Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

links for 2008-03-30

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links for 2008-03-28

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Musings on social media, enterprise, wine-making and terroir

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Most of my recorded experience with social software revolves around the ‘hard’ issues like people and shifting their minds and corporate culture, so in my conversations with David Tebbutt and Angela Ashenden of Macehiter Ward-Dutton earlier this week I wanted to offer a useful perspective on social software in the enterprise that takes a broader view than just focusing on individual employees. I came up with an analogy based on the wine industry.

First a brief background on what has happened to the wine industry globally in the last 30 years. Before 1970s French wine used to be considered the pinnacle of all wines. It was the great French tradition, the noble grapes (despite Phylloxera wiping out most of the original vines in 19th century), but mainly it was the unrivalled terroirs of Bordeaux and Burgundy. (Loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product).

In 1976, the (in)famous wine tasting of Californian wines next to top French wines in Paris has shifted that world view*. This is because the Californian wines beat the French ones in a blind tasting on their own territory and in their own game – by tasting the way it was believed impossible to achieve without the magic of the terroir. The fallout over the next few decades was profound – once wine-makers all over the world realised that it is possible to produce wine a la Bordeaux or Burgundy in other countries, the experimentation and eventually production of quality wines from other countries has exploded. Thanks to that we now have some superb Californian, Argentinian, Italian, Spanish, Australian, Chilean, South African and Lebanese wines capable of matching the French ones in quality. There are purists who’d disagree and for a long time I have been amongst them but I am not enough of a wine snob to persist in that view in the face of considerable (and very enjoyable) evidence.

Before 1976 tasting, there seemed no point in producing quality wine aimed at the same market that the French wine-makers so successfully monopolised for centuries. Even if you had the same grapes and same techniques, you couldn’t replace the terroir… or could you? A few mad wine aficionados, with burning love of wine, innovator’s zeal, insane persistence and a big dose of luck spend years experimenting with wine-making techniques that would bring their brews close to their beloved Grand Crus. They have changed the balance between the three elements that makes wine – soil, grape and wine-making – and demonstrated that it is possible to compensate for the lack of the terroir magic with carefully applied wine-making techniques. It was no longer imitation of the ingredients or methods but an entirely new mix of components still designed to produce the same highly desirable outcome.

And this is how it is with social media/social software. There is no point in planting the vines of social web in the enterprise and expecting them to produce the same as they do outside in the open web. The soil is not the same, the terroir wildly different. If you want to achieve an outcome of similar quality and impact – better communication, more transparency, faster information exchange, more skilled and engaged employees, more and rewarding involvement with the outside world – you will have to take the grapes (the social media tools and software) and make sure that your ‘wine-making’ balances out what your environment lacks.

The most important things missing from the enterprise terroir is the individual autonomy. It is a sad and indisputable fact that anyone can do a lot more online outside their work than in the office. If companies want to get close to the social web magic, they will need to include this crucial ingredient into their approach. Treat your employees with respect and trust. Give them space to play and experiment. They will reward you with creativity and innovation. And if you do it right, with more respect and trust in return.

Ultimately, as every company has its own mixture of systems, culture and employees drive and skills, here are some tips for companies:

  • the best wines tend to be made by people who grow the plant the vines, harvest the grapes and then make the wine with love and care – the best use of social media comes from within the company, your own people who can combine understanding of social media/social software with your business, customers and processes. they can also look for new grapes, new ways to improve your techniques.

  • vineyards and winemakers often get experts in but these are invariably very accomplished practitioners with reputation that proceeds them. If you need external expertise make sure those you bring in have a proven record as well as understanding and respect for your terroir and know how to adjust their approach to it.
  • wine-makers share their experience, results of experiments, collaborate, even help each other practically – reach out to your peers, to exchange and compare notes, don’t just copy case studies or methodologies, respect your own terroir.
  • enjoy your experiments, they might actually be palatable, if not right now, then in the future. :)

*Judgement of Paris is a wonderful book written for 30th anniversary of the 1976 wine tasting by the reporter present at the event. Highly recommended.

