Secret plans and clever tricks

The side project with Bynghall finally leaps fully formed from the thigh of Zeus. Intranet Directions is a place for thinking about Intranet and digital workplace strategy in a new way. Hopefully bold, never uncertain and probably wrong, but prepared to rework. The good stuff moves onwards, the bad stuff gets filed towards the back and if it were to come up in conversation polite excuses would be made.

Available in all good newsagents. Other sources of intranet strategy are available.

A machine way of thinking — the coming algorithmic apocalypse

“The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.” — Frank Herbert “Dune” [The Bulterian Jihad]

We are at a point in computing when the sum-total of all communication that goes on within organisations is recorded. The mathematics that would allow a machine to start to do things with that communication-as-data have been around for a long time, and innovations around semantic computing have come along.

At the same time we are seeing long term squeeze on costs within organisations under the banner of maximising shareholder value and increasing organic cash-flow. One of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce your headcount, or to put easily described work, such as help desks, support, operations, manufacturing and programming outside of the organisation, quite often where the workers are cheaper to employ.

I am constantly giving recommendations to intranet teams that are fundamentally recognise that they don’t have enough people to do the quality and quantity of work that they need. There is a usual lack of resources to, for example:

  • Optimise content for search
  • Work on projects while maintaining operations
  • Help people make sure their content is relevant and is up to date
  • Eat lunch or go to the loo

Meanwhile the perceived value in the corpus of that communications-as-data is building up: implicity, as in the enterprise social network; and explicitly, where the employee is expected to fill in their personal profile so people can find their expertise if it should be required.

The loose field of “social analytics” seeks to unlock this potential in creating connections and insights between people, places and things with mathematics. Some examples:

  • Consider automating classifications and information architecture using aggregate usage and semantic analysis.
  • Consider automating the extraction of people’s expertise from what they say and do, rather than what they say they do.
  • Consider improving search results by retrieving context from the user’s history of interest and discussions with people.
  • Consider automatically measuring people’s sentiments about a range of topics. Are people positive or negative about things?

This all sounds great, I’ll buy a pile of it. If this works I can make the right content appear automagically in from of the right people. What’s not to like. Well, the important bit is “if it works”. The problem is that it might make things worse.

Search as a minor example

In the intranet world we already have a chaotic algorithm making our lives a misery: Enterprise search. It sounds like a simple thing to do. Here is the corpus, index it and make it available so when someone wants something you show it to them. This is a classic wicked problem. The corpus of course is created and maintained by fallible, disparate people who are doing their own thing. They wish to publish a piece of content for immediate reasons, and discount its value to the corpus. Metadata is not set and context such as titles are purely local. When someone searches for something they get poor results. The intranet manager says: “We are getting rubbish results, let’s try tidying things up a bit.” That doesn’t really work, so they try creating best-bets manually and mucking about with weighting. That is only partially successful because the number of potential queries is vast (although the number of common queries is few), the numbers of texts in the corpus is massive, and at the heart of it is an algorithm that nobody apart from its developer really understands. At the core of a search engine is a complex bit of mathematics that provides the results. It is chaotic because for the layperson, changes to the content or the search engine do not have direct consequences on the results. They change a little and in ways that has possibly negative effects on different queries.

Any attempts to make the algorithms better has only increased the pain. Go find an intranet manager who has had to wrestle with Autonomy and ask them about it. It will be described in robust Anglo-Saxon. Semantic it might be, but try and get the pensions page up when the query is “pensions” is a non-trivial task. Intranet managers lumbered with Google Search Appliance have virtually no access to the mechanism of search, and are given little indication as to how to influence it. It an algorithmic black box shrouded in IP.Make it work like Google is the cry of the stakeholder, ignoring the fact there is a billon dollar business in Search Engine Optimisation attempting to reverse engineer Google and other search engines, and game the system end to end.

The problem is that the mathematics within these engines are not able to be communicated to those charged with looking after them. Borked search is a minor example – it only hurts organisations a little bit.But this isn’t natural mathematics. It doesn’t work like physics, determined by the characteristics of the natural world.Algorithms are programs written by people. People are not objective – they bring all their biases about how the world works to work with them. Algorithms are as much works of art as a news article on the intranet. All people are subjective and biased. All algorithms are subjective and biased. The thing is, you can argue with a person.

Let’s consider what may happen when we start unleashing this sort of maths on the populace.

