Social Media

Friends with Agendas (FWA)

Why don't companies "get" social? Why do consultants have such a hard time helping clients to leverage social networks and tools for business value? Perhaps it is because in 'doing social,' (rather than being social), you become the FWA. The "friends with benefits" is a well-understood concept, which I will not describe further; but I'd like to introduce its antithesis - the FWA. Your Friends With Agendas.

Early in my first marriage, my hermeneutics professor invited us to his home for dinner. We attended a staid Christian college, where the sense of hierarchy and authority was significant. It was quite the honor for this sophomore to be invited over, and I assumed he was taken by his bright young student and desired an evening of philosophical musing. Networking was not yet a verb, at least not to me, but I understood the importance of the occasion, and my wife and I dressed accordingly. Arriving precisely on time, we were greeted by his unassuming wife and escorted to the living room. There was no pre-dinner alcohol, of course, although no dinner ever needed it more. Perched on the edge of his couch, the good professor addressed me while gesturing for his wife to fetch 'the stuff' from the kitchen. "John, I invited you here because I wanted to talk with you about something important. Something very important to your future." His wife returned, carrying a saucepan and a stack of pennies. My wife wore the same blank expression I hoped I had on at that moment. He began to drop the pennies into the saucepan, one at a time, each landing with a clack as he began his sales patter.

Yes. I had been invited into the learned man's home so he could pitch us to "invest" in waterless cookware. I don't remember the dinner, but we managed to hold in our laughter until well down the road.

Did I understand this man? Perhaps. The salary of a professor at a Christian college in 1981 was likely something short of handsome. Would I ever trust this man again, did I respect him as I had the day before? Not a chance. He had violated the power relationship, and misused his influence to try and earn a few shekels. His agenda trumped his common sense, and he ruined any idea I may have had about furthering that relationship. (Not that he cared, that was never his aim.)

"Monetizing social requires betraying trust." - Stephen Bates. (@batess)

The vendor, the marketer, the employer - each approach "social" with an asymmetrical agenda. There are no true 'win-wins,' for any of these relationships. Mutual value can be established, but this is a nuanced negotiation, not a dictated Terms of Service. Predictive analytics will not tell you how to approach or maintain individuals within your target network. Even considering a network as something to target begins to fray the trust needed for a true network of value.

And speaking of targets, this one is moving. The nodes you want in your network are on the move, literally. They expect to have their network available everywhere, and for their technology to sense and respond based on location, time of day, available data about their plans, and more. You know that friend who just "gets" you? That is what people are beginning to expect from their mobile and social technologies, and the relationships they represent. No latency, and no friction. Count the number of times you hear someone scold their device for a lack of responsiveness. Note how quickly they abandon a task if the device will not cooperate.

The secret to understanding social may lie in rethinking some classic marketing and management 'truths.' This is related to the shift in how work is done, how buying decisions are made, and how disintermedation is preferred in each. Some questions to ponder:

  • What is your budget for relationship building? Is it reconciled against this quarter's earnings, or do you allow for the messiness of human relationships and uncertain timelines to fit within your allocation for network growth and maintenance?
  • By now, you have likely established business value statements for the investment in 'social.' Now, how are you measured by your network? What is their internal value statements for engaging with you? Have you allowed for these to shift, based on their moods and emotions? Are you engaged in a conversation to understand continuously how you're viewed, or are you busy segmenting and predicting based on Big Data?
  • Are you trusting your gut? You know instinctively which Twitter accounts are hitting the mark, and which are just broadcasting. (Hint: Rep Dingell (@John_Dingell) of Michigan is doing it right.) You know the famous gaffes on social media, you know the tune to "United Breaks Guitars." Have you embedded this gut understanding of relative authenticity into your plan for 'social?'

In the past weeks, several offline conversations have raised this - all with the same conclusion. "No one really 'gets' social right yet." Perhaps this is because we have not considered what needs to change in order to become "social," or, to reclaim a term: network-centric. Or, more likely and more sadly, we refuse to do so.

The Death of Mystery?

Actor Bruce Dern was on a show recently where he mused about his first days in Hollywood rubbing shoulders with the giants of the entertainment industry. “They were larger than life,” he told the host, “because no one knew what they were doing after school.” He finished by offering: ‘now everyone knows what happens after school, and there is no more mystery.’

The end of mystery is one outcome in these early days of the ‘social era,’ or whatever we end up calling this time. The examples are all around us;

  • Russia claims hundreds of thousands flee from Ukraine, while social media points us to a webcam that purports to show a quiet border crossing.
  • A Congressman’s private extra-marital flirtations are a mis-click away from becoming global broadcasts.
  • Young entertainers behave like young people - and ‘news sites’ thrive like parasitical sucker fish on the visual evidence of their exploits.

This goes further, however. For every news event, social media offers reassurances that our gut reaction to the news is justified. News feeds are tailored to the items that attract us, and our nascent opinions are reinforced quickly by our Facebook and Twitter feeds. So quickly, in fact, that often our views are shaped before we can imagine. Before we can ponder what events mean, if anything.

And this may be the tragedy. With news media (in countries like the USA and China, based on personal observation) positioned to tell us what we should think about events over reporting the events, it is a simple exercise to believe the “analysis” over new information. Research shows that once we hold a position on a topic, new information that conflicts with that position is not welcomed, but questioned. The more new information argues against our position, the more entrenched our opinions become.

What happens when we form opinions quickly, edging out the imagination that is a natural response to partial information? When we receive confident “analysis” that supports what we wish to believe about an event, at almost the same time we learn about that event, we skip past the part where we struggle to make sense of the new circumstance. We miss the opportunity for novel thought.

Russian troops move into Crimea; so what does that mean? See if you can find yourself in this list:

  • This is obviously a result of President Obama’s weakness on the world stage
  • This is obviously a reasonable response to protect the ethnic Russians in Crimea, who are distressed that their democratically-elected leadership was forced from office
  • This is obviously Putin, still distressed by the end of the Soviet Union, reinforcing a “near abroad” doctrine (Russia is allowed to intervene in internal affairs of its immediate neighbors - a doctrine compared to the US historical stance towards Latin America, and discussed within political science as the phenomenon of “geographic fatalism” from the persecutive of the target nations.)

And so on. Within hours, blogs were written to explain the events, to include one creative author who notices the February date parallel between these events and the 1933 Reichstag fire, and we begin to filter and form our opinions - based not on imagination and our own experience, but based on the opinions made available to us. While blogs take hours in some cases, Twitter can be counted on for immediate reactions.

What happens when we forget to imagine? What happens to novel solutions, to that overused “innovation” word? If we are training ourselves to allow others to imagine for us, usually people whose world view already matches ours, what becomes of our ability to learn or debate or be civil to those who disagree?

In fact, mystery is not dead. Whatever early confidence we develop, whatever appears certain to us, the situation itself remains uncertain. Our opinions do not change facts. Mystery is alive and well, what may have eroded is our ability to revel in it. To consider, learn, and experiment with novel ideas. Our ability to envision is something missing at many levels. We need it back.

The Guru Problem


Years back, I had the good fortune to talk with David Gilmour, back when he was deeply involved in the Tacit Knowledge System. The software, since absorbed and disappeared by Oracle (hoping my Oracle friends can correct me here), simply allowed you to find expertise. You ask a question, and the system decided who could help you based on a simple Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis of corporate emails. It discerned between people who answer questions and those who ask in order to find the "gurus." Fun side note: "simple NLP" refers to noun-phrase understanding. As I recall, there are seven levels of NLP analysis, the highest being the understanding of discourse - which I believe remains an elusive goal for now. IBM's Watson is an example of a higher order system for NLP analysis, by comparison, understanding concepts beyond noun-phrase matching but short of discourse.

