The connectedness of things

Bee on a flower by elvis_payne

12 February is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the BBC’s Darwin Season is now in full swing. If you didn’t catch Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time four-parter last week, episode four, where Darwin’s pottering around in his greenhouse, is the one worth listening to.

In the latter half of Darwin’s life, the kitchen garden at Down House in Kent became the centre of his biological research, the place he called his “experimental bed”.

Here he experimented with orchids, primroses, cowslips, honey-bees and – less romantically – pigeons and worms.

One discovery was that pollination of flowers by insects ensures the variability that’s the lynchpin of evolution through natural selection. Constantly self-fertilizing plants simply don’t evolve in the same way.

And Darwin also found out that, for successful pollination, a whole number of variables were necessary – primroses, for example, don’t simply have male and female flowers, they also have “long-styled” and “short-styled” structures.

His belief in the importance of diversity (ironically enough, he was married to his cousin, but we’ll gloss over that) appears to have been just one element of Darwin’s “leader 2.0” approach.

Despite it being a good 100 years before the world’s first computer network was established, Darwin practiced an early form of crowdsourcing in order to carry out his research.

As Melvyn Bragg puts it, “Down House was a retreat for Darwin, but he was also open to the world”. Darwin claimed to write eight to ten letters a day (no less than 7,000 of these survive and are held in an archive at Cambridge University).

These letters were used to co-ordinate international research, exploring human orgins for “The Ascent of Man”. Darwin wrote to his network of existing friends around the world – diplomats, missionaries and fellow scientists – and asked them to tap into their own networks.

This research covered all countries in the British Empire (approaching its peak in the mid nineteenth century) as well as the Americas. For example, the Brazilian-based botanist, Fritz Muller, sent Darwin exotic seeds, which he would then send on to contacts in other parts of the world for comparison and comment.

Bizarre objects would frequently be attached to the letters – one in the archive in Cambridge University Library comes from New Zealand; it still has squashed bees taped to the paper.

Thus correspondence (the social media of its day) was immensely important to Darwin’s scientific discoveries. And Darwin was impressed by the quality of the information that his contacts gathered and delivered to him, motivated not by financial reward, but simply for the sake of reciprocation and communal discovery (sound familiar?).

As Darwin wrote to his friend, John Jenner Weir in 1868: “If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow men, he ought to do what I’m doing, pester them with letters.”

Darwin’s biographer, Jim Moore, notes that he was very good at getting people to do what he wanted by being extremely appreciative of the help they offered him.

Darwin was also very serendipitous in his sources of information. Whenever a baby was born to a couple in the Darwin’s circle of friends, unusually it would be Darwin (not his wife, Emma) who’d send the card of congratulations – a questionnaire contained within it. This questionnaire would ask about facial emotions, which Darwin would then relate back not only to the origins of racial differences but also to expressions of sorrow and fear in young animals.

Based at home, Darwin’s life and work were completely intertwined and his family were involved with all his projects. Darwin and his wife had ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. His wife, and his eldest surviving daughter, Henrietta, helped him with his correspondence.

“Science obsesses itself with trifles” observes geneticist Steve Jones, who points out that Darwin’s central theme was another property echoed in web 2.0: “the enormous power of small means”. (cf: network effects?)

According to Jim Moore, Darwin’s vision of nature was of “a struggling progressive cosmos in which all life is related”. This vision is now universally accepted (if not always remembered).

“If we had Darwin’s humanity that accompanied that vision, his love of life and his hatred of cruelty, it would be the completion of his work,” adds Moore.

So, how did Darwin’s life work conclude? Well, his last book was about earthworms.

“The last book he published wasn’t some grandiose world view, some old testament from the top of an intellectual mountain, it was a book about earthworms”, says Melvyn Bragg, who then goes on to cite Darwin’s humility and his realisation of the connectedness of things as hallmarks of his greatness.

It seems there’s a lot some of today’s leaders could learn from this man who died 127 years ago.

Knowledge Listening

Setting Redcats among the chickens

We’re sitting in the foyer of the ICA, the UK’s home of avant garde culture, but somehow Benjamin Ellis and I are talking about chickens.

