Review: “The New Edge in Knowledge”

The New Edge in Knowledge: How knowledge management is changing the way we do business, O’Dell, Carla and Cindy Hubert

Carla O’Dell and her co-author, Cindy Hubert, have been tilling the fields of knowledge management since the earliest days of the notion. In their latest effort, The New Edge in Knowledge, they take stock of where the field has been, where it is today, and how it is evolving. With their work at the APQC (American Productivity and Quality Center), they’ve always split their time between the trenches and the big picture. Spread that over 15-20 years and the result is lots of pragmatic guidance buttressed by an equal measure of real examples.

O’Dell has always supported the notion that knowledge management is primarily an organizational challenge, that is aided by the effective use of technology but not dependent on it. That position remains strong here. Fortunately, the rest of the world appears to be catching up to this perspective. In many respects, this book is deceptively simple. It tends to gloss over the organizational resistance that many KM efforts will encounter as they are deployed. Granted, that isn’t a specific goal of the book. Nevertheless, KM can present unusual problems of resistance to change because the target audience (knowledge workers in all shapes and sizes) constitutes such a critical resource for the organization. Moreover, they have greater degrees of freedom in whether and how they choose to cooperate, support, or sabotage KM efforts.

Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the state of KM in today’s organizations and a usefully pragmatic playbook for someone wanting to put an effective KM program into practice within their organization. Many of the topics benefit from deeper dives to understand them, but this is the place to start for a coherent view that effectively integrates the big picture with a pragmatic approach to getting started and making progress.

Focusing on mission – why asking why is where to start

Morry Fiddler is a friend and one of my personal trusted advisors. During one of our recent breakfasts, he recommended the following TED talk by Simon Sinek on how leaders inspire action.


Since then, I’ve found myself weaving Sinek’s thinking into my own work and recommending it to others.

I also made a point to get my hands on the book version of Sinek’s thinking: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  While it helps fill in some holes in his argument, I think most will find the TED talk more than sufficient to grasp Sinek’s argument and start adapting it to their particular situations.

As you’ll discover, Sinek believes that the differentiating role of leadership is to define and ultimately embed into an organization’s culture a clear sense of "why" the organization exists.

Sinek’s arguments and examples are sufficient to encourage me to make the why/mission question more explicit in my work and I’m already seeing it bear fruit in several settings. Sinek makes an effort to anchor his ideas in what we’ve been learning about the organization of the human brain. While he makes an interesting case, I think it’s a bit of a stretch and not essential to his argument.

What Sinek does do is give you both a framework and some plausible examples to support important conversations with organizations and leaders who are struggling to find their focus.

Summary of 2010 reading – 50 books challenge

Several years ago I became aware of the 50 books challenge. The notion is to set a goal of completing a book a week. I find it a good discipline and track my efforts internally using a program called Readerware. I write detailed reviews of a portion of those books here. I thought it might be interesting to review the entire list and reflect a bit on my reading habits and practices.


Non-fiction covers the gamut for me from biography to management books to technical reference. The best of these get reviews of their own on the blog.