To find the guru, noun-phrase would be sufficient, and the questions in email communications were easy enough to discern. This is more difficult to do with today's collaborative tools, and the last time I listened to an NLP expert - they were trying to discern conversations within Instant Messaging tools (consider the disjointed nature due to lags and such in a IM or texting stream).

Gilmour's team also patented the magic that made the whole thing palatable to the gurus, who, after all, have little reason to celebrate tools that offer them nothing but an increase in the number of questions they receive daily. Anyone in the system could "dial down" their visibility at any time. The system would know of their expertise, but the questioner may receive no hint of that person; or may receive a response: 'Someone who could help you has been made aware of your request.' This took passive-aggressive potential to new heights. The thinking was, when you had time, you raise the curtain and let them find you by name. When you did not, you lowered the curtain - but still got to see the people wandering about blindly on the other side. The social games that this could feed boggle the mind.

I attended a workshop a few weeks ago, and talked about my experiences with my current employer. Where we use multi-functional collaboration software, follow status updates and blogs from people in our self-selected network of colleagues, etc. One question I received went to the guru problem: "Don't you spend all your day answering questions, if you have desired expertise? By 'working out loud,' aren't you just increasing the probability that more people will find you and bug you with questions?" I immediately thought of the Tacit Knowledge System and my first thought was: "Yeah, I can't lower the curtain, he's got a point." Fortunately, I thought a little before opening my mouth - not something I often nail. The truth is, it doesn't work like that. When I have a question, I don't seek out the expertise and post on their wall or email them - instead, I develop a network, and then telegraph my need. Yes, I'm using metaphors from past centuries, but it fits here.

An example: I was meeting with a client who asked about our internal usage analytics - my firm has a page anyone behind the firewall can see that shows company-wide usage and trends for our collaboration tools. The problem: I hadn't bookmarked it. As the client asked the question, I pulled up my activity stream and posted the question. Within two minutes, literally, a network colleague posted the link for me. Consider this. Rather than pestering the people I know have the info, and without taking time from the client conversation to search, I was able to raise my hand - and someone who was available and reading took the time to provide the answer. Besides the answer: I was able to talk the client about the behavior, the network cultivation, the expected reciprocity, etc., that mattered more than any of the tools or analytics. Good times, if you're an abject geek.

The notion of 'working out loud' is more than exhibitionism. I live within a system of engagement, where I can share what I'm learning and experiencing, answer questions where I can, and generally tend to a broad virtual team where expertise comes to the question. Solving the guru problem, as it happens, takes a 'village.'

How Bottom-Feeders May Be Accelerating Tribalism

Two events in this young week spur me to the keyboard. In the face of social media evangelists who see only the upside of increased global connections - new business models, micro-financing, etc. - we also see the dark side of humanity amplified. This is not a new observation, but when you add the prurient, voyeuristic human tendencies to the mix: we see the market for of information brokers who exist only to aggregate and disseminate the dark behaviors to live on the edges of social boundaries. Not the Reddits of the world, but those who aspire to replace broadcast media...often by scouring Reddit regularly.  These brokers, as I abuse multiple metaphors, bridge the grease traps of the commons with the daily newspaper of the iPad. A massacre in the Washington Navy Yard on Monday stole the lives of twelve, the early list of the dead tell stories of middle age and public service. Yesterday, during the rampage, you could follow #NavyYard and #NavyYardShooting on Twitter to get links to authoritative info, access to real-time rumors, and a front-row seat to journalists getting it wrong in spectacular style; at one point, broadcasting the wrong identity for the murderer. I should point out, this last mistake pales in comparison to a blogger who published a name as well - but there is a difference between an honest mistake (ID card found near the dead murderer*) and dashing off an entirely fake article with a Muslim-sounding name to reinforce a terrorist narrative.

*[I am aware that 'shooter' is the term of art for first-responders and law enforcement. It details both the threat and expected injuries. I feel that regular people should feel free to restore the passion to the terms used in times like these. Journalists may revel in the militarization of language, but life is not a television show.]

In addition, though, you could see the tribal boundaries. Gun advocates immediately mocked gun control advocates, because the killings (ongoing at the time of the snarky exchanges) happened in Washington DC, a locale with strict gun control laws. Gun control advocates were not any less opportunistic, asking "is now the time to talk about guns?" Again, I observed these while the killer was alive and ending souls. Anti-Obama folk argued that this was happening because the President has 'disarmed' the military. Spurred on by one noted conspiracy theorist, several voices declared this a 'false flag' operation (created by the Government to distract from something) - apparently because the murders were occurring on a Monday morning.

If you were glued to Twitter, you would begin to see these jarring messages overwhelm actual information. If you explored the individual Twitter pages for these tangential offerings, you would see an existing theme on each. They use any occasion to repeat their core message. The occasion of a mass murder was no more than encouragement to repeat this message, the tragedy just another data point in their ongoing screeds. If you only listened to broadcast media, you would be spared these voices. (You would still be subject to the inevitable mistakes made when broadcasters are forced to talk with no new information.)

Increasingly, there are information brokers who specialize in amplifying and re-broadcasting the fringe. This piece points out that because of these social aggregators - the flounder of the Internet - the main Google result for those wishing to learn more about the newly-crowned Miss America referred to the racist comments thrown her way. From Ms. Petri:

For decades, in the privacy of their living rooms, people have said ignorant things when something happened on TV. This is not news, even if the second-screen experience means that the living room now includes the equivalent of carving your offhand mutterings unalterably into stone.

People who are offended by the existence of non-white Americans or merely rooting for the "more American" candidate from Kansas were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. So much so that the young woman was confronted with their hatred at her morning 'press conference.' Her accomplishments overshadowed by the call to respond to these aggrieved racists - something she did with nobility and grace.  The fringe overwhelms the story.


Joachim Stroh is an immensely talented visual artist, who recently created the graphic here, demonstrating how communities overlap over time. Because the social Internet is truly a great thing at heart, I was able to interact and share my thoughts with him; that increased tribalism and retrenchment may be one unexpected outcome over time instead - and to his credit, he was trying to convey that as well in the final panel.  His point is that we are more aware of the other tribes. Another correspondent in that conversation offered that we may be able to "bury bold, primal divisions under layers of abstraction" by continuing to emphasize the commonalities rather than the divisions.  Allow the greater good to overcome human nature, is how I read that.

What I've been missing is the role of information brokers. We "know" broadcast media is dead, of course, even though it provides the links for the Twitterati during unfolding events. But the Listicle Media serves up a continuous stream: telling us how we are responding to the unfortunate choices of Ms. Cyrus; or how racists feel about the achievements of non-white people; or how the dark fringes of political tribes are absorbing any occasion to restate their litany; and of course, cat videos.

To what extent are these aggregators shaping how we view the world?  In a world where your friend's recommendations drive your consumption choices - are we ready to adopt the prism of the fringe to help us understand current events?  This leads me to ponder how the Syrian civil war is viewed in Washington DC almost entirely using a political lens, but I've gone on long enough today.

Social Media Centers of Excellence? Really?



My morning Twitter feed led to me to an article released in July of this year, an intriguing if baffling idea from Dion Hinchcliffe here

I put my tea down. Hard.

Here's my issue with the thoughtful piece linked above: it treats 'social media' as just another enterprise skill that needs to be accommodated with the same management approaches: stakeholders, goals & requirements, processes, knowledge base, etc. Set up a Center of Excellence to ensure the organization's social media efforts are coherent, managed, and answerable to business - noble goals, I quibble with the approach.

Nothing new here. Doubt me? Change the topic to Records Management and tell me how the graphic would be any different. Underlying technology infrastructure, core set of experts to ensure the 'knowledge base' information is disseminated, heroes out in the business (notice the business is always external to these types of presentations) who 'get it,' etc. (The burning platform for Records Management is arguably an easier case to make than standing up a center of excellence for Social Media.)

