Collaboration, games, and the real world

I’ve been thinking a lot about hard problems that need multiple people collaborating to solve. There’s no shortage of them to choose from.

This TED video from Jane McGonigal makes a persuasive case that I need to invest some more time looking at the world of online gaming for insight. Watch the video  and see if you don’t come to a similar conclusion.

 

Can you design business models? A review of "Seizing the White Space."

[cross posted at FASTforward blog]

Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal, Johnson, Mark W.

What is a "business model" and can you create a new one in a systematic and disciplined way? That’s the question that Mark Johnson, chairman of the consulting firm Innosight, sets for himself in Seizing the White Space.

The term entered the popular business lexicon during the dotcom boom in the late 1990s. There wasn’t any particular definition behind the term at the outset. Effectively, it was shorthand for the answer to question zero about any business – "How are we planning to make money?" Before the dotcom boom, nine times out of ten, the answer was "we’ll copy what Company X is doing and execute better than they do." During the boom, the answer seemed to be "we have absolutely no idea, but it’s going to be great." Now we recognize that both of those answers are weak and that we need some theory to design answers that are likely to be successful.

Over the last decade and a half, there’s been a steady stream of excellent thought and research focuses on building that theory. One of the major tributaries in that stream has been the work of Clay Christensen on disruptive innovation. Christensen and his colleagues, including Johnson, have been engaged in a multi-year action research program working out the details and practical implications of the theory of disruptive innovation. Seizing the White Space is the latest installment in this effort and is best understood if you’ve already invested in understanding what has come before.

Johnson starts with a definition of white space as

the range of potential activities not defined or addressed by the company’s current business model, that is, the opportunities outside its core and beyond its adjacencies that require a different business model to exploit

p.7

Why do organizations need to worry about white space? Even with success at exploiting their current business model and serving existing customers, organizations reach a point where they can’t meet their growth goals. Many an ill-considered acquisition has been pursued to plug this growth gap. Haphazard efforts at innovations to create new products or services or enter new markets get their share of the action.

Johnson combines an examination of white space and business models in an effort to bring some more order and discipline to the challenge of filling those growth gaps. One implication of this approach is that the primary audience for his advice is existing organizations with existing successful business models. He is less interested in how disruptive innovation processes apply in start up situations.

Johnson’s model of business models is deceptively simple. He illustrates it with the following diagram:

Johnson-WhiteSpace-Four-BoxBusinessModel

Johnson expands the next level of detail for each of these elements. Most of that is straightforward. More importantly, this model places its emphasis on the importance of balancing each of these elements against the others.

In the middle third of the book, Johnson takes a deeper look at white space, dividing it into white space within, beyond, and between which correspond to transforming existing markets, creating new markets, and dealing with industry discontinuity. It’s a bit clever for my tastes, but it does provide Johnson with the opportunity to examine a series of illuminating cases including Dow Corning’s Xiameter, Hilti’s tool management and leasing program, Hindustan Unilever’s Shakti Initiative, and Better Place’s attempt to reconceptualize electric vehicles. While the organization of the stories is a bit too clever, it does serve a useful purpose. It takes a potentially skeptical reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar as they wrap their heads around Johnson’s ideas.

With a basic model and a collection of concrete examples in hand, the last third of the book lays out an approach to making business model innovation a repeatable process. This process starts from what has evolved into a core element of Christensen’s theories – the notion of "jobs to be done." This is an update on Ted Levitt’s old marketing saw that a customer isn’t in the store to buy a drill but to make a hole. The problem is that most established marketers forget Levitt’s point shortly after they leave business school and get wrapped up instead in pushing the products and services that already exist. "Jobs to be done" is an effort to persuade organizations to go back to the necessary open-ended research about customer behavior and needs that leads to deep insight about potential new products and services.

With insight into potential jobs to be done, Johnson’s four-box model provides the structure to design a business model to accomplish the job to be done. In his exposition, he works his way through each of the four boxes, offering up suggestions and examples at each point. With a potentially viable design in hand, he shifts to considerations of implementation and, here, emphasizes that the early stages of implementation need to focus on testing, tuning, and revising the assumptions built into the prospective business model.

Johnson clearly understands that creating a new business model is a design effort not an execution effort. Seizing the White Space puts shape and structure underneath this design process. All books represent compromises. The compromise that Johnson has made is to make this design process appear more linear and structured than it can ever be in practice. He knows that it isn’t in his emphasis on the need to balance the elements of a business model and  to learn during the early stages of implementation. There’s a reason that the arrows in his four-box model flow both ways. I’m not sure every reader will pick up on that nuance.

He also clearly points out the role of learning from failures as well as successes during implementation. But the demands of fitting the story into a finite space again undercut this central lesson. The models here will go a long way toward making business model design more manageable, but they can’t make it neat and orderly.

This review is part of a "blogger book tour" that Renee Hopkins, editor of Strategy and Innovation and Innoblog, arranged.

Previous stops on the tour:

Upcoming stops

If you’re interested in digging deeper into the work of Clay Christensen and his posse, here are some previous posts where I’ve pulled together some reviews and pointers. I hope you find them helpful.

Applying End-to-End Design Principles in Social Networks

Partial map of the Internet based on the Janua...

Image via Wikipedia

 Andy Lippman, at MIT’s Media Lab, offers provocative examples of learning how to think in network terms when designing services in a recent blog post from the Communications Futures Program at MIT. At the very heart of the Internet’s design is a notion called the end-to-end principle (pdf). The best network is one that treats all nodes in the network identically and pushes responsibility for decisions out to the nodes. Creating special nodes in the network and centralizing decisions in those nodes makes the network as a whole work less well.

In this essay, Lippman explores that notion by looking at examples of existing and potential services in telecommunications networks that could be improved by trusting the end-to-end principle more fully. Lippman takes a look at emergency services such as 911 calls in the US. As currently designed, these services allow individuals to reach a centralized dispatch center in the event of an emergency.

Emergencies are no longer solely about getting help for a fire or heart attack. Nor are they purely personal affairs, directed at or for a single individual. Consider the recent attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airplane where passengers provided the service (saving the plane). Early reports portrayed this as a fine solution. Indeed, there is discussion that the best result of increased airline security is that it has made people aware of the fact that they all have to pitch in to help when it is needed; they can no longer just rely on a remote entity a site to solve the problem for them.

End-to-End Social Networks
Andy Lippman
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 21:10:36 GMT

Lippman makes the point that we can benefit from thinking about ways to mobilize the network as a whole as an alternative to using it to direct messages to some centralized authority. Continuing to impose hierarchical notions on top of network designs risks missing other, potentially more powerful, options. We have a set of powerful new tools and ideas that we have yet to fully exploit.

The design reasoning that underlies the engineering of the Internet is applicable in organizational settings as well. Lippman’s examples are a good place to start in thinking how to apply them effectively.

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What is an Oreo?

Alan Matsumura and I had an excellent conversation earlier this month about the work he is starting up at SilverTrain. Part of the discussion centered on the unexpected problems that you run into when doing BI/information analytics work.

Suppose you work for Kraft. You’d like to know how many Oreos you sold last quarter. An innocent enough question and, seemingly, a simple one. That simply shows how little you’ve thought about the problems of data management.

Start with recipes. At the very least Kraft is likely to have a standard recipe and a kosher recipe (they do business in Israel). Are there other recipe variations; perhaps substituting high fructose corn syrup for sugar? Do we add up all the variations of recipe or do we keep track by recipe?

How about packaging variations? I’ve seen Oreos packaged in the classic three column package, in packages of six, and of two. I’ve seen them bundled as part of a Lunchables package. I’m sure other variations exist. Do we count the number of packages and multiply by the appropriate number of Oreos per package? Is there some system where we can count the number of Oreos we produced before they went into packages? If we can manage to count how many Oreos we made, how does that map to how many we will manage to sell?

That may get us through standard Oreos. How do we count the Oreos with orange-colored centers sold at Halloween in the US? Green-colored ones sold for St. Patrick’s Day? Double stuf Oreos? Double stuf Oreos with orange-colored centers? Mini-bite size snak paks? Or my personal favorite: chocolate fudge covered Oreos. I just checked the official Oreo website at Nabisco. They identify 46 different versions of the Oreo and don’t appear to count Oreos packaged within another product (the Lunchables question).

That covers most of the relevant business reasons that make counting Oreos tricky. There are likely additional, technical reasons that will make the problem harder, not easier. The various systems that track production, distribution, and sales have likely been implemented at different times and may have slight variations in how and when they count things. Those differences need to be identified and then reconciled. Someone will have to discover and reconcile the different codes and identifiers used to identify Oreos in each discrete system. And so on.

By the way, according to Wikipedia, over 490 billion Oreos have been sold since their debut in 1912. As for how many were sold last quarter, it depends.

Designing with “harmless failures” in mind

Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker has some interesting points to add to Bruce Schneier’s piece on “Security Mindset” that I posted about yesterday. Felten focuses on the notion of “harmless failures.” It provides still more reason to approach all systems design problems with an eye firmly fixed on the social context in which your technology will operate.

The Security Mindset and “Harmless Failures”

…Not all “harmless failures” lead to big trouble, but it’s surprising how often a clever adversary can pile up a stack of seemingly harmless failures into a dangerous tower of trouble. Harmless failures are bad hygiene. We try to stamp them out when we can.

To see why, consider the donotreply.com email story that hit the press recently. When companies send out commercial email (e.g., an airline notifying a passenger of a flight delay) and they don’t want the recipient to reply to the email, they often put in a bogus From address like donotreply@donotreply.com. A clever guy registered the domain donotreply.com, thereby receiving all email addressed to donotreply.com. This included “bounce” replies to misaddressed emails, some of which contained copies of the original email, with information such as bank account statements, site information about military bases in Iraq, and so on. Misdirected ants might not be too dangerous, but misdirected email can cause no end of trouble.

The people who put donotreply.com email addresses into their outgoing email must have known that they didn’t control the donotreply.com domain, so they must have thought of any reply messages directed there as harmless failures. Having gotten that far, there are two ways to avoid trouble. The first way is to think carefully about the traffic that might go to donotreply.com, and realize that some of it is actually dangerous. The second way is to think, “This looks like a harmless failure, but we should avoid it anyway. No good can come of this.” The first way protects you if you’re clever; the second way always protects you.

Which illustrates yet another part of the security mindset: Don’t rely too much on your own cleverness, because somebody out there is surely more clever and more motivated than you are.

The Procrastinator’s Clock – User-centered design at its best

Now this is the kind of tool that demonstrates a deep understanding of its target users. Probably wouldn’t help me, as being late to scheduled events isn’t my particular procrastination issue, but I appreciate the design insight.

The Procrastinator’s Clock

clock.gif

If you’re a procrastinator, you don’t need a mathematical formula, you know who you are. Worse, the people who work with you know, too. I’ve tried the “set the clock ahead 10 minutes” trick, but it never works because I know that I really have that extra 10 minutes. If you’re nodding, then perhaps you need David Seah’s Procrastinator’s Clock.

It’s guaranteed to be up to 15 minutes fast. However, it also speeds up and slows down in an unpredictable manner so you can’t be sure how fast it really is. Furthermore, the clock is guaranteed not be slow, assuming your computer clock is sync’d with NTP; many computers running Windows and Mac OS X with persistent Internet connections already are.

Designing spaces for doing knowledge based work

This book contains an extensive series of case studies of designing space for learning and doing knowledge work in schools and universities. If you accept the premise that much of the work that will take place in Enterprise 2.0 organizations will be knowledge work, then you may find these a source of ideas and insights.

Learning Spaces

Diana Oblinger (of Educating the Net Generation fame) has edited/released a new book: Learning Spaces (not sure how long it has been available, but it has been referenced by several edubloggers over the last week). I love this quote: “Spaces are themselves agents for change. Changed spaces will change practice”. The bulk of the book consists of case studies of learning space design in different organizations.

MIT’s John Maeda on design and simplicity

The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

Rating: 4 out of 5

Author: John Maeda

Year: 2006

Publisher: The MIT Press

ISBN: 0262134721

Here is an example of a short, little, book that benefits from the author’s decision to keep it focused. Maeda is a designer/computer scientist at MIT’s Media Lab and he consciously limits this book to just 100 pages of reflection on why and how you might seek simplicity in a technology-centric world.

While I easily read this book in an evening (while waiting for my 13-year old to finish hockey practice), it is a book and set of ideas I can expect to revisit multiple times. Although Maeda’s own background is primarily in product design, his insights are equally applicable to other design realms.

For a long time, I’ve maintained that if you are serious about improving knowledge work for yourself or others, then design has to become one of your core skills. This book should be on your shelf. Maeda also provides a website specifically for the book, laws of simplicity, and has a blog, Simplicity, he has been writing for the past two years. Both look to be excellent resources that I’ve added to my reading lists.

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More on email and project management

Lars Plougmann started a discussion last August of the role of email in project management that triggered a post on my part back in October. Lars has posted a nice summary of the discussion that flowed from his original post with links to many interesting posts on the topic. His conclusion:

Email is about messages and messages have proven useful for thousands of years. (Part of the reason that RSS is successful is that a feed can be presented as messages). Email software takes the strong conventions pertaining to messages and integrates them with the centuries old inbox paradigm – which itself was a way to transition from an industrial society to the information processing organisation by mimicking a conveyor belt. Altogether a very powerful concept which is the reason that email is how work gets done in today’s businesses.

It is only for a decade or so that we have achieved the ability to work together in the new ways that we have started to call collaboration. Our challenge is to explore what we can do with collaboration while weaving into it the message style of communication. Messages and inboxes (a.k.a. email) are an undeniable part of the future, but as concepts they will be fused with transparent, discoverable, content-persistent, workflow-enhancing, buddy-list-integrated, taggable and action-supporting collaboration tools.

mind this.

Worth your time to explore, both for the discussion and some other voices examining the changing nature of work.