  1. Linksys WRT54G Ultimate Hacking, Asadoorian, Paul
    What fun is having hardware that you can touch if you don’t play with it?
  2. Managing as Designing, Boland, R. J. (Editor)
    A collection of papers from an academic conference on the topic. The papers are a mixed bag as you might expect. Enough of them are good to excellent to warrant taking a look if you’re interested in how managing and design fit together.
  3. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, Bradley, James
    A look at Teddy Roosevelt and his policy towards Asia at the beginning of the 20th Century. Bradley tells a good story and makes his case for how Roosevelt’s particular view of the world contributed to later troubles in dealing with the Far East. I don’t know enough about that period to judge how much Bradley is editorializing versus doing history. Thought-provoking and compelling enough for me to want to dig deeper.
  4. The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Brooks, Frederick P.
    Brooks always has something useful to say. Here’s the review I posted Fred Brooks on the Design of Design
  5. Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood, Campbell, Donovan
    A compelling account of life on the ground for a marine platoon lieutenant and his men in Iraq. With a son about to go into the marines this year, I was hooked.
  6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas
    I find Nicholas Carr’s writing simultaneously thought-provoking and exasperating. A former editor at the Harvard Business Review, he writes excellently. At the same time, I feel he succumbs to the notion that a journalistic approach to any topic will always yield insight. In the case of the intersection between society and technology, I find this a dubious premise. Here’s my more detailed review from last summer. Nicholas Carr s latest book The Shallows
  7. PHPEclipse: A User Guide: Take advantage of the leading open source integrated development environment to develop, organize, and debug your PHP web development projects., Chow, Shu-Wai
  8. 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT, Cramm, Susan
    My review of 8 Things We Hate About IT
  9. resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Duarte, Nancy
    An excellent look at the role of good-storytelling in successful presentations. If you present regularly do yourself and, more importantly, your audience a favor and include this in your professional development plan for the year.
  10. Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide To IT-Enabled Business Transformation, Feld, Charlie
    The title of my review earlier this year captures my underlying assessment: One Deeply Informed View of IT as a Transformational Tool
  11. Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love, Fields, Jonathan
    Veers occasionally into the cheerleading segment of the self-help genre, but there are useful nuggets
  12. Rework, Fried, Jason
    The folks at 37 Signals have built some hugely popular services on the web. Basecamp, for example, defined a lightweight view of project management that a boatload of organizations have found significantly more useful and productive than the over-engineered solutions offered elsewhere. In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, reflect on their experiences building 37 Signals and the lessons they have taken away from that experience. This is certainly a valuable exercise for them and they make it valuable for others as well.
  13. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande, Atul
    My review from last Spring: Checklists for more systematic knowledge work
  14. Trouble With Tribbles, Gerrold, David
    The story of how Gerrold went from science fiction fan and author wannabe to selling and delivering the script for one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time. Along the way, Gerrold provides some excellent advice on story telling and writing. The book is out of print, but I was able to track down a copy without too much trouble given the wonders of online markets for used books.
  15. Worlds of Wonder : How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Gerrold, David
  16. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin, Seth
    My review: Choosing to draw your own maps: a review of Seth Godin s Linchpin
  17. The Education of a Coach, Halberstam, David
    Halberstam on Bill Belichick. A great combination if you are a football fan. Better still if you’re a Patriot fan.
  18. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Heath, Chip
    Yet another take on change and why it is both so hard to accomplish intentionally and simultaneously so ordinary a part of living life. The Heath brothers take their run at what we know about managing change in organizations over time and ways to make it somewhat less difficult. They do a credible job summarizing what we know today from the behavioral sciences and offer as good a formula as any for thinking about change.
  19. Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, Jensen, Bill
    This is one of those books whose premise exceeds its execution. One more in a long line of books acknowledging that much of what we believe about work, organizations, and jobs is tenuously relevant at best and dangerously obsolete at worst. They argue that much of the real work that gets done in today’s enterprise is accomplished by hacking the existing systems as opposed to using them as intended. They attempt to develop a notion of "benevolent hacking" where employees and managers subvert the "stupid rules" in the system in order to accomplish the presumably still worthy goals of the system. Questions about who determines which of the rules are stupid and which necessary get ignored.
  20. Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal, Johnson, Mark W.
    My review: Can you design business models?
  21. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Krakauer, Jon
  22. Bare Bones Project Management: What you can’t not do, Lewis, Bob
    A good take on stripping project management down to its essentials. Given how many of us are called on to act as project managers in today’s organizations I would recommend this as a starting point over the vast bulk of formal advice on project management you will encounter in workshops, seminars, and credentialing programs. Lewis has clearly been there and done that and knows how to cut through the BS in a clear and simple way.
