Bleedin’ vs Leading edge

For the last few days I’ve been playing a new game on my phone. Nothing exciting there really, games have been on phones since Snake (Sam was a master on her old Nokia 6110). The game itself isn’t that original either, basically it’s capture the flag. So why the title?

Several years ago I was the Business Manager for an education technology charity in Bristol called Futurelab. One of their flagship projects, completed before I joined, was very much touted as an example of leading edge technology in learning situations.

Savanah involved teams of school kids, running around their playing field pretending to be lions on the African Savanah. They had to capture territory, attack other animals for food, and so forth. All this was achieved with HP PDA’s, GPS units in rucksack, and a not inconsiderable army of tech support from HP Labs in Bristol who camped out in the school to manage the field trial! An amazing idea, but even if the legal challenges over copyright and who actually owned the idea could have been sorted out – it was a looong way from being implementable, let along a profitable proposition back in late-2002. This was bleeding edge, proof-of-concept stuff.

Flash forward 10 years, and I’m running (ok, mostly walking) around Bristol city centre as part of a team, trying to capture territory, attacking the other team’s bases, collecting energy, and so forth. Location by GPS (check), real time updates (check), massively complex backstory (check, no I’ve not paid much attention to it, but then I’m not sure the kids playing Savanah really paid that much attention to the accompanying natural history lesson). So far, so 2002.

However, this is on my fairly  standard Android smart phone. I don’t have a rucksack with batteries & ancillary equipment; and the game is being played on a global level, has real time chat with team mates, a funky Alternate Reality Map overlay, and is freely available (though its closed Beta at the moment).

Screen shot from Google Play

Welcome to 2012, welcome to Ingress!

But hang on – if it’s free, where’s the business model? Well Niantic Labs are part of Google, so just as the game is being played on a global level, so the business model is part of a larger strategy.

Players are uploading photos of real world places trying to get them nominated as ‘portals’, giving Google masses of additional data to crunch into a 3D view of the world at street level. Most of the teams have set up local groups within one of the two global factions dictated by the game; and most of these are on G+. I’ve not used G+ so much since, well, ever.

Of course we’re also sending our locations back to the big G (under coded ID’s, but since you use your Google ID to get a game ID it’s a 1-2-1 look up), so Google has more info on where the popular places are (most of the portals are in city centres). Plus it knows we like AR games, mobile devices, etc, so I expect to see a shift in ads being served to me shortly. It’ll be interesting to see if the different factions report seeing different ads! 🙂

Would I pay for in-game gear? Possibly. Running out of ammo just as you’re about to capture the other team’s flag, could trigger a purchase (depending on price point obviously). Being able to upgrade a flag to capture most of Bristol might be worth splashing the Google Wallet about.

At the moment, there’s little incentive spend as there’s no defined ‘end-game’ or winning state. So there’s no sense of urgency, however, that could change with a couple of lines of code.

What ever Google’s longer term plan is (if there even is one at this point), its going to be fun seeing what happens; and playing along obviously!

So: Resistance or Enlightenment – you choose!

And if you’re not sure about the bleedin’ title – watch this!

Pitching for Management

This is a great series of UK events offering fast-growth companies the chance to find senior executives and non-executives to help their company proceed to its next stage of growth. It’s a testament to the local entrepreneurship community that the first “Pitching for Management” event outside London, was in Bristol!

At each event, 6 companies present their businesses and the roles available to a room of highly talented individuals ranging from sales, marketing and finance board positions to mentorships, chair, CEO and non-executive director positions.

Join the hundreds of businesses have already presented at these events and have employed talented individuals as a result. Click here to read a great case study from a recent pitching company.

Get in touch with the AngelNews team today to discuss why presenting at “Pitching for Management” could revolutionise your business… Contact Sarah Abrahams at sarah@angelnews.co.uk or call 07916 340 009

For more information visit www.pitching4management.com or book online at http://pitchingformanagementbristol5.eventbrite.com/

3 Top tips for Start-ups

I was invited to join  John Darvall on his BBC Radio Bristol show to discuss if this was a good time to start a new business? Of course it is, but then I’m an optimist like most entrepreneurs!

After a bit of banter about starting up a new business, he asked me for 3 Top Tips, we sort of skated over them so I thought I’d repeat them here and extend a bit on the chat on-air.

Talk to someone!

By tychay Terry Chay

There are lots of people out there that want your business to success, more than want it to fail! Locally we’ve got the excellent BRAVE organisation that provide clear, simple advise to anyone thinking of starting their own business. Most cities will have their equivalents.