Benjamin has six bantams and they don’t want to go outside now that the first frosts of winter have arrived. Also, they’ve stopped laying eggs. Of course, the bottom line solution would be to gently put the bantams out of their misery, and have a nice chicken curry for dinner. But would this be ethical? Probably not.

The chickens are providing more than just eggs, they are providing company (of sorts) and entertainment for Benjamin’s children. They represent six little lives. The fact that they’re no longer laying doesn’t directly mean that Benjamin’s children are going hungry. In fact, I imagine there more than enough slack in the Ellis family budget to provide for the six bantams under their new ‘pet’ status.

I’m interested in chickens because my country-dwelling sister keeps them, and it’s great for Lila (my two year old) to get an actual demonstration of where eggs come from.

The only reason I know Benjamin keeps chickens is because he’s been Twittering about them. I swear I wouldn’t have brought chickens up, otherwise.

Social media tools are great in delivering exactly that sort of arbitrary information that you wouldn’t necessarily ask for – but once you know the information is there, you can exploit it.

As Benjamin says (once we get our mutual interest in chickens out of the way):

“A lot of creativity comes from randomness but it’s hard to construct randomness in an effective way. That’s what social media does. It puts the answer in the cloud.”

And how does this work in business?

“Most of the information assets of an enterprise are placed carefully out of reach. If you’re really progressive you use an intranet or Sharepoint. But in many cases information has simply gone from an information pocket to an information enclave.

“The reality is that there’s no meta-data – information about information… bookmarking, tagging and wikis make up a kind of semantic wrapper around information that can really help identify stuff – if these are used properly they can make the biggest fundamental difference to business.”

A former marketing executive at Cisco, Juniper and other leading IT companies, Benjamin now uses his expertise to focus on the communication problems within organisations. Last September he set up Redcatco “to ensure better information flows inside companies”.

“The biggest challenge in any organisation is the asymmetrical nature of information,” says Benjamin. “You have information, I need that information – but the actual problem is knowing who has what, and how to find it when you need it.”

One of the stumbling blocks Benjamin has come across is the natural tendency to hoard information by the people who work within companies:

“Where there’s an information vacuum people exercise their power – so there’s cultural interest in developing that vacuum.”

If getting people to share is hard, getting people to tag and bookmark is even more difficult, but when this is done properly, the rewards are many:

“The critical information is always on the margins. The information that propagates is always the mean. For example, look at the long tail of the exiting customers. Find out their reasons for leaving and you’ll find the interesting, unexpected stuff.

“There’s a risk management analyst in the States [Nassim Nicholas Taleb] who talks about ‘Black Swans’: he asked, what’s the point of building risk analysis on previous problems, when all those problems were unforeseen? It’s the small probability events, the little voices, the unusual conversations that are important. If you wait until something’s become ‘late majority’, you’ll be too late.”

(This argument resonates strongly with Stowe Boyd’s focus on ‘edglings’. And there’s Hugh McCleod on the same subject here.)

“It’s all about resource discovery – discovering the people who are valuable to you, knowing where your experts are…those random things. You may find you suddenly need a snowboarder who can use a camcorder – social profiles can help you find this person. It’s all possible technically…but culturally? We’ve still a way to go.

“A lot of these collaboration tools are cat-herding tools. The traditional business environment tries to herd and ends up with only the sheep. Red cats are the really distinguished ones (which is why we chose that name for our company). You want to create and nurture outstanding individuals. If you’re using social media in a really inductive way, you’ll attract those red cats.”

When Quentin Tarantino got John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson to talk about hamburgers on the way to commit another violent crime in Pulp Fiction, he was heralded as a master of unconventional story-telling. But that non-linear, broken narrative is probably the best representation of how we all experience life.

If social media at work can capture conversations, linear and non-linear, and enable us to later make connections where we wouldn’t have otherwise, then that has to be enriching at least – and, overall, value-adding.


Another way…

At the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin, JP Rangaswami focuses on the history of workplace communication for his keynote, “Web 2.0 versus the Water Cooler”. In typical JP style, the area he covers is broad, comparative and entertaining – and includes everything from ancient manuscripts to train timetables to the Olympic games.