  23. Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World, Lewis, Bob
    Lewis offers a very pragmatic and unadorned take on challenges of effectively running IT in today’s organizations. It’s the kind of advice you would expect from a true "trusted advisor" who’s interested in helping you develop your own capacity to handle the job. It is a welcome contrast to the consulting advice you so often encounter that is more about perpetuating your dependence on consultants instead.
  24. Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, Martin, Roger L.
    Here Martin digs into the notion of the "opposable mind" as an analogy to the opposable thumb as a core strength that we can and should develop in more systematic ways. Part of my ongoing effort to wrap my own head around design as a core skill in today’s world.
  25. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, Martin, Roger L.
    Roger Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Rotman has made a serious commitment to integrating design into the management curriculum and Martin is one of the leading forces behind the general trend to pay more attention to design as something more than chrome sprinkled on products after the fact. This short book offers the core argument behind why we should place more emphasis on design. Again, a book that warrants a more complete review.
  26. The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, May, Matthew E.
    I picked this up on the recommendation of Bob Sutton, whose Work Matters blog is one of my top reads these days. It falls in the "business fable" genre, which I generally don’t warm to. In this case, I found it acceptable and found May’s efforts to introduce some core concepts from Zen worth the format. It’s a very brief read, but warrants further reflection.
  27. Getting Organized in the Google Era: How to Get Stuff out of Your Head, Find It When You Need It, and Get It Done Right, Merrill, Douglas
    Written by the former CIO of Google, it contains one integrated approach to using technology (mostly Google-based products and services, naturally) to deal with the demands of modern life. Parts of it are distracting and a bit off target. I found it primarily useful as a case study I could use as a data point in designing my own individual approach.
  28. Living with Complexity, Norman, Donald A.
    The most recent thinking from Don Norman. Here he explores what it will take to live in a world where complexity is the norm. Glossing over or trying to hide the complexity is the wrong answer. This also warrants a full review in the near term. In the meantime, I highly recommend it.
  29. The Design of Future Things, Norman, Donald A.
    I’ve been a long-time fan of Don Norman and his writing on design. Here he takes a look at updating his approach to design to accommodate a future world built on ongoing partnership between human and smart machines. I’ve just finished this over the Christmas holiday and it warrants a fuller review in the next few weeks. Stay tuned
  30. Mercurial: The Definitive Guide, O’Sullivan, Bryan
    Taking a look at the latest generation of distributed source code management tools.
  31. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, Patterson Jr., William H.
    Heinlein remains my favorite author. This is a fascinating look into to the first half of his life and the early stage of his writing career. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.
  32. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink, Daniel H.
    Pink takes a look at much the same evidence base as Lawrence and Nohria do in Driven with a slightly different purpose. His take is that organizations rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) at the expense of tapping into much more powerful intrinsic motivators. He is less interested in building a robust model of human behavior in organization than he is in trying to distill some practical short term advice. It makes for an easier read than Driven and Pink is a much better story-teller than Lawrence and Nohria. On the other hand, it sacrifices some important depth in the process. My detailed review: More from Dan Pink on the Science of Motivation and Purpose
  33. Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling, Port, Michael
    Some useful nuggets buried in think positive cheerleading and pitches for Port’s other products and services. Worth skimming and extracting those nuggets
  34. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven
    My review: The War of Art
  35. Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, Reynolds, Garr
    More insight and advice on helping your ideas and presentations be as effective as they can be. I’m continuing to work at incorporating those insights and advice into my own work.
  36. From Knowledge to Intelligence: Creating Competitive Advantage in the Next Economy, Rothberg, Helen N.
    I used this as a text for a course I co-taught on Knowledge management and Competitive Intelligence. Stronger on the Competitive Intelligence side than on it’s knowledge management insights
  37. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky, Clay
    More insight from the always provocative Clay Shirky. My review: Cognitive Surplus
  38. Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, Sutton, Robert I.
    My review: Good Boss, Bad Boss
  39. Possiplex: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization, Ted Nelson
    Relevant largely if you’re intrigued by Ted Nelson and his influence over the personal computing industry. The guy who coined the term "hypertext" and hates the Web. I’m still undecided whether Nelson will ultimately be deemed a prophet ahead of his time or an eccentric with a severe case of ADHD. This book is available through Lulu
  40. The Complete Guide To Competitive Intelligence, Tyson, Kirk W.M.
  41. Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Updated and Expanded Edition, Weissman, Jerry
    One of the Ur-texts on effective presenting techniques. The focus is very much on story-telling both in terms of structuring your presentations and delivering them. For all the solid advice out there on the whys and wherefores of effective presenting, you would think the average quality of presentation would be higher. Would that that were so.
  42. The Professor and the Madman, Winchester, Simon
    Late to the party on this book. Glad I finally made time for it.