What’s the real value of social software in enterprise

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Earlier today I spent several invigorating hours talking to two analysts, one of them is a good friend, who are gathering material for a case study on social software and collaboration and were interested in my approach and experience of introducing corporations to the world of social web/media/software. In a nutshell it is ‘technology comes after or behind people’ and I find the tools only as interesting as their functionality and usability helps people do whatever they need to do.

Social software has an added dimension, which is that it should not be handled or implemented by IT departments or even marketing or HR departments, and certainly not in a traditionally organised and run enterprise. So I wasn’t sure whether I could offer what they are looking for.

Interesting and worthwhile knowledge emerged from the discussion but I am yet to be convinced about it lending itself to case study format and whether it has any meaning within the current metrics requirements.

Here is an example: I described the ‘implementation’ of a wiki used by the staff in a team of about 40 people. The wiki has been set up for sharing of work priorities on a weekly basis, to notify others about absence from the office, projects, holidays, announcements. It was originally set up for one specific purpose – to save several hours a week for the person collating information into an email that became obsolete almost the moment it was dispatched to everyone.

Very quickly more information and functions were added as their usefulness became apparent. It would be fair to say that the wiki has turned, gradually and without much ado into a kind of team intranet. It has been ticking over in the background with the users driving and looking after it. Not the IT department which has had zero involvement.

Now what about the value of the wiki? The current metrics allow for a straightforward calculations based on time saved for the one person and then distributed across more people who now have contribute to the wiki. Not a huge deal really and the time saving alone would most likely not warranty the introduction of the wiki, if that’s how its implementation had been approached it.

The value of correct and better class of information, timely and updated as needed, adjustments to the type of information recorded, the focus the wiki brought to the department, the better communication seems always lost in such calculations. There are, after all, no metrics for it. However, true metrics zealots would deny there is value in the above and these are direct outcomes of the tool.

But what about the indirect ones? They are the most valuable aspects of the wiki’s impact but they cannot be tied in any measurable way to it.

1. The autonomy employees experience when driving not only the content but also the structure of a collaborative working place. The sense of ownership and ability to have impact – social software tools are almost exclusively under the control of the individual as they are build around the user (the good ones anyway) and this brings an unheard of degree of user-centricity to inflexible process-driven environments.

2. The first hand knowledge of the tool, the experience of its capabilities and limitations. The value there is those same employees will introduce the wiki they use regularly in one areas of work into other areas and projects. I’d argue that this is the most significant and long-term value of social media and social software tools at this stage of their use in enterprise. If anyone tells me they can put metrics on that, I’ll just call them a consultant (not a nice thing in my book!).

In short, the current metrics and the way we approach measurement of value in enterprise is deeply flawed and inadequate. The answer is to look at alternatives measures of value that we can’t see it for the metrics right now.

What’s in a social network? A Facebook by any other name would be as useless… discuss

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A friend shared with me a link to this article about how pointless Facebook is.. and while we are at it the whole social networks malarky etc etc…despairing how some people around her are taking refuge, er, applauding wisdom contained within.

I am not an indiscriminate fan of social networks and some of Fabrizio’s gripes have a point especially the one about privacy… although he does come across as an old cranky, dare I say it, web-o-phobe. His objections against Facebook and social networks are not entirely unreasonable and from a personal perspective justified. I would just add that if others subscribe to them too enthusiastically, without further thought, I fear it says more about them, than the nature of social networking. So let’s have that further thought, shall we?

1. The whole thing of social networking is mere bullshit to me.

I would agree that Facebook is pretty pointless in terms of its applications and overall usefulness for a blogger geek like me is zero. However, that is a far cry from social networking being mere bullshit. It is a phenomenon that is worth noting and dismissing it will make you only more ignorant of what is truly happening.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

2. It’s not the right way to communicate with my friends.

Again, half-right. Just because face to face is still hard to beat, doesn’t mean other ways of communicating are not useful or often better in some contexts, e.g. writing a book is a much better way of communicating one’s ideas, theory or sum of knowledge, then a series of chats in a bar… although it is usually a good start. I am a big advocate of online communications because it enables people to define their thoughts in ways they rarely get to do in an offline social context.

