Six years at McGee s Musings

The experiment continues. Today is my sixth blogiversary.

When I started this I was teaching information technology and knowledge management topics at the Kellogg School. Today, I’m helping clients deal much the same set of issues. We have powerful technology and new services that promise to make us more effective and productive. Sometimes they actually do.

This space is a place where I try to get my own thinking straight and a way to immerse myself in the ongoing conversation of others trying to get their thinking straight. Some of them think in like-minded ways, others in very different ways, and all are important to the journey.

This particular set of social technologies must be lived in to be understood. I think this is one of the impediments that larger organizations face in managing adoption. They are comfortable with the illusion of carefully crafted plans. They need to become reacquainted with the less well-marked paths of real learning.

What I said in 2005 is still true:

I remain interested in the challenges of making organizations better places for real people to work in and still believe that the effective use of technology makes a difference. I suspect that large organizations are nearing the end of their useful life and that the evolution toward new forms will continue to be painful and noisy. I worry about leaders and executives who choose to ignore facts and who can’t or won’t distinguish between the theory of evolution and the theory of who shot JFK. [McGee’s Musings]

As has become my custom, I want to thank those whose paths I’ve crossed, if only electronically:

Jenny Levine, AKMA, Terry Frazier, Betsy Devine, Buzz Bruggeman, Denham Grey, Marc Orchant, Cameron Reilly, Ernie Svenson, Judith Meskill, Jack Vinson, Ross Mayfield, Lilia Efimova, Jeremy Wagstaff, Matt Mower, Ton Zijlstra, Eric Snowdeal, Rick Klau, Greg Lloyd, Chris Nuzum, Jordan Frank, Halley Suitt, Jon Husband, Dina Mehta, Shannon Clark, Bruce MacEwen, Espen Andersen, Hylton Jolliffe, Stowe Boyd, Francois Gossieaux, Jim Berkowitz, Eric Lunt, Dennis Kennedy, Matt Homann, Jim Ware, Elizabeth Albrycht, Regina Miller, David Gurteen, Rik Reppe, Tom Davenport & Larry Prusak, John Sviokla, Bryan Rieger, Stephanie Rieger, Sheryle Bolton, Lynne Whitehorn-Umphres, Bill Ives, Giovanni Rodriguez, David Maister, Nancy White, Dave Snowden, Andrew McAfee,  Euan Semple, Kathleen Gilroy, Stuart Henshall, Paula Thornton, Jay Cross

Gibson’s “Spook Country”

  Spook Country, Gibson, William

I’ve been a fan of Gibson since discovering Neuromancer twenty years ago. A lot of people whose opinions I value have had great things to say about Spook Country and it’s been on the NY Times best seller list for a number of weeks. It even has it’s own Wikipedia entry.

Perhaps I am simply insufficiently sophisticated or old-fashioned in my literary tastes, but I struggled to finish it. I can’t entirely put my finger on why. For one thing, the parallel story lines felt so wildly disconnected from one another, that the implicit promise that they would connect at the end kept interfering with my ability to immerse myself in the flow. For another, I never managed to connect with any of the characters. Finally, in some strange way, I found that the clear skill and craft of Gibson’s writing kept intruding itself on me, instead of drawing me into the story itself.

Fundamentally, Spook Country, for all of its commercial success and glowing reviews isn’t one of Gibson’s best efforts. Interestingly, I found the mixed reviews at Amazon to be more representative of my experience with the book than the “official” reviews elsewhere.

PopTech 2007 in Maine and on the Web

One of these years I am going to make it to PopTech with Buzz. He’s been twisting my arm for as long as I’ve known him to do so. Hasn’t meshed with my schedule yet.

Live from Pop!Tech 2007

 It is like Christmas Eve here in Camden, Me. Just came back from an afternoon session on Mobile Technology, cold beers with great friends, the opening party for Pop!Tech.

This is the best thing I do on an annual basis. The quality of the ideas and people is over the top. Hard to know where to begin.

One of today’s ideas was that cell phones “are the dominant computing platform on every continent.”

Another idea was that Nokia was working on a technology where in cell phones could be web servers. Wild!

I have pages of notes, more to come tomorrow, and now am headed to bed, too late on the left coast!

