Email as a useful hybrid of oral and literate thinking

Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought. This is a light romp through the history of thought and communication, looking at the present evolution of email as representative of an oral tradition that has its origins in communual story-telling and modern incarnations as transitory as sky-writing. But, as the author reminds us, email (and online discussions) can also acquire the permanence of books, giving us the best of both worlds. True, scholars haven’t taken to the new forms the way they might. But they will. By Stevan Harnad, The Future of Web Publishing, February, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

This is a line of thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. One of the books that’s influenced by thinking was Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Ong discusses how oral and literate cultures think differently because of the way that oral and written speech differ. This piece suggests that one of the interesting dimensions of email is the way in which if combines elements of both.

One reason that may be important is to understand how different levels of management in organizations are biased in favor of different modes of expression and, if you buy Ong’s arguments, different modes of thinking. One hypothesis I’ve played around with is that senior managers and executives are fundamentally oral thinkers, while their technical staffs are literate thinkers. That may be a contributor to the problems in implementing new technologies in organizations.

Change as a team sport

“The only way to have a successful revolution in any field of human activity”.

In a recent post on Interconnected, Matt Webb quotes Kurt Vonnegut:

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise, the revolution, whether in politics or the arts of the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

I’ll let you read the rest on Matt’s site. Tom subsequently writes on how Malcolm Gladwell rediscovered pretty much the same idea.

[Seb’s Open Research]

I think the connection to Gladwell is a bit forced, although The Tipping Point is still a great piece of work and worth reading in its own right.

I would label these specialists Thinker, Citizen, and Teacher, and there’s little doubt that all are essential to successful change, even when change is short of revolution. One implication is that you’d better understand which you are and line up the missing roles if you want successful change to happen.

Knowledge work and productivity

I’m rereading one of those classic Peter Drucker articles that make everything seem so straightforward and obvious. This one is from the Winter 1999 issue of the California Management Review and is titled “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” (CMR, V.41, #2, Winter 1999, pp79-94) If it is typical Drucker, the rest of the world will start catching up with him in another couple of years. For those of us in the midst of knowledge work related topics, better to start paying attention now.

His essential thesis is that focusing on the productivity of knowledge work will drive economic success in the 21st century in exactly the same fashion that manual work productivity drove 20th century economies.

Some selected observations from Drucker.

  • “Whenever we have looked at any job – no matter how many thousands of years it has been performed – we have found that the traditional tools are wrong for the task.”
  • “What Taylor saw when he actually looked at work violated everything poets and philosophers had said about work from Hesiod and Virgil to Karl Marx. They all celebrated “skill.” Taylor showed that in manual work there is no such thing. There are only simple, repetitive motions. What makes them more productive is knowledge, that is, the way the simple, unskilled motions are put together, organized, and executed. In fact, Taylor wa the first person to apply knowledge to work”
  • “Making knowledge workers more productive requires change in basic attitude, while making the manual workers more productive only required telling the worker how to do the job. Furthermore, making knowledge workers more productive requires changes in attitude not only on the part of the individual knowledge worker, but on the part of the whole organization.”

Drucker identifies six factors that determine knowledge-worker productivity that I paraphrase as follows:

  • Definition of the task
  • Required autonomy of knowledge workers
  • Continuing innovation
  • Continuous learning and continuous teaching
  • Qualilty of outputs as signature requirement. Quantity is irrelevant until a quality standard exists
  • Knowledge worker as asset not cost

Lots of good material to chew on here. I’ll be revisiting this and pushing on it in the next few weeks.

Research universities and the culture of ideas

MIT Technology Review Creating a Culture of Ideas. “Not so many years ago, Bell Labs conducted so much research it could easily house some very high-risk programs, including the so-called blue-sky thinking that led to information theory and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. But the world benefited, and sometimes AT&T did too. Now, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self, subdivided several times through AT&T’s 1984 divestiture and subsequent split into Lucent, NCR, and the parent firm. Moreover, it is not alone [snowdeal.org | conflux]

First of a series of posts over at snowdeal focused on the corporate side of the R&D Equation. In this first piece, Nicholas Negroponte discusses the changing role of corporate R&D labs, the reasons why America is so innovative, and why research universities are likely to take on a more critical role in seeding technology development:

More than ever before, in the new new economy, research and innovation will need to be housed in those places where there are parallel agendas and multiple means of support. Universities, suitably reinvented to be interdisciplinary, can fit this profile because their other product line, besides research, is people. When research and learning are combined, far greater risks can be taken and the generation of ideas can be less efficient. Right now, only a handful of U.S. universities constitute such research universities. More will have to become so. Universities worldwide will have to follow.

Worth wandering over to snowdeal and following up the other links in this series.

