War, what is it good for?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Both of Monday’s talks as part of the Festival of Ideas (@festivalofideas) Autumn Programme looked at how much of the technology that we all rely upon started out with military funding.

(Disclosure: I was invited to attend both talks in return for writing this short review)

Whilst both speakers were looked at technology from war (and other base instincts) they were separated by over 150 years. Peter Nowak (Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it) looked at mostly post World War II innovations that were now commonplace, and Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey) looked back to the 1790’s and the birth of the Ordinance Survey.

Peter’s book is an enjoyable romp through just about every gadget, meal and (ahem) alternative entertainment you’ve ever heard of (and a couple you probably haven’t) and how they can trace their roots back to either military research projects or the companies that produced them. If anything was missing, it was a sense of grand narrative. A couple times during both Andrew’s interview and the subsequent Q&A he was pressed on the ethical questions raised but never really answered them.

Peter did make one prediction that robotics are now, where the PC was 20 years ago and that in 20 years time robotics would be as ubiquitous as the computer is now. Not quite sure I agree with that, there are lots of deeper sociological issues with robots such as challenges to our sense of self, issues over robot rights (robot is, after all, literally serf labor, in Polish), and the sheer creepiness of human-like robot forms.

A very interesting comment from the floor suggested a fourth base instinct to go with war, food & sex which was our innate curiosity and desire for the next shiny shiny thing. Whilst some of these companies can trace their origins to military activity, their current innovations and particularly their speed of innovation, are driven more by consumer competition rather than warmongering.

Map showing Trig Points used in the 1936 Ordnance Survey "Retriangulation of Britain" between 1936 and 1962.

By contrast, Rachel gave a fascinating and engaging talk about the origins of the Ordinance Survey and the people involved. It was quite clear that whilst the maps were commissioned to provide Britain with a military advantage in the event of invasion, the cultural impact of having a unified map of the country was also very important to those early cartographers. I was especially taken by the notion that William Mudge encouraged alternative uses of the original map series.

Rachel also noted that the early trig points were located at the sites of the national chain of warning Beacons (as these were on natural sight lines around the coast). Their rudimentary theodolites frequently needed flares to provide them with sufficient light to focus upon, and these flares naturally gave rise to the very real fear of imminent invasion!

In the equally entertaining and informative Q&A that followed, Rachel explored the cultural importance of maps and the role that the Ordinance Survey played in the cultural life of Britain, national rivalries with France, technology advances, and the location of the original Base Line (now mostly under Heathrow Airport).

A great evening all round!

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.

How do you ‘lean’ a business?

In these straightened times, its a great opportunity to review your business processes & establish the foundations for the future.

Never let a crisis go to waste. Rahm Emmanuel (via WSJ)

Lean means taking a fundamental look at your business & driving out waste. Some of these wastes will be obvious (work in progress, re-work, multiple sign off sheets, etc) some of the waste may be harder to identify. There are experts in “Lean” & 6 Sigma Black-Belts, these may work for you, but I would suggest that you begin with a strategic review of your purpose, then consider some systems process modelling that will show how well, or otherwise, you are working towards those strategic proposes. From there you can assign costs and added value to activities to help with cast flow forecasting.

Strategic Purpose

You need to have one.

I was lucky to spend some time with Michael Corbett (Product Box, @productbox) a couple of weeks ago using a fairly new method called the “Business Model Canvass“. We spent a couple of minutes talking about the canvass but it’s such a simple, visual method that we quickly started drawing ideas on the sheet and making connections. It was quite fun to be the ‘client’ and not to have to think too hard about the model but just concentrate on the process.

We looked at a business I was involved with and used the Canvass to work up a representation of the business model. The visual approach quickly distilled the Strategic Purpose (which I can waffle on about for ages) and encapsulated a clear  Value Proposition. The business was a good test of the canvass as it’s not a simple model of taking orders, fulfilling orders, rinse & repeat.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the stakeholders (or customer segments), activities and relationships. This actually identified a critical Value Proposition that I was completely unaware of. It had certainly not been articulated before.

We also worked out most of the rest of the business model, though without much detail. By lunch time we’d 75% of the business model captured, though not in a form that you could have presented to a third party. However, in a dozen or so post-it notes we’d encapsulated most of a traditional business plan and produced a couple of very clear value propositions that, together with the key partners & customer segments, represented a pretty good Strategic Purpose.