There are also loads, and loads, of business networkings and networking events. People do business with people (mostly), so get along to a couple and talk to other small business owners and company founders. It’ll help you understand the realities of being your own boss, as well as the perks.

There are also some great online resources like Start-up Donut and of course BusinessLink (though this will soon be a web repository of guidance notes).

You can also track down the many start-up schools, incubator facilities, seed-camps, etc that are all trying to assist you towards a successful business.

Strategic Intent

I’m not sure I quite got the right message over on-air about this. If, after talking to some impartial people, you are still passionate about starting a business, then sit down and work out why you want to be in business.

By Danielle Page

Are you looking to develop a nice little company that will keep you busy for 6 months a year leaving the rest of the time for skiing? Or are you looking to transform your industry? Or are you looking to build sufficient value to exit at £20m in 5 years with a minimum of 50% equity and no earn-out? Or are you looking to build a company that will grow ahead of inflation and still be here in 30 years time?

What is your strategic intent?

The other side to strategic intent is your risk profile. Are you willing to bet everything on one idea, or are you more cautious?

How risky can you afford to be? Work out how much money you have (redundancy payouts, savings, mortgage, etc), then work out how much you need each month to live and how you can minimise this (you don’t need to live in the dark eating value baked beans, but champagne & oysters are probably off the menu), then work out how long your money will last.

That should give you some idea on how risky your position is, and how quickly your business needs to be a success.

Plan your business

This is critical. You don’t need a 200 page, glossy book, but equally you need to be able to describe your business and what you’re trying to achive.

Describe your strategic intent (Mission, Vision, etc). If you don’t know why you’re in business, why should anyone care?

Describe your product / service. This is important but actually, less so than most people think. Is there any unique intellectual property (IP) that can be protected? Do you actually know how your going to make, store, distribute your product to markets? If its a service, what is it and what additional support do you need to deliver it?

Who are you going to sell to and why should they buy from you. Who is your market, where are they, what do they like, what don’t they like, why do you and your idea fill a burning need in their lives or businesses? Market Segmentation, this is good, do it.

Who else is out there? Just about any idea will have some competition. Either directly from other companies offering the same or similar solutions. If you have a one in a million idea, there are around 1,300 people with the same idea in China, 1,200 in India, 500 across the EU, and 300 in the USA. Of course they won’t all be thinking of launching a business, but one of those 3,300 people might.

Cashflow forecasting. Cash flow is king for a small business. You won’t be able to produce a detailed financial model of your business before it’s even trading, but you need to have some idea of the basic cash flow through the business and where your break even point is. What’s your burn rate (monthly cash spend) and runway (how long before you’ve spent all your savings)?

My reply about the Apprentice was wrong, their business plans weren’t rubbish because they didn’t have good advice; they were rubbish because they didn’t listen to that advice!

<Disclosure: I was introduced as being from the University of the West of England iNET (Innovation Networks) which is true, but I’m also on holiday and the original link was via here so link-love all round.>

How smart are your houses?

© 2011 The Intelligent Business Company, publisher of Housing Technology magazine

A number of years ago, when I was the Business Manager for Futurelab Education, we looked at a couple of projects around technology in social housing and how internet access could transform lives. I began talking to George Grant (Founder, Housing Technology) about several projects across Bristol that were refurbishing PCs and providing them to communities at no, or very low, cost. This great work is continuing with ByteBack and the associated projects through Connecting Bristol.

Anyhow, I stayed in touch with George from those conversations and always looked forward to the latest issue of Housing Technology. One of the keys to being a good connector of business opportunities is to be aware of what’s going on in sometimes seemingly unconnected sectors. Those sectors connected towards the end of 2010 when George and I were catching up over a coffee in Hamilton House and I mentioned a couple of recent technology innovations that I’d become aware of.

George suggested that I write some of my thoughts down about how the massive potential of social games and device level smart metering could be used to bring about motivated social change. That rather than trying to make people feel guilty about their energy consumption through financial penalties, we use anthropomorphism and social games to align energy efficiency with game design strategies.

So I did, you can download the full article as part of the January issue of Housing Technology or read the png file linked from the thumbnail.

What’s great about Bristol? Let me count the ways…

Ok, minor confession; I haven’t pulled this list together. Iain Gray (CEO, Technology Strategy Board) is a passionate champion of all UK technology & innovation, and he recently tweeted a list of technology and innovation examples from Bath & Bristol. Enjoy!

[Update 1: Iain’s just dm’d me to say there are plenty more to follow, keep an eye on his twitter stream for latest updates!]