If you accept that social media is just something that companies are now doing haphazardly and need to 'get more strategic' about - then by all means, set aside 5-10 FTE to help your firm 'do social.' If you believe that the integration of social methods and tools is something that can advance your business or agency objectives, however, perhaps changing how you think about existing functions is in order. I shudder to think about organizations who have a Knowledge Management function, deciding to stand up a separate 'social media' Center of Excellence. What then? Regular cadence meetings to "ensure alignment" between these two tribes, each 'supporting the business' according to their specific play-books?

For my part, social methods and tools (please think of this as an inviolate couplet, it is never about the tools alone) should transform how an organization approaches Knowledge Management. At the very least. It should also change how we think about communications, innovation, customer service, citizen outreach, dispersed operations, and the list goes on. To mummify the promise of social methods and tools inside a 20th century management construct that emphasizes existing processes and stakeholders is to ensure the marginalization of this promise - if not its demise.

Frankly, I am surprised at this piece by the esteemed Dachis Group - what did I get wrong? What am I missing?

Moron Facebook

Actually, I mean "More on Facebook," but as I was once accused of using fancy headlines to draw clicks (to this site with no advertising), I thought I would play the part and see if that behavior makes any difference. Tongue is firmly encheeked. Also, this isn't about Facebook at all. Not really. I opined recently that the problem with asking: "Why isn't our enterprise platform as easy to use as Facebook" is that we use these platforms for vastly different purposes. In fact, if we structured work to be social and collaborative - more aligned with our natural approach to interactions - then we would suffer a higher threshold of frustration regarding the technology in order to connect and engage. After all, as easy as Facebook appears to be (acutely aware that I am an ex-pat when it comes to Facebook): it can be aggravating and frustrating. But because we (by this I mean you) are willing to engage, the aggravations are accepted and overcome.

When I wrote that post, I asked that if we had a workplace that required the types of interactions that are central to Facebook - perhaps the adoption for enterprise collaboration software would increase. Change the work approach, and the tool is no longer such a barrier.

I'm beginning to think this was a partial answer. At best. There is another aspect to this, which I explored with a gentleman last week: There is a clear difference between systems of engagement and systems of purpose. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., are all designed to be sticky. They just need you to spend time on the site. They dazzle and tease, but are designed principally to engage you. At work, however we may restructure it - we are trying to get something done.

So enterprise collaboration platforms cannot be just places to become engaged. Yammer does a good job at this, but if you spend all your time on Yammer - chances are you are not getting work done. Unless your job is to increase Yammer adoption. Enterprise collaboration platforms need to be answer the requirements to become systems of purpose. 500+ connections, joining the LION club, or increasing your Klout score: these do not solve any business need. These platforms need to also provide a way to work. Templates, project workspaces, forms, integration with productivity suites, etc. These characterize the enterprise collaboration platform. Add in the ability to work with partners and clients, and you can see that a focus on purposeful interaction rather than interaction for its own sake leads to very different solutions.

Just thought I'd let technology off the hook for once.

Menlo Park Syndrome

Psychologists refer to something called the capture-bonding psychological trait, something Wikipedia claims may ‘lie behind battered-wife syndrome, military basic training, fraternity hazing,’ and so forth. That reference to basic training is illuminating.  I recall my first night in basic, looking out the window at a bird on a wire as I struggled to relax.  After a time, I noticed the bird was long gone and the sky was a different, lighter color.  I can’t be certain, but I’m fairly sure I stared out the window for hours rather than sleep that short night.  I must have blinked a few times, but otherwise - I can still see that wire.  I had been captured.

Fortunately: the inane conversations and arguments over nothing, the routines designed to test discipline and obedience, and the constant inconvenience that is experienced when you life is not your own - ended with my graduation from U.S. Air Force basic training six weeks later.

Thirty years later, I graduated from Facebook and felt much the same immediate relief as I did when I placed San Antonio, Texas in my rearview mirror.  My life is my own again.

I do not blame Facebook for the inane conversations and arguments, those were the result of my lack of discipline.  I could not bring myself to avoid political arguments, and continue to be amazed at how many of my friends and family seem to be auditioning for positions as AM talk show hosts.  Some friends said they appreciated my engaging in these conversations, but I began wondering why my time was being given over as the front man in the picket line, screaming across at the counter-protesters.

My grown children are much better at balancing their time on here, and marveled that I found myself spending far too much of an evening crafting arguments or responses during the political season last year.  (I fear the term ‘political season, implying a discrete period for political discourse interspersed with apolitical periods - is destined for the dustbin.)  Soon, it seemed every news event or rumor started appearing on my ‘wall,’ and I was responding to far too many of them.  I culled my ‘friend’ list late in the Fall, hoping that removing some of the fringe would restore my evenings, but to no avail.  I did have constructive, inspiring, and thoughtful exchanges with many of my friends, but also somehow once encouraged a childhood friend of my Bride’s to demand I perform a biologically unnatural act upon myself.  Sorry about that one, love.

So last week - I pulled the plug.  I’m not wired to filter or ignore, and apparently I’m drawn to the drama.  It’s not you, Facebook, it’s me.  Well, to be fair, it’s partly you.  I do not know what my 81-year old mother clicked on in order to ‘like’ Tyler Perry movies, but that’s something I did not need to know.  The increase in posts telling me that various friends ‘like’ a certain retailer or musician became quite distracting.  Yes, there are tools to tinker endlessly with one’s feed - but I understood quickly that having to tinker endlessly is yet another ingenious approach to keeping you focused on the site. Let's not even get into your endless policy changes, ever proving the common wisdom: If you're not paying for the service, you are the product.

I will miss out on your latest innovation, where now social graphs can be searched.  (Finally, I can know in one click how many of my friends ‘liked’ Les Miserables!)  Somehow, I will struggle on without that insight.  By reducing just this one ‘walled garden,’ which had become more of a dog run for me really, I have already regained my evenings and some of my sanity.

Much as I felt thirty years ago, I have no regrets placing Facebook in my rear view mirror.  Unlike my previous capture-bonding syndrome, however, where I continue to harbor a love for the U.S. Air Force, I will not defend my more recent captor.    It turns out that curing Menlo Park Syndrome is as easy as this:

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

I stumbled across an interesting perspective this morning - one that argues perhaps we are "over thinking" the notion of a social enterprise.  "How different I wondered was the social capital I build up when I share a Word problem work-around on the company social network from when I lend my neighbor the proverbial cup of sugar.  In both instances, I'm sharing because it's the proper social thing to do and because I likely believe the next time, that person might help me when I need it." The author goes on to posit that our social capital management is probably the same offline as offline.  All these efforts to identify behaviors and set expectations for enterprise social behavior is misguided, we're making things too complicated.  Invariably, (although not in the piece I reference here), we come to impugn the motives of those who are "making things complicated." The author, as I say, does not fire that bullet, but sums up thus: "Maybe we are just doing what we've always been taught to do, to share and cooperate with one another.  If we tap into these simple ideas, all enterprise social software is doing is taking advantage of the way most of us were brought up."

Ahem.  In addition to reflecting almost none of the case studies of enterprise social software, the author of this piece misses two critical points: your workplace is not your neighborhood, and the cup of sugar examples fails because sugar-sharing is a 1:1 endeavor, while the Word problem work-around sharing is 1:n.

Taking the second point first: You are much more likely to share assets, resources, knowledge, etc., when approached and asked within the context of an individual's need - than you are to "share" with no immediate reciprocity or other statement of value.

