Sunday, October 11, 2009

Notes & Thoughts from iPres 2009

This was the Sixth International Conference on Preservation of Digital Objects (iPres). These conferences "bring together researchers and practitioners from around the world to explore the latest trends, innovations, and practices in preserving our scientific and cultural digital heritage". This one (iPres 2009) was hosted by the California Digital Library (CDL) and took place in the conference centre of UCSF Mission Bay in sunny San Francisco. CDL did a really superb job in organising the event.

The iPres community is made up of people from academic libraries, national libraries, national archives, service providers (like ExLibris, Tesella, Sun, Ithaka, LOCKSS etc), web archivists, preservation researchers, and me.

The following are some notes I made during the conference and some random thoughts that occurred to me while listening to the presentations and tuning in on the #ipres09 Twitter channel. Other blogs covering this event were: Digital Curation Blog, Daves thoughts on stuff, FigoBlog (in French) and Duurzame Toegang (in Dutch). Photo's from the event here, and here.

Day 1

David Kirsch (University of Maryland) gave a thought-provoking keynote address on the need to preserve corporate records: "Do corporations have the right to be forgotten?". There are many reasons why corporate records are lost or destroyed. Often it is simply that record keeping has a low priority in the corporate world - few companies have formal policies for digital preservation. Furthermore, lawyers tend to advise companies to destroy records to avoid possible future liabilities. David argued that there is a public interest in preserving the records of corporations for research purposes. He had some great ideas on how this might be achieved. One of the ideas was to give archivists the option to claim company records in bankruptcy courts. Brilliant.

Panel discussion on sustainable digital preservation

The Blue Ribbon Task Force has been studying the issues of economic sustainability for digital preservation. Their final report is due in Jan 2010 (the interim report is available here).

Many digital preservation activities are funded through one-off grants or discretionary funding. This is obviously not a sustainable source that would guarantee long-term preservation - someone has to pay to keep the servers humming and the bits from rotting. There is also the "blank cheque" problem: few funding bodies are comfortable agreeing to support preservation of an unknown amount of digital data for an indeterminate length of time.

A few groups are beginning to provide paid-for archiving services. One of the most interesting is CDL’s easy to use Web Archiving Service.

Abby Smith noted that a key discussion area for the task force had been the handover points when stewardship of information passes from one party to another This was one of the most insightful moments of the conference for me: the importance of designing preservations systems in such a way that they can be passed on to someone else to continue the stewardship of the data. This seems to me a much more manageable problem to work on than how to preserve an infinite amount of data for an infinite length of time. Handover of stewardship was one of the main drivers behind the development of the DOI system - how to make sure that digital objects remain findable when ownership of the rights change. I wonder if the registration agency model that the International DOI Foundation (IDF) uses might be helpful here (Disclosure: I am Chair/Director of IDF).

Henry Lowood (Stanford) spoke about preserving virtual gaming worlds. My first thought was why would anyone bother to preserve virtual worlds. I realized however that the world is full of collectors of stuff; preservation of anything starts with someone who cares enough about it to spend time and money on building an archive.

One of the big challenges in preserving multi-user games is that the game environment itself has been built by many gamers. Figuring out who built what element and asking them for permission to archive is a major headache. Another problem is that it is not enough simply to take screenshots since the way the game has been played is part of the essence of what needs to be preserved. In other words, the game content and game engine are indistinguishable from one another. It seems to me that this may be the future for all content. There will be a time when the content alone is almost meaningless without the context in which it was created. If we want to preserve the content, how do we capture the context along with it? And in a world of multi-user-generated content, how will we ever find out who created what piece of content? Maybe we need a digital data donor card, where you can formally donate the data you have created in your life to the public domain, and record this fact permanently so that future archivists can mine your data with your posthumous permission.

Reinhard Altenhoner, German National Library argued that most digital preservation projects have been single initiatives, creating safe places for information. Few have looked at the wider e-infrastructure implications. In what environment do the islands of activity operate? Where is the common approach? He proposes a service layer architecture for digital preservation - decoupling system components and working on interoperability, open interfaces etc.

And that is exactly what CDL are doing. Stephen Abrams, in what was for me one of the best presentations of iPres, told us how. CDL believes that curation stewardship is a relay race, we should concentrate on doing the best job now then handing over to someone else to continue the stewardship. With this in mind, their approach favours the small and simple over the large and complex, and the re-use of existing technologies rather than creating new ones.

They have come up with “interoperable curation micro-services” - a definition of the granularity of services for a full preservation system. They group these into 4 service layers, characterized as:

1) Lots of copies keep stuff safe (providing safety through redundancy)

2) Lots of description keeps stuff meaningful (maintaining meaning through description)

3) Lots of services keep stuff useful (facilitating utility through service)

4) Lots of uses keep stuff valuable (adding value through use)

There is much more detail in their conference paper, which I should imagine will be required reading for all iPres delegates.

Pam Armstrong and Johanna Smith from Library and Archives Canada had an interesting story to tell. Some time ago, their national auditor wrote a withering report on record keeping within the Canadian government. They used this as a big stick to drive compliance on better record keeping and archiving. Very cleverly though, they also developed a useful plug-in that made it easy for the government staff to comply.

Lesson learned: if you decide to use a stick instead of a carrot, then make sure you provide some protection so that it doesn’t hurt too much!

Robert Sharpe, Tessella, talked about the results of a survey they had done for Planets (which seemed to me to be very similar to the PARSE/Insight one earlier this year...) An interesting correlation appeared to be that if an organization has a formal policy for digital preservation, they are much more likely to have funding for DP. I wondered whether the answers to this question on the survey were skewed. I mean if you had funding for digital preservation, how could you ever admit on a survey that you didn’t have a policy?

Their final conclusion was that more work needs to be done to fully understand the landscape. In my experience, that usually means the original questionnaire was not especially well thought out nor pilot tested before sending out. Perhaps the survey was more of a plea for awareness for the issues around digital preservation?

Actually I think questionnaires are a really poor way of gaining insights into complex issues - and let's face it what important issues are not complex nowadays? The interesting insights are rarely contained in yes/no answers but in the discussion that goes on in someone’s mind or within an organization in answering the question. I find that understanding why an answer was "yes" or "no" is usually much, much more interesting than the answer itself. Questionnaires also ignore the political angle - I mean what National Library tasked with digital preservation could ever answer “no” to the question “do you have a documented preservation policy?”, even if they do not?

Ulla Kejser, Danish National Library, presented a model for predicting costs. They came to the conclusion that there is strong dependency on subjective cost assessment, either in deciding how to map a framework like OAIS or simply in the prediction of the cost elements.

Interesting that they took care not to assume potential cost savings upon system deployment - they stress that to do that you need an organization that is capable of learning and re-applying that learning if you are to realize cost savings from re-use.

It seems to me that all the costing models suffer from the same drawback: when you scale the number of preserved records to a large number even a tiny estimation error will be magnified hugely. The underlying problem is that it is impossible to predict accurately something that has not been done before. This is a something that is very familiar to anyone involved in agile projects. I wonder if the estimation and planning techniques used there might be useful here.

Day 2

Micah Altman, a Social Scientist from Harvard spoke on open data. He maintains that journal articles are summaries of research and not the actual research results (I think he is missing the fact that articles also contain hypotheses and conclusions, not only summaries of work undertaken). His main point though is that researchers need access to the underlying data, which I wholeheartedly agree with. How we do this is trickier. I think the TIB in Germany have made a great start by defining persistent identifiers for scientific date - see here - but there is lots more to do. It has always been very hard to peer-review scientific data since the reviewer does not usually have access to the software needed to view the data or e.g. to run a simulation.

I think Altman also forgets that publication and dissemination is an annoying necessity for many scientists; it is not something they enjoy nor wish to spend a lot of time on, let alone preserving it. Most researchers just want to do research. Making it easy for them to cite, to archive and preserve is the key, I think.

Martha Anderson of NDIIP noted an interesting observation from Clay Shirky that each element of digital preservation has a different time dynamic and a different lifecycle. His advice was that “the longer the time frame of an element, the more social the problem”. Thus the social infrastructure around digital preservation is more important than the technical aspects. That is certainly our experience with the DOI System.

She also re-iterated the Danish point that learning organizations are key for collaboration.

