Alan Kay on innovation and risk

Here’s a pointer to an excellent interview with Alan Kay. As always, Alan shares some deep insights about technology innovation and the willingness to take on risk (he’s not confident in the ability of most organizations to tolerate risk no matter how small the level of funding involved).

Anyone with an interest in the continuing role and development of Smalltalk has had lots to chew on over the past few days.

As part of a series of investigations into the most widely-used programming languages, Computerworld Australia has published a conversation with Alan Kay about his role in the development of the foundation of much of modern programming today: Smalltalk-80 , Object-Oriented Programming, and modern software development.

The Weekly Squeak: Smalltalk: the past, the present, and the future?
Michael Davies
Thu, 15 Jul 2010 10:00:45 GMT

Here’s a sample of Alan’s thinking :

What are the hurdles to those leaps in personal computing technology and concepts? Are companies attempting to redefine existing concepts or are they simply innovating too slowly?

It s largely about the enormous difference between News and New to human minds. Marketing people really want News (= a little difference to perk up attention, but on something completely understandable and incremental). This allows News to be told in a minute or two, yet is interesting to humans. New means invisible not immediately comprehensible , etc.

So New is often rejected outright, or is accepted only by denaturing it into News . For example, the big deal about computers is their programmability, and the big deal about that is meta .

For the public, the News made out of the first is to simply simulate old media they are already familiar with and make it a little more convenient on some dimensions and often making it less convenient in ones they don t care about (such as the poorer readability of text on a screen, especially for good readers).

For most computer people, the News that has been made out of New eliminates most meta from the way they go about designing and programming.

One way to look at this is that we are genetically much better set up to cope than to learn. So familiar-plus-pain is acceptable to most people.

[ComputerWorld Australia]

Alan can occasionally be a bit cryptic, but that’s because he assumes that you will do your share of the thinking when you listen to what he has to say.

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Review: Susan Cramm’s "8 Things We Hate About IT"

8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT, Cramm, Susan

The tensions between business leaders and their IT counterparts remains an evergreen topic. Susan Cramm, a former CIO herself, weighs in on the topic in a way that’s revealing and productive in two ways. First, she looks from the outside in, asking what the business can and ought to do in order to get more value from the IT organization. Second, she focuses on the operational levels of the business instead of on the C-suite.

Cramm organizes her book around 8 tensions between line business leaders and It leaders that constitute the things "we hate about IT:"

  Line leaders hate when IT… IT leaders hate when the business…
Service or control is overly bureaucratic and control oriented makes half-baked requests and is clueless about impact
Results or respect consists of condescending techies who don’t listen treats IT professionals like untrustworthy servant-genies
Tactics or strategy is reactive rather than proactive develops plans without including IT
Expense or investment proposes "deluxe" when "good enough" will do focuses on costs not value
Quickness or quality doesn’t deliver on time changes its mind all the time
Customization or standardization doesn’t understand the true needs of the business want it all – right now – regardless of ROI
Innovation or bureaucracy doesn’t support innovation isn’t IT smart and doesn’t use or understand IT systems
Greatness or goodness inhibits business change is never satisfied with IT

(reproduced from Table I-1)

Straightforward and consistent with the kind of tension that invariably forms between the line and any centralized support function. Successful organizations don’t settle for picking one side or the other in these tensions, nor do they simply oscillate between the two poles. Instead, they make use of the tensions to create a more productive synthesis between the poles.

Cramm makes it very clear that her focus is on the business side of the equation:

business leaders may feel that IT leaders are being let off the hook, making the whole IT-business relationship the business leaders’ problem to solve. If you are to serve as a catalyst for positive change, this is the only productive point of view. The only person you can change is yourself, and, in the process of changing yourself, your counterparts in IT will be forced to change.

Starting from this core premise, Cramm examines each of these tensions with an eye toward providing line business leaders with a better perspective on what goes on in IT, why the tensions are the way they are, and recommendations on how to reconcile the tensions productively.