My fiction reading breaks down into three categories: speculative fiction, mental floss, and comfort reading. I got hooked on speculative fiction (aka science fiction, aka s-f) soon after I got my first library card; Heinlein was my real gateway drug. Today, s-f remains the core of my fiction reading. The best of it illuminates the interaction between what is enduring about the human condition and what is shaped by the technological and cultural environment we are embedded it. When it is good, it entertains as well or better than other forms of mental floss.  As for mental floss, my preferences run to thrillers and techno-thrillers of various sorts. Comfort reading consists of picking up old favorites and re-reading them from time to time.

  1. Hell’s Corner, Baldacci, David
  2. Stone Cold, Baldacci, David
  3. True Blue, Baldacci, David
    More good mental floss. Baldacci introduces a new set of heroines – sister cops. One is the chief of police in DC, while her younger sister is trying to get back to being a cop after being framed and serving time in prison. Nice blend of police procedural, action, and DC behind the scenes power politics.
  4. Directive 51, Barnes, John
    A near-future thriller by SF author John Barnes takes a look at our vulnerability to cyberwarfare. Turns about to the the first of at least two books, which makes the ending a non-ending. Decent mental floss and good enough that I’ll take a look at the sequel when it arrives. Barnes has done much better work with his straight science-fiction. Let’s see if he improves in the thriller category over time.
  5. Cryoburn, Bujold, Lois McMaster
    Mental floss. I enjoy Bujold’s characters and their predicaments
  6. Die Trying, Child, Lee
    Mental floss
  7. The Hunger Games, Collins, Suzanne
    I came to the Hunger Games a bit late. The advantage was that I was able to read the whole trilogy over the course of the summer instead of having to wait. It’s an excellent example of the strength of the Young Adult market segment and of the possibilities the s-f genre presents to good story-tellers.
  8. Catching Fire, Collins, Suzanne
  9. Mockingjay, Collins, Suzanne
  10. Crescent Dawn, Cussler, Clive
  11. In the Stormy Red Sky, Drake, David
  12. Camouflage, Haldeman, Joe
  13. Double Star, Heinlein, Robert A.
    Heinlein was the first real storyteller I encountered in my youth. I probably read my first Heinlein "juvenile" somewhere around age 10 to 12 and proceeded to work my way through anything of his I could find until he eventually passed away in 1988. When I need a break or a temporary escape from the real world, I often head back into those old favorite stories. Out of work actor, Lorenzo Smythe, takes on a job doubling for a famous politician and learns he has deeper talents and honor than even his inflated ego suspects. This was one of several Hugo award winners the Heinlein wrote. Still worth my time forty years later.
  14. Live Free Or Die, Ringo, John
  15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling, J. K.
    Had to re-read this before the movie came out.
  16. WWW: Watch, Sawyer, Robert J.
    The second in a trilogy by Sawyer. Tells the story of the relationship between Catlin, a girl born blind whose sight is restored by technology and the World Wide Web as it becomes self-aware. A fun mix of thriller and provocative speculation about intelligence. Looking forward to the final installment.
  17. Genus Homo, Sprague de Camp, L
  18. The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change, Stirling, S. M.
    Stirling is way outside my normal s-f preferences but I’m completely hooked by his writing nonetheless. Eagerly awaiting the next installment.
  19. The Fuller Memorandum, Stross, Charles
  20. The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant Princes, Stross, Charles
  21. Freedom, Suarez, Daniel
    A solid and thought-provoking sequel to Suarez’s debut novel Daemon. Explores some of the ways today’s technologies might evolve in a techno-thriller format. The advantage is that Saurez knows what he is talking about technologically, but is also a good story-teller as well. And, he keeps his focus on the story-telling and puts the technology where it belongs.

Review of Bob Sutton’s "Good Boss, Bad Boss"

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, Sutton, Robert I.

I’m becoming a fanboy of Bob Sutton, an engineering professor at Stanford who co-founded the there. It started when i read The Knowing-Doing Gap : How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, which he co-authored with organizational theory icon Jeff Pfeffer. In 2007, he wrote The No Asshole Rule, which became a NY Times bestseller and was judged among the best business books in 2007. In between, he’s written a variety of books and articles, and an excellent blog, Work Matters, on management and organizational issues in today’s economy. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his newest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, which is due to hit shelves early next month.