That said, Facebook is not an ideal place for that but it helps people to piece together a record of their life. Self-selected and therefore some might say ‘manipulated’ but as I am keen on people to learn about themselves and their identity, I see it as a feature not a bug. There is a post to be written about a stage when people discover that being themselves brings greater rewards than manipulation of their image, but that’s for another time.

Also, social networks are not pointless for communication with friends, if hardly of much use for early bloggers. It is great to find a long lost friend, knowing they exist is better than losing contact with them forever. And a phone is definitely not the best way of communicating either! Social networks enable one-to-many communication for individuals – unheard of before the age of the web unless you were a politician or an author or a celebrity – in short, had some sort of institutional backing whether politics or the media. I can communicate efficiently and persistently with people in my contact list and let them expand on that communication if they are interested.

The main issue I have about the statement that it’s not the right way to communicate with one’s friends is the subsequent presumption that a phone call or a chat in a bar are the right ways. Since that is the only ‘human’ ways people communicate?! What about the wonderful tradition of letter-writing? Is that not a worthwhile communication with a friend even thought it’s not in a bar or over the phone? This goes deeper to the nature and diversity of communication, which makes such utterances short-sighted or blinkered (check the appropriate box). Stinks of an old fart, if you pardon the pun.

There is no reason why we can’t develop ‘human’ dimension in our communications online equivalent to the meeting of minds we experience in human contact offline. Not much to do with social networks as such, see my point about ‘learning how to drive’ above. The way to get there is to differentiate carefully and correctly – and this is going to take some time methinks – between what bits can and should be automated, what bits can and shouldn’t be automated and which bits we have been forcing technology to handle inadequately. I think the serenity prayer sentiments apply just fine here too:

God grant me curiosity to use my brain where irreplaceable, the skill to design and develop technology to assist it and the wisdom to know the difference.

3. I don’t want others to know too many things about me.

I couldn’t agree more. Privacy is a fine thing and until we are the ones who determine what goes out and what stays in, it will be mostly a delusion. Our privacy is protected about the same way a pretty young girl is safe in hands of a pimp held in check by a few hastily drafted rules that are actually very hard to enforce. As long as he’s seen keeping his hands of her, he’s left alone. But she’s still at his mercy and there is not much she can do if he decides to sell her on. Substitute data and information about you and you’ve got the picture.

On the other hand we have the wonders of connectedness and sharing which are very fine things too. It’s what made the web what it is today (in a good way). So to hoard and isolate would be overshooting although the ability to do so should be part of the deal, if that’s what I chose. It is about the right balance and like in any balanced ‘relationship’ it takes two to tango. At the moment, my data is held ransom in an abusive relationship and the fact that I get ’something’ out of it, doesn’t justify the imbalance of power. I should be the one making a decision about – and bear the consequences of – what happens to my data and by extension to my privacy, not Facebook or any other silo or platform. The problem is we have no way of doing that. Yet.

Finally, as Alec is points out security is a policy and so is privacy – what is private to me, may not be to you and vice versa. So what sense can a uniform set of rules or system make in a decentralised environment where a) it is near impossible to enforce and b) the distributed and persistent nature of our communication makes privacy an awkward bolt-on when it should be integral to our behaviour. The more people learn what privacy means and understand its merits and the price of its abuse, the better ‘policies’ they can devise for themselves.

So back to my point about how social networks are the ‘learning wheels’ for our identity online. Social networking is not bullshit, just like driving in a parking lot of a driving school is not pointless. Just see it in the context of the web and the individual and the picture get more interesting, if also more tricky and longer term.

It is about ability to manage one’s own data and network. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists of more than a username and data serving the platform owner more than the user. It is the control, the flexibility, the fun and play, the ease of communication and technology that makes the whole experience dynamic and mildly addictive. At the moment, not much else matters to the users – that is why privacy and security is a nice to have, rather a must have. I believe that will change as people get accustomed to more control over their online environment.

I want to be there when they want something more – their own car and their own choice of the destination – to push the driving school metaphor to its limits. Cue VRM hoping to equip people with tools that enable them to take charge of their data, provide context for it, learn from them and pass the knowledge on as they see fit.

links for 2008-03-23

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links for 2008-03-22

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links for 2008-03-21

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Data (r)evolution

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Hank William’s presentation at BarCampNYC3 last weekend was the most memorable as well as useful for what I am currently thinking about. Here is a reconstructed transcript from my notes taken during his talk. Any confusion or mis-representations are mine.