Although full of useful advice and perspective, I don’t think that it ultimately succeeds. There’s an unexamined assumption that IT functions the way that it does for good reasons and, therefore, line business leaders need to accept that reality and move on. That might indeed be accurate in the short run, but it will seriously hamper organizations that want to forge significantly better alliances between IT and the business. This book does a good job with one side of the story. What we need next is a companion effort to understand the other side.

Review: Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky, Clay

Anyone who can use lolcats to make a relevant and provocative intellectual point is worth paying attention to. Clay Shirky pulls it off in his latest book. Here’s his point:

Let’s nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act…. The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. [p.18]

Cognitive Surplus is a follow on to Shirky’s previous book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In it, he explores the following thesis:

Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would the surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so let’s start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit – every edit made to every article, and every argument about those edits, for every language that Wikipedia exists it. That would represent something like one hundred million hours of human thought….One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. How much is it, though compared to the amount of time we spend watching television?

Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year. That represents about two thousand Wikipedias’ projects’ worth of free time annually….One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time. [pp.9-10]

Shirky takes this notion and uses it as a lever to pry beneath the surface of lolcats, the Apache project,, and other examples to look for something beyond the obvious. What makes it work is Shirky’s willingness to stay in the questions long enough to see and articulate deeper linkages and possible root causes.

One of the things that makes this work is that Shirky understands technology well enough to distinguish between accidental and essential features of the technology (to borrow a notion from Fred Brooks). Where this ultimately leads him is away from technology to look deeper into human behavior and motivation.

Like everyone else who’s been paying attention, Shirky turns to the wealth of insights coming out of the broad area of behavioral economics to understand why so much of the what is apparently surprising about today’s technology environment rests in our crappy assumptions about human behavior. As he argues in a chapter titled "Opportunity" when we find new technology leading to uses that are "surprising," the surprise is located in an assumption about behavior and motivation rooted in an accident of history not a fundamental attribute of the human animal. For example, he neatly skewers both the RIAA’s and the techno-utopians analyses of Napster and concludes:

The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. [p.126]

For those of you who prefer your arguments condensed for more rapid consumption, Shirky provides one in the following TED talk

Shirky has his detractors. There are those who dismiss him as just another techno-utopian who imagines a world at odds with the practical realities of the day. At the level of a 20 minute keynote speech, that’s not an unwarranted takeaway. When you give his arguments a deeper reading, I think you’ll more likely to conclude they are worth your investment in wrapping your head around them.

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Culture, Process, and Practice – Effective leverage for Enterprise 2.0

The discussion about organizational culture in knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0 efforts is evolving in useful and pragmatic ways. The earliest discussions ignored culture entirely and implicitly assumed that technology would magically shape the organization as needed. The next round of discussion identified sharing as a desirable global cultural characteristic. If you were in a sharing culture, all was good. Time would ultimately reward your virtue. Those with equal need but less virtue whispered of incentives and WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). Crass and vulgar, but perhaps sufficient for most organizations.

In general these open ended discussions of culture are unsatisfying. They make gross assumptions on the basis of little data. Dave Snowden’s principles of knowledge management (see Rendering Knowledge) provide important pointers to a better answer with his emphasis on the behavior of individual knowledge workers.

Enterprise 2.0 as the extension of ERP

Michael Idinopulos of SocialText noted a shift in the debate at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. In a post titled The End of the Culture 2.0 Crusade?, he observed that:

Last week, the Enterprise 2.0 world turned a corner. Nobody pounded the table for cultural change. Nobody talked about incentives or change management. Nobody talked about transparency or modeling collaborative behavior.

Instead, people talked about process.

This is the most pragmatic shift in focus since the inception of Enterprise 2.0. It will have huge effects on the pervasiveness of social software in the enterprise, because it shows a clear path to the business value companies can realize from their implementations.

I ve been arguing for some time that social software achieves widespread adoption only when workers use it in the flow of work. Asking your colleagues to step outside their daily processes and tools to share what they know or network with others won t get you very far. (Trust me, I ve tried.) Bringing your colleagues collaborative tools and practices that make their daily processes better, faster, cheaper, and more interesting does work. It s all about process. Improve the process, you win. Don t improve the process, you lose.