There was a panel discussion on private LOCKSS Networks. PLNs are small, closed groups of institutes that use LOCKSS technology and architecture to harvest and store data in their domains. It looks like quite an interesting model, providing an open source architecture for institutes to roll their own digital preservation. I do have a concern about the LOCKSS architecture that is probably down to the fact that I haven't studied it well enough yet. I worry about the chaos of multiple copies of multiple resources, that may or may not be correctly tagged or uniquely identifiable. If I find something, how do I know if it is a copy or the original, or whether there is a difference? LOCKSS solves the problem of keeping stuff safe through redundancy, but it seems to me that in doing so it creates some new problems.

Ardys Kozbial showed that Chronopolis do a good job for their clients, with a straightforward, uncomplicated solution for multiple file types. Their dashboard for partners / data providers showing where their data is in the process queue was very impressive.

Christopher Lee showcased ContextMiner - a multi-channel agent that crawls multiple sources for multiple keyword searches. Shows just how easy web crawling has become.

Jens Ludwig, University of Goettingen, reported that Ingest was the biggest cost factor in digital preservation. This was hotly disputed during the discussion and on Twitter. He and his team have produced a guide on how digital information objects can be ingested into a digital repository in a manner that facilitates their secure storage, management and preservation. The draft is available here.

Emmanuelle Bernes, French National Library, gave a terrific presentation on the transition from Library to Digital Library and the impact on the people. She described two phases in the transition. The initial phase was characterized by “digital is different”: digital was driven by experts/early adopters, there was a separate organization, the culture was learning by doing. Now that the Library is fully digital, they have integrated the digital skills and tasks into all areas of the Library, running them as production teams; there are training programmes throughout the library open to all.

Interestingly, she described the transition as a dissemination, a spreading out of the skills learnt in the initial phase throughout the rest of the organization. The key insight for me was that since it is the people who carry the expertise, you must spread those people around the organization if you hope to spread their skills.

They provide multi-day training (7 days in total, one day of introduction, and three 2-day courses) with dedicated training curriculum on digital information management, metadata, digital libraries, digitization, digital preservation. The really clever thing they did was to open these courses up to everyone, not only those people who needed the training for their day-to-day activities, but also those who wanted to be there out of curiosity. Genius.

They have started a project to look at the impact of digital on people, processes and organization, and figure out innovative ways of doing it better.

I think there is much that other (National) Libraries could learn from the BnF, not to mention Publishers struggling with the transition from print to digital. It was a great presentation to end the conference with.

I collected the following memorable quotes during the Conference:

Henry Lowood “The world will end not with a bang but with the message: network error; server has shut down”

Rick Prelinger “Developing a 4 dimensional map of the world - how the world looked in space and time”

Martha Anderson “Collaboration is what you do when you cannot solve a problem on your own”

Adam Farquhar “Do you worry about having too many of your nodes in the same cloud?”

Jens Ludwig “You should define ingest as a transfer of responsibility and not as a technical transfer”

David Kirsch “The are more entrepreneurial ventures started in a year than there are marriages”

Pam Armstrong "Alone we can go faster, together we can go further"

and finally some random thoughts that occurred to me:

Perhaps the biggest steps forwards have been when public and private interests match. Maybe that is the key to digital preservation - finding areas where the interests meet. Tricky since the timeliness / time dynamics are so different. Is there a market for preservation? What would that be?

Struggling with the size of the problem - infinite data stored for infinity is just too big and hairy to cope with. For funding agencies it must seem like an blank cheque, very scary.

I loved the fantastic film footage from Rick Prelinger, he has a dream to recreate the world in space and time - recovering footage from the same place taken over time - see how things have developed.

Pure genius: Prelinger would like an iPhone app that knows where you are and in what direction you are looking, then shows you videos or stills of what it used to look like in the past

Scientific data is meaningless without the environment / system in which the data was created - just like the virtual world game content is meaningless without the engine with which it was created.

Persistence comes from a persistent acknowledged need matched by some persistent funding model - either a business model that is sustainable or sustainable government funding or some other investor - either way there has to be something in it for all the actors - otherwise there is no balance - so maybe identify actors, needs, what is being offered to whom for what? Also one model may not be enough - it rarely is in the rest of the world

One of the attributes of web service architecture is that services self-describe themselves and what they do. Maybe that’s a model for the distributed service model, agree the metadata for self-describing the modules, what they preserve, why and how. You could then design wrappers around non-compliant (legacy) modules to bring them into the same architecture. This is what CDL is doing for themselves, but what if the API’s they are defining become standards across the community?

Collaboration only works when the parties involved are willing and able to learn from each other. Before you plan to collaborate, take the test “are you are learning organization?”. If you cannot learn fro your own people, how can you expect to learn from collaboration with others?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Corporate Blogging Policy

If anyone were to ask me to write a corporate blogging policy, then this would be it: "Disclose or disclaim but don't stay silent".

Disclosure is very important since it helps the reader make up their own mind. It helps them judge the intent behind the authors' words.

Here is the best example of disclosure I have ever seen. It was published in the Dear Mary section of the The Spectator magazine where readers can ask for help from Mary Killen to solve their problems. Someone wrote in to ask what to do when the person in front of you in an aeroplane reclines their seat leaving you no space of your own. A fellow reader offered this advice:

"May I suggest you advise J.B. of London N1 that next time he is travelling long-haul he should fly Cathay Pacific, whose economy-class seats have a rigid back-shell which does not recline into the space of the passenger behind. The recline is achieved by the seat ingeniously sliding forward instead. Cathay Pacific also has four flights daily from London to Hong Kong, and up to two daily onward flights to New Zealand — all at very competitive fares! I apologise for the commercial, but we’ve gone to great trouble to prevent just the problem JB complains of, and I can’t resist the opportunity to point this out. The problem you could solve for me is the collapse of air-travel demand! Any bright ideas?

T.T., Cathay Pacific"

Even though this is an advert for Cathay Pacific, the full disclosure by T.T. lets you make up your own mind whether to accept it or not. There is no hidden agenda and the facts speak for themselves.

How to archive the web

The following are my notes and thoughts from the Web Archiving Conference held at British Library on July 21st, 2009.

The meeting was organized jointly by JISC, DPC and UK Web Archiving Consortium and attracted more than a 100 participants. The meeting was chaired by William Kilbride, Exec Director of DPC and Neil Grindley, programme manager for digital preservation for JISC. The presentations are available here.

Adrian Brown of UK Parliamentary Archives raised the interesting issue of how to preserve dynamic websites, ones that personalize on the fly. If every page on a website is individually created per user, then what version do you archive?

He also talked about versions across time. For instance, what is the best way to archive a wiki? Take a snapshot every so often or archive the full audit trail? Versioning is an issue when a site is harvested over a period of time so that there is a chance the site has been updated in-between harvests. Something he called a lack of temporal cohesion or temporal inconsistency.

Someone from the BBC noted that: "the BBC used to only record the goals in football matches and not the whole match" Now they realize how stupid this was - hence we should avoid the same pitfall by applying too much collection decision-making to archiving. This touches on one of the main issues facing web archivists: what to collect and what to discard? Most seem to make this decision on pragmatic grounds e.g. do we have permission to crawl or archive? how much budget do we have? do we have a mandate to collect a particular domain?

It strikes me that this is only a problem when there is a single collection point. The reality is that all sorts of people all over the world are archiving the web from multiple different perspectives all at the same time. If enough people / organizations do this then all of the web will be archived somewhere, sometime. So for instance, if there was a referee foundation archiving football matches for training purposes, and a football coaching organization, and the two clubs playing, then it wouldn't matter that BBC only saved the goals. The problem was that the BBC were the only ones filming the matches - a single collection point.

This touches on another main issue: the relationship between the content creator and the archivist. More on that later.

Peter Murray-Rust was quoted several times during the meeting. This is intriguing since he mostly seems to advocate against building digital archives which he thinks are effectively impossible and a waste of time. Instead we should disseminate data as widely as possible. If people are interested enough they will take copies somehow. Or as he puts it "Create and release herds of cows, not preserve hamburgers in a deep-freeze". The wider point here is that web archives should be part of the web themselves rather than hidden away in offline storage systems.

Another big issue here: access. If the archive is fully accessible then how do you know that what you find through Google is the archived version or the live version? Suppose there are multiple copies of the entire web archived through different institutions all accessible at the same time? Sounds like chaos to me. A chaos that only metadata can solve. Or so it seems to me.