In my work I see the same problem solved again and again, focused on number of different things – this issue interesting – how we store data, how do we represent the data? Relational databases don’t look the way our data logic works, if you look at web 2.0 applications and how people are using them.

Relational databases are not good for knowledge as information over time cannot easily evolve to have a structure that didn’t exist when we conceived our application. For example, accounting system, you can design such an application and it’s going to stay that way. With web 2.0 you don’t know when you start what your business model will be and that makes such approach very limiting. Over the last few decades, technologically we squeezed every ounce of performance from technology. The main problem is that they are just very inflexible and brittle!

Why do relational databases have this problem? When you create it, a record is just a collection of information, contact record – first name, last name – you can have thousands of them. But if I want to connect two records, for example, an invoice (name client, field products etc) and another record (I want to track of the fact that if was or not paid), I am going to have keep a field (name of the company) and two tables (a record and a check) defined within that record from the start. So if I want to do something later, authorisation for example, another record, and if I were to relate the invoice to authorisation I have to point the check and relate it to that.

Basically, every time I want to create a relationship between two objects I have to modify the record. That is bad, it means that no object in a system can be stable and every time a new relationship I have to add something to the object in question. When you create your system, you have decide how you want the system to be. When you have 100,000 records and want to change something or evolve, this is a problem.

My favourite comparison of this kind of approach: a woman is having a child, a doctor walks in and says: “Before you give birth, can me give you the name of every friend your child will have or has in the life and by the way, we have got five minutes.

That’s what a relational database really requires. Once you have it set up, you can’t just start doing something even if it makes sense. That’s the problem.

The solution is social graph, a concept that Facebook made famous. You can have multiple objects – these could be invoices, or contacts on Facebook, they could be anything – and the graph is the connections between them. The great thing is that you don’t worry about what this is in order to create a connection. You don’t need to modify anything to create a connection. Every object stands on its own.

This is a fairly radical concept in data management, as we can not only connect these objects, we can also say ‘what’s the relationship?’. Directional (husband, wife) (friend to) if you can imagine all your data with relationships where you can connect the objects on the fly, it radically changes the nature of web 2.0 application.

You can also have another object, not just a contact, a restaurant, e.g. Nobu and the relationship is favourite. You create a new thing called restaurant and immediately we can connect John with Nobu with a relationship favourite. To do this in relational DB you’d have to create a new table and modify John so he has favourite restaurant field, and three more slots to John. It would be complicated and that’s not workable on the web as these are the kinds of relationships that we want to represent.

We always think about how to connect stuff in Web 2.0, this is the way this stuff works, something that’s connected by default. If I want to have an app mapping my restaurants I’d create a new information silo.

How do you connect data of disparate types – pictures in Flickr to a record in Facebook, the idea is to manage these relationships across the whole web. The concept of semantic web is great but I think as it’s right now is FAIL, it’s too complicated, not the way people do things.

Kloudshare – the idea is to be able to store data in the cloud, do relationship search, to query the graph and be able to access it from your web applications. Not to have to set up MySQL server.

There are other issues about social graph, it doesn’t map very well yet although the tools out there So far I don’t have the sense that there are off-the-shelf tools for scaling this stuff. But the cool thing about graph is that it allows for different types of user interface. You can actually create a bunch of user interfaces – a business card – you can represent it and the relationship between various business cards so you can see the graph. I can explore each item on the graph, look at Nobu and see all people who thought Nobu was great etc.

The idea is that from the UI perspective, it is a very simple unified web where you can look at relationship of any object and opportunity to think about data and knowledge and how are things related. It is a profound thing that any piece of information that you have you can stand from that point of information and see the whole universe…

Would love to know more about Kloudshare, sadly nothing came up when I googled it.

links for 2008-03-20

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Quote to remember

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Why does listening to your customers sound like a web 2.0 idea? It should be a business 1.0 necessity.
- Jeff Jarvis in Starbucks listens – at last

links for 2008-03-19

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