Consider a piece of software that is designed to find “experts” in a field within an organisation. For the sake of argument let’s ignore any privacy or data protection concerns and we say in the requirements that it is access all areas: intranet, SharePoint team sites, enterprise social network, email, instant messaging – the works. This will necessarily will be software provided by an external vendor, as we are far an above the sort of quotidian development that most organisations have lying about. The programmer will make an array of assumptions about what “expertise” means and look for proxies available within the corpus: the amount someone talks about a concept; to whom; do they contribute initially or answer questions; how many people read the information they provide. Etc. I should point out I made those up. They may or may not be good proxies for expertise. Will the programmer be able to ask a social scientist to prove the alleged link between the proxy and expertise. Possibly, but probably not. Even if some psychometry is employed, there is no proof that that is, well, real. Will a social scientist be able to verify the weighting given to each source? Again, no.

This is a work of fiction. It no more that the guesswork of a clever-clogs.

And it will spit out a number. It might be based on something that sounds proper clever like the “k-nearest neighbour algorithm”, but it is the complexity of the real world boiled down into a reductive sticky goo. Search for experts in C++, it will give you a list. Bravo. But unlike our search engine algorithm it will have real world effects and feedbacks.

If the proxies are wrong, the inferences will be too. It is easy to mistake helpfulness or enthusiasm for expertise. If your algorithm starts crowning experts based on people being merely chatty on Yammer you could be in for some fun. Bob from IT help desk is now crowned an expert in something because he is helpful and interested in it. This validates his learning and encourages him. Increased findability of his “knowledge” results in more conversations, that drives a positive feedback mechanism. Bob is now, according to the system, an expert.

What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine a bizarre world where that expertise system repeated for every individual and every speciality within an organisation. This is a chaotic system. We have lost the ability to associate, on human terms, our inputs from our outputs. Perverse incentives and unintended consequences will become abundant. Now imagine that these mathematical loaded guns are deployed in lots of places throughout your organisation and its digital workplace, in places that you couldn’t even imagine, from choosing which projects get funding, to which emails get responded to.


We are careening into what Taleb calls the fourth quadrant – a place of disproportionate disaster where black swans abound.

I might be catastrophising. Please, someone who knows what they are actually talking about, persuade me that this isn’t the case. Software like this is renowned to be brittle. In the lab, it works. Out of the lab, it falls flat on its face. But this data is growing exponentially; so is the amount of storage, processing power and (I’m sure) VC money being thrown at this. As is people’s belief that it should be so.

Value people

Which brings me back to the quote from Dune at the top. In Dune they had got rid of intelligent machines as well as the machine-attitude. It is this machine way of thinking that I find so dangerous. We trust ourselves so little in the world of human affairs that we want machines to do it for us. We hate paying people to be human so much we are willing to swap them for machines that spit out answers; not real answers that are in fact true, but constantly available answers at zero marginal cost.

When a man comes to sell you a machine that understands humans tell him that he is mistaken. He has caught this machine-attitude. Trust humans to do the work of the heart, and value the work of humans enough to have them around to do the work.

[With thanks to @shbib for reintroducing me to the Bulterian Jihad]

The digital workplace as a ‘wicked problem’; practitioners as doctors.

I wrote this ages ago (at least a year) when I was writing “digital workplace user experience”and for some reason I didn’t publish it. I found it in my Scrivener blog post file. It is provocative, and probably entirely wrong. Hey ho.

To misquote George Orwell, most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that information and communication is in a bad way. The complex of communication and information appears to be grinding inexorably towards some form of maximum level of attention, and there doesn’t really seem to be a way out.

I would argue that the life of information and communication within businesses is a wicked problem, but practitioners attempt to solve these problems as if they are simple problems.

A wicked problem is a problem that is impossible to solve because of deep complexity and interdependencies, usually involving people and their choices. The more people involved the more wicked the problem.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formalised the characteristics of wicked problems in 1973:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. [There is no way to predict if they will stop]
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

There are lots of examples of wicked problems such as global climate change, nuclear weaponry, drug legislation and trafficking, and virtually every societal problem conceivable.

These are massive problems, what has this got to do with us, questions the critical reader. Well we are surrounded in our trade of information, knowledge and communication with problems that don’t seem to get any better, no matter what solutions that are thrown at them. The tools of we have such as email, content management, collaboration and social platforms were once solutions to problems. Each of them, in turn, has become a massive problem. That is the nature of a wicked problem.

Email as a wicked problem

We increase the speed and a synchronicity of communications within organisations to a point where people are overwhelmed by email. Any initiative to attempt to calm the swell becomes a further overhead: Spam filters; automatic rules; the bureaucracy involved with managing broadcast email; employees spending time deleting emails to remain within quotas.