I think it would help if there were metadata standards for archiving of websites. It could be a minimum set of data that is always recorded along with the archived contents. Archives could then be made interoperable either by using the same metadata schema or by exposing their metadata in some sort of data dictionary that is addressable in a standard way. If the standards are adhered to it would be possible to de-duplicate archived websites and easily identify the "live" version. It would also be easy to keep track of the versions of a website across time so that a single link could resolve to the multiple versions in the archive.

Kevin Ashley made the point that we should not only collect the contents of the web, but also that we should collect content about the web if future generations are to make sense of the archive. One simple example are the words used in websites that are archived today. Perhaps we need to archive dictionaries along with the content so that a 100 years from now people will know what the content means.

There seems to be a consensus in the web archiving community to use the WARC format to capture and store web pages. As I understand it, this is a format to package and compress the data including embedded images or pdf's, videos and so forth. When the record is accessed then it is presumably unpacked and delivered back as web pages. But what if the embedded file formats are no longer compatible with the modern operating systems or browsers? One answer to this problem is to upgrade the archive files to keep pace with new software releases. Presumably this means unpacking the WARC file, converting the embedded formats to the new versions, then repacking.

Jeffrey van der Hoeven believes that emulation is a solution to this problem. He is part of the project team that developed the Dioscuri emulator. He is currently working to provide emulation as a web service as part of the KEEP project.

If you would like to dig into the history of browsers, go to where you'll find an archive of web browsers, including the one Tim Berners-Lee built in 1991, the one called simply "WorldWideWeb".

Probably the single biggest issue facing web archivists is permissions. Obtaining permission to crawl and archive is time-consuming and fraught with legal complications. The large institutions like the British Library take great care to respect the rights of the content creators; as a result UKWAC are unable to harvest up to 70% of the sites it selects. Others operate an remove-upon-request policy. Edgar Cook of The National Library of Australia reported that they have decided to collect even without permission, they just keep the content dark if there is no permission to archive is granted. Edgar challenged the group: "are we being too timid? - hiding behind permissions as an explanation for why archives cannot be complete". Several people noted that it was difficult to reach out to the content creators; Helen Hockx-Yu said "communication with content creators is a luxury".

I wonder if this is perhaps the most important issue of all: connecting the creator to the archiver. It seems to me that to be successful both need to care about digital preservation. I think Edgar Cook is right, the danger in hiding behind permissions or hoping for strong legal deposit legislation is that it avoids the issue. Content creators need to understand that they have a part to play in keeping their own work accessible for future generations. Archive organizations have a big role to play to help them understand that. For instance, archives could issue badges for content creators to place on their web site to show that their work has been considered worthy of inclusion in an archive.

Kevin Ashley set me thinking about another idea. Suppose there was a simple self-archiving service that anyone could use for their own digital content. In return for using this tool, content creators would agree to donate their content to an archive. It would be a little like someone donating their personal library or their collection of photo's upon their death. Except this would be a living donation, archiving as the content is created in a partnership between creator and archive. Mind you, I am sure that a simple self-archiving tool will be anything but simple to create.

Indeed it is clear that web archiving is not at all easy. There are lots of questions, problems, issues and challenges and this meeting highlighted many of them. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be too many answers yet!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lessons from bagged salad

I attended a webinair last week given by Professor Ranjay Gulati of Harvard Business School. One of the great examples he spoke about was, of all things, bagged salad. Bagged salad is still one of the fastest growing food retail product lines, despite the e-coli scares of recent years. The convenience factor has been lauded by chefs and nutritionists alike for popularizing salads. In short, it is a great case study for innovation.

Professor Gulati told us that it was not the lettuce growers who had come up with this idea. "How did they miss this?", he asked, "How did they not see the bagged opportunity coming?". His answer was that they were too busy asking their customers how good they thought their lettuce tasted. Too busy with their Salad Net Promotor Scores.

The message to the audience was plain. Don't be blinded by your existing business. Don't rely on metrics that measure how satisfied your customers are with your existing products. If you do, you risk missing opportunities around your product. Study how your customers use your products and always be on the look out for new ways to deliver or package what you produce.

I think this is very valuable advice. Learning how your customers use your products is a great way to discover new opportunities for product development.

I was intrigued by the bagged salad though. I mean putting food in bags seems really obvious. How could anyone not see that coming, however lettuce-obsessed they were? So I turned to Google to find out how bagged lettuce was invented.

It turns out that (of course) if you put pieces of lettuce in an ordinary plastic bag it will rot very quickly. Fine for the trip home from the grocer, no good for shipping and storage. Once lettuce is cut, it consumes oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide, water and heat. Left in the open air it will consume oxygen until it rots away completely. Keeping lettuce fresh requires a bag that will regulate the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels inside the bag.

I could not find out who first had the idea, but people were experimenting already back in 1960's. Nothing worked well enough. Lettuce is very sensitive to wilting and the plastic bag technology just wasn't good enough. It worked for delivery to fast food chains but shelf life was too short for retail sales channels.

Not until 1980 that is. It took almost twenty years to develop a plastic film that was breathable and that was machinable into bags. Along the way they also learned how to fill the bag with nitrogen to lower oxygen and extend shelf life.

Twenty years of research and development to make the idea of bagged salad real.

I like this untold part of Professor Gulati's story. It is similar to the Personalized M&M's I have written about before. The same dogged determination to figure out how to solve the problem. The same kind of technology breakthrough that made it finally possible. The same belief that this the problem could be solved, no matter what people said.

Just in case you are thinking that bagged salad has nothing at all to do with publishing, let me remind you of how it all started. The breakthrough that finally brought printing to the world was the availability of cheap paper. Before that the printing press was an academic experiment: What use was a cheap way to print if paper was prohibitively expensive? If Gutenberg or Caxton were alive today and working in the corporate world, their ideas would never make it past a Dragon's Den, let alone a business case review board!

There's no doubt in my mind that customer insight is key to innovation. Seeing things that customers think or do that no-one else has seen before. Realizing that people like to eat lettuce but that many people find it a pain to wash and prepare. We have great techniques nowadays, such as ethnographic studies, to help us do this and we have user experience experts to help us do it.

That only takes us so far, as the M&M people found out, the lettuce folks learnt and Gutenberg discovered as well. Believing that your team can solve something no-one else has ever solved before is at least as important as the insights that led you to see the problem in the first place.

Never forget that innovation requires dogged determination and sheer hard work. Or as Guy Kawasaki wrote in Rules for Revolutionaries: "create like a god, command like a king, and work like a slave".

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Innovation is a Risky Business

I have heard many, many senior executives talk about failure. "We have to become more tolerant of failure", they say, or "we have to learn to fail" or "fail often, fail early". And yet, when things do go wrong their first questions are often "who is responsible for this? Who's accountable? Who is to blame?". Well intentioned project post-mortems turn into blamestorming sessions.

And I don't blame them!

It's human to think like this. My first reaction when things go wrong is to blame myself. I've tried telling myself that I should be more tolerant of my own failings but somehow I don't listen to myself.

Nowhere is this struggle more intense than in innovation. You must try new ideas out to see if they work. Sometimes, despite all the research, you only know that the idea will work after launching. Innovation is a risky business.

I don't think we have to learn how to fail. I think we have to learn how to understand risk and how to mitigate it, how to manage it.

Here's an example. Some years ago I was working with someone from Accenture. His previous assignment had been as a Product Manager with (if my memory serves me correctly) Vodafone. He had headed a new product development that upon launch was not as successful as had been hoped and was discontinued soon afterwards.

Vodafone had been very clever. They had assessed the risk of this particular idea and decided that it was high. Too high to risk assigning one of their own Product Manager's to lead the development. If it was unsuccessful then it would be highly career-limiting for that person. In their company culture, a track record of success was important for building a career. So they hired a contractor instead.

It turns out this was the normal practice for their product development group. Risky new projects were handled by contractors. Less risky ones by their own staff. If a risky product ended up being successful they either hired the contractor or replaced them with one of their own staff to take it forward in the life cycle.

This was how they managed innovation risk. It seems to me to be a lot easier than trying to change their passion-for-winning culture.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Business models: a question of honour?

There's a story in Purple Cow that caught my eye about two restaurants. The first, Brock's Restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut, has a sign up above their salad bar: "Sorry - No Sharing". There is an explanation that this rule is necessary so that the restaurant can continue to provide good value. In other words "please help us protect our profit margins".