In other words: you may give your neighbor a cup of sugar upon request, but I doubt you place cups of sugar outside your door on a regular basis.  Nor would you drive to the mall and leave a cup there.

The mall?  To my first point: Yes, the mall is another created social construct, just like your workplace, that drives certain behavior.  When we place ourselves into purposeful social constructs, such as a mall or a workplace, our identity / role / time management (etc.) all change.  The mall is designed to facilitate retail commerce; dropping bags of sugar hither and yon would, among other things, violate the intention of the sugar merchant therein.  Similarly, in your workplace, you are motivated by what is measured and valued. For many reasons, there is a gap between the rate and quality of what is should be shared for organizational value and what is actually shared.

Understanding the organizational incentives, and the degree to which they force us away from our natural good nature sugar-sharing selves, is critical to solving this gap. Social constructs and contexts matter, and comparisons invariably fall down when they ignore the context.

All Social is Learning

I’ve been reflecting lately on my brief sojourn into education reform prior to returning to “the world.”  Several things I learned there, including the idea that how brains work and how people interact represent new fields of study to the Field of Education. (With apologies to any of my new Ed friends, please correct me if I heard wrong!) Yeah, I was appalled too.  Turns out it’s called there “The Learning Sciences,” and while I don’t know when it started to gain traction, people in education somewhat recently started to compare the education system we have with the stuff we’re learning from cognitive science, sociology, etc.  Pretty exciting stuff, and I can’t help but compare this welcome attention to interdisciplinary studies to the breakthrough in economics when - RECENTLY - leading economists began to realize that people are messy and don’t have consistent utility functions.  (In both cases, the system failures become a tad obvious using this lens.)

So the world is changing.  All around us.  One meme in education making the rounds is, attributed to The Learning Sciences:  “All learning is social!”  As someone mentioned this weekend on Twitter: The learning that isn’t social, isn’t worth our time studying. This remains controversial - what about human instinct, core behaviors, the idea that some of our personality traits may be inherited?  Surely these aren’t learned! But then we read that an infant, long before she can understand a language, is able to discern WHICH language is spoken by her tiny tribe.  And before she understands that she belongs to the same animal group as her parents and siblings, she can discern individual faces among primates.  Once she learns that she is one of the naked apes, the individuality among chimpanzee faces becomes invisible to her, as it is to us.

Ponder that one for a minute.  Heady stuff.

This weekend, I was struck by a logic stick.  If all learning is social, is all social learning?  We know this is not automatically so, learned that in the intro to Logic, Sets and Numbers (an actual college course I took in the 70’s).  But when we engage in a social setting, online or offline, are we ever not learning?  Let’s add in a third statement: we are constantly learning.  Even while asleep, some research indicates, the brain assembles and makes sense of what it experienced that day.  There isn’t a time when our brains aren’t rewiring themselves based on input from our environment.

We learn something from every experience.  If events occur as predicted, we reinforce that cognitive pattern for the next use (naturally, we have the ability to learn the wrong things here).  If they do not, we reconsider our pattern assessment logic.  We descend the stairs at 3 am differently once we learn the fourth step from the landing squeaks now - and will subsequently do that in another’s home without thinking.

So we’re constantly learning, and all learning is social.  (Is it?  We learned that squeaky stair avoidance thing on our own, didn’t we?  Hint:  No.)

Enter social media!  What is your social media strategy?  Does that question even make sense anymore?  Or should we ask now:  What is your learning strategy, and what role is played therein by social media, happy hours, phone calls, email, downtime, etc.?  If all social is learning, shouldn’t any associated strategy for socializing tools be focused there?


24 Nov: Update, thanks to the great comments I'm getting here.  Here is a another great resource exploring this notion that all learning is social, and questioning the value of corporate training methods as a result:

Evolve, Dammit!

  • Facebook privacy challenges continue as applications you trusted expose data you thought was private. Facebook is alarmed and promises to fix this. Your new normal: stop playing Mafia Wars.
  • The “evening news” is no longer the authoritative source for What To Know, as it was when I was a child (as nicely articulated by Clay Shirky). Media outlets frame information within a comforting tribal narrative - as research confirms that we trust scientists (and, theoretically, newsreaders) who confirm our belief system. Your new normal: commit to reading / viewing several different biased media outlets, in hopes of getting “the whole story.”
  • You think telecommuting would be the dream job - then realize your home is designed for distracted comfort rather than productive work. Your new normal: rethink your sanctuary.

This isn’t new, the association of increased responsibility with increased autonomy is a constant requirement for civilization. The U.S. military adopted ancient models when it structured decision making as a distributed function, within established rules and roles. As an enlisted recruit in basic training, I was told when and how to disobey an order that could be unlawful.  It was my responsibility to disobey such an order, which meant it was my responsibility to understand the difference between lawful and not. This ‘professionalization’ of the enlisted was extraordinary (but not unique), and represented an advantage of decision agility over adversaries who employed a more autocratic decision model.

Being a technically literate and responsible citizen / internet user / driver is more important than ever, as consumer electronics and information acceleration places more responsibility on our shoulders. At a dinner recently, a friend recounted her experiences at a recent college reunion. Leafing through a friend’s photo album, she was aghast at what was considered appropriate party behavior (and costume) in the 1980s. Thankfully, this was before Facebook - so her secret is safe (until someone decides to buy a scanner). If those photos were available online, some of us would have different careers today.

Kids today aren’t more wild than we were, they just have more ways to have their past attached to their adult identity - and more ways to indulge a short attention span. Do we even know what is expected of our children, in order to manage safely their transition to adult? To be a responsible teen, children need to navigate significant ravines of risk while interacting with their friends. These ravines were puddles in the 90s, and cracks

in the sidewalk in the 60s. Gone is the long phone cord, stretched into a closet for privacy. Interactions ping them in the backpack or pocket - and can come from anywhere on Earth. And present an almost irresistible pull to teens and adults alike, even while attempting to drive a 3,000 lb automobile.

In the 70s, I balanced an AM radio on the dashboard to keep me company while driving a sales route in Manhattan. This, because the glovebox was unavailable, because that is where I stuffed an after-market 8-track player (also, the antenna needed to be closer to the windshield). Hard left turns sent the radio flying across the dash - a distraction because I wasn’t responsible enough to get the factory radio fixed. Compare this to the distractions available to drivers today. My Rube Goldberg sound system is nothing compared to the world of smart phone interactions that beckon us at every turn.

We are called upon to evolve. Faster. Develop greater discipline regarding what earns our attention, and how we make decisions. The new normal: Don’t trust anything you hear, even on cable or sent to your inbox or posted on your Facebook wall. Don’t indulge in every tempting distraction, however urgent that wall post or text seems to be. Also: don’t presume the answer is to avoid consumer electronics altogether. Government services will expect citizens to be connected and literate. Consider the broadband initiatives from the FCC - the interstate highway system of the 21st century is considered necessary to connect us to the new normals. Some advocates are seeking to prioritize these connections to favor first hospitals, libraries...and schoolhouses.

It’s idle fun for me to gaze at my grandchildren and wonder what their work and social life will be like in twenty years. I tend to forget that I expect to be around to witness it, and therefore will have some adapting of my own to accomplish.

What’s your new normal? How fast can you evolve? How do you avoid the inadvertent base jump?

Increasing "Jointness" and Reducing Duplication in DoD Intelligence

When the Secretary of Defense asks you to do something, you need to heed the call, whether you are in government or not. He recently asked all DoD military and civilian employees to submit their ideas to save money, avoid cost, reduce cycle time and increase the agility of the department. He asked in a way that should generate many good ideas (for more see: ).  A small team of us have a bias towards one idea in particular.  This concept is being cross-posted on the blogs of several of the contributors, including Michael Tanji’s Haft of the Spear, John Bordeaux’s, Bob Gourley’ and Lewis Shepherd’s .  We hope you will give this concept a read. If the SecDef and his senior staff decide these ideas have merit your support may be needed in getting these ideas some much needed traction.