 In the meantime, the folks at PopTech have announced that:

we will be webcasting the entire Pop!Tech conference – for free – at between 9am and 6.30pm, October 18-20, 2007. Viewers can even submit questions to our stage live by emailing The 2007 Pop!Tech program is online at and speakers are at

Pop!Tech is a nonprofit, with the mission is to accelerate the impact of world-changing people and ideas. We’ve invested *heavily* to give our content away to the world for free, and if have a blog and you felt so moved, we would really appreciate a post to help us spread the word!


The problem of emergence

Andrew McAfee’s Sloan Management article defining Enterprise 2.0 is available for download, so I took the opportunity to reread it, after a recent chat over coffee with Jordan Frank of Traction Software.

Enterprise 2.0 is Now Free

The article, at least.  MIT Sloan Management Review, with support from IBM, is making a set of ‘classic’ (thanks!) articles freely available to all comers. So the full text of my original SMR article “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration” can be downloaded here.

I don’t know if this is a temporary or permanent arrangement, so I’d suggest acting quickly.

One of McAfee’s central arguments is on the importance of emergence in successful Enterprise 2.0 initiatives. Here’s the way he puts it:

Second, the technologists of Enterprise 2.0 are trying hard not to impose on users any preconceived notions about how work should proceed or how output should be categorized or structured. Instead, they’re building tools that let these aspects of knowledge work emerge.

This is a profound shift. Most current platforms, such as knowledge management systems, information portals, intranets and workflow applications, are highly structured from the start, and users have little opportunity to influence this structure. Wiki inventor Cunningham highlights an important shortcoming of this approach: “For questions like ‘What’s going on in the project?’ we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what’s not important about what’s going on in the project. What’s important about the project is the stuff you don’t anticipate.” [p.25]

In an accounting or ERP system, the system’s designers specify all aspects of workflow, database design, and information structure in advance. Users are expected to select from among pre-defined choices and enter only such data as the designers have provided for. In designing a system for emergence, the designers leave a number of these decisions open; waiting for users to fill in the blanks. So, for example, instead of locking down a taxonomy for categorizing documents, the designers might provide a tagging system to allow a folksonomy to emerge from the idiosyncratic choices of each user.

The attraction of emergence is twofold. One is the realization that conventionally structured approaches have generally failed when tackling knowledge intensive problems. Knowledge work and knowledge workers don’t mesh well with the structuring techniques appropriate to industrial work.

The second is the perceived success of emergent approaches behind current Web 2.0 success stories on the Internet. It’s easy to see the power of emergence in such examples as flickr, facebook, and technorati.

Transplanting those experiences inside the boundaries of the organization is no simple task. What works at the scale of the public internet may not generate sufficient momentum within the confines of a single organization. Moreover, Internet success stories ignore or gloss over the failures and also-rans. Failure in the market is tolerated in ways that don’t translate well inside organizations. 

You want the energy and creative outcomes that can come from a successful emergent approach, but you can’t simply rely on unaided market forces to fuel the process. “Unaided” is the key notion. Emergent successes in the market benefit from scale and viral strategies, but they don’t happen by accident. For starters, there is a marketing strategy and plan that exists in parallel with a technology implementation plan.

Enterprise 2.0 efforts within organizations also need a marketing plan to accompany their implementation plans. Like any marketing plan, this plan must identify and characterize its target market of potential users. In particular, the plan needs to identify those potential users who are most likely to benefit from the new capabilities and whose successful use of the technology will be interpreted as an endorsement to be emulated.

Is a marketing plan, by itself, sufficient to allow the other aspects of an Enterprise 2.0 implementation to emerge from use? Appropriate scaffolding and careful seeding of content will prove more useful. A complete taxonomy, for example, may overwhelm a small set of potential early adopters. On the other hand, an empty tagging system will prove too much of a blank slate for users more accustomed to the structures of conventional systems. Providing a sample of suggested tags or categories coupled with some live content can point users in the right direction.

Supporters and early adopters will also benefit from coaching and mentoring on how to use selected technologies to accomplish their goals. This coaching would focus on working out strategies for how to use the technology to accomplish specific business and organizational goals. This requires a different kind of engagement between the implementation team and the target user group. In particular, it entails introducing the user population to key design questions and issues that would typically have been dealt with by the implementation team.

In some respects, “emergence” is a fancy organizational development word for “messy.” The more our systems must deal with the complexities of the real world, the messier they must be to accommodate that messiness. Large scale organizations in general, and IT organizations in particular are not generally comfortable with messiness. Calling it emergence helps. But the fundamental need is to acknowledge that it is more useful to learn as we go and build our systems accordingly, than it is to force fit these systems into structures that cannot contain them.