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The future isn't what it used to be.

The Future Workforce – Curious, Confident and Tooled up with Tech

January 25th, 2012

I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.

Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum.  In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.

Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall.  However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable.  ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives. 

(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)

scienceBy now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.

My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker.  My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).

My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web.  My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.

Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.

What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant.  Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).

This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK.  Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).

GovCamp 2012What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”.  These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles.  They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome.  They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved.  These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages).  (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)

For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration.  Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to. 

I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject).  I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).

There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer.  More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.

Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.

(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)

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Consumerisation is a Fickle Beast

January 19th, 2012

It’s been a while since we last spoke about the “consumerisation” of IT and recently I’ve seen a couple of warning signs that some organisations have missed the point of the extent of the philosophical change that consumerisation requires in order to be a strategic asset in how you empower individuals with technology.

ipadisationMany organisations clearly understand the potential of consumerisation inside their organisation, they get that it creates more engagement with their employees, especially around their use of technology. They get that it fosters innovation as people feel empowered to use technology creatively to help them solve business challenges and deliver better service. Hell, they even get that, done correctly, it can save money on top of all that.  But increasingly I’m seeing examples of organisations that try to jump to the answer without considering or implementing the principles that will make this approach successful year after year. Net result, short term gain, long term pain – worse still, that long term pain will fool people to think that consumerisation “failed” and we’ll be back where we started – expensive, constrained corporate desktops that provide a far worse experience than the one we enjoy in our personal lives.

The two warning signs of this short-termist approach are easily identified, basically, ask yourselves, or your IT department (and be honest)  – Are you chasing consumerisation based on a philosophical change in the way you think about the role of technology inside your organisation, or

1. is it the result of the demand for a specific device?  or

2. you think “consumer” equipment is cheaper? (you know the line – “you paid how much for that corporate laptop? Man, they’re half that price in PC World/on the interwebs” and so on)

Come on, I said be honest. Many I know are doing it to make it acceptable to use a specific device work on the corporate network – I even heard the phrase the “ipadisation” the other day (you know who you are Mr Weber). This my friends, is _not_ consumerisation, it is satiating the ego of you or your execs and if all you do is focus on one specific device, you’ll have to do it all again when that fickle consumer changes his or her mind and decides that this year, it’s the pink one we all like.

Others are looking at the price point difference between a shiny, consumer laptop and the ugly, expensive corporate alternative and thinking “What the hell? The spec is the same so why pay more”. Well, remember that TCO acronym that we all spent blood, sweat and tears getting established all those years ago?  It’s got the words “total cost” in it for a reason.

Many consumer devices are trinkets, they’re pretty, they work well for a time, but they won’t stand the day in, day out abuse that business machines get.  They may last a year or maybe two of that kind of toil, but ultimately you’ll end up spending more money keeping them running than you would have if you’d bought something more fit for purpose.

Please don’t mistake this post for an anti-iPad rant, it’s really not (and to be honest I’d hope you know me better than to think that).  If anything, this post is just a little catharsis for me, it’s to remind us that consumerisation is a change in how we should think about _people_ within organisations, it is about culture, not finance, politics or god forbid, technology.

Stick with that and no matter what “must-have” tech gadget is in season, we’ll all do just fine.

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Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

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Parliament and Internet – Visions for the Internet and Social

October 13th, 2011

This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).

Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:

“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.

Slide25We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.

Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.

Slide28That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.

The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.

Slide-32Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.

It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.

In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.

Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.

The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?

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Exploring the Adjacent Possible

September 28th, 2011

Over the summer, a friend recommended Steve Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From – the natural history of innovation”, not only is it a great book, it contains some really important themes that I think are worth calling out for future exploration. Here’s a few that resonated with me (and why) but you can expect to hear more about these in the coming weeks. (Anyone paying attention will also note that Johnson dedicates a whole chapter in his book to “serendipity” – I have excluded it from this post not because I don’t find it relevant but because I want to focus on it much more deeply in the near future.)