Increasing “Jointness” and Reducing Duplication in DoD Intelligence

by Chris Rasmussen

with contributions from LCDR John D. Ismay, John Bordeaux, Bob Gourley, Michael Tanji

This paper was submitted to DoD’s INVEST (Innovation for New Value, Efficiency, and Savings Tomorrow) contest on September 23, 2010.

The explosive intelligence spending over the last decade initiated by the 9/11 attacks has been both a blessing and curse. The initial spending was a warranted blessing but as time passed it turned into a curse that created far too much duplication of effort, fragmentation, and sprawl throughout the United States Intelligence Community (IC). The initial infusion of cash dovetailed with a renewed focus on information sharing and “collaboration,” which was emphasized in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004. While modest gains have been made in breaking down “stovepipes,” the initial energy of these “collaborative” efforts has waned and increased spending has largely cemented bad habits: siloed analytic reporting that fuels massive duplication of effort. If these negative trends continue and a new “joint” business model is not adopted wholesale, the promise that sparked IRTPA is in danger of being unrealized. A move way from the newspaper-like “finished intelligence” model to a “purple intelligence” model more aligned with Internet-enabled global trends in content-centric enterprises will increase analytic “jointness” and reduce duplication–saving billions of dollars and resulting in improved intelligence insight.

Each intelligence agency still behaves much like an independent newspaper writing whatever it wants with limited coordination with other agencies. As newspapers around the world are going bankrupt due to the changes in content creation and delivery of services over the Internet, the Intelligence Community is moving in the opposite direction: more editorial control in the form of “finished intelligence” (vertically vetted projects within an agency) posted to “portals.” This trend ignores the democratizing and crowdsourcing trends of the Internet which are changing the world of personal electronics, software development, consumer spending, content delivery and creation.

The majority of the US Intelligence Community is comprised of Department of Defense (DoD) elements. The “INVEST” ideas expressed in this analysis can be applied to the broader IC, which is beyond DoD control, but the cost saving suggestions of this paper should be applied to DoD elements first to set an example. The term “IC” (Intelligence Community) throughout this paper largely refers to the intelligence agencies of DoD such as DIA, NGA, NSA, the service intelligence elements, and combatant command elements.

Observers of transformation underway in commercial organizations often note that organizations with smaller budgets deliver far greater capability. Many of these small budget commercial capabilities are not only disrupting and shifting markets, but often are delivering capabilities that are more powerful than the legacy systems they displace. Some of the greatest use cases in this area are those observed in the displacement of old-fashioned newspapers for outlets of information. “New” content sources are often of higher quality, greater relevance, and available at much lower costs (almost free!) Since the IC is in dire need of higher quality and more relevance – and all in the federal sector are in need of economical alternatives – lessons from this sector are important to consider.

The literature regarding innovation is clear – technology and process innovation can be put to use as an incremental improvement to existing operations, or can used to disrupt existing operations in pursuit of transformation. One famous case study compares the incorporation of individual online trading technology into the business models of Charles Schwab and Merrill Lynch. Lynch assigned the same brokers, with the same incentive programs, to add online trading to their portfolio. There were no individual incentives to tend to the new channel – and no disruption to the business model was expected or desired. One innovation author notes the contrast with the approach taken by Charles Schwab, which immediately “created a separate business unit to conduct online trading and made a masterful transition to the computer-centric investment management world – ultimately phasing out its original broker-based business unit…the new unit operated at much higher trading volumes and significantly lower costs than those characterizing the traditional business.” The IC cannot continue to marginalize potentially disruptive innovations and hope to thrive in a rapidly changing threat environment.

Intelink and Intellipedia

Intelink, launched in 1994, was an internal governmental response to extend the budding HTML and web browser revolution forming on the Internet to the IC. Websites began to proliferate from PACOM to the CIA to the NSA. In addition to agencies posting “their” content, some agencies started to expose traditional cable traffic – previously bound to dissemination lists – to Intelink for broader discoverability. This could be considered the IC’s “Web 1.0” phase.

In 2005, Intelink started to host a series of “Web 2.0” tools such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking services, and document storage all of which were indexed by Google Search Appliance. This move was a surprise to many: the stodgy and security conscious IC was moving ahead of many private sector companies with its use of Web 2.0 tools behind the firewall (dubbed “Enterprise 2.0”) to increase knowledge transfer and information sharing. The flagship application in Intelink’s tool kit was Intellipedia—a wiki built upon the same software that drives Wikipedia hosted on all three security networks: JWICS, SIPRNET, and NIPRNET.

Intellipedia is a media darling. The underlying message in the press was “if the IC can use a wiki, so can our company.” Intellipedia and other Intelink 2.0 tools have impressive registration and activity rates and inspired many throughout industry, government, and academia to pursue the “wiki way.” After almost five years of “collaboration” as an industry leader, it is long past time to consider the result. Intellipedia boasts many collaborative successes by facilitating insights among analysts, but this is marginal change. The underlying assumptions regarding the prevailing finished intelligence workflow have not been questioned. In fact, much of Intellipedia’s “success” is rooted in transforming non-analytic work.

Intellipedia has proven effective at reducing the amount of email and streamlining basic administrative work common across the corporate world. Posting office and administrative content (such as concept of operation documents, requirements lists, software design de-bugging matrices, and meeting minutes) to Intellipedia is helpful, but it fails to reach the core function of the IC. The IC’s core business function is analytic output, to date unchanged by this information sharing “revolution.”

Let’s assume that every “enabler” office within an agency (such as human resources, IT, investment, legal, acquisition, logistics, training, etc.) achieves transparent office status, thereby reaping the benefits of crowdsourcing and data discovery, while the analytic core of the agency does not? The result is limited transformation: the primary function of an intelligence unit is analytic output and all “enabler” functions exist to support analysis. The “revolution” is incomplete.

From the perspective of structural analytic transformation, “2.0” tools have done little to reform the approach to analytic “production.” The analytic core is trying to use the “new web” to tell stories in a different way but is falling short for two primary reasons: 1) The “2.0” tools still remain as a complement—not an alternative—to the existing production processes used to create the 50,000 products a year published across the IC and rising. 2) A vast amount of stock content is pushed out in traditional dissemination channels with much overlap. Some have argued Intellipedia is a “knowledge base.” If it is a knowledge base then finding links to base knowledge in “official” or “tailored” content should be easy. It is not. In fact, there are very few links to Intellipedia in official agency output – because it’s not “officially” trusted.


Launched in 2007, A-Space is a virtual work environment where analysts connect with other analysts, ask questions, and see what their colleagues are doing. The result is similar to Facebook’s news feed. A-Space is a good place to “think out loud” and ask questions in threaded forums but as Intellipedia before it A-Space is struggling because it doesn’t address reforming or replacing the finished intelligence process.

Patrick Neary, former Deputy ADDNI for Strategy, Plans & Policy, noted: “Analytic Transformation (AT) has as its tag line ‘unleashing the potential of a community of analysts.’ While each of [its] initiatives will—if and when they are successfully deployed—improve the daily routine of community analysts, it is entirely unclear when a transformation in analysis will occur. While the AT initiatives are necessary preconditions to analytic reform, they do not address the decentralized management of analysis or the product-centric analytic process. Real reform in analysis will require agencies to give up proprietary products and share customer relationships, establish new rules facilitating on-line collaboration, and focus more on intelligence as a service than a product.”