Fleshing out the sketch

Michael then pulled out his trump card – he’d set up a Google Site specifically designed to capture the output from our Business Canvas session. This contained all our notes, diagrams, together with a whole load of background info on the canvass, process, and associated references. Basically, all the information necessary to take the insights gained from the business canvas exercise and turn them into an action plan.

Michael explained that, given that it contains all this information in one place, and that it relates to a new product (or service) that he calls it a ProductBox™. Normally we’d have been working on the Canvass as team of business owners / founders / exec’s prior to launching a new product or service, and the ProductBox is designed to keep that team-work going on line. I just happened to be working with Michael on my own.

After our meeting I logged in to my new ProductBox and took a look at the draft diagrams & notes. Because we’d spent the time drafting the original using paper and pens, it was very easy to start using the on-line diagrams. The associated notes helped to expand the short notes with more detail.

After a couple more hours I’d got quite a detailed business model described. I’d also explored some of the panes in the canvas in more detail and put in some background information and explanatory notes on how things related to each other. One of the drawbacks with simple visual representations is that you often lose critical details, having the Product Box with all the notes kept all those notes together with the canvass. Although I was working on this alone (with Michael keeping an eye on me) the package is a wiki so naturally collaborative if you’re in company with others.

After a couple of sessions I had sufficient detail that I would naturally start using something like IDEF0 to detail the business processes needed to make the canvass work. One feature of IDEF that I really like is the concept of layering processes through parent-child relationships, while the Canvass doesn’t force on you, I can see it being a great complement to other approaches (and the wiki design of the ProductBox would help here also).

The end result (even after a couple of sessions) was sufficiently detailed that I could use the canvas as a map of the business model to describe to others. It’s also a live document that can continue to grow as more contributions are posted.

Michael and I discussed the use of the canvass. I think it’s strength is as a planning tool that very quickly and visually allows people to discuss their business model (without lots of MBA mumbo-jumbo). At first I was a little frustrated at the lack of detail, but I’ve come round to appreciate the simplicity of the presentation framework. There’s a lot more detail under the surface and the Product Box that Michael set up allows for almost infinite details if that’s what floats your boat.

Should you Canvass your business?

What I liked was the holistic view of the business model, and the expressed statement about Value Proposition. Anyone thinking of pitching their business should take a look at this approach, and have a chat with Michael.

Thanks to Michael for his comments on an earlier draft of this post and for introducing me to the Business Canvass and ProductBox.

Management vs Money – which is more important?

Montmartre
John Althouse Cohen, 2005

This is an age old problem for the company starting out (or indeed growing rapidly). Obviously a complete lack of top-notch people or abject poverty are both unlikely to lead to success.

But where should your focus be?

This recent piece from Startup Professionals Musing comes down pretty firmly on the people side of the argument. Even with all the caveats about being a US review of investing, the broad findings are valid here in the UK as anywhere else.

With that in mind what can you do?

Well you should get out and meet people that will either be those high quality people, or know them and can introduce you. Make yourself known to the local University incubator teams, go along to your local Open Coffee such as <shameless self-promotion>Open Coffee Bristol</ss-p>, try searching Google for <your town> entrepreneur / startup / etc.

Or go to one of the events specifically put on to help bring growing companies together with exactly the right kind of people to help the do even better.

One such event is the Angel News ‘Pitching for Management not Money’. <Disclosure; I promised Modwenna I’d help promote the event but there’s no financial return to me, and the tickets for this first event are free anyway!> The first of these events outside London (in partnership with Intramezzo and Boulevard) is taking place on Monday 28 Sept at the Smith & Williamson offices in Bristol. Sponsorship from Burges Salmon and Business Link means the tickets for both businesses and prospective executives are free.

If you’re not already registered with Angel News there are a couple of links below to sign up for this event, hope to see you there.
http://www.designcity.co.uk/invites/p4mnm_280910_comp_bris.html
http://www.designcity.co.uk/invites/p4mnm_280910_aud_bris.html

Improv concerts & what social media can learn from them

Yesterday evening I attended the live premier of a BBC Concert Orchestra & Festival of Nature commissioned concert. (Disclosure: Science City Bristol are sponsoring the Science Cafes @ Festival of Nature, but I’ve not been involved in this concert, other than attending.)