1) The Adjacent Possible
This is one of those “obvious now that you mention it” kind of things where simply, when you are looking for the best ideas, or what makes ideas work, you have to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts, two steps away is too far and will never happen, one step away and you’re in. This is where the natural history meme comes in, if you think about evolution, you can’t start at the big bang and immediately make humans or sunflowers or puppies or chicken tikka massala (although I’m thinking there would have been enough heat there for a pretty efficient tandoor oven so you could have had a shot at that last one), the point is you have to incrementally change all those atoms and molecules over a period of time until the evolutionary process provides you with the opportunity to move that final strand of DNA or molecule to make that complex outcome or even Graham Norton.

hovercarThis principle is exactly the same for our ideas, the reason I can’t have my hovercar is because the concept is not adjacent to our existing ideas or technological capabilities – we simply lack the building blocks to put it together (although, after hearing about that Swiss bloke practising fusion in his kitchen, you’ve got to think that somewhere out there, is a Doc Brown waiting to happen).

In the book, Johnson uses the analogy of a house with infinite rooms, all interconnected. You walk into the first room, it has 4 doors each connected to further rooms with further doors. You can’t go to any room in the house without first traversing a series of other, connected rooms. This is where some of the inherent beauty of the adjacent possible lies, it’s potential grows exponentially with every new stage of discovery.

It’s also a great tool to try and use when you’re trying to validate the strength of any given idea – does it represent the adjacent possible or the distant impossible?

2) Liquid Networks & Exaptation
Forgive me, while I get all Hybrid Organisation on your collective asses, but we’ve been talking for a couple of years now, about the importance of workplace design and its relationship to the collective innovation of a team or organisation. Johnson provides some nice analogies that help to push that story a little further. So, close your eyes, put yourself back a few years and imagine yourself back in the 5th form at school, in double Physics to be precise, just before your mock O’level. Using the concept of solids, liquids and gases, Johnson describes the inherent ability for individuals (acting like molecules) to oscillate those individuals around them (stop sniggering at the back Coplin, I said “oscillate”). If you constrain the extent to which the individuals can move, i.e. restrict their office layout with offices and cubicles, it’s like the molecules in a solid, they exist but have little effect on each other. If you go to the other extreme and remove all constraints (i.e. no office at all) you end up with chaos (the collaborative equivalent of a gaseous state) where molecules dissipate into the environment and have little effect on each other.

What you really want, he proposes, (and the Hybrid Organisation agrees) is a liquid state, where the molecules are free to move around but remain within the overall context of the organisation. Molecules can bounce around inside the liquid, resulting in an agile collective can change shape and move as needs dictate. This is essentially creating the perfect environment for collaboration, innovation and exaptation. Exaptation? That’s when an organism develops a trait for a specific use, then that trait gets hijacked for a completely different purpose. Feathers are the classic example of this, initially evolved to provide temperature regulation for birds, the birds discovered that they’re also pretty good for flying too, and then evolution takes over and you end up with streamlined aerofoils rather than fluffy, downy warmth.

Exaptation of ideas is a huge part of innovation and is also a crucial part of serendipity. Like serendipity, it also requires a free, liquid network that enables disparate ideas, individuals or concepts to come together to create innovation.

3) The Slow Hunch – Why Eureka! Takes Time
EurekaThere’s not much to this important concept, other than it dispels the myth that most of our great innovations come from single individuals who experience a “light bulb” moment and have the big idea. Although that explanation may work for Hollywood because it’s a better and easier story to tell, the reality is that many of the important discoveries, innovations and ideas of our entire history are actually the result of lifetimes of work and study often bordering onto obsession. We know this inherently, but often choose to ignore it. Our best ideas, are often the ones that we’ve left to fester at the back of our minds, nurtured and tended by, a long shower or a long walk, to help them mature to their full potential. <Assumes crap French accent> “Ideas are like fine wines, they need time to mature, percolate and infuse” .

The reality of the slow hunch is actually a cumulative factor that builds on liquid networks, exaptation and serendipity – all elements that make our view on _­discovery_ so crucial to our overall objective in search. What is key then, is to be able to feed, nurture and evolve an individual concept over a long period of time, incredibly though it seems that in order to make the breakthrough, the concept needs to be at the background of your cognitive activity not the foreground, slowly percolating away to completion.