The decentralized management of analysis manifests itself in many ways, but the most glaring is that agencies can write “products” on any topic with limited to no coordination with other agencies. They then disseminate those products to their “customers” often without the benefits of “upstream,” joint collaboration. This practice creates incredible amounts of overlap and duplication. The gusher of intelligence spending increased duplication because it simply augmented the siloed habits of analytic production.

The Washington Post series “Top Secret America” revealed: “Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.” Many in the IC argue that the “Top Secret America” series was sensationalist and some parts of the story were inaccurate, which is true. However, the observation above is accurate and is a microcosm of the larger problem of excessive duplication fueled by increased spending.

As with most public sector organizations, the application of private sector insights must be tempered by the understanding that private sector goals of efficiency will not always apply. The IC is not designed for efficiency. It’s designed instead to be effective with purposeful overlap built into the system to catch things that may slip by a single entity. A popular saying within the IC is: “one man’s duplication is another man’s competitive analysis.” This axiom is partly true but is too often used to legitimize excessive overlap. For example, five to ten units working the same topic is probably effective but no one can honestly argue that 51 organizations working on the same issue is effective. This inability to scope “sufficient” redundancy leads to uncontrolled costs and a lack of accountability. While efficiency may be sacrificed for effectiveness, this should not translate into rampant task duplication with no cost ceiling or metrics for governance.

Another expression of excessive duplication can be seen in how A-Space is currently being used. A-Space is built around “workspaces” which must be named. Analysts from across community can focus talent and energy on a topic and gain new efficiencies through a combination of “crowdsourced” workflow and the “in-house” work of their team. Unfortunately, this is not really happening. Analysts are projecting the organizational construct of offices, sub-offices and “fusion centers” working similar issues into the potentially “flat” A-Space. For example, there are over 100 workspaces dedicated to Iran. A workspace simply named “Iran” is too generic and more specific workspaces such as “Iran’s Conventional Military” are needed to manage the workflow. But, as previously noted, 25 workspaces devoted to Iranian topics would probably be effective but no one can honestly argue that over 100 is generating synergy.

Goldwater-Nichols Analogy

Many have commented that the IC needs to model the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 to create more “jointness.” Prior to Goldwater-Nichols each military service “trained, acquired, and equipped” and also conducted operations virtually independently. Goldwater-Nichols took war planning and operational powers away from the military services and centralized it to a “commander” of a geographic or functional command. Goldwater-Nichols did several other things: it made the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff the primary military advisor to the President replacing the confusion that resulted when each service chief gave disparate advice. Also, it mandated that flag officers serve in a joint duty assignment in order to receive further promotion. These stipulations of Goldwater-Nichols are outside the scope of this paper but I’d like to focus on the services losing operational power and apply it to the IC.

Goldwater-Nichols created jointness in the military because the services traded off some power to bolster a more effective central entity. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 created the DNI and set in motion many reforms but it did not stipulate that intelligence agencies would have to trade off any power to bolster a command or center like Goldwater-Nichols. The agencies “train, acquire, and equip” but also conduct operations independently much as the military services did prior to Goldwater-Nichols. For the most part, the IC does not conduct kinetic operations like the military, rather the IC’s “operations” are its analytic and collection functions. Some argue something similar to Goldwater-Nichols cannot work in the IC because it’s spread across five cabinet departments unlike the military services which are all under DoD. There is some merit to this argument from a command and budgeting perspective, but this does not detract from the overall message: achieving analytic jointness and reducing duplication with a series of DoD Directives – specifically aimed at removing some of the independent analytic power of agencies, service components, and combatant commands.

Balancing the corporate voice with crowdsourcing

No single agency recognizes any of the content in Intellipedia or A-Space to be “official.” In fact, most of the interaction and content in these social tools is described as “good for collaboration but not the product.” The IC’s product-centric view of intelligence is at the heart of the analytic transformation problem and most “solutions” simply treat various symptoms. If each agency uses “2.0” tools to “coordinate,” but the content creation power lies independently within the finished intelligence process, the analytic transformation movement has gone as far as it’s going to go.

The main objections to Intellipedia and A-Space as “official” sources are that both spaces are too uncontrolled and there is difficulty determining which content “speaks for the agency” within individualized social media platforms. The “agency voice” in finished production is trusted to address issues of accountability, vetting, and records management. Some of these virtues are over-stated in the current system where slapping an agency or command logo on a report imbues the product as being more trustworthy and accountable than any social software-based content. Nonetheless, the IC’s obsession with agency logos is here to stay so a compromise was struck.

A move toward joint production

Like Intellipedia, Intellipublia’s Joint Product Line (JPL) is a wiki, but it also includes a built-in approval process and balances crowdsourced content with the agency voice. Readers can see who contributed to an article, which managers approved it, and when those activities took place.

The JPL combines official agency review with emergent content for joint or “purple” output. Users can consume and compare “authorized” versions to the emergent “living” version. Agency logos quickly denote that official vetters have reviewed the content but anyone can contribute and the article cannot be locked down. In addition to agency logos, the “authority” and roles of vetters are denoted by color-coded stamps such as “team leader” and “final authority.” Once the official vetters sign off on the content, their agency logo will become un-ghosted at the top. Ghosted logos show that someone from that agency has made edits but doesn’t have a higher vetting function. This is modified MediaWiki software and shown in the edit history mode. This software is a starting point and needs to evolve, but it’s a strong starting point because the underlying business process (not the technology per se) creates jointness and exposes duplication.


MIT business professor Andrew McAfee stated that “if you want to control the outcome, you need to control the process.” Currently, each agency, command, and fusion center controls every process associated with production and can conduct each process in a vacuum. There is no requirement to coordinate across these organizations. A DoD Directive moving some production power into the JPL network would be similar in effect and benefit to the removal of the operational and war planning powers of the military service in Goldwater-Nichols. The transparent JPL network would now “control” the analytic process. Agencies would no longer have to write using their internal, opaque systems but would would still “control” their agency’s voice – but now without locking down or “owning” every part of the process.

Transferring some analytic production away from finished intelligence posted to agency portals and cable traffic would expose the amount of duplication in the system through transparency and customer feedback loops. There will always be a need for “tailored” intelligence but tailored snapshots should be the exception not the rule and “products” should be the by-product of the collaborative process not the end state. There will always be a need for some duplication but, as previously stated, the amount of duplication is over-kill on most topics. At the limit, the IC needs an approach to understand and be held accountable for the amount and areas of duplication. Moreover, we need to re-examine what “tailoring” means in a smart phone apps and wiki world.

Reforming acquisition and shutting down intel shops

DoD’s fragmented IT acquisition process leads often to excessive duplication and waste. Every agency and command can acquire any technology in a vacuum. More times than not that specific technology often already exists somewhere else. “Not invented here” syndrome and the belief that “our data and requirements are unique” are simply over-stated default assumptions fueling waste across budgets. A-Space, C-Space (for collectors), J-Space (for non-analytic staff workers), Intellipedia, Sharepoint, Army Knowledge Online, Air Force Knowledge Online, Apps for the Army, etc. all provide some niche but most of these systems do similar things. Once again, we are not advocating for total acquisition centralization nor are we suggesting that one purple production system fits all needs. However, if production were centrally “managed” via a transparent system like the JPL we could start to see the excessive duplication of analytic effort and associated IT acquisition. If nothing else, this approach will provide the leadership with visibility into the amount of duplication by topic area.

Once duplication is exposed we can start to roll it up by shutting down unnecessary fusion centers, red cells, and analytic units. The people affected by these cuts can be re-trained or transferred but cutting billets and contracts is absolutely necessary. The HR, facility overhead, engineering, maintenance, electricity, and security costs associated with excessive analytic duplication are unwarranted and wasteful. Moving some of the production power away from the agencies to a transparent and purple network will improve the quality of analytic insight, increase jointness, reduce duplication, and will save billions of dollars. Efficiency that leads to greater effectiveness – a business principle within reach.