Compare this to the wine policy at a restaurant called Frontiere. The owner puts an open bottle of wine on every table. At the end of the meal you tell the waiter how many glasses you have drunk. An honour system.

The brilliance of this idea is that two glasses of wine pay for the whole bottle at wholesale price.

Isn't the salad bar just like the media business? In this case the sign might read "Don't share music" or "Don't photocopy books". The underlying message is the same: "please help us protect our profit margins".

What if we were more like Frontiere? What if there was an honour system?

In journal publishing that is exactly what does happen. Journal articles have no DRM. Fair use allows for copying and sharing of articles. Publishers trust librarians to honour fair use. Librarian respect that trust. Articles are shared widely and everyone benefits.

Freeware has a similar business model. Download for free but make a contribution if you use it and like it. You might find it surprising but many people do.

So what might an honour system for books look like?

Suppose we make books available online by chapter. The student pays for one chapter but has access to all. If they download more we ask them to tell us and pay.

Just as in the wine example, pricing will be key. I'm certain that the low price for a single chapter will attract a larger number of customers. I doubt it would be enough to protect the margins. The success of the model will likely depend on how many customers pay for a second or third chapter. The other thing to remember is that the printed book will of course still sell although likely in smaller numbers. And they would be other derivative versions, such as the complete eBook, or the eBook as part of a collection or library, and for a textbook an online course.

I'm sure this sounds like a crazy idea to you. Maybe it wouldn't work. But maybe it just might. In any event, I would love to see someone experiment with new business models like this for books. I think everyone would benefit.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Do you love reading or do you love books?

Author Ann Kirschner set out to answer this question by reading the Charles Dickens classic “Little Dorrit” four ways: as a paperback, as an audio book, on her Kindle and on her iPhone. She spoke about her experience on NPR's On The Media last week. You can listen to the interview below or read the transcript here.

Ann's conclusion was that she loves reading and that each of the formats she chose offered something different and was useful in different ways. She loved the familiar paperback, the nostalgic feel of it in her hands. She used the audiobook in the New York subway. The Kindle was good but she didn't like the screen going black between pages.

Then she used the iPhone:

"....the iPhone, which seems, on the face of it, to offer the least enjoyable experience because the screen is so small. And yet.... the iPhone was the revelation to me. The screen is brighter, crisper. You can change pages instantaneously. But the most important thing is that the iPhone is always with you, or at least always with me."

There are two things that I learn from this. The first is the same point that Stephen Fry made recently "books are no more threatened by ebooks, than stairs were by elevators". If you love reading then celebrate that we have so many great ways to read now.

The second is Ann's experience with the iPhone. The fact that it is always with her compensated for an inferior user experience. Easy of use and instant availability trumped quality.

I'm afraid that many publishers are still convinced that their customers love books, after all they are still buying them right? I think that many customers are discovering, just as Ann did, that their joy of reading is stronger than their love of books. I call this the ebook event horizon.

Publishers should be falling over themselves to provide their books in every possible emerging format. They need to worry less about the things that are important for books (like quality) and care more about ease of use and instant availability on any device. What's to fear? After all, we still use stairs don't we?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book Review: Purple Cow by Seth Godin

Something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. Exceptional. New. Interesting. This is a remarkable book for all those reasons. It is written with marketeers in mind but I think the insights are relevant to anyone involved in innovative product development. The book is a passionate plea to us all to think differently about our markets. And to think about marketing from the moment we begin to design a product or service. In fact marketing is design

The underlying theme of Seth's book is that the old ways of marketing are dead. He does a great job of explaining why. For example: "The sad truth is that whatever you make, most people cannot buy your product. Either they don't have the money, or they don't have the time, or they don't want it. The world has changed, there are far more choices and less and less time to sort them out."

Seth continues: "No-one is going to eagerly adapt to your product. The vast majority of customers are happy. Sold on what they have got. Not looking for a replacement, and anyway they don't like adapting to anything new."

These are humbling insights. It is all too easy to become caught up in your own success story when you are building products. You need the positive momentum to keep you going, to keep you excited. So it is a shock to discover that at the launch that the world isn't waiting eagerly for the stuff you have worked so hard on.

So what can you do?

Be remarkable. Create something that is worth noticing and that people talk about. Ideas that spread are more likely to succeed than those that don't. It is not about gimmicks. Not about creating remarkable blurb. Not about making a product attractive after it has been designed. It is about designing the product to be remarkable from the start. Products that are worth talking about will get talked about.

The book is stuffed full of examples of remarkable products and services to help you understand what Seth means by this. My favourites are: the Dutch Boy paint cans that are designed with easy opening lids and carrying handles to make the painting process easier. Tracey the publicist who chose to focus on the narrowest possible niche (plastic surgeons) and to become the world's best publicist in that niche. The Four Seasons in Manhattan that knows that personal attention can make people feel special.

This is not a perfect book. As always Seth can be by turns insightful and annoying. He has a self-confessed tendency to hyperbole and some of the case studies are a bit flaky. Overall though this is a great book and I thoroughly recommend it.

Oh yes and the title of the book? Well it's simple. If you were driving along in the countryside and you saw a cow that was purple instead of the usual brown or black and white ones, that would be remarkable wouldn't it? You'd probably tell someone about it when you arrived home: "hey you'll never guess what I saw - a purple cow!" That's what customers say about remarkable products.

#Twitternovels version of this review: Don't be boring. Playing safe is risky. You must be remarkable - you must be a Purple Cow

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

A serendipity button

I always dreamed of what I called a Serendipity Button - a kind of sliding scale you could apply to (say) search results. A low serendipity setting would show you the results you were expecting, but a high serendipity setting would reveal apparently unrelated, but curiously intriguing, results that you were not expecting.

Wouldn't that be cool?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How close to the wind are your ideas?

I learnt how to sail with a wonderful instructor named Bert van Elderen. Over the years since then, I have realized that one of the things he taught me has relevance beyond sailing. Let me explain why.

As you probably know it is not possible to sail directly into the wind. You can however sail at an angle to the wind that allows you to make ground upwind. This is why yachts often sail in a zig-zag pattern. To make the most ground upwind you need to sail at the smallest angle possible to the direction the wind is coming from. This is called sailing close to the wind or close-hauled. You have to be careful not to sail too close to the wind, otherwise the sails start flapping and you lose speed. The trick is to learn how to sail as close to the wind as possible.

One day I was with Bert in a dinghy learning just that. Every few minutes he would ask me if I could "luff up", in other words sail closer to the wind. Sometimes I discovered that I could and sometimes I discovered that I was already sailing as close to the wind as possible. After a while I was pretty confident that I knew what I was doing, and yet Bert continued to ask the same question, again and again.

Finally, slightly annoyed, I asked him "why do you keep on asking that?, am I not doing it right?"

"Simple", he said, "It is a question with no wrong answer! If you are sailing as close to the wind as possible then the answer is no and you keep to your course; if the answer is yes, then you have fallen off the wind and you need to luff up a bit". What he was of course teaching me is that the conditions change all the time and that I should ask this question of myself all the time to make sure that I am sailing as close to the wind as possible.

I think this simple question applies to many things in life. For instance, it is the basis for retrospective reviews. "Could I have done that better?" is a question with no wrong answer. Either the answer is no, you did the best you possibly could, or the answer is yes, here's what I can do better next time. Either way you learn something. It is the key question to ask if you are interested in systemic change.

Jeff Honious reminded me last week that it applies to innovation as well. You should always be asking yourself the question "is this idea remarkable enough" or "can I improve on this idea?". These again are questions with no wrong answers. If the answer is "yes" then great we continue with the idea as planned. If the answer is "no" or "maybe not", then we need to do some work on the idea to make it better. Just like the wind, conditions around the idea change all the time. Asking these questions every day will help keep your ideas close to the wind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Coping with complexity - Lessons from Albatross

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the difference between complex and complicated problems. The more you work on a complex problem, the more details you uncover and the more complex it becomes. You can solve complicated problems but you have to learn to cope with complex ones. How?

I think we can learn something from the Albatross.

The Albatross is a remarkable bird. It flies over the oceans without touching land. It feeds on fish that it finds as it flies around. But fish are not especially plentiful in the open ocean and moreover they are not evenly distributed, they gather together in shoals. So how does the Albatross know where to find shoals of fish to feed on?