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton turns his attention and preference for evidence-based insights to the "authority figure that has direct and frequent contact with subordinates–and who is responsible for personally directing and evaluating their work." The quality of your boss, or your own quality as a boss, makes a huge difference in both the quality of work that gets done and the quality of the working environment. We all want to work for good bosses, presumably most of us aspire to be good bosses as well. Sutton adroitly mixes the substantial body of empirical evidence differentiating good bosses from bad bosses with effective stories and cases. He makes a case that it is possible to  become a better boss for those who wish to make the effort. Substantial and continuing effort, to be sure, but possible.

Sutton does have one core bias, a bias that I share. In his view, "bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done, and by how their followers feel along the way." The heart of the book is a series of chapters reviewing what the best bosses do. The chapter titles offer a good clue to both their content and Sutton’s perspective:

  • Take Control
  • Strive to be Wise
  • Stars and Rotten Apples
  • Link Talk and Action
  • Serve as a Human Shield
  • Don’t Shirk from the Dirty Work
  • Squelch Your Inner Bosshole

Obviously, no book on its own is going to make anyone a better boss. Becoming a better boss, like any skill, is a matter of good practice and good feedback. What Sutton offers in Good Boss, Bad Boss is a well organized and well justified collection of practices and ways to sense how well those practices are working. I found myself dog-earring pages, scribbling notes in the margins, and picking up new tidbits each time I went through the book. It reads smoothly and easily; yet it’s also densely packed with insights and actionable advice. As one example, let me share Sutton’s

11 Commandments for Wise Bosses

1. Have strong opinions and weakly held beliefs
2. Do not treat others as if they are idiots
3. Listen attentively to your people; don’t jut pretend to hear what they say
4. Ask a lot of good questions
5. Ask others for help and gratefully accept their assistance
6. Do not hesitate to say, "i don’t know."
7. Forgive people when they fail, remember the lessons, and teach them to everyone
8. Fight as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong
9. Do not hold grudges after losing an argument. Instead, help the victors implement their ideas with all your might
10. Know your foibles and flaws, and work with people who correct and compensate for your weaknesses
11. Express gratitude to your people

Spiderman may offer the best summary of this book -  "with great power comes great responsibility." Good or bad, bosses are always on stage; their every move and utterance scrutinized. Being a good boss requires self-knowledge and self-awareness to an extraordinary degree. It also requires a keen sense for balance and for timing.

Other books by Bob Sutton


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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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Fred Brooks on the Design of Design

The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Brooks, Frederick P.

Currently a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina, Fred Brooks led the development of IBM’s System/360 and its operating system. He’s the author of The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering, which remains one of the best books on project management in the real world. In The Design of Design,  Brooks reflects on what he has learned about the problems of design over the course of his long and distinguished career. He combines his reflections with case studies drawn from multiple design efforts. Here is his justification for adding one more volume to the growing literature about design:

the design process has evolved very rapidly since World War II, and the set of changes has rarely been discussed. Team design is increasingly the norm for complex artifacts. Teams are often geographically dispersed. Designers are increasingly divorced from both use and implementation — typically they no longer can build with their own hands the things they design. All kinds of designs are now captured in computer models instead of drawings. Formal design processes are increasingly taught, and they are often mandated by employers.

I believe a "science of design" to be an impossible and indeed misleading goal. This liberating skepticism gives license to speak from intuition and experience — including the experience of other designers who have graciously shared their insights with me.  [The Design of Design, pp.xi-xii]

Brooks begins with a look at various rational, engineering-centric, models of the design process including Herbert Simon’s view of design as a search process and various waterfall models of software development. His take, and mine, is that these models bear only a passing resemblance to how real designers actually do design. Whatever value they might have as reminders to experienced designers is outweighed by the risks they pose in the hands of those without the necessary experience base to appreciate their limitations.

Brooks frames the design process problem this way:

  • If the Rational model is really wrong,
  • If having a wrong model really matters, and
  • If there are deep reasons for the long persistence of the wrong model,

then what are better models that

  • Emphasize the progressive discovery and evolution of design requirements,
  • Are memorably visualized so that they can be readily taught and readily understood by team and stakeholders, and
  • Still facilitate contracting among fallen humans?  {p.52]

Brooks thinks that something along the lines of Barry Boehm’s Spiral Model of software development will best meet these criteria.