Raising the Dial Tone, Part 2

(Part 1 is archived at Recently, Dennis McDonald offered that transparency and collaboration should be considered as efficiency measures in the Secretary of Defense’s initiatives.  A sharp comment to this post responded by detailing the dire state of the federal procurement system, offering that the system is “completely broken, not superficially but structurally and intrinsically broken.”  The response indicated that collaboration was at best an insufficient tool to address the pathology of the system:

“The problem isn’t a communication breakdown between the people issuing requirements and those implementing them. In most cases that communication is satisfactory. The problem is that most requirements issued on federal contracts are complete birdcage liner written by people who are either totally unqualified to design a product or produced by a process/workflow that is biased toward the most verbose form of mediocrity (i.e. reams of underwhelming requirements).”

In my field of KM, there are many well-intentioned professionals who seek to increase sharing and collaboration among and across their targeted workforces.  This is a good thing.  Following what we know of network science regarding loose connectors, the amplifying effect of linked networks is primarily achieved through loose connectors, also referred to as ‘weak ties.’  This is how disparate networks form ‘small worlds.’

What are these?  Consider the social or professional groups with which you primarily associate.  You may be central to the interactions within this group, helping keep the group together and moving forward.  Network scientists call this increasing network cohesion.

The problem?  You likely spend less energy meeting people with whom you have little in common.  At the edges of your group, there are these people. The folks who don’t show up at every happy hour.  The ones who are known, but not seen as core to the group’s identity.  The accountant who is also involved in community theater.  The developer who takes long weekends in the Spring to cycle across hundreds of miles with a like-minded group.  The conversations here, for the most part, do not involve their work.

But some do.  Sometimes the accountant meets a CFO while preparing for a community production - and banter leads to a greater understanding of each other’s professional perspective.  Sometimes the developer meets an entrepreneur over dinner in a small-town diner as they restoke the cycling fires.  The conversation exposes each to the challenges of the other.  Weak ties are established across two previously disconnected social networks.

Monday morning, the accountant and the developer are back at work.  During a project meeting, they sound different.  As if they’ve been reading a different manual, suddenly expressing views that are not usually heard in the tight group.  The CFO and entrepreneur likewise return to their labors with a new perspective, a new voice tucked away in their heads.  With new contacts in their smart phones.

Who knows what may come of these chance interactions?  We cannot know, but the theory and experience both tell us that diversity in a social system leads to a healthier, more sustainable system.  From a systems science perspective, open systems are more efficient - this openness is not simply a benefit resulting from increased collaboration, but a core characteristic of a healthy system.

Connecting disparate social networks is as important - I would argue more important in many cases - than connecting within the core group.  This is the reason we speak of openness of interaction, transparency of data, and collaboration across agencies and organizations.  We do not - or rather, we should not - pretend that connecting people and opening the conversation will solve thorny systemic issues (health care, national security, acquisition reform); but we should set expectations that a wider dial tone will lead to serendipitous innovation.  Establishing weak ties across disparate networks is the first step towards finding innovative solutions to these long-standing problems.

In our new march towards efficiency, let’s continue to raise the dial tone and open systems.  This is not an end state or resolution, but a necessary path towards shared goals.

Free Yourselves from the Tyranny of the Document Metaphor!

(My title comes from a former colleague who buried this bon mot in a client deliverable - if she wishes me to name her, I shall. Else, know this headline gem is just something I wish I'd written.) I interjected myself into a listserv conversation last week, stating “documents present a barrier to knowledge - We need to move beyond the document metaphor if we're trying to cultivate knowledge.”

I was asked to explain myself, as this is considered by some a contrarian view. I first waited a few days while those more eloquent took up the cause - but here is what I responded this morning. I believe a reasonable response is to roll one’s eyes at such talk - I don’t offer a useful alternative to documents (yet), so why attend? Simple: I am trying to shake us free from the belief that improving documents will improve somehow knowledge flows and understanding. If you've already begun focusing on enabling conversations rather than uploading more documents to your portal - you have the message.

One friend offered that documents are not barriers but constraints. Here is where I part company: the document may be intended as a constraining frame, but when so much of the 'system' is omitted, this framing becomes cropping (as in image cropping). Constraint becomes distortion. The brain itself tells us why documents are cropped images of knowledge, not sufficient frames.

The brain knows spatial and temporal patterns, and predicts patterns in its environment. Language shapes expected patterns, and predisposes the brain to predict in certain ways. The marvelous thing here is that our media distinctions such as images, sound, written language, spoken language, emotion, physical response - are blended in memory. In addition: these memories are not stored as blended, but are blended at the point of recall. What is stored are fragments - all knowledge is fragmented until the point of use. An author uses her knowledge to create a document, which - if well crafted and discovered and interpreted well - will form one input for the learner.

For documents from this morning’s email to early religious texts - the context lost between author and reader is significant and meaningful. Even the term ‘context’ seems to me to be a false reference to content metadata. For the brain, context is content. This is why we know more than we can say, and we say more than we can write down. (Polanyi, Snowden.)

{ The photo below is of neolithic 'art' from Newgrange in southern Ireland. The meaning for these carvings is utterly absent now, as eons washed away all metadata, culture and context. }

But more than this, our brains make use of our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand. The Bride and I sat sipping wine on the deck last night, during a difficult conversation. At one point, her reassuring squeeze on my forearm conveyed a silent message that got me thinking about haptic memory, pattern expectations, and the “non-verbal” communication that characterizes some of this transfer. (I compared this favorably to the times she kicks me under a dinner table, the forearm message was much clearer - or perhaps I was “listening” this time.)

Research into everything from micro-expressions to mirror neurons shows us that face-to-face conversation is the richest knowledge transfer experience. Given the flow of information, both conscious and not, during a conversation - the notion that a document can capture the richness of this flow is laughable. For simple problems, documents can be sufficient: (my most recent data point being the bookcase I successfully assembled from instructions penned in China, all the more remarkable if you know how useless I am at such tasks).

The reason I say documents are a barrier, then, comes from their omission of so much context/content - but also from our mistaken confidence in their ability to transfer knowledge of any depth. So long as we believe improving document structures or access will increase knowledge transfer - we will continue to erect barriers to true knowledge transfer and maintain the high error rate that we all swim through each day.

How Are You Clumping?

“Human beings are social animals. We come together two by two in friendships and marriages; we form families and teams and the larger aggregations of practices, communities, societies, and nations. These groups assemble to achieve distinctive aims and to provide the satisfactions of sociability...Management thinkers, influenced by economists, have been slower to see the importance of social groups in organizations. They have looked at official organizational units over less formal structures, or have focused on individual workers rather than the groups they belong to.”1

If you look closely at this quote, you’ll see who is blame for the bulk of the silly in our lives today:  It’s those economists again.  Why do economists always seem to factor in humans as if Taylor’s Scientific Management ruled the Earth?  An esteemed colleague once explained:  “Economists have always had physics envy.  They avoided the social sciences as soft and squishy, preferring the publication possibilities and Nobel prizes in the ‘hard science field.’”  That is, until Behavioral Economics came along and discovered that the social sciences actually may offer valid descriptors of messy, incoherent human behavior.

But I digress.  What we are seeing with Gov 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, social media, etc., is nothing less than a celebration of the social over the machine.  We hold conferences, unconferences, ‘Tweetups’ and meetups - all to stay on top of the latest technology, use cases and examples so we can advance the cause in our agencies and businesses.  We argue for openness and access to one another, as a superior organizing principle when you need to gather messy humans into a clump - certainly preferable to the long-lamented organizational chart. (The asparagus photo reminds me of a certain beach in East Hampton, so named because the socializing aspects lead to clumps of people who stand on the beach, eyeing their next friend - no one reclines and enjoys the day passively.)