The performance was in two halves; a short sequence of clips from the BBC Natural History Unit with the orchestra playing live, short chat with Q&A and then a repeat performance. Why two performances, and what’s it got to do with social media?

Well, the orchestra wasn’t the full BBC Concert Orchestra, 5 members of the orchestra and a composer were joined by 24 young people from schools across Bristol. They met for the first time on Tues, worked for 3.5 days and gave the performance on the Friday. They hadn’t seen the film clips beforehand, and they hadn’t played as an orchestra before. They also didn’t have any written musical score at the performance; it was all played from memory and partly improvised. And it sounded fantastic, both times!

December 28, 2009 by manning999

The key came during the Q&A. When they first watched the film and asked the young people about the music to go with it, there were lots of suggestions about a cymbal crash here, some flute there, and so on. Lots of focus on the individual instruments and notes, but no ‘bigger picture’. The first thing the composer and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Learning Team did was to re-view the films and talk about that bigger picture, the emotions they evoked or wanted to bring out, the sense of majesty (Humpback Whales) or playfulness (Giant Otters).

Once they had those broad messages and the overall framework of the pieces, then they began to experiment with chord sequences and harmonies. By all accounts it was a very egalitarian approach with ideas being voted on, and continuous refinement selecting or disposing of small parts that worked or didn’t.

In the final performance, most of the music was played from memory, but there were still flashes of inspiration by individual orchestra members, and because they’d gone through that development process and the ground rules were clearly laid out, those individual flourishes could be included without grandstanding or throwing everyone else into confusion. They were all listening intently to each other throughout the performance, as well as having great fun.

You can see the whole thing (well a recording of the concert mixed with the films) on the BBC Big Screen in Millennium Square as part of the Festival of Nature (12-13 June 2010).

Business as music

The parallels with some types of business are quite striking. They had a CEO that was clearly in control, and he empowered this team to do what they do best. They worked on a shared vision and understanding of the broad task at hand, and willingly contributed ideas to other sections if it made the overall performance better. In the actual performance they were working to agreed boundaries but within those boundaries there was freedom to do what was best at that particular instant in time.

Social media as music

Too often people talk about social media in the same way as the young people first approached the films. We could use twitter to send out little updates, and that would link to our Facebook page, and we can pull in our blog rss, and mash up with a Google map, and…

Twitter is not a Strategy

There needs to be a bigger picture. Even if all you’re doing it trying out these tools to see how they work for you or your business, you need to have some thought as the purpose. You also have to have some thought as to the socially acceptable way of doing things. The musical rules that the BBC used were a based on a heptatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. Neither is right or wrong, but you can’t do both at once (at not without calling it ‘experimental’). 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with breaking a few rules, that’s almost the definition of being a stand-out excellent entrepreneur / artist / individual. But you really need to know which rules you’re breaking and to what purpose.

Of course, with social media the rules aren’t quite the same as in other forms of social interaction, and as new tools come along they can mutate. Fortunately one of the rules that has completely reversed is lurking, allowing you to observe behaviour before you dive in.

Once you have that bigger purpose, knowing what the rules of participation are, then you can choose which tools / instruments will deliver the required performance.

Plans are worthless. Planning is essential. – Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & many others

And of course things won’t go according to plan, but that’s where having the clear shared sense of purpose means that people can act without having to fight through layers of bureaucracy. And they can act honestly as human beings rather than PR spin-doctors or script-reading robots.

What’s your social media strategy? Listen, plan, listen, act, repeat; or deliver a stream of ‘messages’ across all channels in a blitzkrieg approach?

Social Media Systems (3)

(Update – Swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article concentrated on the overview, the next article introduces the Soft Systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with this example application.

But what is it good for?

Over the 30 minutes or so after my talk at Brrism, we worked mainly on the systems description using the CATWOE acronym. As with all systems descriptions and discussions, there were several views, forcefully put.

However, by the end of the very short session we’d arrived at a pretty good consensus opinion. There’s still some work to be done refining the description and it needs to be circulated widely within the Brrism community to gather feedback.