To answer this question, scientists attached transmitters to some Albatross and tracked their flight. A huge amount of data was collected. The scientists were unable to explain the data in terms of normal distributions. It seemed highly complex. The Albatross either made short flights before stopping (the assumptions is that they stop to rest or to feed) or they made long flights. When they made long flights, they either branched off suddenly or they stopped after a certain distance and then took off in a different direction. What was going on?

They asked Gene Stanley, a brilliant physicist, to help. He took the data and looked for patterns. It turns out that the flight path of the Albatross is an example of a random walk known as a Lévy flight. It is statistically the most efficient way to forage for food that is sparsely and randomly distributed.

This is how it works. The Albatross looks around for signs of fish. If it sees evidence of fish then it flies to that spot, finds the fish and feeds. If it cannot see any signs of fish then it flies in a randomly chosen direction. As it flies it looks around for fish. If it sees any then it flies towards them and feeds. If it does not see any fish then it flies only for a limited distance before stopping and changing direction.

I think we can learn a lot from the Albatross. I think that remarkable ideas are sparsely and randomly distributed in oceans of obvious ideas. The trick is to keep moving in different directions until your find something that works. If the Albatross sat still and waited for the fish to come along, more often than not they would die waiting. When foraging for answers a random walk is the best strategy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What publishers could learn from Build-a-Bear Workshop

My kids loved the Build-a-Bear Workshops when we lived in the USA. There was a special Workshop at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadephia Phillies baseball team. The team mascot is the Phillie Phanatic and you can build a one for yourself. There is always a huge queue outside the shop on game night.

This is how it works. You pick up a half-stuffed Bear (or Phillie Phanatic) and then choose which clothes, shoes, and other accessories you want. You can pick a voicebox to embed in the stuffed toy. You take it all to the assistant who inserts a "heart" and adds more stuffing, sews it up and dresses it. A Bear is born. It is a simple concept but a huge hit with kids. It turns the buying of a teddy bear into an event to remember.

The remarkable part of Build-a-Bear Workshops is not the customization. It is the half-stuffed bear that you start with. These are all exactly the same! And yet every child leaves their store believing that the bear they created is unique to them (it most likely is since the variations are almost endless). What Build-a-Bear Workshops have done is to figure out how to build a customization business that is profitable AND that delights the customers, in this case kids.

Isn't this what publishers have been searching for? A way to build a customizable experience that delights individual customers but doesn't kill any hope of profit. What if publishing could be more like Build-a-Bear?

Take textbooks and teachers. What would be the "half-stuffed" text that teachers could use to add features and content to build their own text? What is it about a great textbook that makes it great? Perhaps the didactic flow, perhaps the content, or the way of engaging the student. Whatever it is, what if we could distill that into the half-stuffed text and let the teacher build the rest?

This model is of course well established in some areas with services such as netvibes using RSS feeds. There are also sites that offer course materials. As far as I know there is no-one that offers an easy-to-use build-a-textbook service for teachers.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Are humans more predictable than the stock market?

Banks remind us that the past performance of their investment funds is no indicator of future results. The stock market, they say, is unpredictable, it can go up as well as down. Fair enough. No-one could seriously think that human beings are more predictable than the stock market?

And yet there is a school of thought that your past performance is the best indicator for your future results. Interviewers often rely on this insight to assess your suitability for a new position. They even have research to "prove" it.

I think this is total rubbish.

Don't get me wrong. I love to hear about people's past experiences, where they have been and what they have done. I just don't think it is much of an indicator of what they can or will do in the future. Nor should it be. I would rather hire someone for what they are going to do with my team than for what they have done in the past with someone else. I would choose potential over experience every time.

So how do you assess potential?

I look for passion. I look for that spark inside someone that is going to drive them to do things even when most people around them are telling them it's not worth doing.

Here's a couple of examples. Some years ago, I helped my father start a bookshop business. When he hired staff he asked questions about how many books people had at home, what book they were reading now and what did they think about it. He wanted to know if they were book people. Were they somebody he would like to have help him in a shop if he was the customer? Were they as passionate about books as we were?

When I was a student, I applied for a Saturday job at the LD Mountain Centre in Newscastle-upon-Tyne, an outdoor sports store. The only questions the shop manager asked me were "do you climb?", "can you come out climbing with us next Sunday", and "when can you start?". He was looking for someone passionate about mountains.

Rachel Mooney, Head of Organisational Culture at Google Europe, told me that one of the best answers she had ever heard while recruiting for Google was "I hope that what I am going to do with Google hasn't been invented yet". Passionate about creating something remarkable.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Why you should put the customer in control of their own experience

“People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves". A great insight from Seth Godin in his recent book Tribes.

I think the same applies to the way a customer experiences a product, service or website. Think about user manuals and help texts. Few people read these anymore, they just dive in and figure it out. You can try to tell them how best to use the product, or perhaps show them, but they don't really listen. They just say: "I'm sure I'll work it out, thanks".

If you are in control of your experience, then you choose the way you do things. You are telling yourself a story that convinces you that this is the best way to do things. And these stories stick.

So how much control do you give your customers and users with your product? Or your website? What stories do they tell themselves as they use it? And what stories do they tell their friends and colleagues?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Little details matter

People tend to think about the big things but overlook the little details. As a result, I think that little details can often reveal hidden, subconscious truths. Here's some examples, and a story that illustrates how powerful little details can be.

Many companies say that their customers are the most important thing to them, that customer focus is their number one priority. If this is true, then why do so many companies display only their products in their lobbies? What if they displayed the names and pictures and videos of their customers instead of their products?

And what about visitor badges? If visitors are welcome, why do we give them crappy badges with VISITOR on them? What if there were temporary badges printed on the fly with the names of the guests instead? Or even better, name badges that were ready upon their arrival. Wouldn't that make a guest feel welcome?

We all know that first impressions are important. Why is it then that many companies outsource their front desk to a security company? What if for one morning, a senior executive sat on the front desk and welcomed the staff? Wouldn't that be cool? What if the front desk staff had responsibility and a small budget for keeping the lobby fresh, fun and interesting?

Many executives say that their staff come first and that they value their people. If this is true, why is it that so many Board Meeting agendas have finance as the first agenda item and HR as the last? What if HR was the first agenda item instead?

I remember a regular monthly conference call that I used to attend some years ago. Every month the most senior executive on the call would say "this call is the most important call that I do every month". If this was true why was he was 5-10 minutes late dialing in every time? What if he was always the first to dial in instead?

Many websites say that they welcome feedback. If that is true then why do I have to register before I can submit comments? What if I could leave anonymous feedback but have the anonymous feedback visible only to registered users?

And now the story:

I had the great pleasure of visiting the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) offices in New York a couple of weeks ago. As you may know, they have recently taken control of Scientific American. NPG is busy making space in their offices for them. The desks and cubicles have been set up and are waiting to be fitted out with equipment. Over the last few weeks Scientific American staff have been visiting their new space in small groups to see what it is like. Before the very first group arrived, NPG made sure that there were nameplates above each new desk. Imagine how good it feels to visit a new office space that isn't even quite ready yet, and to see your name above what will be your desk. You can also see who will sit next to you. Wouldn't that make you feel very welcome? It is a little detail. I bet it makes a big difference.

Finally, a warning to anyone who thinks they can "fake" the little details. Humans have built-in authenticity sensors that detects inconsistent behaviour and recognizes token gestures. It is this same sensor that tells us when a CEO blog is ghost written for example. Little details are surprising and unexpected to the receiver and yet seem completely natural to the person that thinks them up. For the Nature example I am sure the thought process was "these new people must be feeling apprehensive about moving, how can I make them feel welcome? Well, one thing I could do is to put their names over their new desks before they arrive..."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why good enough is no longer good enough

I am re-reading Seth Godin's book, Purple Cow. The book is a plea for being remarkable and for having remarkable ideas. Seth's argument is that in a crowded market, only those companies that stand out will survive. It is no longer enough to copy someone else's remarkable idea. Playing safe is too risky.

One of the many insights for me in this terrific book is that the opposite of remarkable is "very good" or "good enough". Not "bad" or "mediocre" as you might expect.

I think most companies are pretty good at weeding out the bad and the mediocre ideas during development. Concept testing and prototyping help us do this at low cost. I wonder how many companies are as good at sorting out the good enough from the remarkable?