Enterprise Search as wicked problem

We want to have enterprise search because it should be cheaper to re-find information that create it, or ask someone to remember it for us. We index the corpus. We fail to find the information we seek, so we then need to spend money for someone to manage the index. That fails too, so we pay people to improve the corpus. That fails too, so we buy another enterprise search platform.

Content management as a wicked problem

We want to codify useful explicit information within an organisation. We build a system to do so, then fill it with what we think will be useful to know. It becomes out of date and out of brand. Authors and content owners depart and entropy asserts itself. We throw redesigns and content inventories at it. Perhaps a new content management system would help so we build another and migrate all the content over. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Internal communication as a wicked problem

We want people to understand the direction the business needs to move in. We publish news stories and other electronic channels for people to read. They do not read them, nor to they improve their understanding of the businesses strategy. So more are sent at increasing volumes and costs. Different groups of communicators are created at various levels of the business requiring a bureaucracy to manage messages and timing

The fundamental wicked problem

I could go on and talk about virtually any area of specialism, but we really need to face the fundamental wicked problem. Communication, information and attention within large groups of people is hard. Solutions to any of these problems become problems themselves. There is no such thing as a solution.

Everything in our trade, in the light of wicked problems, are therefore tools of mitigation and not engineering. All we can do is attempt to make things less bad and less painful. We cannot fix these problems and to claim we can makes us an attempted solution to a wicked problem. And what do those turn into? Exactly.

So instead of being engineers and scientists set to fix a problem, perhaps we should be in the business of care. Doctors can’t cure death. They deal in mitigating its risks until it becomes inevitable and therefore maintain life with tool that are:

  • Diagnostic – understanding what’s wrong. We need to spend more time looking at the problems people are having in their work before we charge in with a solution whether than be some that we have ready to take off the shelf, or before we start designing and building more technology.
  • Analgesic – relieving pain. Our patients’ first requirement is an absence of discomfort. What can we do?
  • Antiseptic – keeping things clean to encourage natural healing
  • Antibiotic – treating infections so the healing process can start
  • Surgical – removal of the bad for the good of the whole. As a last resort what needs to be excised?
  • Palliative – care for terminal cases. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Help make the poor thing comfortable for its last hours, and help its loved ones and dependents move on.
  • Hippocratic – do no harm. Fellow professionals, look guiltily at your shoes and repent the times that you have made things worse in the name of progress.

So next time you are tempted to believe you, the lone digital workplace professional, can fix or solve these massive and complicated problems, please frame your mind with the words “heal” and “care”.

DWUX in four tweets


Tubb elsewhere: Stowe Boyd and the intranet of the freelance future

The second of three posts IBF commissioned about the Meaning 2012 conference is up at The intranet of the freelance future

I have a lot of respect for Stowe Boyd, and it isn’t just because I dig his hat. His use of the Japanese word for Ronin (wave-man) instead of freelancer is determinedly romantic, but he admits that the freedom of the self-employed comes at a price.

If we are working towards a world of more freelancers, out-sourcers and off-shorers that bone fide regular employees within these big slabs of capital we choose to call corporations, our current tools for working-between companies are quite inadequate. There is a huge amount of innovation in the Podios of this world but again they are aiming to be places rather than protocols.

I need to be able to slip in and out of companies as I do work for them. That needs to be easy and native, and at the moment it is neither.

Tubb elsewhere: Meaning 2012 and death to email

I had a thoughtful day at the Meaning 2012 conference in Brighton, courtesy of my friends at IBF. They asked me to write some blog posts about what would be relevant to the Intranet and Digital Workplace crowd.

Accidentally falling into the world of co-working and social business while being a member of the Hub, first at Kings Cross and then at Westminster I used to think that the corporate world and social-business-for-good were separate worlds. Now I’m not so sure. Everything is deeply inter-twingled.

Anyway, over on IBForum you can read my write up of Luis Suarez’ presentation. The IBMer that gave up email: Breaking the chain – death to email

Lots of intriguing thoughts from a grab bag of thought nuggets. Has it led me to hope for the future of business? Sort of. I see and end to unrealistic hope that anything in business can ever be perfect. More on that soon.

The Attention-pool: a tragedy of the commons

We used to live in a time of boring Sunday afternoons. Information was sparse. It was pored over intently. Its meaning was mulled. Its context was bolted down.

A book would retain our attention. A novel would be finished. A reference work would be retrieved many times. A letter would be cherished, re-read and kept possibly forever.