This point of view squares with Ross Mayfield’s that broken business processes contribute to email overload and that

(Employees) spend most of their time handling exceptions to business processes. That s what they are doing in their inbox for four hours a day. E-mail has become the great exception handler.

While this is a very attractive position, it is incomplete in an important, and potentially dangerous, way. If you focus Enterprise 2.0 efforts solely on business process you may get scale, you will likely avoid the issue of culture, BUT you risk missing an opportunity for great leverage.

Leaving Process for Practice: Leveraging Knowledge Work as Craft

Focusing solely on Enterprise 2.0 efforts as an extension of existing business processes treats Enterprise 2.0 as a residual, clean-up, effort. It presumes that the goal worth pursuing is the efficient execution of well-defined processes. It reduces Enterprise 2.0 to an afterthought to ERP.

There is an assumption in this process-centric view that all relevant behavior can be reduced to business rules in the automated system. Exceptions are viewed as system failures or design failures. Moreover, failures in the system are attributed to resistance on the part of system users and operators. Instead of interpreting failures as resistance, what if we start by treating them simply as data?

If you start with process, your goal is uniformity at scale. Ideally, every situation should be treated in exactly the same way. This is eminently logical if you are calculating payroll withholding taxes. It is clever when you extend that logic to treating airline seats as a perishable commodity whose price might vary depending on the day of the week. Can you push in this direction forever?

Are there situations where uniformity and scale are not the appropriate criteria? Of course. The realm of art and craft is all about uniqueness and the value of limited scale. What happens if we opt to start from the art and craft end of the spectrum?

One choice is to accept the dichotomy. There is a class of problems suited to process thinking and a class of problems suited to art and craft. Another choice is to continue to force fit problems into a process view of the world. This has been a successful approach. Consider the number of problems that have been transformed into algorithmic problems well-suited to automation — inventory control and demand forecasting to name two.

A third choice is to ask how to improve art and craft without presupposing that uniform process is the goal. This was the approach started by Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, and their intellectual heirs. This approach spawned much of the technology environment that we operate within today. Oddly, we’ve largely ignored their motives in creating this technology; to support more effective ways of wrestling with intellectual problems.

Engelbart, and those working on his agenda, started building new technology tools because our previous tools and methods were inadequate for the problems we had to solve. They built tools to support new kinds of problem-framing and problem-solving practices. We’ve adopted the tools without considering the practices and behaviors they were designed to enable.

Culture as the sum of shared behaviors

Those who lay the blame for failed efforts to introduce knowledge management or Enterprise 2.0 tools on organizational culture are picking up on this behavioral issue. They are doing so, however, at the wrong level of detail. Organizational culture is a convenient shorthand for the practices and behaviors that constitute "they way we work around here." Changing culture is hard because it’s an abstraction; there’s nothing to push against to get it to move.

While changing behaviors can also be hard, as anyone who’s tried to adopt a new habit can attest, it is possible. Change the right behaviors and eventually you have a new culture. The opportunity in Enterprise 2.0 technologies lies in the new behaviors that become possible. The challenge is that these technologies do not dictate a single set of obvious behaviors. In fact, it is possible to adopt the technologies and make no behavioral changes at all. 

Focusing on behavior is still a challenge. Technology opens up possibilities while setting few constraints. The activities we are interested in here are equally unconstrained by business process; we’ve defined them as the behaviors that don’t fit within the mantle of process. We need to go back to observing how work is currently being done, ask what flows smoothly, see where things get stuck, and design alternate ways to make use of the new range of available tools. We’ll visit those questions tomorrow.

LATE BREAKING LINK: As I was about to publish this post, John Tropea of Library Clips posted a lengthy piece on Have we been doing Enterprise 2.0 in reverse : Socialising processes and Adaptive Case Management. I’ve only just skimmed it, but it’s squarely part of this evolving conversation.