Here is a scenario you might recognize. You talk to customers and get some remarkable insights. You turn these into remarkable concepts and remarkable prototypes. The customer feedback is great, you realize you are testing things that no-one else has ever done before. Wow! Then comes the business case review and the CFO says: "great idea, I love it, but could you do it for less maybe?....I mean does it have to be so fantastic - good enough is good enough right?". This sounds very reasonable doesn't it? The kind of thing CFO's say all the time. Has it happened to you?

I suspect this is how remarkable ideas are dumbed down into good enough ideas, and why many of these ideas disappoint upon launch into the crowded marketplace of today. There are plenty of products competing for our customers' attention, why should they even look at something that is unremarkable?

Good enough is WORSE than bad or mediocre. We can recognize the bad or mediocre and we have learnt to kill it early. The problem is that good enough fools us into thinking we are on the right track. Good enough keeps us investing in something that will never excite our customers. Ever.

The secret I think is to keep the remarkable ideas alive during the development process. You have to understand what it is that is remarkable about the idea you are developing or the concept you are testing. When challenged to do it more cheaply, as inevitably you will be, you have to work out how to keep that remarkable part alive. If that is not possible, it is better to stop than to proceed.

Here's two examples of what I mean:

Some years ago a couple of guys working at Mars thought it might be cool if you could print personalized messages on M&M's. Printing on tiny saucer-shaped, hard gum-covered chocolates without melting the chocolate or crushing the M&M and producing readable text proved to be technically very tricky. The easy thing to do, the good enough solution, would have been to personalize the packaging instead i.e. deliver M&M's in bags with your personalized message on the outside. Other companies do this. It's not that difficult. But no - the team at Mars stuck to their remarkable idea. It took them five years to figure out how to print on M&M's and how to do it in a cost-effective way. The result is My M&M's and an entirely new business unit: MarsDirect Inc. Today you can upload your own message and even photo's for printing onto M&M's. It is a huge success with around 2000 orders a day and many very happy customers. When you look at one of their printed M&M's you cannot fail to be impressed and ask yourself "how on earth do they do that?". It is remarkable. You can read more about it here.

ScienceDirect is another example. The original idea of providing desktop access to scientific, technical and medical articles was remarkable in 1993 when we first started experimenting with what would become Elsevier's web delivery system for scholarly information, ScienceDirect. This might seem strange to you now in today's world but remember that the world wide web didn't exist until Tim Berners-Lee proposed it in 1989 and only a handful of websites were live in 1993. Just as in the M&M example, the key problem to solve was the production. How could we take whatever format authors chose to send their articles to us in and turn it into something we could display online? And how to do it in a cost-effective way? Our computer-aided production process was the innovation that made this remarkable idea possible. There were many "good enough" moments in the 5 years it took to develop but the team stayed true to that original, remarkable idea of desktop access to articles.

As Seth Godin writes: "transform your business by being remarkable". Good enough is no longer good enough.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What is the difference between a platform and a product?

We would argue this question for hours when I was a product manager. We came up with plenty of definitions to clarify the difference, although I'm not sure we were ever very clear about it ourselves at the time. And yet I think this simple question lies a the heart of good product management. So here is what I think today.

One line of argument is as follows: People buy products. Platforms are structures that allow multiple products to be built within the same technical framework. Companies invest in platforms in the hope that future products can be developed faster and cheaper, than if they built them stand-alone. I would argue that as the cost of development comes down there is much less to gain here as there once was.

Today it is much more important to think of a platform as a business framework. By this I mean a framework that allows multiple business models to be built and supported. For instance, Amazon is an online retail framework. Facebook is a social media framework. Apple iTunes is an online micropayment framework.

It is the business framework that leads the product strategy. Amazon started by selling books. Over time they have expanded to selling all sorts of other things. Apple iTunes started by selling tracks and now uses the same framework to sell videos. TV programmes and software applications for iPhones.

In a technical framework, you leverage the underlying technology to build new products. In a business framework, you leverage the knowledge about the customers to build new business models. Amazon built a retail platform that gathered huge amounts of data on how people buy things online. They used this knowledge to extend the platform to sell more and different things.

How is this relevant to publishing? Suppose I am (say) a textbook publisher. I can imagine developing all sorts of products to repackage my textbooks in online formats. I might develop a great technical platform to do this efficiently. Eventually all my textbooks are online. Great. What do I do then? The business framework is unchanged, I am still selling textbooks, albeit now online.

Let's take a different approach. As a educational publisher we help students to learn. It seems logical then to think that the more we know about how students learn, the better we will be able to help them learn. Suppose then I design a platform that gathers data on how students learn over time. I might start with (say) a study guide that helps them identify what the best learning strategies might be. I would figure out a way to track how useful the learning strategies are for individual students. Over time I would build up a large data set of the best ways to help students learn. With this knowledge I can design new products for students.

That's why I believe we should be thinking of platforms before we think of products

Friday, May 29, 2009

What publishers can learn from urban planners

Vikram Savkar, Publishing Director of Nature Education, made a terrific point in a recent meeting organized by Patty Seybold. He said that modern urban planners try to bring different groups of people together when designing a city because it stimulates innovation. His insight was that perhaps information is like people in a city: bringing different types of information together in a single place could stimulate innovation.

Perhaps Publishers could learn something from urban planners in designing information environments that help users to come up with new ideas. Could we design places for information to "meet" other apparently unrelated information? A kind of information singles-bar, with Publishers as the matchmakers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where does user-generated content fit in?

Here's an example of how free content, paid-for content, and user-generated content can work together to create something really useful.

I love camping. I mean proper camping with a tent. Suppose I decide that I want to go on a camping holiday in the USA. Unless someone has given me a hot tip, I would probably start with a Google search: "what is a great place to go tent camping in USA in the summer". I would search around and find some general travel advice sites. Let's say I decide to go camping in Colorado.

I will likely then buy a guidebook to Colorado both to plan where to go and to take with me as a reference when I go. But where should I pitch my tent? The guidebook has some recommendations for good campsites and I decide to book one since the guidebook warns me it is very popular in summer. But which site at the campsite should I reserve? What better than to find someone who has stayed at this campsite and can recommend a site that has (for instance) a great view, is flat and not too far away from the playground for my kids. Even better if someone has posted some photo's of the choice sites so I can see before I reserve. Great. I can't wait to go.

A traditional publisher view of this scenario might be "there's no way I can include that much detail in my guidebook, if I had information on the best sites in every campsite the book would be a thousand pages". And they would be right. But there's another way of looking at this.

This is no an either/or scenario. User-generated content does not kill off the publisher. It is simply that in my search for somewhere memorable to camp, different information sources help me with different parts of the puzzle.

For my question: "where to camp in USA in summer?" a Google search and a general travel advice site was useful

For my question: "where to go in Colorado?" a guidebook was best for me

For my question: "which site is best to choose at this campsite?" the personal experience of a fellow camper was helpful

What if I created a publishing environment that provides some free information on initial holiday planning, the opportunity to buy a guidebook, and a section where people can share experiences and photo's? There's a good chance I would choose to buy a guidebook that was part of such a system. If all the information was cross-referenced and inter-linked, it would be even more compelling.

My guess is that there are many, many scenarios similar to this. For each one there is an opportunity to blend free, paid-for and user-generated content into something really useful for customers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Complex or complicated?

Humans like to solve problems. Whether it is finding the answer to life, the universe and everything or simply finding somewhere to have lunch, solving problems is satisfying. So it is frustrating when we cannot find a solution. I suggest that there are many problems today to which there is no solution or at least no single solution. These are complex problems.

Complex problems are problems with many interdependent variables. There are so many possible combinations of the variables that it hard to see what is going on. The variables are changing all the time as well and so are the interdependencies. Changing in a non-linear fashion makes it very hard to predict what is going to happen. There seem to be many possible solutions and all of them look feasible. The more we work on the problem, the more details we uncover and the more complex it seems to become. And the further away a solution seems to be.

Complicated problems at first sight appear to be similar to complex problems but as we work on them we see the problem becoming simpler, until eventually the problem is solved. However complicated the problem was to start with, we have untangled it and come up with a solution.

In short, complicated problems have a solution. Complex problems do not. Complex problems have many possible solutions some of which may be more likely than others. Some solutions may solve the problem for a while but fail when the variables change again.

When we have solved a complicated problem we can move on to solve the next one. We don't need to think about it again. Complex problems need a permanent structure in place to continually inspect what is happening and build solutions for the new situation. You solve a complicated problem but you cope with a complex one.