In the middle section of his book, Brooks explores a variety of topics and issues relating to design including

  • when collaboration is useful vs. when it is not
  • conceptual integrity
  • identifying the core budgeted constraint (rarely money)
  • finding and developing great designers

In the final section, Brooks examines several cases in depth.

As a series of essays and reflections, this book is most valuable to those who have wrestled with design problems of their own. Given the frequency with which all of us are presented with design problems, Brooks’ reflections on real design problems offers many useful insights. Among the insights that I will be mulling over:

  • the boldest design decisions, whoever made them, have accounted for a high fraction of the goodness of the outcome
  • great designs have conceptual integrity–unity, economy, clarity. They not only work, they delight.
  • An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption
  • wrong explicit assumptions are much better than vague ones
  • If a design, particularly a team design, is to have conceptual integrity, one should name the scarce resource explicitly, track it publicly, control it firmly 

Review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book – The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas

Nicholas Carr has a knack for framing provocative questions. In his latest book, he expands on an article he wrote for the Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Provocative but unanswerable.

When I was a young consultant, I would frequently get my hand slapped for trying to "boil the ocean." Later, as a doctoral student, my advisors would hound me to narrow my research questions to something they judged feasible and I felt constricting. It doesn’t appear that Carr got comparably wise advice.

Carr’s thesis is that the Internet (more precisely the World Wide Web) represents

…an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what Karp calls "our old linear thought processes." Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the fast the better…

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press make book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind. (The Shallows, p.10)

There are two primary threads in Carr’s argument. First is a review of the development of writing, the codex book, literate culture, and reading. The second is a look at the plasticity of the human brain and recent research studies about how new technologies might be leading to changes in how we think. While I found both of these journeys interesting in their own right, Carr fails to persuade me that they make his case.

Literacy enables substantially more complex thought than was possible in the oral cultures that preceded the invention of writing. Carr is a bit too quick to dive into the development of literate culture without examining how it differs from oral cultures. He acknowledges the work of Walter Ong and his study of this transition in Orality and Literacy, but would have done better to stay with that transition for a while longer than he does.

As for the plasticity of the human brain, my take on Carr’s analysis and on other reports from the world of neuroscience is that the jury is still out and will be for some time to come. Most of this research suffers from the limitations of all rigorous research. The studies need to be narrowly enough construed to generate results that are publishable. Few, if any, of the researchers conducting these studies would ever make the leaps of generalization that Carr does to support his interpretations.

Carr writes exceptionally well, which actually presents a problem. There are several spots where he smoothly leaps from his evidence to conclusions that go far beyond the evidence into unsubstantiated speculation. If you aren’t reading carefully, you’ll find yourself lost in the poppies somewhere. Somehow, I don’t think Carr intended this as a test of my abilities to closely follow his arguments. But you can draw your own conclusions.


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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


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 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.

One deeply informed view of IT as a transformational tool

Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide To IT-Enabled Business Transformation, Feld, Charlie

In the 1980s a handful of organizations established that the right combination of strategic and technology insights and execution could lead to results worth the attention of CEOs and Boards of Directors. One of those successes was a major transformation in the sales and distribution systems of Frito-Lay during their rise to prominence as a national player in the snack business. Frito’s CIO, Charlie Feld, was at the helm of this effort and was one of the individuals who defined the modern CIO role in the process. After Frito, Feld created a specialty consulting firm that spearheaded similar transformation in a variety of other firms and industries. Blind Spot captures Feld’s reflections on the challenges of using IT as a transformational tool and how to manage them.

The heart of Feld’s argument is this:

Most senior leaders have learned enough about the workings of their businesses to feel comfortable engaging in a new-product dialogue or a complex financial debate or a major litigation. But few have adequate background to understand and lead wide-scale changes that are technology enabled….To most executives, IT is a blind spot–a discipline that is confusing and hard to understand.

My belief is that information technology should not be viewed as a complex functional area. It is an integrating discipline that enables other functions to operate as a seamless, well-run business. Instead of some mysterious black box, IT can be less complex and easier to understand than marketing, operations, finance, sales, and other traditional operating disciplines. This is because it is fundamentally all about the way a business should operate, manifested in information access, workflows, networks, and business rules. And instead of a blind spot, information technology can and should be a highly visible and well-understood part of every business leader’s knowledge base,

(Feld, Blind Spot, p. xvii-xviii)

To tackle that problem, Feld shares a framework he has developed in the course of his efforts to drive IT transformation at Frito-Lay and elsewhere. Like any good framework, it’s simple enough to sketch on a whiteboard or on the back of a placemat, yet it can anchor and center an extended conversation about change. Contrast Feld’s framework with the Byzantine complexity of many systems development methodologies.