Those Sunday afternoons have been replaced by a constant Friday evening in Piccadilly Circus. Information arrives in volume. Some people call this information overload, although we always had more information than we could cope with in the library, or even a well stocked newsagent. What has changed is our attention, for it is attention that is limited. It is attention, within organisations in particular, that is at breaking point. We have spent the last 30 years using tools that allow us advances in productivity and creativity, by allowing data and information to be shunted around at great speeds. It is my conjecture that if we want to progress any further we must deal with organisational attention as a communal resource.

The tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a well known economic principle. If we consider the premise of common land, where the community grazes their livestock, everyone has the incentive to graze their flock beyond the capacity of the land to cope. Solutions to this puzzle include some form of management that provides disincentives for this behaviour, either by placing rents on the farmers, or some other form of regulation that might promise some other disbenefit onto the cheats (let’s say a good kicking for starters).

Let’s begin to consider attention within an organisation to be a commons. Anyone can use the collective attention pool to get-work-done. The distribution of power to use the attention-pool is not necessarily equal: The CEO and the Internal Communications department have the means to use more of the attention-pool, but even Joe Bloggs can call a meeting, send an email or otherwise demand attention from his colleagues.

But the attention-pool is finite.

Highrise living

Where does attention come from

Let’s consider what attention is and where it comes from. When you are unexpectedly handed a hot plate, it immediately has your attention. Understanding doesn’t even come into it, the conscious mind isn’t even trusted to be able to take action quickly enough – you have a reflex action as part of your lower nervous system to drop the plate.

Many other things that we learn to do don’t even need your attention. I’m typing this on a keyboard – I acquired the ability to type well over a decade ago so it doesn’t really have my attention. Many processes within organisations become very clear about what should happen next (the phone rings, you pick it up; the boss asks you to print the presentation, you press CTRL+P; you need to do your expenses, you do your expenses). These things become work and doing them are what we are all paid for. These are things at work that are unequivocal – you don’t need to think about what to do next. They don’t consume attention, only time.

Then comes the main body of our concern – the equivocal, the ambiguous, the uncertain. Organisations are chock-full of stuff that we need time to work out what to do with. The information needs to be parsed, read, understood, given context, explored and then either it has something that must be done (an action or task), or something that we might need to know later (filed).

Whatever is left after we have done the easy stuff, the collective process of understanding what to do next, is what I define as the attention-pool, and at the moment we are drowning in it.

What’s killing attention?

I believe there are three main sources of noise that are choking the collective attention within organisations.

The largest by some margin are demands from others. Someone needs something. A boss needs something, a peer needs something. The first problem is volume, which is typically immense and this has been notable for years. But it is the nature of these requests that are not easy to interpret, because they are typically not communicated well. It is difficult to be able to extract an action out of a 1000 word email, or out of a long rambling meeting.

The second largest is the world of FYI and CYA, the periphery of CC: emails. Things that might be damned useful to know, if only we look for long enough, amid the impenetrable clouds of people insuring themselves from future criticism in cultures of mistrust. My good friends, the twin brothers of knowledge management and internal social media, are also in this group, manfully trying to calm everyone down by shouting loudly.

The smallest of these three, and the most professionalised are the demands of change that typically come from Internal Communications departments. The organisation would like us to behave differently, know something new or more ephemerally would like us to feel differently. This is the world of employee engagement, comms plans, news articles on the intranet and slickly managed management events.

So all of this is thrown at the tender mercies of employees’ attention within large organisations. People say they don’t have the time, or they are drowning in email, or they don’t have the bandwidth right now.

Dynamic systems

Firstly I would say that I don’t think this is specific to any particular tool. Tools come and go, and how we use them changes over time, but this comes down to how people behave — both in how they wish to use other people’s attention, and how they personally extract what they need from the attention-pool.

I have always believed that information systems are dynamic systems — that is they change over time. If you look at one you are only seeing a snapshot.

Take email. Employees weren’t able to deal with all of this on the desktop alone, confusing time for attention. Email went mobile, but that didn’t solve it. Feeling that email is a lost cause there is the move to new and exciting social tools. Like capitalism, attention doesn’t solve its crises. It’s like the old gag: “That place? No one goes there anymore it’s too busy.” As email becomes intolerable, the malcontents become early adopters and move to a new platform such as Yammer, where they meet like-minded refugees. For a brief moment all is clear, but then everyone one else comes along and ruins it for the chosen few.

Do the cool kids move on again? Probably, but unless organisations and their employees begin to deal with the commons of attention nothing will really change.

Possible solutions

Enough of my mewling, how can this be solved? Firstly does it need to be solved. Perhaps we shall shortly hit the limit of personal productivity? I don’t think so, we all see muda everywhere in fluffed interpersonal communications, rubbish meetings and failed initiatives, and we all know what it feels like to have a golden week when stuff flies off the to-do list.

For employees as individuals there are behavioural changes on both transmit and receive. People need the skills, frameworks and tools that allow them to focus on the relevant, and harvest the personally actionable. This is where Clay Shirkey’s supposed filter-failure lays on the provision of tools that allow the crap to be filtered out. I have hope that AI will help us here but that may be forlorn, either as another abrogation of personal responsibility, or as something we never really learn to trust.

There is plenty of help available in organising oneself productively with skills encapsulated in various methodologies such as (my preference) David Allen’s Getting Things Done. There are also the social mores in news ways of holding meetings, and how collective decisions can be made.

The main point for change in that of how we engage with other people’s attention and how we can do that far more responsibly. They say a true artist is one who can, but chooses not to. Before we put something out there, perhaps we will begin to be much more circumspect in doing so. But remember this is a commons. If you choose not to email everyone on the project, you may be at a disadvantage to the person that does. Your responsible action has made space for someone else’s irresponsible action. They have cheated, you have suffered. There needs to be an incentive to not communicate, or a disbenefit for doing so. Meeting tokens have been mooted, putting a value on shared resources. Many organisations now strictly regulate broadcast email, ensuring it is used only in crisis-communications with everything else collected into a weekly digest newsletter. Employees should be encouraged to block out time in their diaries, and advertise times when they can be contacted, or to explicitly control their attention with checking email and social for only limited times, and controlling their availability to others with status on instant messaging. The source of much of internal email is people copying each other in to cover their arses and many commentators have pointed to increasing trust within organisations for employees to get on with their jobs (and this is where social tools in the enterprise can really rock).

Crewing is another answer and games company Valve are the darlings of this. There are no managers and people work on what has their attention — things that do not have their attention die. This is not democracy, this is a market — it is essentially Darwinian. [It gets my goat when people confuse democracy for egalitarianism as one is about rule and the other is about treatment. Even if your voice is heard, there is nothing to say that your plan gets done in a democratic system.]

Do management care about the commons of attention. Broadly no, because I suspect that they are keen to grow the amount of time they have available by providing incentives to make their employees work longer hours. The management attention-pool is of course the most stressed of all and it is inherent to the nature of the job. If you think you are stressed just think for a moment about poor Antonio Horta-Osorio the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who in 2011 went into abject mental and physical meltdown — in short the poor fellow couldn’t switch off his attention.

So organisationally we might consider to making things unfair and I would like you, dear reader, to entertain this thought and not discount it out-of-hand:

Relationships are not symmetrical; we do not have equal voices; we do not all have the ability to be equally heard.

This goes against the grain of the high priests of some of these new tools that were ripped from the womb of Californian Internet Utopianism. Enforced flatness is encouraged as silo-busting as existing management structures are considered stifling and “uncollaborative”. Silos exist and people within organisations can be unhelpful, but that said a project manager has more rights to a project team member’s attention than anyone else. A line manager similarly has more rights to a direct report. I heard a zany tale once, and as I recall it, Volvo (it was definitely Scandinavian) once created an electronic mail system that didn’t allow you to email anyone superior to you except your boss. The fact that business rules aren’t applied to systems of communication doesn’t mean that they can’t be. An email from your boss should figuratively be the size of a flip chart. An email from someone demanding something from you outside of your responsibility should be the size of a Post-It note. The power of restricting access to groups to increase trust and improve stability has been noted by many, including Clay Shirkey and David Snowden. The point is that the design of these systems is not locked-in, we can tinker with them if we have the will. What could we make more difficult?

This is problem that I feel I have largely solved by becoming a freelancer – I am no longer overwhelmed with any form of communication [cue jokes: ask my accountant.] Asking me to do something usually costs money, therefore I tend to get asked to do things formally, and the bulk of work that I do follows an easily communicated pattern. My remaining capacity for attention is my own (that doesn’t mean I use it wisely, I am usually thinking about photography or writing this sort of thing).

Employees don’t have this luxury, and broadly both their time and attention is a commons, loosely bounded by job descriptions, cost centres and (sometimes) project codes to book their time. Not everyone can ask them to do work, but anyone can ask for their attention. When you are next making a decision about how to organise the organisation, perhaps consider how the attention-pool will be affected.


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