The confusion arises when we try to solve complex problems as if they were complicated ones. It is very natural for us to do this, since we want the satisfaction of finding a single solution. It is also much harder to manage a complex situation than to manage a complicated one, so we tend to prefer that most of our problems are complicated. It's easier that way.

I suspect that much of what is happening in the online world is complex. If follows that learning how to recognize and cope with complexity will be the key to success in the online world.

Social Networking is here to stay (guest post)

This is a guest post from a colleague, Sandra de Gelder. She attended a conference on Corporate Social Networking recently. These are her insights.

Online social networking is here to stay! Online collaboration, collective intelligence, user generated content and crowdsourcing are all growing in popularity. Social media play time is over, it is time to look ahead. Time to investigate how your target audience is changing. How the internet is changing and how you can change the way you connect with your customers.

Insight #1 – The Power of Online Communities

Power continues to shift to communities over brands – ultimately resulting in communities becoming institutions. Online communities allow people to create something together and to select what to buy/read/do based on peer recommendations and actions. E-commerce will merge with social networks. You have to think how to allow the community to help define what is best for them.

Insight #2 – Digital Natives

Social media are most popular with people between 16 and 35. People born after 1980 are referred to as “digital natives”, they grew up with the internet. Digital natives share a set of characteristics that set them apart from “digital immigrants”, especially the way they interact with technology, information and each other – globally. They select, evaluate and process information in different ways: they are non-hierarchical (they listen to their peers, not their seniors, e.g. they will choose to read a blog over the NYT article on a particular subject); they take short-cuts for information quality assessments; they have a short attention span. These are the customers of the future and if you are too slow to cater for them you risk being overlooked.

Insight #3 – Marketing 

Social networking is a way to connect with customers, and allows you to move away from traditional (push) marketing. You need to “fish where the fish are” and connect to where your customers are. You should only build your own community if the existing social networks are insufficient. If you do make sure the needs of the community come first – brand second. If you put your brand first you will fail. Instead of marketing managers you need to hire “social media strategists” and “community managers” and you need a strategy based on an objective – not on the available technologies!

Insight #4 – Customer Relationships Management

Traditional brand marketing will fade away forcing a shift to rely on social networks. Social networks will centralise all activity on the open web – cutting into traditional email. People are going to rank and rate our products and you will not be able to stop it. You must prepare for all products to be reviewed socially and encourage social recommendations. Then aggregate social recommendations on your web sites to encourage trust. People will expose (personal) information to a company as they start to trust them. Once you have earned your customers trust, you can run influencer and word-of-mouth programmes to help ‘fans’ become advocates.

Insight #5: The Future (not so far away, Forrester predicts 2011-2013)

Fully personalised web experience, sites will be serving content based on social relevance. Registration pages will go away. Communities will define products. Companies will build products based on collective opinions and desires.
Social networks will become the next-generation CRM and VRM systems (SalesForce has already partnered with Twitter).

Among the speakers at the Conference were:
Jeremiah Owyang, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research and Urs Gasser, Excecutive Director Berkman Center, Harvard University (leading think tank in academia focused on the internet and its impact on culture)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why benchmarking is dumb

Benchmarking is the process of assessing the abilities of your company/team/department against a similar organization that competes with your own. It is not only dumb it can be highly dangerous as well. Here are three reasons why.

Your competitive advantage comes from what you do differently to your competition. As Tom Peters famously said benchmarking is the process by which you make a 3 year plan to catch up to where your competitor is today. It is dumb because it focuses you on those things that are similar to your competitor instead of what is different. It is dangerous because it leads you to believe that you're going in the right direction when in fact you're going backwards.

The second reason benchmarking is dumb is that it stifles ambition. It dumbs us down into believing that if only we were just a little better than our competitors, then everything will be OK. So we work hard on understanding what our customers want and then deliver it just a little better than our competitors. This is dangerous because it leads us to believe we have a sustainable competitive advantage, when in fact all our competitors need to do is to run a little faster to overtake us again. This kind of thinking can lead to a features cold war: the competitor adds a feature so we add one too just to keep up. Before you know it both have huge arsenals of features. Meanwhile someone else had a better, simpler idea and we didn't see it coming. Remember Seth Godin's words: "You cannot be remarkable by following someone else who is remarkable".

My final reason comes from what I have learned from the world of agile development. Retrospectives lie at the heart of agile methods such as scrum. The underlying principle is one of continuous improvement: inspecting what went well and what went less well, then adapting the next steps based on the lessons learned. It follows that there is no fixed agile process: I can tell you how I did an agile project but I cannot tell you how to do yours. It is the same with benchmarking. It is dumb to think that something that someone else did can be applied like a formula to your own world. It is dangerous because it can stop you thinking, stop you inspecting what you do and adapting to do it better.

Don't misunderstand me, learning from others how they do things can be hugely valuable. In particular, I think there is much to learn from people who are not your competitors but do something similar in a related world - but that's a topic for another time. The secret is not to let it stop you thinking for yourself. Inspect what others do then adapt what you do as a result of what you have learned.

PS (April 30th, 2009) Bryce Harrison alerted me to this great article on Systems Thinking and the Case Against Benchmarking. Worth reading to the end where you will find these words from Toyota "They (managers) tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences, when the really important differences lie in the harder-to-see ways value-creating activities are organised.” Their advice is clear: “To Hell with your competitors; compete against perfection by identifying all activities that are muda (wasteful) and eliminating them." Wow!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What I have learned from iPhone applications

My boss gave me an iTouch for Christmas and I absolutely love it. And I am not alone. There have been almost 1 billion downloads of i-applications since the launch of the system in July 2008, and more than 35,000 applications have been created (see here) Aside from the joy of using it, I have learned a great deal from the way the system works.

It is the best example I can think of for what I call the easy principle: the easier you make something the more likely it is that people will do it. The quicker and easier you make it for people to buy, the more they will buy. It is just so easy to buy an i-app, just a couple of clicks and $2 is debited from your credit card. Easy.

The easy principle encourages impulse buying. I was with someone the other day who all of a sudden wanted to record the sound of waves onto her iPhone. She thought it would make a fun alarm to wake up to. There and then she found a recording app, bought it, and made a recording, all in a few minutes. Easy.

There is no try-before-you-buy for i-apps, although some do offer Lite versions, so i find myself relying on the reviews and stars to guide me as to the value of an i-app that I am considering downloading. Interestingly if you delete a Lite version it will often ask you to rate the application just before you remove it. Easy.

So far so cool, but what could it mean for publishers?

Consider this scenario:

Suppose journal articles were available for download to a handheld device with a similar easy payment system. I am in the train on my way to the university, browsing my alerts that I have set up to keep me posted on publications in my field of research. I see something that looks interesting. Before I decide to purchase the article, I read the reviews from other scientists. Is it worth downloading? I decide that it is and go ahead. While reading the article there are links out to other articles. On an impulse I follow a few and download some more articles that look interesting. By the time I reach the university I have a small library in my hand.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When innovation becomes a dirty word

"Don't use the word innovation" I was advised recently by a business leader, "find a different word". That set me thinking. Why is it that innovation can become a dirty word for some companies? And what can you do about it?

An obvious reason is that a recent innovation initiative has failed to deliver what was expected. Sounds logical perhaps. I think it a big danger sign that points to a culture that cannot easily deal with failure, let alone accept it. Companies have to become used to trying out lots of ideas and expecting many to not make it. Try lots of simple concepts and paper prototypes, test with customers and video their response. For every one concept that they were enthusiastic about, present two they hated alongside it.

Perhaps the company has a narrow view of innovation, seeing it as only new product development. If the pipeline is full, who needs more? Innovation for me is about thinking differently about EVERYTHING you do as a person and as a company. Innovation never sleeps! Try an innovation session around business models or how you deliver your products or even how you do your budgeting.

Innovation can become institutionalized. Fossilized into a set of formal processes, often with specific people accountable for parts of the process. I believe you have to innovate the way you innovate. Throw out that old process and think up a fresh one! Run sessions on how to innovate better, what can we do to improve the way we do it?