JP is a familiar face to this crowd, as well as a great speaker, and it seems everyone wants a piece of him after the talk. We’re due to meet right after he’s finished, but it’s 45 minutes before JP finally wends his way down to the community lounge for our interview. He’s still in reflective mode:

“In low attrition, low job-mobility environments, there was a genuine covenant. It made sense to have a consensual style of management. You learnt to take a bullet for the team. And your team would remember. Over time, everything evened out. It was thick ice that you skated over. Consensus was built over long-term relationships.”

This ‘covenant’ did not only affect teamwork, it also impacted on performance reviews and appraisals. “There was institutional memory”, as JP puts it. And this memory was responsible for deciding whether or not it the time was right for a pay rise, or if a minor misdemeanor might be overlooked.

“Nowadays you get moved around. How do you get that information to be valuable? How do you deal with this new world? The silo structures of the past didn’t allow us to access information. Maybe you need to have a wiki-like construct, where knowledge becomes a cloud asset?”

In 2001, JP Rangaswami was working as Chief Information Officer at Dresdner Kleinwort, the investment bank, when he decided there had to be a different way of doing things:

“I realised that email was appalling – there were so many ‘broken trust’ implications in it – bcc was evil: ‘I’m going to have a conversation with your boss watching’; cc was ‘cover your arse’ – so I started looking at the problems I had and ways to find solutions to them.”

“Also, I realised, this way of records being attached to messages was the wrong way round. We want messages to be attached to the records. Those were the sort of characteristics I began to look for.”

As Global CIO, JP was responsible for a communications network of 6,000 employees across 35 countries. The way he saw it, the problems at Dresdner Klienwort were caused by four key things:

1. Attrition (the high rate of staff turnover)
2. The high mobility of staff between roles within the firm
3. Cultural differences – the same word meaning different things
4. Linguistic differences – the meaning of words being lost in translation

So, JP started a blog internally, and started championing wikis as a way forward.

“If you capture things using social software…there is a record of how things happened. Now a newcomer has the chance to catch up and understand what’s taken place.”

As a long-time advocate of disruptive technologies, and with a 40 per cent cut to his budget to consider, JP also began to introduce open source products to the company. By 2003, 43 percent of Dresdner Kleinwort’s Unix users were on Linux.

In 2003, JP was named CIO of the Year by Waters Magazine and in 2004 he was named CIO Innovator of the Year by the European Technology Forum. In 2007, chose him as one of technology’s 50 most influential individuals, describing Dresdner Kleinwort as “an aggressive leading-edge adopter of innovative and disruptive technologies”.

Now, JP is a managing director at BT Design, heading up strategy and innovation. If his influence there is anywhere near as successful as his impact at Dresdner Kleinwort, we have some delightful surprises in store.


Inverting the Pyramid

I’m in Berlin at the Web 2.0 Expo Europe. A disproportionate amount of my time seems to be spent with people who work at IBM. ‘Big Blue’ is a sponsor here so maybe it’s no surprise that key members of its social media team are popping up all over the place.

I bump into Delphine Remy-Boutang, World-Wide Social Media Marketing Manager, over lunch, and then there’s Stuart J.McRae and the nine other ‘BlueIQ ambassadors’ who’ve been invited along as a reward for spreading the social media gospel around the company’s 500,000 employees.

Meanwhile, corporate email refusenik and blogger extraordinaire, Luis Suarez, is doing a keynote and VP Social Software Programs & Enablement, Gina Poole, is running a session on web 2.0 at work.

It’s standing room only in Gina’s session and I’m a few minutes late so I only get to perch on the steps behind a pillar and listen to her voice – quite a nice voice, as it happens. Gina is telling the story of Jeannette Browning, an IBM employee who was singled out and praised for adapting social software (Lotus Connection Activities/Lotus Notes) to help her sales team, and then was so chuffed by the recognition/ acknowledgement of her efforts that she started creating lots of ‘enablement’ materials to help other IBMers do similar stuff.

As Gina reflects in the Community Lounge afterwards, it’s clear that this kind of ‘social pyramid selling’ is something she loves to be architect of. In her time with the company (and there’s been 25 years of it – she started out as a programmer in 1984), Gina has set up various social media programmes (BlueIQ, promoting social software use internally, is the latest); and launched a start up, (the developerWorks community).

A common factor behind Gina’s projects has been the use of volunteers in driving things forward. This is how she builds momentum and consensus when introducing something new:

“Run a pilot programme. Get a few dedicated people on board – some early adopters and enthusiasts. Make them the ‘poster children’ of your campaign. Make them the rock stars. Don’t just evangelise the project, say ‘look at what it did for this individual’. Success breeds success.”

Charming, softly spoken and clearly a lover of people, Gina appears to be the Craig Newmark of IBM. So, how would she describe her leadership style?

“More pure leadership than command and control. It’s more carrot than stick. I want to make sure I’m hiring the best people and then create an environment for them to succeed.

“In the old management era, knowledge was power. Now in the social era you want to unleash the knowledge. The powerful person is the one who can lead by influence. You don’t need a big budget and lots of direct reports. You’re managing more of a matrix. Listening is very important.”

And why has social media become so important to her?

“People like to share – that’s one of the most powerful things. This sharing creates ‘weak ties’ you can build on. I’m interested in helping people get outside of their inboxes [echoing the IBM mantra kicked off by Luis Suarez]. People start mixing and matching things in ways that management would never dream of.

“The end result of bringing projects together, that serendipitous stumbling across things is very powerful. Like connecting the dots. It’s a great way to break down silos: ‘oh, you’re doing that, so am I. Let’s work together’…things tend to go in directions you’d never expect.”

Things were very different when Gina started at IBM back in the 1980s:

“When I joined IBM it was very hierarchical and things moved very slowly. It was tough for good ideas to bubble up. We went through a near-death experience. Then Lou Gerstner came in. That [near-death experience] was a great catalyst for a change in focus.

“Management became much more participatory. We turned the management pyramid on its side and then on its head. Now we’re really harnessing creative capital and social capital.”


And the next big thing is…

It’s only 9am but already Tom Coates is having a stressful day. He relocated to San Francisco from the UK six months ago and this weekend his entire family are coming to visit. Last night, his parents flew in from London. In a few hours, he has to pick up his younger brother from the airport. In between he has a few hours to tidy the apartment. And then he has to find the time to speak to me.

I only know all of this because I’ve been reading Tom’s Twitter updates. During our Skype chat, Tom’s politeness personified, and there’s no mention of all this other stuff. Maybe because he’s already vented his stress via Twitter. Still it’s quite weird, seeing a 360 degree picture of someone you’ve never met.

Tom’s not only busy at home; he’s also incredibly busy at Yahoo, where for the last 18 months he’s been developing start-up projects as part of the Brickhouse – Yahoo’s “skunkworks”. He’s currently head of product on Fire Eagle.

Needless to say, he still finds time to blog, and to think about “being progressive and doing something new”, which is his remit at the Brickhouse.

I thought you might like to know that, right now, Tom is particularly interested in three things:

1. Social software – communication and collaboration
2. Decentralisation (my paraphrase – sorry, I need to read the transcript)
3. The web of data

“There are larger trends at work in this industry but you can get confused by the froth at the top,” says Tom. “The social software big shift, intellectually is, I think, kind of exhausted. We’re seeing it everywhere – at scale in Facebook, creeping into business…

“The web of data is newer, more exciting. [But] all of these things predated Web 2.0. Tim [O’Reilly] used Web 2.0 to describe trends he was already seeing. You give things labels so you can handle them.

“Four or five years ago, what was really exciting was the things we saw as personal being taken public. These things become big entities in themselves. Look at Flickr – it’s now a repository of 2.9 billion photos.”

Exactly. We never know where these things are going to lead, do we? And that’s what makes it all so *exciting*.


Close to the tipping point?

It’s a Friday afternoon and there’s this big web conference, Remix UK, going down in Brighton. Sadly, I’m stuck at my desk in London, battling a backlog. But I get to watch the conference back-chat on Twitter: half the people I follow seem to have defected to the seaside for the day.

Around 5pm a tweet from James Governor comes in, saying he’s just had a nice glass of wine with a great guy called Stewart Mader. Now if James recommends someone or something, they (it?) is probably worth looking into. So I click on the link James gives and find Stewart’s website. Looks interesting, so I message him.

And that’s how Stewart and I come to be here, chatting on Skype, a couple of Fridays later.

It turns out consulting is Stewart’s second career. He once was a chemist, but got sidetracked:

“I was lecturing at the University of Hartford; we put our curriculum on the web and told people about it. They sent so many suggestions and changes, the [web]site became a bottleneck. I started looking around for some way to open it up and I stumbled upon wikis. I put one up as an experiment. Within a few months the html site was gone and everything was on the wiki.”

That was back in 2002, now Stewart runs a company called “Grow Your Wiki” which helps clients (the majority of them Fortune 500 companies) navigate their ways through the potentially murky waters of corporate social media.

The issues Stewart comes across are “social, cultural and generational”. He defines his key concerns as follows:

    1. For people who’ve worked in organisations for a decade or more, they think ‘oh there’s this army of [younger] tech savvy people coming in’ and, for that older generation, they find they don’t pick up the tools so easily so you get a fair amount of fear and frustration. One of the things I like to do is champion mutual mentoring. So you get the older person with the wealth of experience about the organisation, and the younger person with the technical knowhow, and they help each other.

    2. Employees hear all the popular cultural obsessions around Wikipedia and become concerned about all wikis being a free-wheeling anarchic mess. I have a very complex opinion of Wikipedia – it’s created a massive misconception around what a wiki can be. Wikipedia is totally open, with no security around it. People look at Wikipedia and think they don’t want that within their organisation. But wiki use inside an organisation and Wikipedia are two completely separate worlds. Giving concrete examples of wikis that work inside organisations makes a lot of difference.

    3. Rank and file employees are often afraid that if they put all their knowledge into a wiki, they won’t be needed any more but the opposite is true. If you hold onto your knowledge, all you are is an overpaid security guard. Once you start sharing your knowledge and collaborating with other people you become more valuable to your company. You’re more likely to have your job outsourced when you’re not contributing knowledge.

    4. Senior management is largely changing right now. At Enterprise 2.0 in Boston there were a number of senior execs (Wachovia, CIA, IBM, SAP, Chevron, University of Helsinki) talking of the promotion of web 2.0 throughout their companies. The embracing of tools is there. The question is not should we use these but how can we optimise these? Two years ago it was different. I think we’re close to a tipping point.

    5. Cultural change is necessary. The ideal is to run a pilot with a group of employees and pass on lessons from that. Successful wiki adoption happens at the lunch table. If you chat to a guy you have lunch with every day and he talks about using the wiki and says ‘meetings are shorter, we’re getting more done’, that creates real change.


The house that Tim built

It’s September 2008 and I’m on Manhattan’s West Side, standing in the foyer of the massive, aircraft hangar-like Javits Centre. The centre backs onto the Hudson River in an otherwise nondescript, rather run-down corner of the City. No matter. This ain’t no sightseeing trip. I’m one of 5,000 people attending the inaugural Web 2.0 Expo New York. There are workshops to go to and seminars to be had. There is endless coffee and cookies and even little packed lunches, served up courtesy of Microsoft.

When Tim O’Reilly’s colleague Dale Dougherty coined the term Web 2.0 back in 2004, and Tim picked it up as a useful meme to throw out to O’Reilly conference audiences, they had little idea how the concept would spread like wildfire through the digital media world.

The term ‘Web 2.0’ came at a time when there was a resurgence in optimism around the web and its capabilities, post the dotcom bust of 2000/01. The phrase isn’t allied to any specific technology, it’s more a hypernim or ‘handle’ (thanks Tom Coates) to capture the various trends that were happening at the time; these were (and still are) creating a shift in the way we use the web.

When I bump into Tim in the Javits foyer at the Web 2.0 Expo, he invites me to come with him as he heads to the hall to rehearse his keynote.

After the run-through, we get some time to sit and chat in front of the main stage. I ask Tim how the whole Web 2.0 idea came about:

“The original idea was that the web was ‘back’,” says Tim. “And we were asking, what are the new rules of business? Those new rules were network effects: you design applications that get better the more people use them, then the applications that work get the most user data. The winners are those that harvest collective intelligence: Amazon, Google…Google is actually harvesting the intelligence of all users.”

So, what does business need to do, today, to make the most of the web’s capabilities?

“Enterprise needs to learn real-time responsiveness to its users. Banks have a tremendous amount of data about their users – but they don’t share it with us. For example, look at the great things being done on Wesabe [a kind of personal finance wiki – you upload your entire bank account and credit card info, and get advice from other users on your spending habits]. Every business needs to be thinking about what data assets it owns and how it can use them.”

What’s wrong with the current business mindset?

“Firstly, that you do things in the back office. Everything should be automated [and tracked]. Companies really need to automate more services and really upgrade their IT staff.”

Tim goes onto explain that all this automation doesn’t mean there can’t be human intervention, if necessary (apparently Google had to intervene manually when its algorithmic search listing for O’Reilly caused O’Reilly Auto Parts and not O’Reilly Media to dominate the front page).

“Secondly, organisations need to be restructured around IT services, like the best Web 2.0 companies. Amazon, for example, has a whole team dedicated to the efficient functioning of the ‘buy’ button.”

“Some businesses are ahead of Web 2.0 in terms of automation. There can be too much of it. Look at what’s happening to the financial markets now. All this was predicted in Richard Bookstaber’s book, The Demon of Our Own Design.”

Who does O’Reilly really admire in business today?

“Look at the growth of Zappo’s [the online shoe store]. It recently hit revenues of $1billion. Tony Shieh, the CEO, has become a hero.

“Jeff Bezos [] is very strategic. He’s thought a lot about how the world is going to change. Who’d have thought that getting into cloud services would make sense, but Amazon web services (providing hosting to Flickr etc) has become a great sideline.”

Needless to say, both Shieh and Bezos are friends.

It’s likely that, in time, the group of very clever people that O’Reilly, Bezos and Shieh form a part of will come up with another very clever label to acutely describe a future zeitgeist.

A few of half-hearted souls tried to push something called ‘Web 3.0’ at the New York Expo. I’m relieved to say it didn’t take off.


Keystone Corps

It’s a bright, sunny afternoon at the Googleplex, Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

In between the white and glass buildings that house the offices, swathes of green grass and neatly trimmed hedges offer relaxing spaces to chill out or eat lunch in. Red, blue and yellow umbrellas and seating add a Google-branded completeness to the landscape.

Every so often a Googler speeds past on a bright yellow JacMac Scooter, off to the next meeting or, possibly, one of Google’s many free talks – maybe a ‘Google University’ lecture, a “TechTalk” or an Authors@Google seminar (this week it’s Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson).

You won’t see many cars here. But there is space for nearly 2,000 of them underground. The 26 acre Googleplex includes public trails and a 5 acre public park – a spirit of space and leisure pervades.

I’m looking out on all this from the corner cafeteria of “Building 47”, where I’m sitting with Matt Glotzbach, Product Management Director, Google Enterprise. Even indoors, it’s impossible to forget where you are. Red, green, blue and yellow prevails – cups, plates, noticeboards, chairs and, even, lava lamps.

With all the buzz around Chrome and Android, it’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, when Matt started, Google didn’t do “apps”. Search and advertising (AdWords and AdSense) were the only products.

“Enterprise has always been in the strategy. It got delayed because of the ad side going stratospheric. Now there’s been a refocus. Enterprise is the second largest business at Google, behind the ads. And I like to say that we’re going to create the second ‘large’ business.”

Indeed, if Google Enterprise produces anything even half as successful as Adwords (which generated $16.4billion revenue in 2007), Matt and his colleagues will no doubt be very happy bunnies.

“There’s a culmination of events that make this the right time for apps,” says Matt. “Internet connectivity is almost ubiquitous, and cloud computing has hit a maturity point”

Ah yes, the cloud. Although there are disadvantages (see Bill Thompson’s piece on security), cloud computing is seen by many as the next big leap forward for the internet industry. And if the cloud is where the action is going to be for the foreseeable future, Google has an enviable share of it.

Google certainly seems to exemplify what Marco Iansiti and Roy Levien describe as the “keystone advantage” – this term is taken directly from biological ecosystems where “keystone” species are those that maintain the healthy functioning of the entire system because their own survival depends on it. Google is positioned not only to help foster the health of the system, its lynchpin role means that it benefits more than most from that system’s good health.

“Because every transaction is performed through the Google platform, the company has perfect, continuous awareness of, and access to, by-product information and is the hub of all germinal revenue streams. There’s no need for Google to do market surveys and statistical analyses to forecast trends in the ecosystem; the information is already in Google’s database.” (Iyer, Bala & Davenport, Thomas H., Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine, Harvard Business Review Article, 1 April 2008, pp.5-6)

See also Umair Haque’s recent piece on Chrome for a great analysis of the inclusive strategy of the launch behind Google’s new browser.

This full use of network effects helps make Google a definitive “web 2.0” company.

Furthermore, Google is in the enviable position of being seen as trustworthy by its users, as it doesn’t need to do anything underhand to obtain this invaluable information. Unlike other large monopolistic companies, Google is unusual in that it is generally liked and respected by its user base (“if we ever lost user confidence, we’d cease to exist in a very short time”, agrees Matt).

As for that “keystone” position, Matt nods his head: “We’ve become a big brand, a household name. We’re a mainstay, a staple, in all our users lives.”

This pole position in the ecosystem has another core advantage – Google has a continued ability to attract key talent:

“The team here are fantastic. In any company, there’s always a risk the team will get watered down but, if anything, the opposite seems to have happened here. The company has grown enormously since I arrived – we’ve gone from 2,000 to 20,000 in four years.”

Like many successful companies, Google has a notoriously drawn out hiring process. The company has to make absolutely sure that any new hires are going to be absolutely right for the fast-paced, intensively innovative environment – and help sustain Google’s competitive advantage into the future:

“It’s tempting to hire people with a long history of success but you can’t tell what the world will look like in five years time.”

Today, says Matt, Google’s sheer weight of users and its advertising income combine to enable it to watch – and follow – virtually every trend on the horizon. The business looks – at this stage – invincible.

With policies such as the “20% rule” (where developers spend 20% of their time working on their own projects – Gmail came out of this) and the famous “do no evil” mission statement, both part of the culture from day one, Google proves itself to be a textbook innovator.

“One of the things embodied at Google is empowerment,” says Matt. “A governance model and corporate structure do exist, but their impact is subtle. People want to be empowered and Google is lucky: we got to start out [offering empowerment] and then maintain it as we got bigger.”

And Matt is finding that his enterprise clients now want that sort of ‘flavour’ as part of their IT infrastructure:

“This Millennial Generation – Generation Y – grew up with openness and sharing as values. Now we’re seeing the other side of that – companies want to bring Google apps into their businesses – because their Generation Y employees are used to working with them.”


Mixing pleasure with business

Socialtext founder Ross Mayfield works out of an unassuming office in downtown Palo Alto, a couple of blocks away from the Caltrain station (if you listen hard, you can hear the trains clanging) and a stone’s throw from the sprawling Stanford University campus.

Like just about everywhere else in Silicon Valley, Socialtext’s low-tech surroundings are a foil for the hi-tech business taking place. People talk on the phone about ‘mikis’ (mobile wikis) and ‘webinars’ (online seminars) as if these were common words in the English language. ‘Wiki Wednesday across the way’ is scrawled in faded marker pen across the reception whiteboard.

After a few minutes, Ross appears. He’s the first company chairman I’ve seen wearing shorts – ever. Admittedly it’s 28 ºC today. We go outside to sit a shady spot under a couple of Cypress trees, partly so I can make the most of the weather, partly so that Ross can have a cigarette.

Ross co-founded Socialtext, ‘the world’s first wiki company’ in 2002. What made him feel that this type of social media could work in business?

“So much interesting stuff was happening in the social space [at that time]. Adrian from Ryze was putting on loft parties and wanted to connect the people who went to them; Ben and Mena Trott from Six Apart, Evan Williams from Blogger…they all created tools to scratch an itch, to interact with friends from a community. The guy who invented Trillian [instant messaging between different networks] did it simply to connect with a girl he had met on a beach.

“It was just after the [dotcom] crash and a lot of people had been made redundant and I guess had time on their hands. The thing is, these [new] tools had better social dynamics, and they were lightweight and easy to use compared to the clunkier enterprise systems.”

Ross and his co-founders were keen to take that simplicity and apply it to business. For two and half years, they worked out of their own homes (“in a distributed fashion” says Ross, not without irony).

So, what’s the main diff between the early noughties and now?