You may not see the link in all of this, but every time I walk into the office I do. These days, I know I’m pretty lucky, I have a job that makes it easy for me to explore the adjacent possible, to “exapt” ideas by forming a liquid network of influencers and thought leaders inside and outside of Microsoft – but I also can see the constraints, especially as we get busier, we don’t always have time for the slow hunch to mature, and we find it hard to leave the safe confines of our team, office or sector. My encouragement to you is to make time, make time to cultivate new ideas, make time to speak to people outside of your team, make time to explore the adjacent possible. It won’t help you today, but I guarantee it will set the stage for your greatness tomorrow.

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Local is the new Global

June 13th, 2011

“Think Global, Act Local” or so the cliché goes. Thing is, this is about to become more possible and more accurate than ever before.  What this means for us as individuals in a modern society is a classic case for "arrogance of the present", _we just don’t know_, because most of us find it hard to imagine a world of such hyper-connectivity where the world takes on a very different viewpoint where most things become available within local reach but offering global supply.

For most of us, things like Foursquare and Gowalla are amusing distractions used primarily by the authorities to help identify and track the location and movement of geeks, but in fact they (and the infrastructural elements they rely on) will ultimately become the very fabric of how we access, consume and pay for services in the very near future.

batcaveI’m OK with the fact that most people think the above is a bit of a stretch, however, I’m actually more worried about the fact that because we can’t really imagine how all this stuff will come together, I don’t think we’ve properly figured out the true potential of what a powerful, connected, _local_ view on our world means yet and as such, I think we risk being derailed (at worst) or delayed (at best) in our ability to deliver an incredibly transformative change to the way in which technology enhances our lives.

Assuming we buy the current trajectory of smartphone sales  (n.b. when do we stop calling them smart? When everybody is smart, is _anybody_ smart anymore?).  We know that pretty soon, there will be more smartphones than dumb ones and new sales of slates and phones will outstrip PC’s – the mobile device revolution is finally here El Presidente, so let’s move on and think about the really important stuff before Apple ships another iPhone and everyone gets distracted again.

There are three key areas we need to figure out and triangulate if we are to achieve the vision, these are:

  1. Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
  2. Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
  3. Connectivity (people, networks and devices)

I’m not going to get everything on the table on all 3 of these in one post alone, so for now, let’s just start with a broad definition, ready for deeper exploration in the future.

Location
There are three dimensions of location that we need to supply:  Where am I? Where is the "target"? What else is nearby? And of these three it is the first that should concern us most.  We currently rely on a brilliant but outdated and vulnerable service to locate ourselves which is also extremely flawed in its ability to provide accurate and timely location information to us in our localised existence or rather, should I more simply say, indoors or in the city…

Controversy aside, we desperately need _a range_ of mechanisms to identify our location and to be able to do so in a way that is fast, battery friendly and works indoors.  Funnily enough, it actually doesn’t need to be that precise, it just needs to be within 5m, we can figure out the rest for ourselves.  Good news is, (if you read behind the headlines) we are well on the way to solving this, externally at least, we need a much better (standard?) approach for how this might be achieved cost effectively indoors.

Geographic Meta-data
We need to think about location meta data (points of information etc) at both a macro and micro level.  At a micro level this is about a taxonomy of stores, services, opening times and other ancillaries like street furniture (e.g. post boxes, gritting bins etc) , at a micro level this needs to be really extended down to a very near field level providing a much more granular view of the environment around you.  This level of detail is crucial, for example, it’s no longer enough to know that the train station has disabled access facilities, you need to know which _exact_ door is the one that has zero lip for disabled access, or which end of the train should you stand to be nearest to the exit for your particular stop etc.

North America seems to do quite well at a macro level whereas in the UK we don’t with retailers and service providers (public and private) being rather slow (myopically so) in signing up and advertising in the established platforms.  We all suck however at the micro level, and it is this information we really need to figure out how to easily acquire and on-board.

Connectivity
This is about remembering we live in an "occasionally disconnected" world.  We may have pervasive mobile broadband but this doesn’t mean that it’s always available.  As application designers however, we seem to have forgotten that.  Most mobile apps these days will only function if a connection is present – this is a bad approach.  I live in the most populous country in Europe and work in the most populous city in the world yet I still experience several occasions _every day_ when I am without signal.  This probably adds up to about 2-3 hours _a day_ when I can’t use my smart device because the app designer has not thought about local caching (and before you start dusting off that fanboy attitude you’ve been saving, I’m packing multiple devices and they’re all the same).  This is not going to change anytime soon because we lack the funds and science (we’re dealing with the laws of physics here too ya know) so we need to get over it. Design apps and mobile platforms for the "occasionally disconnected" world and we’ll be fine.  (BTW – the historians among you will remember, this is what we used to do before we got fat, dumb and lazy with the promise of mobile broadband. When patchy mobile data was the best that was available, you were grateful for it and respectful of its use, 4G connection you say?, all we had was the thin end of a damp bit of string – Luxury…).

Connectivity is also about connecting individuals (When you’re walking down the street and pass a café that your best mate is sitting in, you want to know right? Or do you?)  and it’s also about connecting devices, the whole peer to peer network thing, but played out on mobile. (Man if I was smart I’d be buying shares in Groove and Ray Ozzie now, no wait, been there, missed out on that.)  Both of these we’ll cover in detail some other time.

So you will have figured out by now, there are no answers this week, just big questions.  Great for me as it gives me more room for what I think is the most important of the 127 "big bets" we’re undoubtedly going to have for months ahead and great for you because maybe, you’re sitting out there with some of the answer, come on now, don’t be shy.

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Moving the Hive with Social Buzz

June 3rd, 2011

The other night I was sat watching Winnie the Pooh with my son for about the 453rd time – to be fair, I had made him watch one of the great cinema classics of our time the night before (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – obviously) and now it was his turn to choose.  Anyhow, while Pooh was thinking about honey, I was thinking about bees.  As they coalesced to create that comedy swarm formation that is the cliché of so many cartoons, I sat there wondering if bees actually did that in real life, and you know what?  They do.

Bee2aThe day after watching Pooh, Tigger et al bounce their way through the Hundred Acre Wood I came across a wonderful study about how honey bee colonies move around from year to year, finding the absolute best place for them to live for the coming season.  It’s the way that they make the decision about where’s the best place to live that’s really interesting and ultimately of most use to us when we think about what makes good social engagement work and how contrary the “hive” decision making process is to what you would expect, when you realise that the decision on where to move the colony to is not based on consensus and compromise, but is actually simply about quorum or critical mass.

Bee1aAs late spring approaches, the queen and about 10,000 of her subjects, set off to find a new home and re-establish the colony.  In order to do this, they leave the hive and form a swarm.  From there a much smaller group of scouts (a few hundred) head out and look around for suitable locations (NOTE: at no point do the bees _ever_ enlist the help of an estate agent which also says a lot about the incredible intelligence of the insect mind).  What the scouts are looking for are about twelve or more suitable locations for the new hive. One by one the scouts return and communicate with the swarm about what they’ve found.  (If you’re really interested in this, the way they do this is called a Waggle Dance – which, as I have now learned, is pretty incredible and not, as I previously thought, just an odd name for a rather splendid beer.) 

But the really interesting thing for us, is not only _how_ the decision gets made, but also _where_ it gets made.    You would think that each scout would return to the swarm, report back, have a long debate with the queen and her advisers, send out for pizza and beer and then decide (hey, it’s how it would work for me if I was a bee.)  Actually, it is the activity of the scouts while they are out on patrol that makes the decision which is accepted and acted upon without question by the rest of the colony.  It’s a question of quorum vs consensus really.  You would expect the hive mind to be all about consensus, i.e. “we all agree this is the right thing to do” whereas in reality it is simply the first potential new home to reach a quorum or critical mass (in this case 15 or more scouts present at one time), once this is reached, the decision is simply taken as made and the colony moves to its new home.

Bee3aBy now, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is besides an interesting lesson in entomology, well, in my mind, what happens for the bees is actually what happens for us when we try to “activate” social media campaigns or engagement.  There’s been a lot written about the hive mind and the collective intelligence of the crowd and trust me, I am not jumping on that bandwagon (not now anyway).  What I am really trying to point out that your job in creating “buzz” (oh, the irony) is _not_ about the majority, or even the queens or the “leaders” of those colonies.  No, this is simply about establishing enough critical mass with the scouts. 