In times of (economic) crisis it seems obvious to cut back on spending, batten down the hatches. Customers stop buying. Employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Not a time for innovation you might think. WRONG. History shows that harsh recessions are also periods of exceptional entrepreneurial vigour. DuPont developed synthetic rubber in 1930 and Nylon in 1934. EMI was launched in 1931. Thomas Edison set up General Electric in the "long depression" of 1870's. Microsoft and Apple started up in the early 1970's amid the soaring oil prices. For some great tips on innovating when your company is on a diet, try Skinny Innovation from ?WhatIf!

Innovation can be seen as whacky, messing around at the edge and not core to our business, where it is most needed. I strongly believe innovation must be edgy, you cannot think unthinkable thoughts without a hint of revolution. It has to be applied to real problems though. Innovation for innovation's sake might be fun but it doesn't lead anywhere. It takes bravery to be edgy especially in a corporate environment. Try to find a mentor who will support you and protect you. Think about what's in it for you - are you being brave towards yourself? Do be careful making innovation all about you though - innovation is all about the insights, the ideas and what is done with them.

If all else fails then I recommend Stealth Innovation: being innovative in everything you do and letting you behaviour influence those around you. Here's some tips:
Concentrate on being insightful and sharing those insights with your colleagues. Why not start every presentation or report you do with an insightful fact? Be enthusiastic: "i found this amazing fact and thought you might like to hear it"
Find related worlds: other companies in different sectors but with similar challenges to your own. Share the case study and help your colleagues see the connection. Close off your emails with "hope this helps"
Share your ideas! Write an occasional "whacky idea" email to your boss but don't follow it up, wait until she does. Then talk about all the ways to make that idea real.
Seize every opportunity to do things differently. If you are "lumbered" with arranging the next steering committee meeting, then do something different. Explain why at the meeting but don't ask for permission beforehand. Ask for feedback. Volunteer for an action item then get it down in a new way "I just thought I'd try to do it in a different way for a change"
It is tough doing this alone so try to find some like-minded people, a Stealth Innovation self-help group. Share your frustrations and your little victories with the group.

If you do this I think you will find that people will start to seek you out and ask you to help with their problems. You are "so creative" they will say, "you always seem to have ideas that are refreshingly different". And I think you'll have fun too.

The Dark Matter of the Information World

"Books are the dark matter of the information world". For that quote alone it is worth reading this article by Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal.

I would recommend though that you take the time to read the entire article. Steven believes that with the coming of the Kindle the rules have changed forever. He says "....the book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways". He then goes on to speculate what these changes might be.

Recommended reading for all, compulsory reading for publishers

Monday, April 20, 2009

How to stifle innovation

Thanks to NPR I discovered this terrific video on You Tube:

It was produced by an astronaut, Andy Thomas, and tells the (fictional) story of an engineer at
Johnson Space Center who has a great new idea. The video shows how the idea is stifled and killed. The pithy text comments that overlay the video and provide commentary are wonderful.

I am sure you will laugh as you watch the video. I challenge you to look in the mirror after you have watched it and tell yourself that this would never happen in your company.

I suspect that the innovation-blocking behaviours shown in the film are all too common.

The fact that this is NASA is especially poignant. After the space shuttle Columbia accident, the investigation board said NASA's culture had stifled dissenting opinions from engineers who were concerned about potential dangers. Your company may never face life or death situations as NASA do, but I think this little homemade video has much to teach us all about how easy it is to stifle innovation.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How much do you trust me?

It was Switzerland. On a boat on the Brienzersee near Interlaken. The date was May 2002. Morris Tabaksblat, our then Chairman, gave an after-dinner speech on the topic of trust and how this would be the next big issue for business to deal with. We laughed. One wag commented that it was like "greetings from the Planet Zog". Oh how prescient his words were in hindsight. Nowadays it seems as if aliens from the Planet Greed have invaded many boardrooms and have set about exterminating trust.

Trust is important. Without trust there are no relationships. No relationships between people. No relationships between companies and their customers. And without relationships you are left with only transient transactions. It is very hard to build a sustainable, profitable business based on transactions.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately and especially on how you might measure trust. Net Promoter Score, the current favourite metric for many, doesn't quite do it for me. It is perhaps an indirect measure of trust. Perhaps. If you simply ask "how much do you trust me?", the first response will probably be "to do what". So that doesn't help.

Or does it. Suppose we define a "trust to" metric. A metric that measures how much our customers trust us to do what we promise to do. I think all business makes promises to its customers, even if that promise is implicit and not immediately obvious. For example, a delivery company makes a promise to its customers to deliver at the agreed time, so perhaps they might define a "trust to deliver" metric: how much do you trust us to deliver when we say we will. An airline makes a promise to fly safely: "trust to be safe". A publisher makes a promise not to publish crap. A bank makes a promise to take care of your money....

I wonder what promise your company makes?

Once you have defined your promise, the next step is to turn it into a "trust to" metric, then go ask people. How much do you trust us to do what we promise? And if you know how to measure it, you can start to work on influencing it. You can use this metric to filter ideas and business initiatives: will our customers trust us more if we do this? Or less? What else could we do for our customers to trust us more to do what we promise?

Obviously this will not by itself rebuild trust, but making trust measurable just might help people care about it a little more. And that would be good for everyone, wouldn't it?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Make me smile

"We have an air traffic delay.....blah...blah...blah". It's the usual stuff and I stop listening to the pilot as we are waiting on the 'plane at Amsterdam airport.

Suddenly I find myself listening again. The pilot is telling us to pay attention to the safety briefing, but he's doing it in a funny voice with a strange emphasis on the words. He almost shouts "safety". Wow that's unusual. The stewardess takes over and tells us that we should really watch the safety video because it's new and much, much less boring than the old one. It's not a great joke but again it has me listening. Listening to something I have heard many times before and usually ignore.

I am smiling. Smiling at British Airways - they have taken the trouble to think up a new way to grab our attention. It seems that they really care that I listen, at least that's the impression I have. The humour is surprising, unusual and very effective.

I think the use of humour in user experience is underrated and underused

I've mentioned before the surprised squeal of the Nintendo Wii Fit when you step on the balance board. That makes me smile. The Twitter Fail Whale is another great example. Even the simple "Ooops there seems to be an error" is infinitely better than the usual useless jargon you get upon failure. Apple of course are the masters of emotional engagement - I smile just thinking about their products!

With so many examples to learn from why are so many corporate websites still full of impenetrable, stifling blurb? What does that say about a company? I suppose someone thinks that fun equals frivolity, and that doesn't match the corporate image. Didn't anyone notice that humans make jokes about even the most serious of things? Laughter keeps us alive. Literally.

So this is a plea for more fun.

Think of ways you can liven up your websites and products. Quirky, amusing, unexpected little details that will make your users smile.

Book Review: Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great

Retrospectives are a critical part of agile methodology and this book is a must read for anyone doing anything agile. I would go further and say that this book is also a must read for anyone involved in any flavour of project management. In fact, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve the way they do things! There is much talk these days about learning organisations and then much gnashing of teeth about how hard that is to achieve in practice; my advice is: buy this book and start doing retrospectives as often as possible, in projects, team meetings, events, even by yourself at the end of a week.

Retrospectives help us inspect what we have done, what went well and what went less well, and adapt so that we do things better next time. I am sure this sounds logical to everyone yet it amazes me how infrequently retrospectives are used. Even if they take place it is often at the very end of a project (a “post-mortem”) when it is way too late to do anything differently. Moreover, even though most retrospectives identify what went well and less well, they often fail to result in any action. So we continue to make the same mistakes instead of learning from them.

This is a practical book with tips on how to do retrospectives and make them more effective. It makes it easy for anyone with basic facilitation skills to run retrospectives. The book starts with a simple process of 5 steps to follow in any session. The rest of the book describes 30 activities organised per step that help to structure the retrospective and get the most from the group. There’s also some handy tips and tricks for facilitating, even including a checklist of office supplies needed for a successful session.

Perhaps one of the best features of this book, at least if you buy it directly from the publishers (Pragmatic Programmers), is the DRM-free pdf version that sells alongside the print. If you buy this you can print out the activities you plan to use at a session as an aide memoire for yourself or as a handout for the participants. What a great idea! It is terrific to see a publisher that truly understands what it’s products are used for. If you have bought the book in a shop or from a leading online purveyor, you can download the eBook pdf at a discount. Just go here. You are prompted to fill in the first word on a random page in the book in order to qualify for the discount.

PS Check out Esther’s blog here

Twitternovels version: ask not what your project has done for you: ask what went well, what went less well, & what will I do differently next time

Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen