Next generation engineers

What happens when 110 Year 4 & 5 Primary School children meet a 1,000 mph car?

Last week I was lucky enough to give a talk at a local (Bristol, UK) Primary School about the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (Bloodhound SSC) project. I signed up as a 1K supporter pretty much as the scheme launched (Aug 2009) and as an Ambassador shortly after that. Having done a couple of STEM / Bloodhound Ambassador events and activities, this was my first Primary School and first solo talk.

The pupils at the school had been making their own cars and were keen to know more about how Bloodhound SSC is being made. As a mechanical engineer by first degree, it was an excellent opportunity to talk with the children and pass on some of my passion for engineering!!

One of the great innovative technologies being used with Bloodhound SSC is the use of composite fibres in the monocoque shell that houses Andy Green & the HTP (High Test Peroxide) tank. While a primary school probably doesn’t have access to carbon fibre and autoclaves, they do use papier-mâché (which is a composite material) – so I could legitimately say they were using the same basic engineering technologies as Bloodhound SSC!

I also had the opportunity to show a video of some of the high speed machining that Hanson’s are undertaking for the space frame. While there was no direct link to what they’re doing in the classroom, I wanted to show them actual metal cutting and the preparation needed before you slam £25k of spindle into aircraft grade aluminium.

I had a couple of key things to communicate (mainly around what engineers do, and the level of teamwork and cooperation needed in modern engineering challenges), plus lots of facts & figures about the car itself.  I had to decide what to start with to engage with the children, and keep them engaged for 30min. The animation of Bloodhound SSC racing a Eurofighter is great for this – it’s high tempo and has lots of reference points that helped keep momentum through the talk.

Bloodhound SSC – by a Year 5 student

I followed this with some background details on the car, fortunately the Education Team at Bloodhound SSC make all this stuff available for Ambassadors. We just need to pick it up and flesh out the narrative, and make it appropriate to the audience. At each point when I started to talk about fabricating the structure, or the composite shell – I could pull up a video from BHTV (Bloodhound Television) to illustrate what I was talking about.

I ended the presentation with the video of the rocket test in Newquay on 3 Oct 2012. A really great high point to end on!

After about 30min presentation, I was then bombarded with questions; such as “Why was there all that water when they were cutting the metal bits out?”, and “Why does Andy Green wear a crash helmet?”

Communicating effectively is critical to success in any field; engineering, business, primary school teaching. Having a clear message, sound facts, and a simple presentation really helps tell the story, whether it’s an investor pitch or a class of 8-10 year olds!

That’s (part of) what I do; clarify objectives & ambitions, into plans & narratives, that can be communicated & acted upon.

[In the slide deck below, the blank slides linked to the Bloodhound / Eurofighter race (not officially available), BHTV Episodes 1, 15 and 17]
[slideshare id=15575330&doc=bloodhoundschoolevent-121210124940-phpapp02]

Social Cemetery anyone?

A couple of years ago (whilst at Science City Bristol) I was fortunate enough to have a tangential involvement in BioBlitz 2009 out at Ashton Court and to be able to consolidate that support the following year, focusing on their innovative social media activities. Since then Bristol BioBlitz has gone from strength to strength; and from Ashton Court, to Blaise Castle (2010), to Tyntesfield (2011) and this year Arnos Vale Cemetery.

That success has been amplified by the national explosion of BioBlitz’s, most of which have implicitly or explicitly linked back to Bristol’s success and approach. Just to be clear, the first BioBlitz was in 1996 and was part of the US National Parks Service, but isn’t ‘owned’ by anyone. In the same ethos, the UK national BioBlitz network might be hosted by Bristol Natural History Consortium (BNHC), but it’s an open and inclusive network. The real success of the BNHC is in being able to innovate faster and ‘better’ than anyone else.

The BNHC are constantly on the lookout for new ideas and excel at absorbing and transforming those ideas into their own innovations. They’re also extremely good at executing on those innovations so that everyone has a fantastic day out. All of which means they can be open about those ideas and share their experiences widely, knowing that they’re already working on the next one. That open sharing is a key strength; search for bioblitz (I just did using Firefox & Bing – a combination I almost never use) and Bristol’s BioBlitz features 3 times in the top 10, in positions 2,3 and 6; second only to the Wikipedia entry! The US National Parks (the originators of the idea remember) are in 4th place. Sharing your innovations works!

What else have we learned? Well, hedgehogs have footprints that look a lot like little tiny hands (see above). And that doormice can hollow out an acorn forming a ‘cup’ with an almost perfectly smooth rim. And that there at at least 454 different species of animal living in Arnos Vale Cemetery!

That’s the great thing about Bristol BioBlitz, a social day out and you can learn lots (not just about natural history). What’s not to like?

Until next year

How to be more innovative

symphony
symphony by paul (dex), on Flickr

Innovation is generally held to be a “good thing”. Companies that are innovative or that produce innovative products are lauded with praise, awards, not to mention investment funding. Innovative individuals are highly sought after and richly rewarded.

So how can we be more innovative, in our personal and corporate lives?

  • Find new ideas

Most of the good ideas are already out there, you just need to find them. Some of them are protected & that’s fine, respect that. But may more aren’t, so use them.

An important concept here is that of being a “boundary spanner”, of having eclectic interests. Research has shown that in looking for innovative solutions, individuals that had weak ties to many different disciplines were more effective than those that were tightly bound to a single one.

  • Assimilate those ideas

No not the Borg, but you need to be able integrate any new information with what you already know. There’s no point reading the latest article in hyperbolic geometry, if you failed Maths 101. This is the foundation of constructivist learning models (but that’s for another post).

The important thing is to be able to relate the new knowledge you’ve acquired to that which you already know in some way. This may sound like a contradiction to being eclectic, but it’s not. Remember, you’re not looking to be a global expert in the new topic but you do need to understand enough to be able to address your challenge.

  • New solutions

After all, the name of the game is innovation, so we’re looking to adapt our newly assimilated knowledge to produce a new product or service. Many of the most innovative products in recent times haven’t been ground breaking in their fundamental technology, but they have combined and adapted technologies in highly innovative ways.

Think iPhone, Toyta Prius, Facebook, etc.

Remember, innovation is different to invention.

  • Show me the money

This doesn’t necessarily mean a Dickensian, Mr Burns kind of exploitation. But you need to translate your new solution into a business proposition, otherwise it’ll remain an idea.

Note: While the points above are in a list (because that’s the easiest way of presenting them in a blog) they are not sequential and linear. It’s also worth noting that most innovation is a team sport, so make sure that within your team you have people that can find new ideas, bring them within your group, use them to solve problems and then commercialise those solutions.

Further Reading

The above ideas are collectively understood as “Absorptive Capacity” and have been applied to individuals, teams, divisions, companies and whole regions. A good place to start is wikipedia (as always) and follow the trail from there. The key academic texts are the original article by Cohen & Levinthal (1990) & the expanded theory from Zahra & George (2002).

  • Cohen, Wesley M; Levinthal, Daniel A, (1990), “Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 35, Issue 1, pg 128-152
  • Zahra, Shaker A; George, Gerard, (2002), “Absorptive Capacity: A Review,Reconceptualization,and Extention”, Academy of Management Review, Vol 27, Issue 2, pg 185-203

The comments about weak network ties come largely from Tushman (1977) and developed by Hansen (1999). The background Wikipedia article on interpersonal ties is here.

  • Morten, Hansen, (1999), “The Search-Transfer Problem: The Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge across Organization Subunits”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 44, Issue 1, pg 82-111
  • Tushman, Michael L, (1977), “Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 22, Issue 4, pg 587-605

This is a different style of post to previous ones I’ve written. I’d be very grateful for comments on areas that need expanding / simplifying or just explained in a different way.  I hope to be writing more articles along similar lines as my current work with the iNETs is bringing all of this into sharp focus (if only from an academic research perspective).

Thanks

John

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.

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.

New Perspectives – Is the Leaning Tower of Pisa always inclined?

Recently I posted about an area of research I am interested in and mentioned that we were going to Pisa to present the results at the European Health Psychology Society Annual Conference.

I jokingly asked if Psychology could help the leaning tower and we concluded that the research I was offering up for scrutiny probably wouldn’t.

However the “Inclined Tower“, as a Swiss friend calls it, offers up an obvious, and visual, comparison with some of the benefits from attending conferences.

Its actually quite unusual to learn astounding new facts at academic conferences. Most of the formats involved are just too short and the programme too crowded to allow for a long and detailed examination of new research (that’s what Journal papers are really for). In Pisa there were nearly 1,300 separate pieces of research being presented, either in 15 min oral presentations, posters, symposia, or round table discussions. And all this over 4 days [programme in pdf format].

While you may not spend a lot of of time learning new material, you are forced to look at things from new angles and applying your thoughts and feelings in new ways.  In other words from a ‘New Perspective’!

You’re exposed to the work of people with very different, though equally valid, research philosophies.You can see how they tackled similar questions but from different perspectives (sometimes wildly different).

Studies in psychology provide and require multiple perspectives to be applied in order to understanding people as individuals and as individuals in a community. Research findings and implications about the mind and mental processes as well as studies of the development and behaviour, maintenance and change of socially significant behaviour are all of importance in understand and explaining (at least in part) the world we live in and how we situate ourselves within it.

p.s. John here, I sat in on some of the presentations and there were a couple of very interesting points. Traditionally the shift change in hospitals has been seen as a vulnerability and has resulted in a culture of long shifts. Some research indicated that safety might actually be improved with more shift changes, since they were more often catching problems than causing them. It was the act of explaining what was going on to someone new, a fresh pair of eyes, that caught these oversights. Equally, they sometimes gave people the impetus to make a decision. For a start up company that’s charging along eyes on the prize, taking time out occasionally to explain that bigger picture to an impartial observer, is a huge benefit.

It was also notable the lack of technology awareness in health care messages and communications. Not just the use of social media but viral gaming, mobile data capture & evaluation, and general webbiness. As I tweeted from the conference (I was in the minority having a mobile data device with me), online avatars working from fixed scripts do not make for very convincing ‘companions’. There is a lot this community could learn from places like the Pervasive Media Studio here in Bristol and the ecosystem around them.

For a technical civil engineering description of the tower and various attempts to ‘straighten’ it check out this page. 🙂