Internet users are relatively fickle beasts (you want evidence – just ask MySpace). As a result, I firmly believe your success in gaining “influence” or “reach” (however you decide to measure them) comes from engaging a series of smaller, more manageable niche audiences and exciting and enthusing them about you, your brand, your story etc.  I think this requires a bit more creative effort in the short term (to identify and create relevance with these individual swarms/niches) but over the longer term requires a hell of a lot less “muscle” (financial or otherwise) than would be required if you try move the hive en masse.

You don’t need to move the entire colony to get the volume, you just need to enchant individuals to build up that quorum – oh yeah, that and a pretty awesome waggle dance…

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Back to the Forbidden Planet – Exploring in the Digital World

May 27th, 2011

Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring.  No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days.  No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.

FPFor me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete).  I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life.  I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more.  Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further.  In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.

The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered.  I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.

The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content.  I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.

So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_.  I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests. 

As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals.  The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result).  This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.

In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing,  this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.

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Inside Google’s Big Tent

May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

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Curation, Serendipity and Rastabilly Skank

May 12th, 2011

Although typically talked about in the context of museums and artefacts, increasingly curation is becoming adopted in a digital society as the concept of having others select a collection of content for you.  It’s an incredibly powerful concept and as we move forward with search it becomes one of extreme importance as we seek to get the right combination of both relevancy _and_ trust in our results.

rastabillyCuration of content is nothing new, and I’d forgotten how pervasive it was in how we consume content (and has always been) until I started randomly thinking about how one of this year’s big new trends will be cloud based audio (cue Google, Amazon and Apple announcements) and if I get all my music from the cloud, probably curated through some mechanical process like Lastfm or Pandora then is radio dead? Well, of course it’s not. Radio works because (mostly) they have proper people “curating” collections of tracks for specific audiences.  Humans (especially good ones) know that there’s a difference between the Clash and the Sex Pistols and that “Punk rock” is an attitude not a music style, right kids? (But I digress).

This random thought then joined up with something I’d heard earlier in the week from those lovely folks at the Guardian’s TechWeekly podcast – (sure, I’m sucking up to them, but ignore that, they still represent the _only_ place in this country you can go to for proper analysis on the societal impact of technology).  Last week they interviewed the folks at Artfinder (brilliant concept by the way) and whilst they talked about their innovative service, they stopped off to talk about the importance of curation and our old friend serendipity.  Then Chris Thorpe (founder of Artfinder) said “John Peel was probably the ultimate serendipity engine” – talk about the penny dropping (and at the wrong speed too).  For those of you viewing at home in black and white, John Peel was one of the most influential DJ’s in the UK, his tastes were, let’s just say eclectic, he knew no musical boundaries, and his playlists provided the soundtrack to the youth of millions of kids in the UK.  What made Peel brilliant was he knew his audience, knew his music and had the confidence to introduce new material (new to the audience, or new to the world, it didn’t matter.)  Ironically for this anecdote, it was Andy Kershaw or Mark Lamarr that played this role for me and given that unlike John, they haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil, their continued absence from the airwaves remains a national disgrace – can you fix it Jem? – (BTW – You need to follow Jem if you want the best curated experience of all that BBC radio has to offer).

So back to the point, why is all this radio nostalgia important?  Well think back to what I just said – curation works best when it is done with:

  1. good knowledge of the audience,
  2. good knowledge of the subject and
  3. the courage to introduce something new.

These are the very essence of discovery in the digital world and yet another signal about why, even with the best machine learning systems and algorithms, you still need the human/social signal to get it right. It’s easy to generate a list of “likes” of seemingly connected content, and it’s easy to play to the “herd”. What’s hard is to make it properly personal in a way that will resonate with the individual and take that concept of personalisation to the next level. 

This, my friends, is our challenge, if we are to truly get beyond relevancy, introduce trust and become the ultimate mechanism allowing the curation of the web for individuals, we have to figure out how to make search the enabler (note not owner) in how this happens.

Besides without this or Peel’s incredible talent, how am I ever going to find the next Rastabilly Skank

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