The "Journey" that Feld describes is straightforward. The most interesting aspect is his emphasis on time-boxing the phases in order to establish and maintain momentum.  At the same time, he recognizes the importance of taking enough time at the outset, in the Strategy and Turn phases, to get the overall direction and plan directionally correct. His experience calls for these first two phases to take about 90-days each. Subsequent phases are designed to deliver visible results every 6 to 9 months.

The second dimension of Feld’s framework, what he labels as "4 Planks for Change," is where things get much more interesting. This is where Feld devotes the bulk of his attention and he uses his experiences from Frito-Lay, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and Southwest Air to illustrate his approach. These planks address four core questions about a proposed business transformation effort:

  • Why do anything at all?
  • What will we do?
  • How will we do it?
  • Who will lead and manage the change?

The value of these questions is that they are well suited to the debate and discussion that you want to be having in the C-suites and Board meetings about business transformation. They also help redirect the technically enamored from bright shiny objects to business value.

When I try to wrap my head around frameworks or approaches, I always look for is the "perform magic" step. Somewhere among the boxes and flows, there will be one spot where the essential design decision gets made or the case gets cracked or the strategy reveals itself. In Feld’s framework, i believe this essential creative step occurs in working out the What of the transformation Strategy.

Frito-Lay, for example, to maintain its growth, needed to give its route drivers local flexibility over product mix while maintaining close central control over manufacturing and quality. Their solution was to equip drivers with early hand-held point-of-sale terminals that let the drivers manage the diverse range of Frito-Lay products and accurately report sales activities back to corporate on a daily basis. In the case of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the challenge was to synchronize  the electronic picture of where all of its rolling stock was with the physical reality in near real time. In these, and other, cases Feld deftly sketches the essential strategic What.

There is a common thread in Feld’s strategic analyses. The strategic choice in large organizations is whether to focus on operational efficiencies or customer intimacy. More often than not, this leads to efforts that bounce back and forth between bouts of centralization and decentralization. The strategic promise of IT is to change the answer in these debates from "either/or" to "both" by making a hybrid business feasible. Here’s how Feld describes it:

It is not about centralization versus decentralization–both have their virtues and liabilities. It is about common versus unique processes, standard versus disjointed information, and leveraged versus fragmented IT platforms and networks. If you are common, standard, and leveraged in your systems, data, and processes, you can continuously flex between centralized and decentralized where it is appropriate, like Wal-Mart. However, if those things are unique, disjointed, and fragmented, you are locked into those structures and change is expensive and slow, like Home Depot’s was….It may seem counterintuitive, but the more standardized your systems and processes are, the more flexible you can be.

(Feld, Blind Spot, pps. 144-45)

Feld’s third question is "How will we do it?" Because his primary audience is business leaders, he rightly keeps his focus at an executive level emphasizing the importance of sound architecture, concrete deliverables, and effective program management. These tend to be topics that cause most executives’ eyes to glaze over. In general, Feld makes the case for the relevance of this question as a co-equal part of the transformation process. He avoids the temptation to get caught up in either technical or process minutia. This may annoy some readers, but is the right decision for his target audience.

Feld closes with a look at the critical importance of leadership and management. He strongly favors an IT organization built to reflect stable, core, business processes rather than attempting to mirror more dynamic organizational structures. he sketches a basic IT organization that calls for 50-100 competent leaders. Successful business transformations like those he’s been describing call for a corresponding leadership cadre from the business side of the organization. This is a richer, more pragmatic, view of the leadership demands of this kind of technology enabled transformation than you will find elsewhere.

Blind Spot is a useful synthesis. It’s rooted in the ground truth of its case studies as told by someone who was there, start to finish. From that ground truth, Feld constructs a framework that can shape and guide comparable efforts without forcing them into too narrow a path. It’s most useful for those readers who can bring their own experience base to the task of understanding the framework and making it their own. Given the ongoing role of IT as a potential strategic tool, this is a set of ideas that belong in your toolkit.



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