For me the breakthrough came when we agreed that the fundamental transformation that Brrism brings about is multiple ideas / perspectives into calls for collective action. That took quite a bit of work as we didn’t think that Brrism itself was about lobbying for social change, or making B2B connections, or promoting ‘best practice’; however the Brrism community might well do a bit of that after meeting and exchanging ideas!

The next task will be to convert the CATWOE into some rich pictures; but that’s for another day.

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

Social Media Systems (2)

(Update – swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article in this mini-series concentrated on the overview, this article will introduce to a particular systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with an example application.

Soft Systems

Humans are particularly complex systems, free will, determinism, etc mean we need some modifications to the above general approach to describing a system that specifically includes humans. This is where Peter Checkland comes in. He was a chemical engineer who realised that many of his industrial chemical systems weren’t behaving as designed, not because the design of the engineering processes were wrong, but because of the people in the system. Unlike previous engineers, who tried to design people out of their systems, Checkland tried to understand how people influenced and interacted as part of the systems. And thus, Soft System as an analytical methodology was born.

Open University, module T552

The first thing that Checkland realised was that the very neat, formal diagrams that were generally used in systems analysis didn’t allow for the messy human element. Rich Pictures are an approach that describes the system with the human elements included.

Rich pictures have the same basic features of any systems diagram (boundary, components, inputs, outputs, transformations, environment) but with some additions.

The first addition is that of Actors, not a wandering group of minstrels, but the people within the system. You can give them names, but its usually helpful to use functional descriptions. The second addition are Clients, the people that benefit from the system. Of course the clients may in large part be the actors, but usually there is a specific group of people that are beneficiaries that aren’t part of the system.

The third addition is that of the Owner. This is often an individual but could be a group, organisation, but is whatever has the authority to abolish or fundamentally change the system. Most online social systems make substantial use of free (as in beer) software, and thus have at least two owner groups; the people that set them up and run/coordinate and the people that provide the free online resources.

The final major addition needed for a rich picture is a description of the perspective being adopted by the people drawing the rich picture itself. Checkland referred to this as Weltanschauung (World View). Is the social system about generating shareholder value, individual self-actualisation, mutual support, environmental salvation…

The role of the Environment in soft systems is more important than just “stuff that’s outside the boundary”. What’s going on in the environment can directly impact the system. A good example might be the launch of annotations for twitter; we don’t know how the new feature will impact the various social systems using twitter, but it probably will.

All of which gives rise to the slightly clumsy acronym: CATWOE (Clients, Actors, Transformations, Weltanschauung, Owner, Environment).

But what is it good for? More >>

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

Social Media Systems (1)

(Update – swapped Sam’s live UStream embed for Michael’s recorded YouTube embed)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

There are a couple of benefits of using something like systems theory when designing a social media system, plus a couple of drawbacks. Perhaps most importantly, it helps with the big picture before worrying about API calls, jscript vs php, etc. The main drawback is that is won’t tell you how to make your social media system actually grow and thrive.

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). This article will concentrate on the overview, the next article will introduce to a particular systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with an example application.

What is a System?

The word ‘system’ has become somewhat diluted and it’s meaning confused. However, systems are relatively easy to spot and describe.

Patrick Coin, Feb 1996

Firstly a system has components. A ruler is not a measurement system, it’s just a straight bit of metal or plastic with some marks on it. A feather is not a flight system, it’s very well adapted to direct airflow, perhaps with display markings, certainly helps with insulation, but it’s not a system.

All those components are contained within a boundary. Sometimes that boundary is fairly obvious, like the Yellow-Bellied Sap-Sucker. Sometimes the boundaries are more arbitrary, this website might be considered a system but there’s no physical boundary. Ultimately, the boundary is where you want it to be, but should be relevant to the system you’re looking at. But remember, the wider the system the more complex, too tight and you might not have a system at all!

There is a theoretical construct called the closed system, in reality all systems are open. This means there are inputs and outputs that cross the boundary. What this stuff is that crosses the boundary will depend on the system. You might have information, raw materials, written articles, even abstract concepts like trust. The point is that stuff crosses the boundary and you can describe it.

There is an important caveat to all this stuff crossing the boundary, there has to be a transformation between the input and output. Otherwise you’ve got a pipe! A pipe is not a system.