Rational and organizational minds

Matt Blaze: “Although a few people have confused my reporting of the vulnerability (in master-keyed locks) with causing the vulnerability itself, I can take comfort in a story that Richard Feynman famously told about his days on the Manhattan project. Some simple vulnerabilities (and user interface problems) made it easy to open most of the safes in use at Los Alamos. He eventually demonstrated the problem to the Army officials in charge. Horrified, they promised to do something about it. The response? A memo ordering the staff to keep Feynman away from their safes.” [Hack the Planet]

It’s anecdotes like these that fuel my continuing interest in knowledge and organizations. I’m especially attracted to run-ins between the rational engineering mind and the bureaucratic mind. I blogged about this lock-story earlier, but this offers some more insight.

I started my professional life firmly in the rational engineer camp. I actually went back to school for my Ph.D. in order to understand why those !@# users weren’t using the brilliant systems I was building. That led me into long study of organizational behavior and design. I could never bring myself to treat organizations as totally political systems. For my own sanity, I have to work from the assumption that most people in most organizations are at least trying to do the right, and rational, thing. Figuring out what that might be is sometimes more tricky than others, but it generally gets you somewhere.

Managing for shared awareness

Enterprise Effectiveness. Combat Power and Enterprise Effectiveness Quote: “Companies such as GE that do have it (distributed information for shared awareness) are… [elearnspace blog]

Interesting thinking about what lessons are to be learned from the military about sharing information in real-time or near real-time:

Shared information inside a corporation and with its allies and customers provides greater information richness and reach, and produces shared awareness. Shared awareness in turn enables faster operational tempo and sustainable competitive advantage. This all spells increased competitiveness

An interesting transition from “need to know” to “shared awareness” Hierarchical organizations spend inordinate time and effort trying to work out precise boundaries on who needs to know what and when. Ostensibly about minimizing demands on people throughout the organization, it’s really about the exercise of power and control.

If, on the other hand, your focus is on the external mission, i.e. getting the job done for customers, the issue shifts to how best to let everyone have access to and know what is going on that might be relevant. In part this has to be founded on a deeper sense of trust in all the members of the organization. Trust both in their judgment to make good and appropriate use of information and knowledge and, more importantly, in their capacity to manage the torrent of bits on their own. No need to be paternalistic about it.

Doing anthropology

Technology Anthropologists – I have talked before about the idea of being a technology anthropologist. It was a random phrase that popped in my head one day. Some of you remember Dian Fossey the anthropologist who went to Rwanda to live among, and thereby study, gorrillas. There was movie about her life called Gorillas in the Mist.

Anyway, I sometimes find myself observing people as they interact with technology as an anthropologist would observe, say, gorilla behavior. Now, I don’t mean that I think that I’m somehow superior to others and I therefor see them as apes. What I mean is that I am fascinated by how the rapid intrusion of technology into our lives has forced us to grapple with strange tools. The gap between the capabilities of the tools and our understanding of how to best make use of them is somewhat akin to the gap between two closely related species.

Anyway, perhaps there is a safer metaphor. But the key thing is curiousity. I am infinitely curious about how we will learn to accommodate technology. Kids are interesting, but they aren’t adapting to technology. It’s just there and they use it. But adults, especially older adults are fascinating. I’m not the only one who is reporting on these strange encounters. Jenny does it frequently, and did it again today in a post that starts by referencing a Dave Barry article. Jim McGee does it too; his inclination is toward the effect of technology on business. But, of course, he’s interested in technology in broader ways than just business, as his post today on the difference between technology and magic demonstrates.

Phil Windley has a post today on KmIrony that qualifies. Any others?

[Ernie the Attorney]

Ernie is on to a nice meme here. Another term to throw into the mix is “ethnography.” While usually associated with doing anthropology in the field, it’s also become a legitimate research tool in organizational settings. I find an anthropological approach particularly useful in the realm of technology for a couple of reasons. First, technology is too dynamic for a lot of other research approaches. Along a similar line, organizational research is not a place where you get to do controlled experiments. It’s either impractical or unethical (sometimes both). That leaves you with observational techniques of one sort or another. One advantage of ethnographic/anthropological approaches is that they explicitly recognize that the anthropologist/observer is part of the system.

Another reason that I prefer anthorpological approaches is that technology and knowledge management issues lie in a space that Gerry Weinberg describes as “organized complexity.” The following diagram comes from his excellent Introduction to General Systems Thinking:

In that environment you need tools that are robust more than you need tools that are precise. You tolerate fuzziness in the answers in exchange for getting answers that are directionally correct in a manageable amount of time.

One consequence of doing anthropology is that you have to develop some sense for who the observer is. You’re not doing experimental work that can be replicated. You’re doing a certain kind of storytelling that depends on observational skills and narrative skills. Unlike a fiction writer, you aren’t using stories for the abiilty to make stuff up out of whole cloth (I suppose fiction writers don’t really do that either). You are using narrative as a tool to reveal gaps in the logic, to discover what’s missing in the logic of the story that will point you toward new things to look for.