[Update 2: Last few added for the full list of 50 great companies and organisations encouraging technology & innovation in Bristol. Thanks Ian!]

Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 50. Bristol Science City http://bit.ly/3ChqOG .. youtube http://bit.ly/erTi8e #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 49. Selex Communications http://bit.ly/fxINRA #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 48. Slingshot street and pervasive games http://bit.ly/hcKjbP #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 47. SetSquared Business Acceleration Centre http://bit.ly/e6AKll #innovate #SETsquared
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 46. City of Bristol College http://bit.ly/hv0HYb #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 45. Stirling Dynamics Specialist Engineering and Design http://bit.ly/guCdWI #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 44. Orange research http://bit.ly/8YKuIg #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 43. National Composites Centre http://bit.ly/h1B5ZV @NCC_Bristol #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 42. Interactive Places phone apps for specific locations http://bit.ly/fLpEoE #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 41. Bristol University – research intensive university http://bit.ly/ezBYj3 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 40. Bristol and Bath Science Park –Spark http://bit.ly/e0zTer #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 39. teamrubber – grow successful creative businesses http://bit.ly/dPF8c6 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 38. Rolls Royce –Defence, Marine and Operations http://bit.ly/erl5k8 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 37. Calvium Immersive mobile apps http://bit.ly/fOCchK #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 36. Garrad Hassan & Partners Renewable Energy http://bit.ly/hxGaLI #cleantech #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 35. Provision – Wireless Video http://bit.ly/ijct4d #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 34. MOD Defence Equipment and Support http://bit.ly/gcMNFn #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 33. Bioinduction – treatment of chronic pain http://bit.ly/eGdEGq #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 32. Dycem Manufacture high performance non-slip products http://bit.ly/hPfnP4#ktp #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 31. Infineon – 32bit embedded microprocessor cores http://bit.ly/e74PXg #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 30. Bristol Heart Institute – cardiovascular research http://bit.ly/hum6AX #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 29. Simon Games Mobile Social Game Engine http://bit.ly/fuBbQ1 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 28. GKN Advanced Composite Facility http://bit.ly/aZDjah #innovate #composites
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 27. Pervasive Media Studio http://bit.ly/DTabc #innovate @PMStudioUK
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 26. Atkins –The Hub– awarded Best Corporate Workspace by BCOhttp://bit.ly/h3sbiv #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 25. Epimorphics software tools and information services http://bit.ly/e9rf5j #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 24. 3C Research digital media and communications http://bit.ly/hDvOff #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 23. University of the West of England Research & Business http://bit.ly/er724n #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 22. DECIPHer-ASSIST public health improvement research http://bit.ly/huZWEu #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 21. BBC Anchor media innovation testbed http://bit.ly/3GZUTV #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 20. Tidal Generation – renewable energy http://bit.ly/gSGl7N #innovate #cleantech
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 19. Toshiba Research Centre Telecommunications (TRL) http://bit.ly/hpsKHs #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 18. Nameless Digital Agency – web design http://bit.ly/2jyor0 @namelessdigital #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 17. 422 South – visual effects and animation http://bit.ly/ajS63d #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 16. GKN Advanced Composite Facility http://bit.ly/aZDjah #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 15. Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information http://bit.ly/7eVETO #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology&innovation examples 14. TasteTech- pioneer of microencapsulation technology http://bit.ly/gos6Qd #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 13. Gnodal – Ethernet for high perf data centres http://bit.ly/as9pkC #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 12. OC Robotics Snake-arm® robots http://bit.ly/fggW6i @ocrobotics #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 11. Bloodhound – Technical Centre http://bit.ly/fmCeCA @BLOODHOUND_SSC #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 10. ARKive multimedia guide to world’s endangered species http://bit.ly/fWqnne #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 9. Airbus Wing ,Landing Gear and Fuel Systems http://bbc.in/fj4XpB #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 8. DocCom networking company for healthcare http://bit.ly/axwPez #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 7. XMOS chip technology http://bit.ly/ffHORP #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 6. HP Labs among premier corporate research labs in Europehttp://bit.ly/ekhQ6F #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 5. BAESystems Advanced Technology Centre, Filton http://bit.ly/h5c6ae #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 4. CFMS design simulation processes http://bit.ly/gLoI7D #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 3. Marine Current Turbines http://bit.ly/fa0Fj6 #innovate #cleantech
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 2. Bristol Robotics Laboratory http://bit.ly/anILB5 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 1. Aaardman animations http://bit.ly/60RAZ @aardmandigital #innovate

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

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 (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.