The next step?  Understand that not all clumps are alike.  The folks on the beach blanket near you are sharing the same environment this long hot summer, are dressed like you and engaging in similar water-worshipping behavior.  Chances are, however, you only look purposefully clumped, at least from the perspective of the pilot in that passing biplane advertising the nearest happy hour.  You have nothing else in common with these folks, and likely do not engage them in conversation.  You do not share a leader, there was no formal training, and you “gathered” in this group without really thinking about it.  (Let’s be honest, you wish you had more personal space and weren’t so clumped.)

You are a group.

Teams: “[A] small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”2 “The group of members evolves into a team by co-generating a shared framework and processes for their interaction and their work. 3

Let’s say you decide to play beach football.  Ok, that’s ambitious.  Instead, let’s build a sand-castle with these people.  You agree on labor division, you set a site that will survive at least one tide cycle, you enlist the nearest children in the endeavor - since what you are really doing is establishing a stable attractor to keep the little darlings from wandering off.  There are processes for molding, moating, and the fine engineering required for the construction of the cupola and gargoyles. (The castle in the photo belongs to my son-in-law, a self-destroying castle with an internal moat. Genius.)

You are a team.

“Firstly, ... people are trained in role, and expectation of role instantiating that role with ritual. Secondly ... the crew only exists for a short period of time before it dissolves, and then reassembles with different people occupying the roles but with the same expectations. A crew is clearly a formal community which require investment in training and considerable social reinforcement over time.”4

Nearby, an emergency.  Someone wandered too far from the jetty and is in distress.  The lifeguard alerts the nearby medical services, grabs her life buoy and runs to the victim.  The medical team arrives, sets up a perimeter and prepares for resuscitation if necessary.  Every member of the crew has a role to play, and even if they have never met the lifeguard, the information she will communicate to them will be clear, structured and unfettered by language confusion.

You are witnessing a crew.

You have seen this phenomenon among flight crews, on surgical teams, in the emergency room, and among special forces squads or Marines engaged in hostile action.  People have an identity (door-gunner, anesthesiologist, shortstop, nurse, first officer, etc.), often described as part of their identity.  As with teachers or lawyers, members of crews are in professions, with their affiliations secondary to their identity. In a very real sense, the crew becomes part of each individual’s identity.  This does not occur on the team or group level - people speak of part of a cohesive whole, and reunions among crews years later feature more hugs than those that celebrate teams.

Everyone in the crew understands not only their role, but the jobs and roles around them.  The expected interactions are rehearsed and honed.  While not used in business as often as teams, the concept of crews is an extraordinary study in understanding how to recognize and occasionally formalize roles in a team setting.

As we apply social media, information transparency, technology solutions, and process analysis, etc., we should consider the context.  The information needs and process stability for those we serve will vary greatly depending on whether the work calls for a team or a crew - or even whether a group (community of practice) construct is appropriate for the need.  We should also consider how individuals in a community of practice can clump into teams for short-term needs; or even into crews for specialized tasks.

There is room for increased sophistication in how we think about social media.  Let’s not make the mistake of the economist and neglect what the social sciences have to teach us about clumping in social systems.

1 Cohen, D., & Prusak, L. (2001). In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

2 Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

3 Beyerlein, M., & Lin, J. (2010). Participation and Complexity in Collaborative Knowledge Generation: Teams as Socio-Intellectual Environments. In A. Tait & K. A. Richardson (Eds.), Complexity and Knowledge Management: Understanding the Role of Knowledge in the Management of Social Networks. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

4 David Snowden, blogging at

Breaking Cliques with Enterprise Micro-Blogging

old-tvPublic service announcement:  On June 12, 2009 broadcast analog television signals in the U.S. will cease as the spectrum is repurposed and television signals go all digital.  This poses a major disruption to some people.   The rest of us are flabbergasted, nay,  gobsmacked to learn that this poses a major disruption to some people.  Who are these people who aren't using cable/satellite feeds?  Nevertheless, these folk will require assistance to successfully make the switch from analog to digital.  We need to be gentle with the late adopters, and aware of the less-advantaged.

Likewise, some people require assistance to understand the advent of social media.  This morning I was alerted to a most unfortunate example.

In "the case against enterprise micro-blogging" we find the following:

As a consistent Twitter user, I've the found the service to be a valuable marketing tool as well as an entertaining pastime for my friends and I to shoot one-liners at each other.

Off the bat, this gentleman uses Twitter for marketing and jokes.   For some reason, he then decides to try it among his team of five, one can only guess he needed to market them and tell better jokes.

My recent short-lived experience showed me that enterprise micro-blogging provides minimal benefits to the organization. If our group had been much larger and we wanted to do some kind of short announcements, it might prove useful, though hardly compelling.

So large teams communicate through "some kind of short announcements?"  That's the value seen beyond marketing and jokes?  What if you wanted to pose a question and didn't know who may have the answer?

When it comes to business, you don't want to read between the lines as you do in your personal Twitter-verse. Even with enterprise email overload, and a never ending-supply of documents flying back and forth, at least you have the ability to state and substantiate a point.

And here we have it.   If the purpose of communication in the enterprise is to "state and substantiate a point," yes, I expect micro-blogging will not be your weapon of choice.  However, if you want to be able to get a sense about what your colleagues are facing, if you want to open a stream of awareness across your team for a relatively low transaction cost, if you want to enable swarm intelligence in your enterprise - you may want to disregard the "advice" in this gentleman's article.  You will notice the comments to the CNET piece are fairly scathing.

A clique of young people ostracize another youth

I managed a small team for a mid-sized firm for eight years.  Beginning in 2000, I enforced the use of instant messaging (IM) and e-mail across the team as we grew from three to (at one point) twenty-two souls.  When I had a question to pose, I selected from among my list and began chatting.  As I did, I learned which people were available and responsive and began to - unconsciously and unfortunately - call upon them more often.  The people who were perhaps not as attentive to my insistent IMs were not called on as much as others.  

While we did also engage in chat rooms (and actual rooms) on occasion, I never successfuly got the entire team to engage on IM once we exceeded five or so members.  Instead of analyzing this, I fell back on the natural tendency towards hierarchy and power laws within social networks and unwittingly began to alienate the people I was treating as "lesser" members.  In doing this, I missed out on business value and the opportunity to enable contributions from across my team on an equal basis.  Much later, I heard casual comments to a "clique" within my team, but by then I had already shaped behaviors by my communications style.  Who knows what contributions were missed, as team members declined to volunteer their knowledge?

Using micro-blogging, I am learning to appreciate fragments and ideas from across thousands of voices.  If I had micro-blogging for my team back then, I may have posed questions and listened to the "small cloud" rather than calling on the "best and brightest."  In doing so, I may have led an even more successful team as we would have been able to make use of all the voices to address the team's challenges and opportunities.  I still have a smaller network of people I engage on a more frequent basis, but I can hear also and talk with people on the fringe of my network.  More importantly, I can hear people who are simply talking about things about which I care who are not remotely in my network/culture/continent.  

Even for smaller teams, we move from point-to-point communications, which (sometimes arrogantly) presupposes you know who has "the answer," to discovery.  In fact, presuming you know who has your answer can be very limiting.  Likewise, presuming you know precisely the right question to ask in all circumstances helps you to thwart serendipity.  Have you memorized the resumes of your colleagues?  Do you know how to unlock all the potentially useful information that flows across their interpersonal networks?  

Social media, quite simply, is opening my mind to new tactics for team management.  To consign it to the dustbin because you cannot control the message  is extraordinarily short-sighted, and misses the value proposition of social media, inside and outside the "enterprise."