A communications system is a system because although part of the input (your message) is hopefully the same as the output (your message), there is a pile of associated data about the sender and receiver that is transformed in moving your message to your recipient. There are also internal transformations of the input message through encoders, compressions algorithms, decoders, etc.

Systems are also in a hierarchy of systems that form their environment. My little Sap-Sucker lives in the rainforest that is its ecosystem, that is part of a wider global system, and so on. It also has a digestive system, neural system, and so on down the scale. Systems within systems.

And lastly, but most importantly, systems display something called emergent properties. In social systems this is the law of unintended consequences. Behaviours that arise from the interaction between all the components and sub-systems, variations in inputs, changes in the environment. The point being that you can’t define them all when you analyse the system.

So far, so mechanistic. How do we apply this to social media? More >>

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

Blast from the Past

Unfortunately I can’t be at this months Brrism (sorry Micheal @kobb). However, one of the topics will be around ancient scrolls of wisdom (or anything over 5 years in Internet time).

Which got me thinking about what I was up to 10 years ago.

At the time I was a junior PhD researcher at the University of Plymouth. Bizarrely my old homepage is still live, though mercifully I’d updated it in 1999 with fewer flashing GIF’s and roll-over image maps, though the obligatory animated email gif is still there (the email isn’t live however).

A large part of my research (1997-2000) was looking at systems theory as it applied to ‘human activity systems’, so I’m going to cheat (slightly) and reference some work that wasn’t directly about Social Media (or even web-based technologies). Though I was based in the School of Computing, my background is in engineering and the research group was mostly engineers, economists and psychologists. We were interested in how systems theory could be applied to particular social groups (mostly engineering companies in this case) and in particular the processes that those social groups used to achieve certain aims (generally converting some specification into a manufactured product). However, I believe there is good reason to think that much of that research can be applied to social media application in other business endeavours.

Squared Circle Mosaic: Fibonacci Spiral with Hue Twist - Uploaded on January 27, 2005 by krazydad / jbum

Prof Peter Checkland (Lancaster University) is a Chemist that worked in industry on complex engineering problems and eventually moved to the most complex systems of all, those involving humans (unfortunately his seminal work is a book, 1981, not an online article).

Systems are generally recognised by some fundamental principles;

  • Boundaries – there’s a bunch of stuff that’s “inside” the system, and a bunch of stuff that’s “outside” the system (there will usually be an argument over where to draw the boundary but that almost defines the fact that you’ve got a system)
  • Inputs and outputs – stuff crosses the boundary, this can be physical or non-physical [you can have a ‘closed’ system but they’re generally rather boring and hypothetical]
  • There’s some transformation, i.e. difference, between the inputs and outputs
  • There are components within the system; a single component is not a system
  • Systems are nested; within large systems are smaller systems

and most importantly

  • Emergent Properties – you can’t describe the performance of the system just by analysing the component parts

Checkland is important because he was one of the first people to try and describe the messy company and organisational situations he was working within from a systems perspective (building on much of Bertalanffy‘s work between 1934 & 1969) . He identified boundaries and within those boundaries the sub-groups that actually made the company work. He identified information and flows of power within the organisation, and across those boundaries. He was able to sketch out the ‘actual’ human activity system, rather than the business or computer information system. It was the systems characteristic of emergent properties that led to them not performing as planned, and gave rise to the law of unintended consequences (previously identified in social sciences by Robert Merton (1936) but not explained).

But what does this mean for the social media strategist?

Well it means that, despite our shiny shiny toys, there is quite a bit of good research and clear thinking about how people work in groups and in particular how we can design such systems. No matter how carefully we design them, there will be emergent properties; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t design them in the first place.

There will always be boundaries, some stuff will be “inside”, some stuff will be “outside”. You don’t want everything to be “inside“; even planet earth isn’t a closed system.

Stuff needs to cross your system boundary, and it needs to be transformed en-route to becoming an output. I put my details into Facebook (as do 350m others) and a whole bunch of RSS feeds, and I get a ‘useful’ homepage about my ‘friends’. I can put photos, comments, stories, whatever in, and people can further transform them with additional comments, links to other people, etc. True, you can’t automagically get that data out of Facebook, but you can log in and read what’s there. And reading what’s there is one form of taking information out of the Facebook system, as are social networks, etc.

