)
  • a cloud of … free software programs (p29)
  • clouds of scientific data and global collaboration (p31)

I could go on (and on… and on!), but I’d just get myself more irritated.

In this mixing of metaphors – a heady cocktail – Leadbetter’s clouds obscure some important points. The new and evolving tools we can access through the internet do facilititate collaboration, allowing easy access to shared product; but this isn’t necessarily enabled by the cloud: closed servers somewhere might do the trick just as well. This is where the strenght, the value, comes from: not the cloud itslef.

Ownership of stored digital artefacts is another key issue. Who really owns my photographs which are stored on a server somewhere and can be accessed through flickr? Flickr’s terms and conditions are pretty clear about it – I do – and that is why I use that service; but other services are not so open: Facebook‘s T&C used to state that they had the right to use any content I placed on their servers, which is one reason why I have very limited content (and only a single photograph) on the site. (They may have changed their T&Cs; I haven’t checked. Very few people read T&Cs, and I now doubt a change in their policy would lead to a change in my behaviour.) Who owns a document I access and co-create on Google docs? Or some hypothetical service in the future.

Leadbetter is an advocate of open source collaboration – I saw him talk about open source issues before. He champions projects such as Wikipedia in which large communities of collaborators combine to create a public resource. (The book and blog Wikinomics explores this collaborative economy in fascinating depth.) He is in favour of sharing cultural artefacts and enabling others to create something new from them – the culture of the mashup. True to his word, Cloud Culture is published under a creative commons licence.

But mashups are nothing new. Many of Shakespeare's plays were based on – or stolen from – others' work. The four gospels of the New Testament were fanfic. As the recent exhibition in London “Turner and the Masters” demonstrated, artists have created new work from old and more, they have been taught to do so; human culture has survived by learning – copying – from others.

(By the way, when Leadbeater writes

a Korean boy playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the electric guitar in his bedroom has garnered more than 65 million hits on YouTube, providing the starting point for a global community of guitar-playing boys

[p 19], he is really, REALLY stretching the definition of “community” way, way past its breaking limit. That is not a community: it’s people doing the same thing. Or maybe copying each other. There are no shared beliefs, values or any of the other things which seem to embody “community”.)

The main message I take away from Cloud Culture is the need for vigilence. There may be money to be made through cloud computing; Google, Amazon, Apple and many more are probably hoping that there may be a lot of money to be made. The cloud capitalists, as Leadbeater dubs them, may not be the people to trust with our data – our creations and our identities.

Perhaps more importantly, the cloud capitalists and the culture they are creating comes from the western, rich world. Do we need to guarantee access to the poorer nations? What happens when the dominant culture on the internet is Asian – with different core beliefs and values? The Chinese government, with whom Google cooperated in censoring search results, could afford to buy or create its own providers of web services, which might have a very different view of data protection. Leadbeater assume that western cloud capitalists are the bad guys here – I think it could be much, much more complicated than that.

Leadbeater’s answer to these issues – these “storm clouds” on the horizon – is for multi-governmental public funding of social platforms to counter the corporate developments. The freemarketeer in me doesn’t agree with this; the public management of technology infrastructure doesn’t have a good record in the UK, and I cannot believe that it is any better in the USA, France, Germany – or China.

Leadbeater advocates mobile devices enabling access to the internet in poorer countries – leapfrogging the infrastructure that western nations have built up over many decades. But as Brian Condon pointed out to me after the launch, mobile devices puts a lot of power in the hands of the service provider – the phone company – as well as the user. These corporations can limit and manipulate access as much as other cloud capitalists, and cannot guarantee free access.

There are many issues Leadbeater is right to raise – the future of copyright; the danger of surrendering control of our cultural artefacts to cloud capitalists such as Google, whose Google Books threatens to become the monopoly provider of copyright books in electronic form; the dominance of western culture; and so on.

But his solutions don’t work for me; and in the economic straits we find ourselves in, I can’t see many governments willing to support the web in ways Leadbetter suggests. Except, perhaps, those with an eye on control of the internet…

Social Media in Enterprises: my take on a broadbased discussion

There was a fascinating event this week, Social Media in Enterprises – the Elephant in the Ecosystem. The organisers – Alan Patrick and David Terrar (and apologies to others who must have also been involved!) – reckoned that there wasn’t much about the use and adoption of social media by enterprises in social media week, and they decided to rectify that.

In the space of a week or so, they got together a series of eight speakers (it was meant to be ten, I think, but a couple couldn’t make it), who were each given ten minutes to talk about – well, social media in enterprise.

They had lots of different things to say, but there was a lot of agreement, too. The strict time limit meant that there wasn’t too much detail (useful in an area that could potentially get quite technical) but there were lots of ideas and experience. I would love to write about what each speaker said in detail, but that wouldn’t really add anything. In summary, though, here’s what I heard them say:

  • Alan Patrick talked about the challenges in implementing social media in businesses, and where the value could come from
  • Sue Black discussed the use of Twitter in the campaign to save Bletchley Park
  • Benjamin Ellis covered practicalities of social media in organisations, and the effect of, and on, organisation culture (amongst all sorts of other stuff!)
  • Umair Haque looked at some fairly fundamental assumptions about how organisations work, and how we ask the wrong questions about them; he reckoned the current organisation structures are doomed
  • Adriana Lukas explained why she thought any attempts the successfully implement social media in businesses are probably doomed
  • Mat Morrison looked at the structures of the networks in organisations he’d successfully implemented
  • Euan Semple spoke freeform – without slides – about the disruptive nature of social media and the need to model new behaviours and ways of working
  • David Terrar summed up with a couple of cases studies – his own work with Swiss Re, John Chambers and his work at Cisco [YouTube] and Pete Fields at Wachovia

That’s what they talked about; what I took away was possibly different: the common links for me were all about corporate culture and the way people work – the way they share, collaborate and behave; the way they create and utilise communities. There was a discussion at last year’s Edinburgh BarCamp on the same topic. Are there some organisations which will take to new ways of collaborative working using social media tools better than others?