“In 2001, it was the fear economy – the only people selling technology were the security companies, and then 9/11 happened! Now, there’s much less hype; buying behaviour and investing behaviour are verging on the rational.”

Ross cites the change in the consumer markets – the growth of wikipedia, open source etc – as a key change: “on the consumer side, the bar is raised higher”. Consumer products genuinely have to work for people, otherwise they simply won’t be used.

The growth of blogging, in particular, has helped enormously:

“We used to have a lot of push back from PR and legal departments. Not any more. Now there are thousands of blogging policies up on the web for corporate lawyers to pull down and adapt.”

In November 2007, the company entered a new phase, securing a further $9.5million of funding. This seemed a good point for Ross to hand over his CEO role to Eugene Lee, a former executive at Cisco and Adobe:

“I’m very much an early stage guy, very hands on,” says Ross. “I always knew that I’d have to step aside at some point. You start off wearing all the hats, then you’ve got to give every one away, ideally to suitable people. It was a very emotional decision when I first had to step aside [at my previous start-up].”

See Ross’ blog for more of his thoughts on ceding control.

Needless to say, the Socialtext platform, originally a wiki solely for the highly tech-literate, has grown and developed in six years. WYSIWYG editing, introduced around 2004, was a step forward. But the real tipping point came in 2006, when mass collaboration became possible.

It was around this time that more ambitious ideas, such as ‘Wikipedias’ for companies were introduced. The whole user experience became more transparent and participatory, meaning that ‘non-teccie’ types could access and use the platform with relative ease.

Ross constantly thinks about how to make the platform more genuinely useful – in internet parlance, maximising ‘network effects’ (ie, the more people using a network, the more powerful it becomes). Identifying when and how people interact with the Socialtext platform has been a key part of making it more relevant:

Our VP of Professional Services came up with the framework of ‘in the flow’ use cases as opposed to ‘above the flow’: where [people used our platform] as an integral part of the process of a project, rather than outside of it. These [in the flow use cases] are what we specialise in.”

One context in which Ross has found social media to be particularly useful is change management – where people can “collaborate on the change”. He points to the recent merger between two large companies (7,000 employees each) as a good example:

“The wiki and social networking became a great way of getting cross-pollination to happen…in the past it would be 6 or 7 people, and $1million, just to define a structure or taxonomy. Now the approach is to let the structure emerge, let staff collaborate on building it.”

And Ross has some words of comfort for any CEO fretful of any loss of control s/he might experience:

“The person who benefits most [from good knowledge management systems] is the CEO because he can drill down and see exactly who did something and why it happened.”

There’s no doubt about it, Socialtext must be doing something right. Today, it’s a global company, with offices in California, New York and the UK, employing 50 people and serving more than 4,000 organisations.

The easy-to-use, accessible style of software that originally came from the social space has now entered the corporate world. For good.


Curiouser and curiouser

Channel 4 is due to launch a new £50m public fund, 4IP, this autumn and last night Policy Unplugged’s Steve Moore organised a dinner to brainstorm ideas around funding, innovation and public service.

I got chatting to (ex BBC now) Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Matt Locke, who had some interesting stuff to say around the subject of leadership. Matt said I could quote him and he seemed reasonably sober at the time so here goes:

  • You have leadership of hope, leadership of fear and then something which you might call curious leadership. Each style has its pros and cons.
  • Greg Dyke came to the BBC in a time when everyone was really down on their heels. He spoke in a language of hope and got people to feel good about themselves again. Even though the outside world was changing and the BBC’s needed to adapt to survive, Greg’s strategy was focused inwards. This was necessary at the time but it wasn’t sustainable.
  • When Mark Thompson arrived [in 2004], he spoke the language of fear. He had to cut 10,000 jobs. He had to deal with a below-inflation licence fee settlement. He had to bring the BBC kicking and screaming into the digital age. Everyone looked to new media as the way out of the rut.
  • At Google, by contrast, they have curious leadership. Everyone who works there is encouraged to develop their own ideas. This is great, and creates a highly innovative culture, but the reality is that a lot of those ideas are completely unworkable. Because there is such a culture of idea-generation, people come up with projects just for the sake of it, projects that in other companies simply wouldn’t see the light of day. So that, in itself, is a problem.