Of course there are lots of component software chunks and sub-systems within Facebook. Each casual game on Facebook is its own system, nested within Facebook. Each fan community is a nested system. Each discussion board is, potentially, a sub-system, nested within a fan page, nested within Facebook, nested within the Internet, etc. Depending on where you draw the boundary, everyone that’s on Facebook is also part of the system…

And of course there’s a ton of emergent behaviour that wasn’t predicted (or predicable).

So what can we do about/with it?

The first thing to note is that, from my experience, most people aren’t very good at meta-cognitive thinking about systems theory. That is, they are used to living within systems (social, organisational, leisure) but they don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about those systems, and even less thinking about how they are thinking about them.

This means that people will usually try to apply existing social behaviours and norms to on line systems, and if that doesn’t work they get frustrated/angry/disillusioned/etc. You either build your on-line social media system exactly like ‘real’ world (but then why would anyone be interested in your system?) or educate people  into the operating of the new system. That’s why all games have tutorial / training built in.

In order to develop a training programme you need to understand, and be able to communicate, the designed purpose and functioning of your system. One way to do this is draw a picture of it, not a UML diagram or a wireframe, but a human activity system diagram. You don’t need to use any ‘standardised’ modelling nomenclature, so long as you and your team understand it and it covers the basics above.

Michael, Rick Chapman, and I spent some time recently thinking about modelling social media systems. We tried to cover the basics, without employing a formal systems modelling methodology. Its not perfect but I think it’s a good start.

You should know where the boundaries are, what the expected information flows are going to be, the transformations and components that will do the transforming, and what the wider emergent property will be. That will all change once the system begins to operate but at least you’ll have a blueprint and can either take action to bring the system back into the original concept or decide to take things in a different direction.

We did quite a lot of this within my old research group, and its surprising how good a consensus you can arrive at for generic systems diagrams.

This early draft is far from ‘perfect’ but I think there is something of value if you’re building, or thinking about social media, to have a model similar to this in your toolbox to refer to.

Conclusion & Caveat

In conclusion, some thinking time about the network you’re trying to build is valuable. The tools you employ should come afterwards; twitter is not a social media strategy. There are lots of good, well established frameworks to think about social networks, systems of activity, etc. You don’t need to follow slavishly the minutia of their particular quirks and peculiarities but you should understand why they are there and why you are ignoring them.

The caveat: feedback loops are a feature of systems. The huge difference that digital technologies have brought is the near frictionless feedback loop. There is almost no transactional cost to publishing a comment and for that comment to then be republished to +350m people (it happens both automatically via services like posterous and twitter-bots, and through the retweet/comment feature in all social media services), and re-re-published endlessly. That is something that we haven’t modelled effectively yet. The good social media marketeers amongst us know how to achieve this, even if they don’t fully understand the why.

Fresh coffee & Opportunities

Uploaded on October 23, 2006 by Hamed Saber
Well it’s been quiet externally for jbsh the last couple of months but there’s been plenty going on. This post is a cross-post from Open Coffee Bristol where we welcomed in the New Year this morning.

Well 2010 kicked off in the UK with snow, ice, sub-zero temperatures and general chaos as public services ground to a halt.

But not Open Coffee and the entrepreneurs of Bristol.

Fortified by the best coffee that the Boston Tea Party on Park Street has to offer we gathered on their first floor to catch up after the break and discuss the future. By the end Steve Cayzer (HP Labs, LinkedIn), Rupert Russell (Carmen Data, LinkedIn), Helen Davies (For Effect, website), Sam Machin (Orange, personal website), Nigel Legg (Katugas Social Media, website) and Andy (who surname I’ve unforgivable forgotten, sorry).

Conversation covered the various tax implications of company car ownership, developing new brand images for the new year (and the difficulty finding a good printers these days), online marketing for small tourism companies and the challenge of getting good geo-location data, and that was just at my end of the tables!

The general opinion was that while the weather and economic climate might be a bit inclement (or just down right awful) there was business to be done and opportunities to be exploited. Business cards were swapped and a couple of new collaborations initiated.

So the New Year is off to a great start and looks to get better.

Look forward to seeing you at the next Open Coffee Bristol on Tues, 26 Jan from 8.30am in The Boston Teaparty on Park St.

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