Perhaps there are some parts of organisations that will do so – that are more open, flexible and able to adapt to these tools. Adriana talked about the need to work below the radar – to try to work outside the prevalent culture and outside the usual organisation processes – in order to achieve a beachhead from which broaden an implementation. I have been in a similar situation, where using blogs and wikis in a large corporation had to be hosted externally and the whole process felt so counter-cultural to be revolutionary. The tools didn’t stick, either.

Adriana reckoned the main pitfall was the behaviour of middle managers; Euan reminded us that people in organisations get rewarded for their knowledge, so they will be wary of giving it away. To change the culture and behaviour in organisations, we need to look at all aspects of working – including the processes and the reward structure. If we don’t tackle these aspects of organisation life, we will have little success: people will work to the outcome they are rewarded for and by which they are managed.

The move to flatter, less hierarchical organisations – even, perhaps, the fabled “virtual” organisations where almost all aspects of business are outsourced – may be the most fertile ground for social media in enterprises: they can be nimble, and they rely on effective communication to function properly. Here, use of social media could provide a real business advantage – and maybe this is where the real value of social media in business will be found.

(You can read David’s take on the evening here.)

Trust, sharing and caffeine: Steven Johnson on Priestley, coffee houses and innovation

Steven Johnson was in London last week, mostly for a talk with Brian Eno at the ICA; but he also fitted in a conversation at NESTA, which I was able to get to.

Johnson was talking about his new book about Joseph Priestley, the Enlightment scientist and theologician and, as I learned on Tuesday, freind and influencer of the Amercian founding fathers.

What interested me most was Steven’s description of the Enlightenment mileu: an ecosystem of interested individuals and environments – largely coffee shops – which promoted the free circulation and sharing of new ideas. With open discussion and scepticism testing their ideas, these environments promoted a new synthesis; the whole was greater than the sum. Johnson reckoned that the discovery of photosynthesis and its roll in releasing oxygen into the atmosphere was down to the sharing of ideas between Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and others.

This seemed to resonate with those in the audience interested in open source technology and working, free-flowing ideas and co-operation being central to their working methods. (This also reminded me of Mike Masnick’s talk in Edinburgh learlier in the year, where he said that it was the sharing of ideas around Silicon Valley that made the area so innovative.)

Johnson also believed that dissent and scepticism were important qualities which facilititated innovation. This requires a tolerant society, able to accept dissent – not something that was guaranteed in the Enlightenment: Johnson described how Priestley had been chased from his Birmingham home by rioters who took exception to his dissentng religious views; they burnt down his home and he took exile in the young USA.

Johnson reckoned that the equivalent to the coffee house is now to be found online – natch. Modern media open up access to anyone with an internet connection, and we can all contribute, borrow ideas (copyright or not…) and play around with them, creating new syntheses in exchange.

His description of the coffee shop sounded to me very much like Tuttle: I think the face-to-face, social aspects of meeting together add a lot to the online fora the internet facilitates. I think it helps the serendipity and the fluidity of conversations. One never knows who is going to be there, and it is easier to explore and disagree face-to-face than it is online. The offline gathering engenders trust – and that is important if you are sharing ideas, debating and arguing.

Is it possible to monetise social capital?

Last Friday at Tuttle, I was talking with Emile Embiabata about ideas he has to monetise social capital generated through social media. This is something we have discussed before, and whilst it interests me, I also don’t quite get it: I am sceptical about the ability to monetise social capital, because in doing so the capital one has built up will, I think, become devalued.

Social capital is something that people at Tuttle seem to have in spades: indeed, it seems to be the underlying principle behind Tuttle, and what differentiates Tuttle from other, more income-focussed, networking events. As someone pointed out to me last week, Tuttle isn’t about sharing business cards, it is about sharing ideas.

Emile’s idea – and I have no concept of the technology behind it, so I hope he doesn’t mind me discussing his idea – is that the capital that one builds up through posting thought, links and – particularly – likes and dislikes on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and so on are actually worth something. If people respect one’s views – if you have a high social capital – those views are likely to have a value. Every time someone clicks on a link to, say, my favourite restaurant because I have tweeted about it, I could get rewarded. The more people respect my views, the more valuable my tweets about my favourite restaurant are likely to be.

The main difficulty I have is that at the moment my views are completely independent. If I tweet about a restaurant (which I don’t think I have ever done!), it is because I like it, and want to share it with people. But if people who read my blog, my tweets, or my Facebook updates know that I am rewarded for posting those views, will they be worth the same? Will they not ignore them – because my independence has been corrupted – sponsored by my restaurant. (By the way, if any restaurants wish to corrupt me, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement…)

Emile countered this by pointing out that if my opinions were defiled, my social capital would be reduced, and people would click on my links; I would lose Twitter followers, and I would get less well rewarded by his system.

It would therefore be self-correcting: if I were honest and true, my stock would rise; if I were spammy and corrupt, people would ignore me, and my views would be worthless.

He may have a point; we agreed to keep talking about it, with me retaining my sceptical, independent and transparent outlook.

I’ll let you know what happens!